Financial History Issue 116 (Winter 2016) - Page 31

Because of the stark differences between Jackson and Biddle and the righteous tone of the debate about the Bank of the United States, historians have frequently described the Bank War in moral terms, as a clash of “good guys” versus “bad,” a construction that reflects Jackson’s worldview. For instance, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 1945 classic, The Age of Jackson, depicts the Bank War as a conflict between Jacksonians fighting for the common man (i.e., the good guys) against the entrenched economic elite (the bad guys). According to Schlesinger, the Bank War was nothing less than “a battle between antagonistic philosophies of government: one declaring…that property should control the state; the other denying that property had a superior claim to governmental privileges and benefits.” For Schlesinger, a partisan Democrat, the battles of Jackson’s era mirrored those of Franklin Roosevelt’s time, with the Bank War framed as a distant precursor of the New Deal. On the other end of the spectrum is economic historian Bray Hammond, whose 1957 book, Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, depicts the Jacksonians as greedy upstarts trying to overthrow the bank in order to enrich themselves. Hammond’s depiction of the Bank War mirrors Schlesinger’s, except with the roles reversed; in Hammond’s telling, the Jacksonians are the bad guys, while Library of Congress War, Thomas Hart Benton), Biddle was an intellectual who came to future President James Monroe’s notice because of his participation in a debate at Cambridge University on the differences between modern and ancient Greek dialects. Yet, for all of their differences, the men shared one important trait that had profound implications for American history. As historian Walter B. Smith sagely noted in 1953, “Both parties [to the Bank War] believed themselves motivated by high moral principles and entirely in the right.” Illustrating this point, Jackson himself exclaimed, “The golden calf may be worshipped by others, but as for myself I will serve the Lord.” A satire on Andrew Jackson’s campaign to destroy the Bank of the United States, by H.R. Robinson, 1836. www.MoAF.org  |  Winter 2016  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  29