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  • Destroyer of Confidence:James Gordon Bennett, Jacksonian Paranoia, and the Original Confidence Man
  • Matt Seybold (bio)

Zachary Taylor's 1849 inaugural address began, "The confidence and respect shown by my countrymen in calling me to be the Chief Magistrate of a Republic holding a high rank among the nations of the earth have inspired me with feelings of the most profound gratitude." With his opening invocation of confidence, Taylor echoes two tropes characteristic of Jacksonian presidential rhetoric. First, confidence signifies the democratic mandate that empowers the executive branch. William Henry Harrison ended his marathon address by emphasizing the "entire confidence" he shared with "a just and generous people" in his ability to "discharge the high duties of [his] exalted station." This latter phrase, like Taylor's "high rank among the nations of the earth," shows that confidence also alludes to the assurance and ambition that justifies manifest destiny. Franklin Pierce would make this the crux of his address, speaking of a "hopeful confidence" that assured him that even "if your past is limited, your future is boundless" and the "unexplored pathway of advancement … will be limitless as duration."

Preceding the epochal election of Abraham Lincoln, eight consecutive president-elects made confidence a centerpiece of their inaugurations. The twin implications of confidence in these speeches—executive power emanating from electoral populism and urgent imperialism driven by nationalism—are, of course, both substantially embodied by the president who named the era. However ineffectual his successors were, all emulated Andrew Jackson's campaign tactics, including his exceptionalist rhetoric of confidence. Jackson spoke of [End Page 83] confidence in nearly every public address, as appreciation for the public's faith and as the reason for America's political, economic, and military resiliency. His fabled populism is on display even in his private correspondence, as when he tells James Hamilton Jr., in a letter anticipating tariff disputes that would climax in the 1832 nullification crisis, that he has "great confidence in the virtue of the great majority of the people."1

But even for Jackson, confidence also contained specific cynical connotations, usually associated with finance. The first populist debate over America's economic infrastructure—Jackson's campaign to revoke the charter of the Second Bank of the United States—was replete with appeals to confidence. Jackson would accuse the Second Bank of having "destroyed the confidence of the public" and having the potential "to destroy the confidence of mankind in popular governments."2 A letter to a protégé makes clear that Jackson recognized the rhetoric of confidence as potentially duplicitous, even though he relied heavily on it. He writes, "The advice I give to all my young friends … as they pass through life have apparent confidence in all, real confidence in none."3 More than two decades before the term confidence man would be coined, Jackson gives voice to the archetype's paradigmatic paradox, what Kathleen De Grave, in her study of nineteenth-century con artists, calls "the mixture of cynicism and idealism [which] is as essential to the American tradition as are Franklin and Paine."4 The character De Grave identifies as a literary antecedent to the con-man archetype is, appropriately, an allegorical incarnation of President Jackson, J. J. Hooper's Simon Suggs.5

As Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man (1857) dramatizes, the word confidence was, hauntingly, a lexical nexus for many distinguishing traits of Jacksonian America. Depending on context, it could describe or promote not only the growth of executive power, exceptionalism, and populism but also the rapid and largely organic development of sprawling economic and legal infrastructures. As Stephen Mihm demonstrates in A Nation of Counterfeiters (2007), confidence, both rhetorical and psychological, was the central force sustaining commerce and finance. When Mihm says "at its core, capitalism was little more than a confidence game," he is echoing Melville's officer of the Philosophical Intelligence Office who, on extracting his fee from one of the novel's most stubborn skeptics, says, "Confidence is the indispensible basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop."6 Nascent antebellum markets for currency, securities, and...


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