Even with the midterms behind us, it is not hard to get many well-meaning Americans from across the political spectrum to agree that there probably never has been a more rancorous and divisive time in our politics.
It is not always said regretfully. There are Democrats who say it is only natural when the president is a fascist. There are Republicans who say this is only natural when Democrats claim the president is a fascist.
Robert Frost once observed that it is immodest to imagine one’s self going down before the worst forces ever assembled by the devil.
If Roger B. Taney is known today, it is as a devil — the author of the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott opinion, possibly its worst, holding that “a negro” in America had no rights. Yet Taney was not always the villain.
A Maryland lawyer, born in 1777, Taney broke with the Federalists because he supported the War of 1812 and in time joined the Democratic Party of President Andrew Jackson, becoming attorney general.
This was the era of the bank wars, when Jackson clashed with the Second Bank of the United States. Both he and the bank’s director, a Federalist, believed the bank was more powerful than the government that chartered it as a corporation. They disagreed about whether that was a problem.
Jackson sought to withdraw all of the government’s deposits from the bank, which was its only bank. The bank retaliated by restricting credit and reducing the nation’s money supply, bringing on a recession.
Jackson’s first Treasury secretary, a former Federalist, refused to make the withdrawals. He was reassigned. His successor refused and was dismissed. Next, Jackson nominated Taney, who believed the bank was unconstitutional.
Enter Daniel Webster, lion of the Senate, gifted orator and attorney, who, while representing Massachusetts and the Federalists’ successor, the Whig Party, simultaneously was paid well to represent the bank – a conflict of interest that was scarcely remarkable in the 1830s.
In 1834, Webster led a party-line defeat of Taney’s Treasury nomination, making his the first cabinet appointment to be defeated by the Senate. Webster then led a Senate censure of Taney, to make this partisan humiliation thorough.
When Jackson nominated Taney to the Supreme Court, in 1835, Webster did his patron’s bidding again, calling Taney “a pliant instrument” of Jackson and refusing to let the Senate vote before the end of session, killing the nomination.
A highly partisan press approved. Editorials called for the rejection of any man who did not conform to Webster’s corporatist interpretation of the Constitution.
It was only after the 1836 midterms, when Democrats took the Senate, that Taney, now nominated by Jackson for chief justice, was confirmed.
Recognizing that corporate reformers had the upper hand, Webster said, “The Supreme Court is gone.”
It would come back.
“It is tempting to believe that Washington today suffers from unprecedented rancor and partisanship,” Adam Winkler writes in his recent history “We The Corporations.” “Yet politics in the 1830s was equally divisive, if not more so, and Webster was one of the more aggressive partisan warriors.”
It is wondrous at this remove that Americans stood for it, not to mention that so many elementary schools are still named for Webster — but that may be the wrong lesson.
Perhaps what we can infer from Webster, Taney and the bank wars is that if there is an era of comity and rectitude in our politics, it is not in our past but our future.