Events

Antimonopoly as Countersubversion

Fall 2018 History Colloquium Series Kickoff

As Columbia University Professor of Communications and History Richard R. John noted in setting up his August 24 talk at the Kinder Institute—the first in a crowded fall Colloquium Series schedule—Andrew Jackson’s 1832 veto of a bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States has long (and rightly) been heralded by historians as a defining act of the age. For Arthur Schlesinger, it embodied the promise of the liberal tradition, while for Charles Sellers, it marked the last, dying protest against the market revolution.

Indicative of a critical lens through which the veto is commonly refracted, analyses like these broadly speak to the degree to which Jackson’s rhetoric about the Bank wove anti-monopolistic concerns into the republican lexicon, presenting monopoly as antithetical to liberty and special interests as antithetical to equal rights. While Prof. John would go on to add additional layers to this reading, he first made sure to acknowledge the truth in it. Philosophically, a large motivation for the veto was Jackson’s steadfast belief that a monied aristocracy buoyed by federally-doled out privileges would destroy the morality and virtue of a happily governed republic.

However, as Prof. John focused on for much of the remainder of his talk, the going interpretation of the veto as protecting the welfare of the many against the predatory capitalistic interests of the few tends to suffocate other interesting aspects of Jackson’s decision. And perhaps other interesting influences over how the decision was presented to the public might initially be more apt. Prof. John first pointed out how, particularly in the first draft of the veto address as well as in a circular published after (and in support of) the final, official draft, the heavy, xenophobic fingerprints of Postmaster General Amos Kendall are unmistakable. In each piece, Kendall both names and maligns the British aristocrats who benefited from being bank stockholders, and he doubles down on this anti-foreign animus in the circular by celebrating Jackson for saving the nation from British military conquest in 1812 and from monetary conquest 20 years later.

In addition to ignoring the way in which Anglophobia factored into the rhetoric of the veto—and it should be noted that said Anglophobia was not unique to Kendall but was prevalent during the era; “catnip,” Prof. John deemed it—the reading we’ve fallen back on likewise pushes the influential institutional realism of figures like Roger Taney to the margins. For Taney, the problem was not so much that the state controlled the bank but that it should have been able to exert even more control over it, a form of administered centralization that was not the antithesis of anti-monopolism but rather its consummation. Moreover, Prof. John argued in drawing his talk to a close that the form of administered centralization that Taney promoted was likewise consistent with Jackson’s belief that the optimal outcome when it came to the Bank was more government control, not less—and specifically, his belief that we might curb the danger of letting loose a speculative entrepreneurial maelstrom by consolidating more authority in the executive branch.

 

Richard R. John is a professor of history and communications at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in the history of communications, networks, and the history of capitalism. His publications include Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (2010) and Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (1995). Network Nation received the Ralph E. Gomory Prize for the best historical monograph on business and society. He has been a fellow at the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson Center, a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, and the president of the Business History Conference.