Tag Archives: Andrew Jackson

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Book Review)

History has the potential to be our tutor in humility. I will not claim any excellence in humility, but I will say that what humility I have is in large part due to reading history.

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg is one of the better historical tutors as it exposes to us not only the lives and actions of our leaders but also the times, controversies, and cultures in which they led.

History can be dull and dry – because the writing makes it so, or the topics are mundane, or because we fail to see what it has to teach us. Yet history can also be exciting and insightful – history teaches us truths like:

  1. Those we judge today as scoundrels or imbeciles are oftentimes our heroes of yesterday.
  2. What seems the only way, the right way, frequently proves the wrong way with the passing of time.
  3. We are greater and worse than those who came before us – leaving us to consider, will we search out the sins of our generation and forsake them or will future generations look back at us in dismay?
  4. We repeat our past with variations. We are not the first to face such a dilemma, nor are we likely to be the last.
  5. People operate within a personal and cultural milieu; their actions are heavily weighted by their experiences and a little more listening, a little more grace, can go a long way towards understanding and appreciating the other.

Lets look at a few examples and I will share some of the lessons I learn from these historical truths:

  1. Anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon. John Adams supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts which specifically targeted immigrants. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Anti-immigrant movements are not a new phenomena nor should one dismiss such movements as intellectually crippled, for great minds have supported them.
    2. Question for Consideration: Who were anti-immigration policies focused on? (Hint: Those who now proclaim themselves proudly and truly American were oftentimes the very individuals opposed in the past, e.g. the Irish)
  2. Nor is suppression of freedom of speech a new phenomenon – as John Adams used one of the laws in the Alien and Sedition acts to suppress political opponents. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Freedom of speech has been threatened by great leaders in the past; it is not a new threat, nor does it being threatened mean that we are imminently facing its extinction.[1]
    2. Question: Who else in American history has constrained the rights of American citizens? (Hint: Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus; under FDR during WWII we placed over 160,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps)
  3. Under Andrew Jackson we were the perpetrators of horrific acts of human rights violations as we manhandled Native Americans.[2] (pg. 261)
    1. Lesson: While we should oppose human rights violations around the world, we should not pretend that we are above such abuses.
    2. Question: What other atrocious acts have been committed under the authority of the United States? (Hint: Look for our purposeful infection of individuals in Latin America with a horrible disease, we are talking 20th century; also some of the regimes we have supported despite their genocidal human rights violations)
  4. Ulysses S. Grant fought for African American civil rights but his endeavors were not lasting enough to offset the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, which violently enforced segregation and subjugation. It was with 700,000 Southern African American voters that Grant won the election; but, fast forward a short time into the future and African American civil rights would again be suppressed – including the right to vote. (pg. 278)
    1. Lesson: Americans allowed slavery to endure for a lengthy period of our history and when it was ended there was hope of a new equality, but we failed to protect those who were vulnerable and ensure that might didn’t make right…it was our inaction that allowed subjugation of our fellow members of humanity to continue on.
    2. Question: What other sorts of racism surfaced later in American history? Have we seen any recently? (Hint: Look for riots not just in Southern states but Northern as well – I’m looking at you, New Jersey, for one)
  5. There is something to be learned from Ulysses S. Grant whom Felzenberg notes as the only president “to apologize in his farewell message for his personal and policy failings.” (pg. 285)
    1. Lesson: It requires a deeper dive into U.S. Grant’s personality and circumstances to determine whether this apology came from a healthy place and whether it is something to be imitated by others. At first glance, though, we behold a refreshing humility for one of our elected leaders – the ability to admit one’s own incompetence.
    2. Question: What other American leaders have apologized for their actions? What is true about the character of these individuals as opposed to those who refused to apologize or did so in a belittling manner? (Hint: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may be a good start)
  6. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt America placed into concentration camps (and thereby abandoned the constitutional rights of) 120,000 Japanese Americans (60%+ were American citizens). (pg. 314)
    1. Lesson: Even if our cause is right we are capable of making grave mistakes that permanently and negatively affect the lives of others.
    2. Question: Have we placed other individuals into concentration camps or otherwise significantly curtailed their liberties? (Hint: Look into the historical treatment of the mentally ill and of those who were ill with HIV/AIDS)
  7. John F. Kennedy, in some ways an astute and successful leader in foreign affairs badly bungled the American-backed invasion of Cuba (pg. 355), and his numerous dalliances with the opposite gender could have been disastrous for national security. (pg. 356).
    1. Lesson: As we consider who will be most careful with our national security it is important to remember that heroes of the past had their great weaknesses as well.
    2. Question: How was John F. Kennedy’s health while in office? (Hint: Look into the consequences of his wartime injuries [WWII] and how this was handled and hidden during his time in office)

What historical books have you read? What lessons have you learned from specific historical events? What questions have historical events raised for you?

  1. [1]Not that I am suggesting we should stop fighting for freedom of speech or be aghast at attempts to deny it, only that in historical context our doomsday predictions are usually not fulfilled.
  2. [2]Some balk at the idea of the United States mistreating Native Americans, insisting this was brought on by their own misbehavior. Even if we were to grant this premise, we would still have committed many acts of atrocious violence against Native American civilians. Sixty thousand Native Americans died traveling the Trail of Tears! (pg. 263) It may also be worth noting that this horrific behavior was opposed by individuals such as American hero, Davy Crockett. (pg. 264)

Book Review: The Money Men (H.W. Brands).

Portrait of Nicholas Biddle by William Inman
Nicholas Biddle, Image via Wikipedia

I’d never heard of Henry William Brands before reading The Money Men. Despite the late introduction, I suspect that his books will now appear high on my reading list – if they are even able to approach the fascinating quality of this small volume. I do not recall the last time I have read a non-fiction book as voraciously as I have consumed this petite volume – in fact, there are only a few fiction thrillers I can think of which I have consumed in such a compressed fashion.

The Money Men is part of the Atlas Books / W.W. Norton Enterprise series in which “distinguished writers tell the stories of the dynamic innovators and the compelling ideas that create new institutions, new ways of doing business and creating wealth, even new societies.” I will be keeping my eyes open for other volumes in this series as well – hoping that they compare to The Money Men. Especially peaking my interest are Rich Cohen‘s The Record Men: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock & Roll, Tim ParksMedici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteen-Century Florence, and James Buchan‘s The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas.

But let us move on to a discussion of the book proper. It was published in 2006 and is a small hardcover book with attractive dustcover. Contains a total of 239 pages, but the first 206 contain the main narrative with additional resources filling the remaining pages – endnotes, a list of suggested further reading, and the indexes, etc.

The volume consists of a Prologue and Epilogue and five long chapters in-between. The first chapter entitled “The Aristocracy of Capital” discusses the nature of money and financial policy during and following the American Revolutionary War with a significant emphasis on  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Chapter 2 continues the thread by telling the events that led up to and the consequences of Andrew Jackson’s decision to end the national bank and Nicholas Biddle‘s (Bank President) extreme efforts to ensure the bank’s survival.

Chapter 3 tells the story of the American Civil War and how it changed the face of financial policy – in part as a consequence of a stronger federal government and the needs of wartime finance.

Chapter 4 tells the story of the severe speculation in gold in the post-Civil War era under President Ulysses S. Grant and Chapter 5 concludes the story by recording the times of J.P. Morgan and his significant effects upon finance.

The volume reads in a very easy manner – it is both professional and yet accessible. At the same time, my endeavors to understand financial history and policy are still not complete and while The Money Men has filled in some gaps, it does not provide the complete picture I had hoped to garner. That is not to say anything negative of the volume – for it is not a primer in financial history or policy.

I oftentimes judge the quantity of a volume on several factors, such as:

  • How well the volume holds my attention.
  • How quickly I read the volume.
  • How much new or interesting information the volume provides.
  • The clarity with which the author writes.
  • The extent to which I underline, highlight, and write comments or other notations into the text.

By all of these measures, H.W. Brand’s The Money Men deserves the highest praise. The one thing I would like to see is an article by Mr. Brands analyzing the recent financial recession (2008 and on) in light of the historical story he weaves in The Money Men.

Brands remains largely neutral throughout his work and yet in the Epilogue I thought I detected an echo of approval for the economic system at the conclusion of his history. Is this a correct interpretation of his Epilogue? If so, could Brands provide us with additional insights or reflections based on recent events?

For anyone who is interested in history, finance, or politics, I would add this to your “must read” list. It is an excellent and fascinating read!

H.W. Brands’ The Money Men (A Book Tasting, Part II).

Jackson slays the many-headed monster
Image via Wikipedia

A week ago I published a book tasting including quotations and commentaries from H.W. Brands’ fascinating book The Money Men. If you do not already own this book – I highly recommend acquiring a copy. It is a fascinating, well-written read. For some time now I have been attempting to understand our financial system, the recent
recession, OWS, political policy, and other similar topics – and I am still far from understanding it…but this book has been exceptionally insightful.

I include below some of my quotations, notes, and commentary from the second chapter in the book entitled, “The Bank War” but must admit that I was able to include even less of what I considered important in the section below than I did in the last tasting. If one where to open my copy of this small volume you’d find the pages heavily marked – the quality and quantity of the info. being so extensive.

  • “The fight over the Bank of the United States marked the beginning of the end of the fondest dream of the Founders: that the country they created might be spared the rancor of partisan politics. Parties, they believed, were artifacts of monarchy, where competing interests vied for the king’s favor. In a republic, based on civic virtue, parties need never emerge, for all good citizens would seek the common weal. What the Founders failed to appreciate was that good citizens might have distinctly different visions of the common weal.” – 57.
  • “Heading the camp of capitalism was Hamilton; of democracy, Jefferson.” – 57.
  • “Federalists responded by ramming through Congress the Alien and Sedition Acts, outlawing most dissent. Jefferson, Adams’s vice president…secretly penned a protest asserting the right of states to nullify laws they deemed unconstitutional.” – 59.
    • I have always heard this was a dark time in  American history, but have never studied it…it is on my list…somewhere.
  • “There are great and intrinsic defects in his character which make him unfit for the office of Chief Magistrate.” – Alexander Hamilton on John Adams, pg. 60.
    • Lest we think that political name-calling is only for today, it has been going on for a long time.
  • Hamilton’s eldest son had died in a duel, and so would Hamilton. – 61.
  • Aaron Burr.
    • When you see names like this it simply means the individuals were mentioned in the text and I would like to study them further at some juncture. In this manner a single book provides dozens or hundreds of leaping off points for further learning.
    • Nicholas Biddle.
    • “The violence of party…disgraces our country.” – Nicholas Biddle, 61.
      • This commentary would become ironic in light of Biddle’s later endeavors to maintain the existence of the national bank at great cost to the government.
    • “…as the fighting persisted [War of 1812] [President James] Madison succumbed to the temptation Hamilton had warned of and began printing unsupported paper money. Interest rates soared, investor confidence plunged, and the national accounts spun into confusion…about the time the British burned the Capitol and the White House, Madison concluded that Hamilton had been right regarding the need for a national bank, at least in time of crisis. Conveniently forgotten were the earlier Republican assertions, most notably by Madison himself, that a national bank contravened the Constitution.” – 63.
    • “…in 1816 the second Bank of the United States was chartered.” – 64.
    • “That it [the national bank] has been perverted to selfish purposes cannot be doubted. That it may, and must be renovated is equally certain.” – Nicholas Biddle, 64-65.
    • “In 1819 the United States suffered its first full-blown financial panic.” – 65.
    • “…the…struggle against the Indians of the West culminated in the destruction of nearly all aboriginal resistance to white settlement east of the Mississippi. The sudden availability of vast new reaches of territory, combined with the loose money left over from the war, fueled wild speculation in land. Prices rose and rose, becoming unsustainable…” – 66.
    • “Solid figures on the overall shrinkage of the money supply are impossible to reconstruct, but the contraction of the liabilities of the Bank of the United States–from $22 million in the autumn of 1818 to $10 million at the beginning of 1820–is indicative.” – 66.
    • “The depression that followed the panic prostrated large parts of the country. Banks folded; merchants liquidated; sailing ships sat idle; commercial buildings stood empty; farmers lost their land and homes. Tens of thousands of Americans took to the roads in vague hope of finding something better than the disaster they fled.” – 66.
    • Chief Justice John Marshall.
    • “For nearly two decades Marshall had defended and elaborated the Federalist vision of a strong central government.” – 67.
    • “Many Republicans disputed Marshall’s interpretation, and decades would pass before the Supreme Court was generally accepted as the final arbiter of the Constitution.” – 68.
      • The struggle revolving around a strong central government versus a loose association of states was an ongoing battle throughout the history of the country – resolved in some sense by the American Civil War, though the debate continues to this day.
    • John Jacob Astor.
    • “One measure of his [Nicholas Biddle] success was the reduction and eventual elimination of the monetary exchange rate between the different regions of the country.” – 70.
      • IMHO, this is a pretty impressive achievement.
    • “By the 1820s nearly all the old property qualifications for voting had disappeared, as new states entered the Union with constitutions based on the egalitarian rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, and shamed the existing states into changing their rules. At the same time for similarly democratic reasons, state legislatures conferred the selection of presidential electors upon the people. The result was that presidential campaigns in the 1820s became popularity contests, with the victor the candidate most appealing to the largest number of adult white males.” – 70.
      • I’d like to study further the differences between a democratic and republic government and the advantages/disadvantages of each.
    • “[Andrew] Jackson adopted the position pioneered by that other general-turned-politician, George Washington, that a candidate’s actions should speak for themselves…As a result, when he assumed the presidency in 1829…he did so unburdened by promises or commitments to anything more specific than the national welfare, however he chose to define it.” – 72.
      • I like this manner of achieving one’s ends…might our character speak louder than our words…and, oh that it could be true in our politics.
    • “A strict constructionist, Jackson believed that Congress legitimately might charter a bank for the federal District of Columbia, but not for the rest of the country. That John Marshall had ruled otherwise didn’t impress him.” – 72.
    • Henry Clay.
    • “Presidential vetoes were rare in those early days but not unheard of…” – 73.
    • Martin Van Buren.
    • “We must endeavor to reach the understandings of our fellow citizens by the diffusion of correct views of a subject which is much misunderstood.” – Nicholas Biddle, concerning the bank, 75.
    • Biddle paid newspapers thousands to publish articles written by the bank to promote the bank and also made payments to politicians. – 75.
    • “I believe my retainer has not been renewed, or refreshed, as usual. If it be wished that my relation to the Bank should be continued, it may be well to send me the usual retainers.” – Daniel Webster, pp. 75-76.
    • “…by way of a warning to the enemies of the Bank to keep hands off, Biddle arranged a contraction of credit in the West. It was there that antipathy for the Bank ran broadest and support for Jackson deepest. Biddle concealed his intentions in the matter, citing financial uncertainty as cause for calling in the loans. The effect wasn’t dramatic but it was unmistakable, as was Biddle’s point: that the Bank would defend itself, by harming its enemies if necessary.” – 76.
    • Daniel Webster was oftentimes called by contemporaries the “God-like Daniel.” – 78.
    • “[Thomas Hart] Benton’s alliance with Jackson [against the national bank] couldn’t have been predicted a decade earlier, when he and Jackson took opposite sides in a shooting brawl in Nashville. Jackson’s shoulder caught a bullet that spent years in his flesh before finally popping out…” – 79.
      • From other reading I have done it appears Jackson was in a number of duels and shootouts and had several bullets jangling around in his body.
    • “They lead to the abduction of its gold and silver. If notes are issued, they are payable at the branch bank and an adequate supply of gold and silver must be kept on hand to redeem them; but these orders being drawn on Philadelphia, the gold and silver of the state must be sent there to meet them.” – Thomas Hart Benton, 79.
    • “When the renewed charter [for the national bank] is brought in for us to vote upon, I shall consider myself as voting upon a bill for the establishment of lords and commons in this America, and for the eventual establishment of a King!” – Thomas Hart Benton, 80.
    • “I do not mean to say that he was directly bribed to give this vote. From the character he sustained and from what I knew of him, I think he would have resented any thing that he regarded as an attempt to corrupt him. But he wanted the money, and felt grateful for the favor. And perhaps he thought that an institution which was so useful to him, and had behaved with so much kindness, could not be injurious or dangerous to the public, and that it would be as well to continue it.” – Roger Taney, Attorney General for Jackson, pg. 80.
      • Brands points out that Jackson on the other hand had a much stronger view – that some supporters of the bank in the political realm had been outright bribed.
    • “Each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others. It is as much the duty of the House of Representatives, of the Senate, and of the President to decide upon the constitutionality of any bill or resolution which may be presented to them for passage or approval as it is of the supreme judges.” – Andrew Jackson, 81.
    • “Jackson’s view of the Constitution and its interpretation was hardly unique at the time; the doctrine of judicial supremacy remained a conceit of John Marshall and a minority in America.” – 82.
    • “…Jackson believed the Bank undermined democracy by creating a monopoly of money. Of the Bank’s twenty-five directors, only five were answerable to the people. The rest served the interests of capital.” – 82.
    • “It is easy to conceive that great evils to our country and its institutions might flow from such a concentration of power in the hands of a few men irresponsible to the people.” – Andrew Jackson, 82.
    • “Nor were the monopolists all Americans; almost a third of the stock of the Bank was owned by foreigners.” – 82.
    • “Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions….But when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant title, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers–who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.” – Andrew Jackson, pp. 82-83.
    • “[Nicholas Biddle] paid to distribute [Henry] Clay’s speeches and provided other financial and logistical support.” – 84.
      • See pg. 85ff for information on how Nicholas Biddle and the bank fought tooth and nail against Jackson by attempting to undermine the economy when Jackson attempted to close the bank and was in the end successful.
      • This section is especially interesting and illuminative, but I’d have to copy entire pages if I were to do it justice…so you’ll have to get a copy of the book, sorry. 😛
    • “The mass of the people have more to fear from combinations of the wealthy and professional classes–from an aristocracy which through the influence of riches and talents, insidiously employed, sometimes succeeds in preventing political institutions, however well adjusted, from securing the freedom of the citizen.” – Andrew Jackson, speaking of the national bank, 87.
      • This sounds a bit like what Occupy Wall Street’ers are saying today…
    • “Biddle’s Bank had gained ‘almost entire dominion over the circulating medium, and with it, power to increase or diminish the price of property and to levy taxes on the people in the shape of premiums and interest.’ The Founders had fought to free Americans from such arbitrary rule. To continue the fight was the current generation’s ‘sacred duty.’” – 87.
    • “The worthy President thinks that because he has scalped Indians…he is to have his way with the Bank. He is mistaken….He may as well send at once and engage lodgings in Arabia.” – Nicholas Biddle, 90.
    • “Biddle’s willingness and ability to ravage the economy confirmed Jackson’s judgment of the malignant irresponsibility of the moneyed class. It was precisely this power of the Bank that had determined Jackson to destroy it. And he remained determined to do so, regardless of the pain the destruction produced.” – 90.
    • “Were all the worshipers of the golden calf to memorialise me and request a restoration of the deposits I would cut my right hand from my body before I would do such an act. The golden calf may be worshiped by others, but as for myself I will serve the Lord…My conscience told me it was right to stop the career of this destroying monster. I took the step fearlessly, believing it a duty I owed to my God and my country.” – Andrew Jackson, 90.
      • I’d like to study more about Jackson’s spiritual life…what was his religion? How did he reconcile his dangerous dueling habits with Christianity?
    • “Relief, sir! Come not to me, sir! Go to the monster!…Go to Nicholas Biddle. We have no money here….Biddle has all the money. He has millions of specie in his vaults at this moment, lying idle, and yet you come to me to save you from breaking….It is folly, sir, to talk to Andrew Jackson. The government will not bow to the monster.” – Andrew Jackson, to a spokesman for an assembly of “six thousand bankers, brokers, and merchants requesting relief”, 91.
    • “The Bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me but I will kill it!” – Andrew Jackson, pg. 91.
    • “The congressional campaign of 1834 was the stormiest in memory. In Philadelphia mobs rioted against the Bank and against Biddle, forcing the Bank chief to barricade himself in his home, surrounded by armed guards. He and his family survived, but the Whigs–as the party of capital now called itself–almost did not.” – 91.
    • “Jackson’s defeat of Biddle and the Bank restored what the Jacksonians hoped would be democratic control of the money supply, but in fact it left the money supply even more at the mercy of the capitalists than before. The hundreds of state banks, now freed of the oversight of the Bank of the United States, issued bank notes profligately, producing speculative bubbles in all manner of commodities and property. Jackson could do nothing about most of the speculation, but he could curb that in land, and he did so by issues a ‘specie circular’ in July 1836 directing federal officers to accept only gold and silver in exchange for public lands….The measure dampened the speculation in land, but it simultaneously disordered the money system.” – 92-93.
      • I like how Brands seems even-handed. He points out the bad points of both sides – where the hopeful endeavors of each side fail miserably – and in this I think he provides us with significant insight into current discussions.
    • “The crusade against banks and the discrimination at the Land Offices between specie and bank paper has not been without its effect on the less intelligent part of our population,” Biddle declared. He couldn’t help gloating at the Democrats’ discomfiture, even though it devastate the economy and threatened to swamp his own bank.” – 94.
    • “Biddle retired in 1839, claiming ill health but secretly planning a candidacy for president.” – 94.
    • William Henry Harrison.
    • “He [Nicholas Biddle] suffered another blow when his old bank collapsed amid scandal in 1841.” – 95.