What’s notable about Jackson’s fight with Marshall over the bank is that it was fought entirely on constitutional, rather than personal, terms. Jackson didn’t question Marshall’s motives or call him a politician in robes. This reflected the fact that Jackson, unlike Trump, was a trained lawyer and former judge with a clear constitutional vision, having served on the Tennessee Supreme Court from 1798 to 1804.
The same sensitivity to constitutional roles suffused Jackson’s most famous conflict with Marshall. In the Cherokee Indians case, Worcester v. Georgia in 1832, Jackson was livid at Marshall’s ruling that Georgia state laws seizing Cherokee lands violated federal treaties and laws. Georgia had jailed two missionaries for refusing to obey these anti-Cherokee laws and had sentenced them to hard labor. In a 5 to 1 decision, Marshall held that Georgia laws used to seize Cherokee lands violated federal law and treaties. “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force,” he wrote. “The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.” After Marshall handed down the decision, Justice Joseph Story said: “The Court has done its duty. Let the nation now do theirs.”
Jackson, who had built his career on expanding American territory into Native American lands, privately sided with Georgia but publicly remained silent. As historian Jon Meacham notes in his biography of Jackson, American Lion, the president’s foe and election rival Henry Clay was unsettled by Jackson’s silence. Writing in March 1832, he said: “The consequences of the recent decision of the Supreme Court must be very great. If it be resisted, and the president refuses to enforce it, there is virtual dissolution of the union. For it will be in vain to consider it as existing if a single state can put aside the laws and treaties of the U.S. and when their authority is vindicated by a decision of the S. Court, the president will not perform his duty to enforce it.”
Jackson is famous for having privately remarked, according to the celebrated editor Horace Greely, that “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” But his actual remark, to his ally John Coffee, seems to have been: “The decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born ... and they find that it cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.” Unlike Jackson, Georgia tried openly to defy Marshall, passing a law declaring that anyone who came to Georgia to enforce the Supreme Court ruling would be hanged. Jackson, who had no desire to threaten Georgia with federal forces or openly challenge the Supreme Court, solved the problem deftly by convincing the governor of Georgia to set the missionaries free. The Supreme Court never had to issue an order requiring compliance and the crisis was defused. As a relieved Chief Justice Marshall wrote to Justice Story: “Imitating the Quaker who said the dog he wished to destroy was mad, they said Andrew Jackson had become a federalist, even an ultra-federalist. To have said he was ready to break down and trample on every other department of the government would not have injured him, but to say that he was a federalist—a convert to the opinions of Washington, was a mortal blow under which he is yet staggering.”