Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson Organize a Tea Party

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This is part one of a three-part series.

In 1832 Martin Van Buren helped Andrew Jackson decide precisely when he would end the charter for the Second Bank of the United States – the only American central bank of issue before the establishment of the Federal Reserve. Over the next five years, by legislation, executive order and political precedent, the two men would carry out the rest of their plan for the application and enforcement of uniquely American rules for government finance: All net borrowings, payments and tax collections by the national Treasury would be made in gold and silver coin.

The 1821 elections in New York State were a triumph for Martin Van Buren. Over the previous decade and a half, Van Buren had been able to organize his upstate allies into a political party and extend their reach to control New York City’s, Tammany Hall. In doing so, they not only took over America’s first and most enduring city political machine; they also changed its politics.

The Sons of St. Tammany (the original name of the organizers of Tammany Hall) would stop demonstrating against and sometimes physically attacking the people getting off the ships in New York harbor; instead, they would welcome the newcomers as future naturalized citizens and New York State voters. In 1820, Van Buren’s party had proposed a reform that would have easily doubled (or more) the number of people eligible to vote. Governor DeWitt Clinton had vetoed the legislation, and Van Buren’s men (there were, of course, no women in the legislature) had been unable to override the veto. However, the Bucktails (wearers of Tammany hats with their deer tail ornaments) had been able to place on the ballot a reform referendum to amend the New York State constitution. The amendment would remove all property qualifications for adult white males. (It would retain them for free blacks. Before the Civil War Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire were the only states whose laws gave black men the equal right to vote. Every state admitted to the Union between 1820 and 1865 had a constitution that included racial disqualifications for blacks and Native Americans.)

Van Buren’s reform enabling “free” voting for white working men was hopelessly racist and sexist; and it was for Americans in 1821 an extraordinary and controversial democratic reform. It was also brilliant politics. Van Buren’s expansion of “the vote” gave his party an electoral lock that even DeWitt Clinton, the state’s most famous and popular politician, would find nearly impossible to break. The Irish immigrants whom Tammany Hall had once feared had become the Bucktails’ most loyal supporters; for the next 16 years they would help get out the votes that made Van Buren’s coalition the political majority for the Empire State.

Clinton and his coalition of conservative Republican-Democrats and Federalists would fight back. They would use the most enduring tactic in American politics: They would accuse Van Buren of being against the populist changes he had initiated. Within months of being elected, Van Buren’s coalition was being labelled “the Albany regency.” King George III had died in 1820, after decades of suffering from severe mental illness. In calling Van Buren’s populist Republican-Democrats the “regency,” Clinton and his allies were comparing Van Buren to the Prince of Wales, who had acted as his father’s regent during his incapacity. The nickname said Van Buren was anything but a populist; he was a sneaky royalist.