Because Andrew Jackson was a determined opponent of entrenched banking interests, he has become a heroic figure to many who opposed the bailout of our financial system.
Unfortunately, he probably never spoke some of the most famous words attributed to him.
Here’s the alleged quote:
Congress in 1836, Jackson closed the second Federal Bank (est. 1816) with these comments:
The bold effort the present (central) bank had made to control the government. . . are but premonitions of the fate that await the American people should they be deluded into a perpetuation of this institution or the establishment of another like it.
I am one of those who do not believe that a national debt is a national blessing, but rather a curse to a republic; inasmuch as it is calculated to raise around the administration a moneyed aristocracy dangerous to the liberties of the country.
Gentlemen, I have had men watching you for a long time and I am convinced that you have used the funds of the bank to speculate in the breadstuffs of the country. When you won, you divided the profits amongst you, and when you lost, you charged it to the bank. You tell me that if I take the deposits from the bank and annul its charter, I shall ruin 10 thousand families. That may be true, gentlemen, but that is your sin! Should I let you go on, you will ruin 50 thousand families, and that would be my sin! You are a den of vipers and thieves.
You are a den of vipers and thieves. I intend to rout you out, and by the grace of the Eternal God, will rout you out.
In our comments section, this was attributed to a speech before Congress in 1836. That certainly is not the origin of the quote, unless it went unnoticed for almost 100 years.
The first recorded appearance of this quote dates to 1928, almost 90 years after it was supposedly uttered, when it was published in a pamphlet “Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States: An interesting bit of history concerning ‘Old Hickory,'” by Stan Henkles.
Henkles, a Philadelphia auctioneer and collector of Americana, is probably most famous for republishing a prayer book that was supposedly hand-written by George Washington. According to Henkles, he found the book in a trunk owned by a Washington descendant, Lawrence Washington. Despite the fact that Lawrence Washington told Henkles that the book had earlier been rejected by the Smithsonian Institute as inauthentic, Henkles sold the original manuscript to a New York collector for $1,250. He also published a facsmile edition that claimed it had been authored by the first president at the age of 20.
Frank Grizzard of the University Virginia, a senior associate editor of the George Washington Papers collection that are housed at UVA, says the prayer book was definitely not written by George Washington. Instead, it was probably written by a descendant of Washington.
Henkles claimed he discovered the Jackson quote in 1883 in the minutes of the committee of Philadelphia citizens from February of 1834. In 1834, Jackson did indeed give a speech to a citizens committee of Philadelphia in 1834, which was then one of the most important financial centres of the United States. The committee had secured an interview with Jackson on a trip to Washington, DC to discuss Jackson’s position against the national bank.
The only contemporary account of the interview does not support the authencity of the quote. Jackson was speaking yo a hostile audience, explaining his opposition to the national bank. The contemporary account, which appeared in the Baltimore based Niles Register in March of 1834, does say Jackson used some dramatic language, including the claim that he would not restore the deposits or charter of the national bank even under torture by the 10 Spanish Inquisitions and that he would rather live in the wilds of Arabia than a country with a national bank.
“I have read the scriptures, gentlemen, and I find that when Moses ascended the mountain, the children
of Israel rebelled, and made a golden calf and worshiped it, and it brought a curse upon them. This bank will be a greater curse,” Jackson is quoted as saying. “I have no hostility to the bank; I am willing it should expire in peace; but if it does persist in its war will the government, I have a measure in contemplation which will destroy it at once, and which I am resolved to apply, be the consequences to individuals what they may…”
But nothing is reported that comes close to the den of vipers quote.
Does that prove that the quote is phony? No. The report of the interview seems to have been written by someone sympathetic to the cause of the bankers. It complains that Jackson’s “mind was pre-occupied by a view on the subject, which would neutralize the effects of facts or reason.” It goes on to say that Jackson’s remarks were “very long, somewhat desultory” and so it “is deemed unnecessary to present in detail.”
So perhaps the author of the report simply decided to leave out Jackson’s most powerful statements.
But certainly there is good reason to doubt its authenticity. Our opinion is that Jackson probably never spoke those words.
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