Andrew Jackson’s War on the First Amendment

Many people know about President Andrew Jackson’s (D-Tennessee) many attacks on freedom and human rights. However, we often forget one of Jackson’s most destructive efforts; his war on the First Amendment.

By 1835, Jackson; who had never been tolerant of the press, turned against the First Amendment. Jackson turned against the First Amendment because his opponents were using freedom of the press to make Old Hickory uncomfortable.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Two events triggered Jackson’s desire to suppress a free press. First, Cherokee leader John Ross’s partially successful resistance to Jackson’s ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the Eastern United States. Second, the abolitionist movement’s direct attack upon Jackson’s principal financial backers the Southern Slave Power.

Jackson vs. the Cherokees

As Steve Inskeep recounts in Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land GrabRoss mobilized a coalition of northern women, Christian leaders, Whig politicians, and intellectuals to oppose Jackson’s ethnic cleansing.

One of Ross’s most potent weapons was a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix. Ross and his allies used The Phoenix to publicize their side of events and embarrass Jackson. The Cherokee could not stop Jackson, but they delayed Indian removal and raised the price the federal government had to pay the Cherokees for their land.

In August 1835, Jackson’s followers got their revenge on The Phoenix. Ross sent a wagon to take The Phoenix’s printing press from Georgia to Tennessee. At the time, corrupt Jacksonian authorities were driving the Cherokee out of Georgia so they steal could their land.

Members of the Georgia Guard; a paramilitary force, seized the press from the wagon and smashed it to pieces. Inskeep claims the Georgia Guard was following the recommendation of Jackson’s former U.S. Attorney General John Macpherson Berrien.*

Additionally, Inskeep thinks the Georgia Guard was following the orders of Major Benjamin F. Currey. Currey, a Federal Indian agent, was a political appointee of Jackson’s.*

Jackson, the Strongman

Silencing The Cherokee Phoenix allowed Jackson and his allies to hide their crimes against Native Americans.

The opposition to Indian Removal collapsed without a newspaper to publicize the natives’ cause. The Phoenix’s circulation was small but Ross could magnify its power by mailing copies of the paper to editors throughout the nation who reprinted many of its articles and editorials.

One reason why Jackson and his allies wanted to destroy The Phoenix was because its reporting exposed the lies behind their political agenda. Like many populist strongmen, Jackson was a corrupt elitist whose agenda was to increase the power and wealth of the elite, mostly Southern slave owners. Jackson himself, a wealthy planter and slave owner, was a member of that elite.

Jackson’s agenda was not to help the common man but to crush the common man, so the Slave Power could make more money and increase its power. To succeed, Jackson had to silence any media that publicized the violence and brutality that lurked behind his fake populism.

Jackson Censors the Mails

Jackson’s victory over The Cherokee Phoenix did not end the opposition. Instead, a new and more powerful set of opponents launched a more destructive attack on another front.

Northern abolitionists began mailing enormous amounts of antislavery propaganda to addresses in the South in 1835. Slave owners feared the propaganda, mostly pamphlets, would turn slaves, freed blacks, and poor and middle-class whites against the Slave Power.

One reason the pamphlets scared Southern leaders was that brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan financed the campaign. The Tappan brothers were wealthy New York merchants with resources to rival the Slave Power’s.

Arthur Tappan helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society and served as its first president. One of Tappan’s major efforts was to print and distribute enormous numbers of the antislavery pamphlets. Thus, Tappan launched one of the first direct mail campaigns in history.

The Direct Mail Campaign that Angered Andy Jackson

Tappan’s direct mail campaign ignited a controversy that reached all the way to Andy Jackson in the White House. In 1836, Jackson demanded that federal authorities censor the U.S. mail in his address to Congress (State of the Union).

Violence in the South and New York City prompted Jackson’s demands for censorship. In the South, mobs attacked post offices, seized bags of mail, and burned any antislavery literature they could find. In New York City, a mob (probably composed of gang members hired by pro-Southern merchants) attacked and burned Arthur Tappan’s house.

Unlike his war on the Cherokees, Jackson’s campaign to censor the mails failed. Legislation allowing federal agents to open and search mail died in Congress. However, local postmasters; mostly Democratic political appointees, began seizing and destroying abolitionist literature on their own.

Jackson’s attack on the First Amendment emboldened critics such as former president turned Congressman John Quincy Adams (I-Massachusetts). Adams attracted attention with numerous attacks on Jackson’s censorship program, which helped destroy Old Hickory’s reputation as a champion of freedom and the common man.

Adams, whom the press nicknamed Old Man Eloquent because of his oratory, was one foe Jackson could not silence.

Andy Jackson feared propaganda nobody read

Eventually, the Anti-Slavery Society ended the direct mail campaign because it was a waste of money, time, and resources.

To explain, in the 1830s most African Americans were illiterate, meaning that most slaves could not read the pamphlets. Furthermore, literate slaves would have avoided the pamphlets out of fear of being whipped or killed by white authorities.

Thus, the pamphlets that made Andy Jackson so uncomfortable probably went unread. However, the Tappan brothers made the important breakthrough of exposing Jackson and many of his political allies as antidemocratic, and opposed to liberty and other basic American values.

Consequently, Jackson’s fears of the Anti-Slavery Society direct mail resemble modern hysteria about propaganda. To explain, many people attribute propaganda with far greater impact and influence than it actually has.

One reason for exaggerating propaganda’s effect is to justify censorship. Thus, the Anti-Slavery Society gave the Slave Power more authority by providing an excuse to censor the mails.

Americans fear the Slave Power

One result of the pamphlet campaign was that many people began to view the Slave Power as a threat to all Americans’ freedom. Even many racists became sympathetic to abolitionism because they feared the Slave Power.

Ultimately, Jackson’s Democratic Party broke apart as many antislavery Northern Democrats drifted into antislavery parties such as the Republicans. By 1860, the Democratic Party split into two factions, one Northern and one Southern over the slavery issue. Less than a year later Civil War broke out.

Jackson’s attacks on the press show us that attacks on the media lead to oppression, violence, and terrorism. Ironically, like many of today’s censors, Jackson claimed he was trying to discourage violence by banning controversial material.

However, the controversial material Jackson wanted to ban was always critical of his agenda. Jackson’s behavior shows that the true goal of all censorship is silence critics and opponents and hide the truth.

*See Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grabby Steve Inskeep pages 292-293.