Today in 1834, President Andrew Jackson called forth soldiers to suppress a labor dispute for the first time. The event was considered to be a bold, unprecedented extension of executive authority.
After workers on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal rioted over working conditions, the government of Maryland begged President Jackson for federal assistance, hastily interpreting the matter as a rebellion against the state’s civil authority. He responded immediately by calling his secretary of war to order sufficient military resources to “put down the riotous assembly.” In doing so, Jackson intruded upon executive boundaries.
Although the Constitution allows states to appeal to the general government to suppress rebellions and insurrections, the strikers never threatened to overthrow the state government, and the power to call up such forces is rigidly confined to Congress. Jackson’s hasty move, therefore, seemed as an act of overreach.
Jackson’s deed, along with several others, left an eternal impression on the American conception of executive authority. Seminal Jackson biographer Robert Remini, who was largely sympathetic to Jackson, admitted that this ordeal was “unique and unprecedented,” inviting allegations of “illegally expanding the powers of his office.” Future presidents, such as Theodore Roosevelt, tellingly pointed to Jackson’s antecedent as justification for forcible intervention into local labor matters.
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