Lobbies

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JACKSON’S VETO OF THE NATIONAL BANK and the Jacksonian period generally mark the coming of age of nineteenth-century lobbying efforts at the federal level. The bribery, the corruption, the manipulation of the press, and other methods characteristic of the time were not new, of course. Lobbies had made their appearance as soon as the First Congress took up consideration of the Tariff of 1789, but in the 1830’s attempts to influence legislation became more open and systematic as a direct result of many circumstances: the increased government activity brought on by the election of Jackson, a tide of rising expectations that accompanied the extension of the franchise, the growing sectionalism implicit in the tariff controversy of 1828, and the subsequent nullification movement in South Carolina that threatened to split the Union. But all of these pale in comparison to the President’s refusal to recharter the national bank.

A conservative institution, the bank since 1816 had unquestionably aided business and curbed inflation, but it had also led to a sharp contraction of the money supply—to the extreme distress of debtor groups in the South and West- because of its stringent credit policies toward state and local banks. Despite Marshall’s ruling in its favor in 1817, its constitutionality continued to trouble States’ righters. In addition certain business groups were unhappy with the bank’s manager, Nicholas Biddle. If this was not enough, there were also questions about the bank’s monopoly status, its preferential treatment of corporations, and its general effect on the nation’s welfare.

Once it became clear that Jackson would veto any effort to recharter the bank, lobbyists descended on Washington in droves. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has described it, “Memorials, petitions, letters, delegations and protests of every kind deluged Congress.” Congressmen were offered bribes for their votes. Daniel Webster, one of the leading supporters of recharter, was in any case already on the bank’s payroll as legal counsel. Journalists were hired to write attacks on Biddle or to defend him, in either case passing off their stories as regular news.

Early in February, 1832, the House began its deliberations, and in the ensuing weeks pressure mounted. For the pro-bank faction it was a wasted effort. The Senate passed the measure in June, the House in early July. But on July 10 Jackson cast his veto, and three days later it was sustained.

THE BUCHANAN ADMINISTRATION earned the distinction of being the most corrupt of any in the ante-bellum period—although James Buchanan himself has generally been exonerated of any personal involvement beyond his incompetence as the chief administrative officer of the government. The focal point of lobbying activity was a notorious gambling den known formally as Pendleton’s Palace of Fortune, though its denizens preferred to call it the Hall of the Bleeding Heart. As one contemporary journalist reported, “in its palmiest days, [it] might have been called the vestibule of the lobby.”

It was run by Edward Pendleton, a member of one of Virginia’s oldest families, a bon vivant , the possessor of an incomparable wine cellar and what was reputed to be the best-laid table in all of Washington, and coincidentally one of the most active lobbyists of his day. Every night official Washington gathered behind the doors of his establishment to eat, drink, and exchange the latest gossip before retiring to an inner room where poker games and other gambling diversions took place until dawn. Money was never a problem; Pendleton and any of a dozen lobbyists who frequented the place were willing to make loans to any hard-pressed congressman who found the cards or dice running against him. The price of such largesse was understood by all concerned. As one historian of the period has written, “An unfortunate member might see a stack of lou’s disappear in the flames if he voted right.”

Blackmail extended from other entertainments as well. Washington was by all accounts a dreary place, muddy in spring, dusty in summer, aswarm with flies and malariabearing mosquitoes, and, according to the New York Herald , a city not safe for pedestrians after dark. Not unexpectedly the lobbyists made every effort to afford the members of Congress some relief with paid—if clandestine —visits to the infamous houses in the side alleys off the Capitol, where, according to the Herald , the “madames and their chicks” awaited.

For most lobbyists, however, the conventional weapons of open bribery with money and gifts were all that was required to smooth the way for the host of legislative proposals that followed the Panic of 1857, when special-interest groups pressed for economic relief through land-appropriation schemes, railroad and steamship projects, and a homestead act that would open up the western lands to the unemployed.