the imaginative conservative logo

 It is our loss that Amos Kendall, who helped Andrew Jackson rid government of corruption, remains to this day one of the least known of all nineteenth-century American statesmen…

Of all of those in his informal circle of advisors during his presidency, none mattered as much to Andrew Jackson as Amos Kendall, a steadfast friend and ally from 1829 until his own death in 1869. Congregationalists in their faith, Kendall’s family had loyally served the patriot cause during the Revolution, rising in social prominence during and after Independence. In love with books and learning, Amos Kendall found education wherever he could—at the local common school, through a subscription library, at a local academy, and, finally, at Dartmouth College, graduating first in his class in 1811. An excellent student at Dartmouth, Kendall claimed to have learned as much from the 4,000-book library as from his actual professors. During the War of 1812, Kendall moved to Kentucky and established himself as a tutor (he taught Henry Clay’s children), lawyer, writer, and publisher. He also married twice, his first wife dying young. He fathered fifteen children. It was as a publisher, though, that Kendall caught the attention of Andrew Jackson.

In almost every way, Kendall was the best of the nineteenth-century Jacksonian men. Not only did he hold almost every one of Jackson’s views, but he was, perhaps, one of the most honest men in American political life, scrupulous to a fault (if such a thing is possible). When he first arrived in Washington in January 1829, he viewed the capitol as a cesspool of corruption.

On the whole, if there is more extravagance, folly, and corruption anywhere in the world than in this city, I do not wish to see that place. People of moderate income attempt to imitate foreign ministers, the President, and secretaries, and thus keep themselves poor, when by prudence and economy they might make ample provision for their families. There is great room for reform here in almost every respect, and I hope Jackson and his friends will introduce it. [1]

Not only in extravagance were the citizens of Washington foolishly wasting their money, but Kendall thought even their habits too European for a healthy American republic. Even their dinners, he lamented, mimicked the Europeans and began after sunset rather than at the proper dinner time of five in the evening. [2]

When he and Jackson met, they liked one another immediately. Jackson offered him a high position within the Department of Treasury, directing him to find and undo any lingering corruption there. Kendall accepted the position, but set up his house in then-unfashionable Georgetown. He found the people there friendlier, the prices more reasonable, and the distance to walk to the treasury department healthy.[3] Kendall threw himself into the work of reform immediately.

God knows when I shall get away from here. These investigations into the conduct of the men lately in office are so important that they must be made completed as soon as possible, that the government may recover the money out of which it has been cheated. I have discovered frauds in Dr. Watkins, who went before me in this office, to the amount of more than $7,000, and how much more will come to light I know not.[4]

Stemming from mismanagement as well as malfeasance, the men who had served under John Quincy Adams had enjoyed the spoils of their offices, to a shocking degree. Kendall spent as much time relieving questionable bureaucrats from their jobs as he did investigating the frauds and trying to achieve repayment to the treasury.[5] Overall, Kendall estimated, Jackson and his officers removed roughly one out of every seven government bureaucrats between 1829 and 1832, “most of them for bad conduct and character.”[6] Kendall estimated that the customs houses were responsible for the greatest fraud, at roughly $280,000, and fishing bounties amounting to a little over $51,000.[7] Kendall identified additional fraud in the Navy. Though a friendly and congenial man, Kendall knew that his reforming led to few friendships.

Sometimes my associates in the government would allude with a sort of sarcastic pleasantry to my scrupulousness on that subject, and my uniform reply was in substance that I did not set myself up as a censor or judge or other men’s conduct or consciences in the exercise of their special privileges; but for myself I deemed it the safest rule to keep within the limits of the law.[8]

Kendall firmly believed that even if no one else in government followed his example, it was still the proper and republican behavior, timeless and always correct. For those serving directly under him, Kendall established eight rules of conduct. First, every government officer must begin work by nine in the morning and not end until three in the afternoon. Second, should society need the officer to work past three, he must. Third, no officer may read a book or newspaper during working hours unless absolutely necessary for the job at hand. Fourth, any gambling or drunkenness during or out of office hours would result in immediate dismissal. Fifth, the acceptance of any gratuity would also result in immediate dismissal. Sixth, no details about any investigation could ever be made public. Seven, no officer can accept a second job. And, finally, eighth, no officer can use any office supplies for anything other than government business.[9]

It is to our loss and to our profound shame that Kendall remains to this day one of the least known of all nineteenth-century American statesmen. Kendall served in the Van Buren administration, helped build Baptist churches, and co-founded the national university for the deaf, Gallaudet. To his dying day, he had nothing but praise for Jackson, the man he believed had saved the republic from the corruption of the second generation of Americans.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes

[1] Amos Kendall to Jane Kendall (Amos’s second wife), January 15, 1829, in Autobiography, 280.
[2] Ibid., 280.
[3] Ibid., 293.
[4] Ibid., 290.
[5] Ibid., 297.
[6] Ibid., 301.
[7] Ibid., 298.
[8] Ibid., 309.
[9] Ibid., 319-320.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. A fitting tribute to Kendall–and to Jackson. No wonder the current Democratic Party is distancing itself from Jackson.

    • Bill, agreed! From what I’ve read, I’m not even sure Jackson would’ve approved of the Democratic Party of his day. He certainly never called himself a “Democrat,” which surprised me.

  2. WILLIAM JAY GAYNOR: “Every time I go to Albany or to Washington I cannot help but look at the people around, not only some of the legislators, but the people who come there. Did you ever see such a lot of gabby people, and so many sharpers, and so many small people? And they look so cagey, did you notice? I was over in Washington recently, and that was the one thing I said to the man who was with me, “let’s get away from here. I never saw so many cagey-looking people.” At the Capitol, even at the White House in the outer rooms, and especially in the lobby of the hotels–every man a gabby, cagey little fellow.” The more things change…

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: