Though we enjoy the daily blessings of modern ingenuity in all its forms, we Americans should pause to remind ourselves that the most remarkable mechanism in our lives is more than two centuries old: the United States Constitution. This instrument, after all, has for the most part withstood the innumerable efforts of crafty political machinists to retool it to suit their own ends. The earliest of these partisan mechanics was Chief Justice John Marshall, who in 1803 declared Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional, bestowing on the Supreme Court a power not explicitly granted to it by the Framers: the ability to void acts of Congress. Thus encouraged, the highborn and humble alike have, ever since, made all manner of constitutional mischief in professed pursuit of the greater good.
One of the bolder of these usurpers appears on our 20-dollar bill. Although the poorly educated Andrew Jackson styled himself a lawyer, he demonstrated little regard for legalities throughout most of his career. During the War of 1812, after leading his troops to a victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans, the newly minted hero arbitrarily imposed martial law on the city and ordered a number of men summarily executed. Two years later, on his own initiative, he invaded Florida, then Spanish territory, fomenting a diplomatic crisis. Yet he parlayed his renown into a successful bid for the presidency in 1828 and, as President Jackson, did more than any of his predecessors to arrogate fresh powers for the executive office. He curtailed the independence of the states, defended the institution of slavery, and dispensed largesse to his cronies—all the while loudly espousing states’ rights, limited federal government, and the interests of the common people over those of the moneyed elite.
For Jackson, the privileged class was embodied in the person of Nicholas Biddle (pictured). Born to one of Philadelphia’s oldest and most prominent families, Biddle was a wunderkind who graduated as valedictorian from Princeton at the age of 15 and was fluent in Greek. Many of his predecessors had fought in the Revolutionary War, but he preferred diplomatic to military service, and after stints in the Department of State and the Pennsylvania state legislature, he was appointed by President James Monroe as a director of the Second Bank of the United States, whose presidency he attained four years later.
Biddle’s background alone would have attracted Jackson’s contempt, but the president had been dealt a financial blow in 1818, when millions of dollars in interest on bonds for the Louisiana Purchase came due. These disbursements had to be made in silver or gold, which the central bank could only obtain by demanding that paper loans be repaid in the form of specie. The result was a panic that devastated many, including Jackson, whose vocal opposition to paper money and Biddle’s bank was greatly amplified thereafter. As Jackson’s first term ended in 1832, he questioned whether the bank should be rechartered when its commission expired in 1836. Publicly, he accused the bank of appropriating Congress’s power to coin money, prompting Biddle and his political allies, confident that they had the votes, to press Congress to renew the charter four years early and to back Jackson’s archrival, Henry Clay, for president. Privately, Jackson announced to his vice president, “The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.”
Biddle correctly estimated his degree of support on Capitol Hill, but he greatly underestimated Jackson’s vindictiveness. The bill passed by a healthy majority, but Jackson vetoed the new charter, brazenly asserting that Congress had inappropriately ceded its authority over currency to a corporation and that the executive branch had the sole right to intervene. “It is neither necessary nor proper to transfer [Congress’s] legislative power to such a bank,” he said, “and therefore unconstitutional.”
Jackson withdrew all federal funds from the bank. The result was satisfying to him personally, if not to the nation: A financial panic and recession ensued, for which Biddle was widely blamed. Arrested for fraud, Biddle was later acquitted, but his bank failed, and his fortune evaporated. Although Jackson was censured by an angry Senate for his abuse of power, this reprimand was subsequently rescinded when his own party regained the majority. The self-professed champion of commoners and the Constitution had, in the end, successfully set himself above both.