It’s time to break out the sparklers and the firecrackers, as we Americans celebrate our nation’s 237th birthday. No person and few nations have ever lived that long.
While we still have much to celebrate, it now seems that we have much to be concerned about as well. Perhaps that has always been the case. History tells us how things turned out and why. The solutions seem relatively easy in retrospect.
However, living through everything from financial panics and depressions to British invasions to a civil war is not so easy. Every generation of Americans had reason to ask, “How are we going to get out of this mess?”
The answer has always been through shared sacrifice mixed with some courage and maybe a little luck.
Recently I have been reading “Presidential Courage” by Michael Beschloss, which describes several episodes where different presidents showed courage.
Of particular interest to me was Andrew Jackson’s veto of a bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States.
The bank president, Nicolas Biddle, thought the recharter was a done deal because the bank had provided loans and gifts to so many members of Congress.
Biddle and Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky decided to push through the recharter in the summer of 1832, just a few months before Jackson faced the voters for re-election to a second term. Jackson was no fan of the bank, but it was thought if he refused to recharter the bank, he would lose the election.
Jackson felt, however, that rechartering would amount to a huge payoff to the monied aristocracy of this nation.
Therefore, he vetoed it. Up to that point in the nation’s history, the presidential veto had only been used when presidents thought a bill unconstitutional or too radical. The veto of the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States greatly expanded presidential powers to include vetoing a bill simply because the president didn’t like it.
Jackson realized that the veto could cost him re-election, but he was prepared for that. A man with strong religious beliefs and a regular Bible reader, Jackson wrote his daughter-in-law that summer, “Knowing that we have to die, we ought to live to be prepared to die well.”
With threats of financial ruin being cast everywhere, the Congress attempted to override the veto, but failed. Biddle then financed and organized the opposition presidential campaign for Henry Clay. He even mailed thousands of copies of the veto message to voters, thinking they would side with the bank. He was wrong.
Jackson was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote.
However, Biddle was not done. He continued to seek a new charter for his bank. Jackson responded by withdrawing the federal government’s deposits from Biddle’s bank because he believed Biddle would use them to buy off Congress. The Boston Post said Jackson was like Jesus, expelling the money-changers from the temple.
Biddle then tightened credit and called in loans, hoping that the resulting financial panic and layoffs would break the nation’s allegiance to Jackson.
Jackson fought back, ordering Biddle to release the pension money held by his bank for veterans of the American Revolutionary War. When Biddle refused, the government stopped paying the pensions, and told the veterans to blame Biddle’s bank.
As a result, Clay and his Whig Party lost the 1834 congressional elections.
The following year, for the only time in its history, the United States government operated debt free.
Two years later, in his farewell address, Jackson wrote that had Biddle won their war, Americans would have lost the “living spirit” of their Constitution.
Today, 180 years later, as I reflect on this episode from U.S. history, I wonder if any of our leaders have the same kind of skill and courage as Jackson.
We have allowed ourselves to be placed $16.7 trillion in debt and growing. That’s more than $50,000 per citizen (and more than $200,000 for a family of four).
Last fiscal year, the government spent $359 billion on interest on the debt, In spite of record low interest rates, that amounted to about $1,000 per American.
If interest rates go up 1 percent, the Congressional Budget Office says the government will have to spend an additional $117 billion per year on interest.
The monied interests have us over a barrel. The politicians keep offering us more benefits, paid for by borrowed money, we keep accepting them, and the debt keeps growing.
Little wonder that the government seems to do little well. Little wonder that the economy has underperformed for five years. We aren’t as wealthy as we pretend to be. We are living on borrowed money — and on borrowed time.
We can point fingers and blame each other, but with the exception of about three years during the Clinton administration, ever since the Carter administration we have acted liked deficits don’t matter.
We need a politician with the courage and the skill of a Jackson to convince the American people that we need to mend our ways. We haven’t found that politician yet.
Let’s hope we do, so we can still celebrate our freedom five or 10 years from now.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].