On this day in 1834, President Andrew Jackson is censured by Congress for refusing to turn over documents. Jackson was the first president to suffer this formal disapproval from Congress.
During his first term, Jackson decided to dismantle the Bank of the United States and find a friendlier source of funds for his western expansion plans. Jackson, who embodied the popular image of the Wild West frontiersman, claimed that the bank had too many foreign investors, favored the rich over the poor and resisted lending funds to develop commercial interests in America’s Western territories. When the Senate passed legislation in 1831 to renew the bank’s charter, Jackson promptly vetoed it. An 1831 meeting with his cabinet generated classified documents regarding Jackson’s veto of the bank legislation. Soon after, Congress overruled Jackson’s veto.
One of the key issues in the election of 1832, between Jackson, a Democrat, and Whig (Republican) Henry Clay, was the bank’s survival. Jackson easily won reelection, but Clay’s Whigs took control of the Senate. Jackson renewed his attack on the bank early in his second term, appointing a new treasury secretary whom he ordered to dismantle the bank and distribute all federal funds to individual state banks until a new federal bank could be organized. The Senate, with Clay at its helm, fought Jackson’s attempts to destroy the bank, passing a resolution demanding to see his cabinet’s papers regarding the veto of 1831. When Jackson refused to release the documents, Clay retaliated by introducing a resolution to censure the president.
Congress debated the proposed censure for 10 weeks. Jackson protested, saying that since the Constitution did not provide any guidance regarding censure of a president, the resolution to censure him was therefore unconstitutional. Congress ignored him, slapping him on March 28 with what amounted to an official public scolding for assuming authority and power not conferred by the Constitution.
The largely symbolic censure failed to stop Jackson from revamping the federal banking system. Democrats regained the majority in the Senate in 1837 and had Jackson’s censure expunged from the record. Still, Jackson did take the reprimand personally—a biographer later wrote that when Jackson retired from the presidency, the only regret he expressed was not being able to shoot Henry Clay.