On this day in 1834, President Andrew Jackson is censured by the U.S. Senate.
“[W]e should not be at all surprised,” one columnist scoffed at the time, “if he attempted to dissolve the present Congress—at least the Senatorial branch, which, by refusing to register all his imperial edicts, has become extremely offensive to His Majesty!”
At the root of the quarrel was a disagreement about the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson believed the quasi-public bank to be unconstitutional, and he worked to have it ended. But many Congressmen did not share the President’s views. And they hoped to use the issue to put the President in a difficult spot. Thus, Congress passed a bill authorizing the bank’s re-charter, just as Jackson was running for re-election in 1832. Surely Jackson wouldn’t veto a bill extending the bank’s charter—not during a presidential election year?
Except he did veto it. And then he got re-elected! Jackson viewed the sequence as a mandate to continue what he’d begun. The bank charter might not expire until 1836, but he would start removing public funds from the bank in the meantime.
Jackson had just one problem. He needed the help of Treasury Secretary Louis McLane, who refused to comply. So Jackson replaced McLane with another man, William John Duane. Can you believe that Duane refused to help Jackson, too? Undeterred, Jackson fired Duane, replacing him with Roger Taney. Perhaps even more daringly, Jackson used a recess appointment to get Taney into office. Taney immediately began moving the funds.
Congress was furious and demanded notes from Jackson’s cabinet discussions. (Jackson refused.) One Senator filed a resolution to censure the President. A debate over that motion raged for weeks! Finally, on March 28, the Senate passed a resolution censuring the President who, “in the late Executive proceedings in relation to the public revenue, has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.”
On April 15, Jackson returned his own scathing message. He believed that the censure was unconstitutional. If Congress wanted to act against the Executive, then it should impeach him and hold a trial—a trial in which he would have a right to defend himself. The President, Jackson wrote, “has been by a majority of his constitutional triers accused and found guilty of an impeachable offense, but in no part of this proceeding have the directions of the Constitution been observed.”
One Democrat from Missouri urged that the matter be expunged from the Senate journals. Others worried that expunging a portion of the journal was, in and of itself, a worrisome precedent. Shouldn’t the journal reflect reality? It took nearly three years, but the Senate eventually voted, 24-19, to expunge the matter from the record. It would do so by drawing “black lines round the said resolve, and write across the face thereof, in strong letters, the following words: ‘Expunged by order of the Senate, this 16th day of January, in the year of our Lord 1837.”
Senators watched as the change was made, immediately after the vote. “No sooner had this been done,” the Register of Debates records, “than hisses, loud and repeated, were heard from various parts of the gallery.”
Wow. Can you imagine the scene?