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A Jackson Man

Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy

Donald B. Cole

Publication Year: 2004

A rare, fascinating personality emerges in Donald B. Cole’s biography of Amos Kendall (1789–1869), the reputed intellectual engine behind Andrew Jackson’s administration and an influential figure in the transformation of young America from an agrarian republic to a capitalist democracy. After helping Jackson win the election of 1828, Kendall became the president’s chief advisor—speech writer, postmaster general, and author of the famous veto of the bill to recharter the Bank of the United States. Born on a small Massachusetts farm and educated at Dartmouth, Kendall moved to Kentucky as a young man to seek his fortune and eventually became one of the very few nationally prominent antebellum politicians who successfully combined northern origins and southern experience. Kendall’s role in democratizing American politics is shown in a compelling narrative of his evolution from a republican idealist to a democratic individualist who contributed greatly to the rise of the Democratic party. His innovative campaign techniques and direct appeals to ordinary voters helped attract Americans to the polls; yet Kendall, like many of his contemporaries, also had a limited egalitarian vision that excluded the participation of women, African Americans, and Native Americans. In that sense, Cole demonstrates, Kendall was a man of his time, in an era of unprecedented transformations in politics, economics, and technology. Unforgettable in appearance and manner—a gaunt, white-haired, reclusive hypochondriac—Kendall inspired mystery as well as awe in admirers and enemies. He exemplified the American self-made man in his rise from a struggling jack-of-all-trades to a wealthy Washingtonian. His story also offers a fresh look at important elements of the antebellum communications revolution: he was deeply involved in the expansion of the post office and in the rise of the telegraph, and as a philanthropist he founded the school for the deaf that became Gallaudet College. The first biography of Kendall, this superbly written and researched volume unfolds the rise of American democracy and the culture that created it.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. xi-xii

At first glance Amos Kendall seems out of place in a southern biography series. After all, he grew up in Massachusetts, graduated from Dartmouth College, and lived for half of his life in Washington, D.C. But Kendall spent the first fifteen years of his career in Kentucky, years that transformed him from an elitist Yankee law student to a democratic political editor well versed in southern and western ways. ...


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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-5

On her visit to the United States in the mid-1830s, the English writer Harriet Martineau met many of the most famous Americans of the day. No one, however, enthralled her more than a mysterious, undistinguished Democrat who had aroused fear and hatred in his opponents and had captured the imagination of Americans of all persuasions. Amos Kendall, she wrote, was ...

Part One: New ENGLAND

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1 Dunstable

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pp. 9-20

News of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached Dunstable, twenty miles to the north, late in the evening of that fateful day. The townspeople were ready to act. Almost thirty of them, including nineteen-year-old Zebedee Kendall, had signed a pledge to “engage with each other in defence of our country, Priviledges and Libertys,” and the town had voted “to have menite men . . . in readiness to march at the first notice.” They had been drilling every week. ...

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2 New Worlds

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pp. 21-30

On a dark, chill morning in March 1808 Kendall rode to Amherst, New Hampshire, and took the stagecoach for Hanover. As he headed north over the hills, he went through towns that would later back Andrew Jackson as loyally as he would. He passed close to the homes of future political allies Isaac Hill, who was apprenticed to a printer, and Levi Woodbury, who was a junior at Dartmouth. ...


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3 Down the Ohio

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pp. 33-41

Kendall weighed several possibilities. The safest was to stay near Dunstable and Groton where he would be close to his parents and Mary Lawrence; more daring was to move to Boston where Mary’s brothers were already doing well; or, most risky of all, he could leave New England. The last seemed unlikely because, except when he was in college, he had never ventured more than thirty miles from ...

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4 A Yankee in Kentucky

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pp. 42-54

Kendall was now in the heart of Bluegrass Kentucky. The Bluegrass region occupies the northern hump of the state and was named for the color of the grass in springtime. The best part of the region is the gently rolling plain around Lexington in Fayette County, where fertile soil, a mild climate, and frequent rains produce bumper crops of corn, wheat, rye, tobacco, and hemp and offer rich forage for horses and sheep. The northern Bluegrass, through ...

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5 Political Editor

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pp. 55-66

During his first few months editing the Georgetown Patriot Kendall held onto his republican ideals of civic virtue and nonpartisanship. He called party politics “contemptible” and condemned any editor who would “libel . . . the character of a respectable citizen . . . for the good of a party.” He promised that “no personal abuse” would ever “flow from his pen.” His job, he wrote, was to “promote learning, refine manners,” and “watch over the morals of the ...

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6 The Relief War

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pp. 67-80

In the spring of 1818 Kentucky and the West reveled in postwar prosperity. Bad harvests in Europe and the reopening of foreign markets had driven up farm exports, while improvements in transportation made it easier to get produce to market. A great increase in the number of state-chartered banks and the resumption of the westward movement encouraged land speculation and led to a threefold increase in the sale of public land. As a result farm prices in ...

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7 The Court War

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pp. 81-94

Kendall had little time to grieve. A few days before Mary died, the court of appeals declared the Replevin Act unconstitutional, and a few weeks later the legislature convened. Having lost in court, the Reliefers sought to remove the three justices, but they were unable to get the necessary two-thirds majority. The best they could do was to push through a resolution denouncing the court decision and defeat the Anti-Relief protest that followed.1 ...

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8 Jackson

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pp. 95-112

Late in September Desha was happy to find that Kendall had “mended” enough to “walk about the house.” For some time the governor and Richard M. Johnson had been trying to bring him into the Jackson camp. On being asked in August whether he would support Jackson or Adams in 1828, Kendall had snapped back that he intended to remain neutral. Still critical of Jackson, he said that he “disliked” the general’s “violent . . . tyrannical disposition,” his lack of “capacity,” and his ...


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9 Reform

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pp. 115-131

On the morning of December 23 Kendall was in Cincinnati, waiting uneasily for his steamboat to start up the Ohio. The river was icing over so rapidly that the departure time had been postponed to three in the afternoon, and there was a good chance that the run would be canceled. Three o’clock finally arrived, and much to Kendall’s relief, the steamboat got under way. By the time he reached Wheeling two days later the river was filled with ice, and steamboat ...

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10 Party Battles

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pp. 132-143

At the end of July 1829 the Watkins case was in the hands of the judge, and the president was planning to take a vacation. For months Kendall had been promising Jane, who was about to have a baby, that he would soon be home to take his family to Washington. On July 29 he started for Kentucky, but instead of rushing back, he took a leisurely trip down the Valley of Virginia to White Sulphur Springs. Here he spent a week enjoying the waters in the company ...

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11 The Kitchen Cabinet [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 144-156

On his way back to the Hermitage in late June 1830 Andrew Jackson wrote an angry letter to William B. Lewis. It was time, he said, to replace Duff Green as party spokesman. The president was outraged by Green’s failure to reply to the congressional reports defending the BUS. Calhoun controlled Green, he expostulated, just as a puppeteer pulled the strings on his dolls. Jackson’s letter was the first step toward a crisis in the administration and ultimately the formation ...

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12 The Bank Veto

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pp. 157-176

The voters felt intensely about the BUS because it was so large and so powerful. There is nothing quite like it today. Its capital was double the annual expenses of the federal government, it held a quarter of all bank deposits, and its banknotes made up 20 percent of money in circulation. Americans reacted to the BUS in the same way that they had to the Panic of 1819. A rapidly dwindling group who still resisted change looked on it as the epitome of all ...

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13 Removing the Deposits

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pp. 177-192

In the months following the election Jackson was forced to shift much of his attention to nullification in South Carolina. A national crisis began on November 24 when a South Carolina state convention nullified the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832. In his annual message on December 10 the president issued a sober warning to the nullifiers, and his proclamation to South Carolina a week later left no doubt that he would enforce the collection of customs duties. ...

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14 Postmaster General

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pp. 193-213

On June 9, 1834, a short time before the changes in the cabinet, the Whig majority in the Senate Post Office and Post Roads Committee brought in a report exposing corruption in the Post Office. The most flagrant example was the practice of “extra allowances,” by which a favored contractor won a contract by bidding low and then was granted extra allowances for very little extra service. The report accused Postmaster General William T. Barry and Chief ...

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15 Van Buren

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pp. 214-230

On his way to the Capitol on inauguration day, Kendall could see that the “soft-spring snow” was melting away in the warm sun. It would be a splendid day for Martin Van Buren to take office. At noon Kendall and the other cabinet officers marched onto the east portico of the Capitol to watch the new president take his oath. In his inaugural Van Buren promised to follow the republican principles of his predecessors and gave no indication that he would ...


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16 Private Life

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pp. 233-244

Not waiting for the election returns, Kendall left on a trip west, but no matter how far he went he could not escape the unpleasant news. At Wheeling on November 10, he wrote Jane, “[Whigs] saluted me by firing a cannon under the windows of the room where I slept.” On board the steamboat the next day, he could not avoid a conversation with the colorful Whig campaigner John W. Baer, known as the Buckeye Blacksmith. In Cincinnati “a band ...

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17 The Telegraph

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pp. 245-261

Kendall had been living with astounding increases in the speed of communication all of his life. When he was a boy, news of the death of George Washington took fifteen days to reach Dunstable; when he was forty, copies of Andrew Jackson’s annual message arrived there in only a day and a half. He had seen the changes firsthand in 1827 when he traveled from New York toWashington in half the time it had taken in 1814. His express mail had cut the time for mail ...

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18 Telegraph Consolidation

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pp. 262-277

Kendall may have won the first round of the telegraph wars, but the industry was evolving too rapidly to allow any time for complacency. During the Kendall phase the length of wire in operation rose from 40 miles to 12,000 miles; the number would double in the next two years and would reach 84,000 miles by the end of the Civil War. The amount of money available for rival lines was also about to explode. Capital accounts in banks, which had hovered ...

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19 Philanthropist and War Democrat

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pp. 278-296

Toward the end of the telegraph wars Kendall was making conscious efforts to improve his family’s social standing. When Morse invited sixteen-year-old Fannie Kendall to visit his family at the Gramercy Park House in New York in 1855, Kendall gratefully accepted. He hoped that his daughter could remain under Morse’s “guidance” for several months and learn “what society you have” in New York. Not long after her return Fannie married rising young attorney ...

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pp. 297-301

There are many reasons why Harriet Martineau found Amos Kendall so mysterious. A complex man, his life was filled with paradox, constant change, and an apparent lack of consistency. What else can be said of a class-conscious elitist who turned into an egalitarian democrat; of a young politician on the fringes of Henry Clay’s party who moved to the heart of Andrew Jackson’s; of a Jacksonian who condemned speculators and the “money power” but ...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 303-320


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pp. 321-332

E-ISBN-13: 9780807137475
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807136478

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Southern Biography Series