1/07/09 - jackson makes his appointments

In today's excerpt - Andrew Jackson when he took office in 1829 made the first wholesale replacements of government employees viewing them as corrupt and disloyal. Prior to Jackson most employees in government remained from administration to administration:

"People like [Henry] Clay saw the replacement of federal officials as the ruin of the country. Jackson saw it as the nation's salvation. That a president would have wide power to reward loyalists with offices, both to thank them for their steadfastness and to ensure that he had a cadre of people at hand who would presumably execute his policies with energy and enthusiasm, is now a given, but Jackson was the first president to remake the federal establishment on such a large scale. The old officeholders could be forgiven for imagining themselves immune to the vagaries of politics. By James Parton's count, Washington and Adams had removed 9 people each; Jefferson, 39 (illustrating the victory of the Democrat-Republicans over the Federalists); Madison, 5; Monroe, 9; and John Quincy Adams, 2. By the time Jackson was done, he had turned out fewer than one might suppose, but still a historic number: about 919, just under 10 percent of the government. And he had made a particularly high number of changes among those civil servants directly appointed by the president himself. ...

"The human reaction to Jackson's reform among the officeholders and their families was swift and fierce. 'At that period, it must be remembered, to be removed from office in the city of Washington was like being driven from the solitary spring in a wide expanse of desert,' Parton wrote three decades after the purge. John Quincy Adams monitored the terror: 'A large portion of the population of Washington are dependent for bread upon offices. ... Every one is in breathless expectation, trembling at heart, to speak.' ...

"Still, Jackson was susceptible to emotional appeals from officeholders facing dismissal. He was moved by stories of courage, admiring in others what he saw in himself. In the fever of the firings, the postmaster of Albany, New York, the War of 1812 veteran General Solomon Van Rensselaer was slated for termination. ... To save his job, Van Rensselaer went to the White House and waited for Jackson to finish with his guests at a reception.

" 'General Jackson, I have come here to talk to you about my office,' Van Rensselaer said once he had the president alone. 'The politicians want to take it away from me, and they know I have nothing else to live upon.'

"Accustomed to such pleas and committed to his course, Jackson said nothing. Desperate, Van Rensselaer moved to strip off his own clothes. 'What in Heaven's name are you going to do?' Jackson said. ... 'Well, sir, I am going to show you my wounds, which I received in fighting for my country against the English!"

"[Later, he told his Vice President], 'I take the consequences, sir; I take the consequences,' Jackson said. 'By the Eternal! I will not remove the old man—I cannot remove him. Why, Mr. Wright, do you not know that he carries more than a pound of British lead in his body?' The postmaster was safe.

"John Quincy Adams tracked everything. 'The proscriptions from office continue, and, independent of the direct misery that they produce, have indirectly tragic effects,' Adams wrote on Saturday, April 25, 1829. 'A clerk in the War Office named Henshaw, who was a strong partisan for Jackson's election, three days since cut his throat from ear to ear from the mere terror of being dismissed. Linneus Smith, of the Department of State, one of the best clerks under the Government, has gone raving distracted, and others are said to be threatened with the same calamity.' Suicide and madness: it was the most unstable of seasons."


Jon Meacham


American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House


Random House Trade Paperbacks


Copyright 2008 by Jon Meacham


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