Jacksonian democracy was a 19th-century political philosophy in the United States that espoused greater democracy for the common man as that term was then defined. Originating with PresidentAndrew Jackson and his supporters, it became the nation's dominant political worldview for a generation.
This era, called the Jacksonian Era (or Second Party System) by historians and political scientists, lasted roughly from Jackson's 1828 election as president until slavery became the dominant issue after 1848 and the American Civil War dramatically reshaped American politics. It emerged when the long-dominant Democratic-Republican Party became factionalized during the early-to-mid 1820s. Jackson's supporters began to form what would become the modern Democratic Party and supporters of his political rival, John Quincy Adams, created the National Republican Party, which would later combine with other anti-Jackson elements to form the Whig Party, named after Britain's Whig Party.
Broadly speaking, the era was characterized by a democratic spirit and built upon Jackson's equal political policy (subsequent to ending what he termed a "monopoly" of government by elites). Even before the Jacksonian era began, suffrage had been extended to a majority of white male adult citizens, a result the Jacksonians celebrated. Jacksonian democracy also promoted the strength of the presidency and executive branch at the expense of Congress, while also seeking to broaden the public's participation in government. The Jacksonians demanded elected (not appointed) judges and rewrote many state constitutions to reflect the new values. In national terms, they favored geographical expansion, justifying it in terms of Manifest destiny. There was usually a consensus among both Jacksonians and Whigs that battles over slavery should be avoided.
Jackson's expansion of democracy was largely limited to Americans of European descent and voting rights were extended to adult white males only. There was little or no progress (and in some cases regression) for the rights of African Americans and Native Americans. Jackson's biographer Robert V. Remini argues:
[Jacksonian Democracy] stretches the concept of democracy about as far as it can go and still remain workable....As such it has inspired much of the dynamic and dramatic events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in American history—Populism, Progressivism, the New and Fair Deals, and the programs of the New Frontier and Great Society.
Jacksonian Democracy was built on the following:
- Expanded suffrage – The Jacksonians believed that voting rights should be extended to all white men. By the end of the 1820s, attitudes and state laws had shifted in favor of universal white male suffrage and by 1856 all requirements to own property and nearly all requirements to pay taxes had been dropped.
- Manifest destiny – This was the belief that white Americans had a destiny to settle the American West and to expand control from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and that the West should be settled by yeoman farmers. However, the Free Soil Jacksonians, notably Martin Van Buren, argued for limitations on slavery in the new areas to enable the poor white man to flourish—they split with the main party briefly in 1848. The Whigs generally opposed Manifest Destiny and expansion, saying the nation should build up its cities.
- Patronage – Also known as the spoils system, patronage was the policy of placing political supporters into appointed offices. Many Jacksonians held the view that rotating political appointees in and out of office was not only the right, but also the duty of winners in political contests. Patronage was theorized to be good because it would encourage political participation by the common man and because it would make a politician more accountable for poor government service by his appointees. Jacksonians also held that long tenure in the civil service was corrupting, so civil servants should be rotated out of office at regular intervals. However, it often led to the hiring of incompetent and sometimes corrupt officials due to the emphasis on party loyalty above any other qualifications.
- Strict constructionism – Like the Jeffersonians who strongly believed in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Jacksonians initially favored a federal government of limited powers. Jackson said that he would guard against "all encroachments upon the legitimate sphere of State sovereignty". However, he was not a states' rights extremist—indeed, the Nullification Crisis would find Jackson fighting against what he perceived as state encroachments on the proper sphere of federal influence. This position was one basis for the Jacksonians' opposition to the Second Bank of the United States. As the Jacksonians consolidated power, they more often advocated expanding federal power, presidential power in particular.
- Laissez-faire – Complementing a strict construction of the Constitution, the Jacksonians generally favored a hands-off approach to the economy as opposed to the Whig program sponsoring modernization, railroads, banking and economic growth. The chief spokesman amongst laissez-faire advocates was William Leggett of the Locofocos in New York City.
- Opposition to banking – In particular, the Jacksonians opposed government-granted monopolies to banks, especially the national bank, a central bank known as the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson said: "The bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!" and he did so. The Whigs, who strongly supported the Bank, were led by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Nicholas Biddle, the bank chairman. Jackson himself was opposed to all banks because he believed they were devices to cheat common people—he and many followers believed that only gold and silver should be used to back currency, rather than the integrity of a bank.
Election by the "common man"
An important movement in the period from 1800 to 1830—before the Jacksonians were organized—was the expansion of the right to vote toward including all white men. Older states with property restrictions dropped them as all but Rhode Island, Virginia and North Carolina by the mid 1820s. No new states had property qualifications although three had adopted tax-paying qualifications – Ohio, Louisiana, and Mississippi, of which only in Louisiana were these significant and long lasting. The process was peaceful and widely supported, except in the state of Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, the Dorr Rebellion of the 1840s demonstrated that the demand for equal suffrage was broad and strong, although the subsequent reform included a significant property requirement for anyone resident but born outside of the United States. However, free black men lost voting rights in several states during this period.
The fact that a man was now legally allowed to vote did not necessarily mean he routinely voted. He had to be pulled to the polls, which became the most important role of the local parties. They systematically sought out potential voters and brought them to the polls. Voter turnout soared during the 1830s, reaching about 80% of adult white male population in the 1840 presidential election. Tax-paying qualifications remained in only five states by 1860 – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware and North Carolina.
One innovative strategy for increasing voter participation and input was developed outside the Jacksonian camp. Prior to the presidential election of 1832, the Anti-Masonic Party conducted the nation's first presidential nominating convention. Held in Baltimore, Maryland, September 26–28, 1831, it transformed the process by which political parties select their presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
The period from 1824 to 1832 was politically chaotic. The Federalist Party and the First Party System were dead and with no effective opposition, the old Democratic-Republican Party withered away. Every state had numerous political factions, but they did not cross state lines. Political coalitions formed and dissolved and politicians moved in and out of alliances.
Most former Republicans supported Jackson, while others such as Henry Clay opposed him. Most former Federalists, such as Daniel Webster, opposed Jackson, although some like James Buchanan supported him. In 1828, John Quincy Adams pulled together a network of factions called the National Republicans, but he was defeated by Jackson. By the late 1830s, the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs politically battled it out nationally and in every state.
The new Democratic Party
The spirit of Jacksonian Democracy animated the party from the early 1830s to the 1850s, shaping the era, with the Whig Party the main opposition. The new Democratic Party became a coalition of farmers, city-dwelling laborers and Irish Catholics.
The new party was pulled together by Martin Van Buren in 1828 as Jackson crusaded against the corruption of President John Quincy Adams. The new party (which did not get the name "Democrats" until 1834) swept to a landslide. As Mary Beth Norton explains regarding 1828:
- Jacksonians believed the people's will had finally prevailed. Through a lavishly financed coalition of state parties, political leaders, and newspaper editors, a popular movement had elected the president. The Democrats became the nation's first well-organized national party.
The platforms, speeches and editorials were founded upon a broad consensus among Democrats. As Norton et al. explain:
- The Democrats represented a wide range of views but shared a fundamental commitment to the Jeffersonian concept of an agrarian society. They viewed a central government as the enemy of individual liberty and they believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich. They sought to restore the independence of the individual--the artisan and the ordinary farmer--by ending federal support of banks and corporations and restricting the use of paper currency.
Jackson vetoed more legislation than all previous presidents combined. The long-term effect was to create the modern strong presidency. Jackson and his supporters also opposed reform as a movement. Reformers eager to turn their programs into legislation called for a more active government. However, Democrats tended to oppose programs like educational reform and the establishment of a public education system. They believed, for instance, that public schools restricted individual liberty by interfering with parental responsibility and undermined freedom of religion by replacing church schools.
Jackson looked at the Indian question in terms of military and legal policy, not as a problem due to their race. In 1813, Jackson adopted and treated as his own son a three-year-old Indian orphan—seeing in him a fellow orphan that was "so much like myself I feel an unusual sympathy for him". In legal terms, when it became a matter of state sovereignty versus tribal sovereignty he went with the states and moved the Indians to fresh lands with no white rivals in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Jackson fulfilled his promise of broadening the influence of the citizenry in government, although not without vehement controversy over his methods.
Jacksonian policies included ending the bank of the United States, expanding westward, and removingAmerican Indians from the Southeast. Jackson was denounced as a tyrant by opponents on both ends of the political spectrum such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. This led to the rise of the Whig Party.
Jackson created a spoils system to clear out elected officials in government of an opposing party and replace them with his supporters as a reward for their electioneering. With Congress controlled by his enemies, Jackson relied heavily on the power of the veto to block their moves.
One of the most important of these was the Maysville Road veto in 1830. A part of Clay's American System, the bill would have allowed for federal funding of a project to construct a road linking Lexington and the Ohio River, the entirety of which would be in the state of Kentucky, Clay's home state. His primary objection was based on the local nature of the project. He argued it was not the Federal government's job to fund projects of such a local nature and or those lacking a connection to the nation as a whole. The debates in Congress reflected two competing visions of federalism. The Jacksonians saw the union strictly as the cooperative aggregation of the individual states, while the Whigs saw the entire nation as a distinct entity.
In addition to Jackson, his second vice president and one of the key organizational leaders of the Jacksonian Democratic Party, Martin Van Buren, served as president. Van Buren was defeated in the next election by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died just 30 days into his term and his vice president John Tyler quickly reached accommodation with the Jacksonians. Tyler was then succeeded by James K. Polk, a Jacksonian who won the election of 1844 with Jackson's endorsement.Franklin Pierce had been a supporter of Jackson as well. James Buchanan served in Jackson's administration as Minister to Russia and as Polk's Secretary of State, but he did not pursue Jacksonian policies. Finally, Andrew Johnson, who had been a strong supporter of Jackson, became president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but by then Jacksonian democracy had been pushed off the stage of American politics.
- ^Engerman, pp. 15, 36. "These figures suggest that by 1820 more than half of adult white males were casting votes, except in those states that still retained property requirements or substantial tax requirements for the franchise – Virginia, Rhode Island (the two states that maintained property restrictions through 1840), and New York as well as Louisiana."
- ^Warren, Mark E. (1999). Democracy and Trust. Cambridge University Press. pp. 166–. ISBN 9780521646871.
- ^Robert V. Remini (2011). The Life of Andrew Jackson. HarperCollins. p. 307. ISBN 9780062116635.
- ^Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945)
- ^Engerman, p. 14. "Property- or tax-based qualifications were most strongly entrenched in the original thirteen states, and dramatic political battles took place at a series of prominent state constitutional conventions held during the late 1810s and 1820s."
- ^Engerman, pp. 16, 35. "By 1840, only three states retained a property qualification, North Carolina (for some state-wide offices only), Rhode Island, and Virginia. In 1856 North Carolina was the last state to end the practice. Tax-paying qualifications were also gone in all but a few states by the Civil War, but they survived into the 20th century in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island."
- ^Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2nd ed. 2009) p 29
- ^David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Manifest Destiny (Greenwood Press, 2003).
- ^M. Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Party System in the United States (1910)
- ^Forrest McDonald, States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (2002) pp 97-120
- ^William Trimble, "The social philosophy of the Loco-Foco democracy." American Journal of Sociology 26.6 (1921): 705-715. in JSTOR
- ^Louis Hartz, Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776–1860 (1948)
- ^Richard Hofstadter, "William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy." Political Science Quarterly 58.4 (1943): 581-594. in JSTOR.
- ^Lawrence H. White, "William Leggett: Jacksonian editorialist as classical liberal political economist." History of Political Economy 18.2 (1986): 307-324.
- ^Melvin I. Urofsky (2000). The American Presidents: Critical Essays. Taylor & Francis. p. 106. ISBN 9780203008805.
- ^Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War (1957)
- ^Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2009) ch 2
- ^Engerman, p. 8–9
- ^Murrin, John M.; Johnson, Paul E.; McPherson, James M.; Fahs, Alice; Gerstle, Gary (2012). Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (6th ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. p. 296. ISBN 978-0-495-90499-1.
- ^William G. Shade, "The Second Party System". in Paul Kleppner, et al. Evolution of American Electoral Systems (1983) pp 77-111
- ^Engerman, p. 35. Table 1
- ^William Preston Vaughn, The Anti-Masonic Party in the United States: 1826–1843 (2009)
- ^Richard P. McCormick, The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era (1966).
- ^Michael F. Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development: From the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln (1992).
- ^Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005).
- ^Mary Beth Norton; et al. (2014). A People and a Nation, Volume I: to 1877. Cengage Learning. p. 348. ISBN 9781285974675.
- ^Mary Beth Norton; et al. (2007). A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, Volume I: To 1877. Cengage Learning. p. 327. ISBN 0618947167.
- ^John Yoo, "Andrew Jackson and Presidential Power." Charleston Law Review 2 (2007): 521+ online.
- ^Prucha, Francis Paul (1969). "Andrew Jackson's Indian policy: a reassessment". Journal of American History. 56 (3): 527–539. JSTOR 1904204.
- ^Michael Paul Rogin (1991). Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. Transaction Publishers. p. 189. ISBN 9781412823470.
- ^Donald B. Cole, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (1993)
- ^Wulf, Naomi (2001). "'The Greatest General Good': Road Construction, National Interest, and Federal Funding in Jacksonian America". European Contributions to American Studies. 47: 53–72.
- ^"James K. Polk: Life in Brief". Miller Center. Archived from the original on June 13, 2016. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
References and bibliography
- Adams, Sean Patrick, ed. A Companion to the Era of Andrew Jackson (2013). table of contents
- Altschuler, Glenn C.; Blumin, Stuart M. (1997). "Limits of Political Engagement in Antebellum America: A New Look at the Golden Age of Participatory Democracy". Journal of American History. Organization of American Historians. 84 (3): 855–885 [p. 878–879]. doi:10.2307/2953083. JSTOR 2953083.
- Baker, Jean (1983). Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press. ISBN 0-585-12533-3.
- Benson, Lee (1961). The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case. New York: Atheneum. ISBN 0-691-00572-9. OCLC 21378753.
- Bugg, James L., Jr. (1952). Jacksonian Democracy: Myth or Reality?. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Short essays.
- Cave, Alfred A. (1964). Jacksonian Democracy and the Historians. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.
- Cole, Donald B. (1984). Martin Van Buren And The American Political System. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04715-4.
- Cole, Donald B. (1970). Jacksonian Democracy in New Hampshire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-46990-9. Uses quantitative electoral data.
- Cheathem, Mark R. and Terry Corps, eds. Historical Dictionary of the Jacksonian Era and Manifest Destiny (2nd ed. 2016), 544pp
- Engerman, Stanley L.; Sokoloff, Kenneth L. (2005). "The Evolution of Suffrage Institutions in the New World"(PDF): 14–16.
- Formisano, Ronald P. (1971). The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827-1861. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04605-0. Uses quantitative electoral data.
- Formisano, Ronald P. (1983). The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790s-1840s. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503124-5. Uses quantitative electoral data.
- Formisano, Ronald P. (1999). "The 'Party Period' Revisited". Journal of American History. Organization of American Historians. 86 (1): 93–120. doi:10.2307/2567408. JSTOR 2567408.
- Formisano, Ronald P. (1969). "Political Character, Antipartyism, and the Second Party System". American Quarterly. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 21 (4): 683–709. doi:10.2307/2711603. JSTOR 2711603.
- Formisano, Ronald P. (1974). "Deferential-Participant Politics: The Early Republic's Political Culture, 1789-1840". American Political Science Review. American Political Science Association. 68 (2): 473–487. doi:10.2307/1959497. JSTOR 1959497.
- Hammond, Bray (1958). Andrew Jackson's Battle with the "Money Power". Chapter 8, an excerpt from his Pulitzer-prize-winning Banks and Politics in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (1954).
- Hofstadter, Richard (1948). The American Political Tradition. Chapter on AJ.
- Hofstadter, Richard. "William Leggett: Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy." Political Science Quarterly 58#4 (December 1943): 581-94. in JSTOR
- Hofstadter, Richard (1969). The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840.
- Holt, Michael F. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505544-6.
- Holt, Michael F. (1992). Political Parties and American Political Development: From the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-1728-5.
- Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford History of the United States) (2009), Pulitzer Prize; surveys era from ant-Jacksonain perspective
- Howe, Daniel Walker (1991). "The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture during the Second Party System". Journal of American History. Organization of American Historians. 77 (4): 1216–1239. doi:10.2307/2078260. JSTOR 2078260.
- Kohl, Lawrence Frederick (1989). The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505374-5.
- Kruman, Marc W. (1992). "The Second American Party System and the Transformation of Revolutionary Republicanism". Journal of the Early Republic. Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. 12 (4): 509–537. doi:10.2307/3123876. JSTOR 3123876.
- Lane, Carl. "The Elimination of the National Debt in 1835 and the Meaning Of Jacksonian Democracy." Essays in Economic & Business History 25 (2007). online
- McCormick, Richard L. (1986). The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503860-6.
- McCormick, Richard P. (1966). The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Influential state-by-state study.
- McKnight, Brian D., and James S. Humphreys, eds. The Age of Andrew Jackson: Interpreting American History (Kent State University Press; 2012) 156 pages; historiography
- Mayo, Edward L. (1979). "Republicanism, Antipartyism, and Jacksonian Party Politics: A View from the Nation's Capitol". American Quarterly. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 31 (1): 3–20. doi:10.2307/2712484. JSTOR 2712484.
- Marshall, Lynn (1967). "The Strange Stillbirth of the Whig Party". American Historical Review. American Historical Association. 72 (2): 445–468. doi:10.2307/1859236. JSTOR 1859236.
- Myers, Marvin (1957). The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Pessen, Edward (1978). Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics.
- Pessen, Edward (1977). The Many-Faceted Jacksonian Era: New Interpretations. Important scholarly articles.
- Remini, Robert V. (1998). The Life of Andrew Jackson. Abridgment of Remini's 3-volume biography.
- Remini, Robert V. (1959). Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party.
- Rowland, Thomas J. Franklin B. Pierce: The Twilight of Jacksonian Democracy (Nova Science Publisher's, 2012).
- Sellers, Charles (1991). The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. Influential reinterpretation
- Shade, William G. "Politics and Parties in Jacksonian America," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 1986), pp. 483–507 online
- Shade, William G. (1983). "The Second Party System". In Kleppner, Paul; et al. Evolution of American Electoral Systems. Uses quantitative electoral data.
- Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr (1945). The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.
- Sellers, Charles (1958). "Andrew Jackson Versus the Historians". Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Organization of American Historians. 44 (4): 615–634. doi:10.2307/1886599. JSTOR 1886599.
- Sharp, James Roger (1970). The Jacksonians Versus the Banks: Politics in the States after the Panic of 1837. Uses quantitative electoral data.
- Silbey, Joel H. (1991). The American Political Nation, 1838-1893.
- Silbey, Joel H. (1973). Political Ideology and Voting Behavior in the Age of Jackson.
- Simeone, James. "Reassessing Jacksonian Political Culture: William Leggett's Egalitarianism." American Political Thought 4#3 (2015): 359-390. in JSTOR
- Syrett, Harold C. (1953). Andrew Jackson: His Contribution to the American Tradition.
- Taylor, George Rogers (1949). Jackson Versus Biddle: The Struggle over the Second Bank of the United States. Excerpts from primary and secondary sources.
- Van Deusen, Glyndon G. (1963). The Jacksonian Era: 1828-1848. Standard scholarly survey.
- Wallace, Michael (1968). "Changing Concepts of Party in the United States: New York, 1815-1828". American Historical Review. American Historical Association. 74 (2): 453–491. doi:10.2307/1853673. JSTOR 1853673.
Such tendentious revisionism may provide a useful corrective to older enthusiastic assessments, but it fails to capture a larger historical tragedy: Jacksonian Democracy was an authentic democratic movement, dedicated to powerful, at times radical, egalitarian ideals—but mainly for white men.
Socially and intellectually, the Jacksonian movement represented not the insurgency of a specific class or region but a diverse, sometimes testy national coalition. Its origins stretch back to the democratic stirrings of the American Revolution, the Antifederalists of the 1780s and 1790s, and the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans. More directly, it arose out of the profound social and economic changes of the early nineteenth century.
Recent historians have analyzed these changes in terms of a market revolution. In the Northeast and Old Northwest, rapid transportation improvements and immigration hastened the collapse of an older yeoman and artisan economy and its replacement by cash-crop agriculture and capitalist manufacturing. In the South, the cotton boom revived a flagging plantation slave economy, which spread to occupy the best lands of the region. In the West, the seizure of lands from Native Americans and mixed-blood Hispanics opened up fresh areas for white settlement and cultivation—and for speculation.
Not everyone benefited equally from the market revolution, least of all those nonwhites for whom it was an unmitigated disaster. Jacksonianism, however, would grow directly from the tensions it generated within white society. Mortgaged farmers and an emerging proletariat in the Northeast, nonslaveholders in the South, tenants and would-be yeomen in the West—all had reasons to think that the spread of commerce and capitalism would bring not boundless opportunities but new forms of dependence. And in all sections of the country, some of the rising entrepreneurs of the market revolution suspected that older elites would block their way and shape economic development to suit themselves.
By the 1820s, these tensions fed into a many-sided crisis of political faith. To the frustration of both self-made men and plebeians, certain eighteenth-century elitist republican assumptions remained strong, especially in the seaboard states, mandating that government be left to a natural aristocracy of virtuous, propertied gentlemen. Simultaneously, some of the looming shapes of nineteenth-century capitalism—chartered corporations, commercial banks, and other private institutions—presaged the consolidation of a new kind of moneyed aristocracy. And increasingly after the War of 1812, government policy seemed to combine the worst of both old and new, favoring the kinds of centralized, broad constructionist, top-down forms of economic development that many thought would aid men of established means while deepening inequalities among whites. Numerous events during and after the misnamed Era of Good Feelings—among them the neo-Federalist rulings of John Marshall’s Supreme Court, the devastating effects of the panic of 1819, the launching of John Quincy Adams’s and Henry Clay’s American System—confirmed a growing impression that power was steadily flowing into the hands of a small, self-confident minority.
Proposed cures for this sickness included more democracy and a redirection of economic policy. In the older states, reformers fought to lower or abolish property requirements for voting and officeholding, and to equalize representation. A new generation of politicians broke with the old republican animus against mass political parties. Urban workers formed labor movements and demanded political reforms. Southerners sought low tariffs, greater respect for states’ rights, and a return to strict constructionism. Westerners clamored for more and cheaper land and for relief from creditors, speculators, and bankers (above all, the hated Second Bank of the United States).
It has confounded some scholars that so much of this ferment eventually coalesced behind Andrew Jackson—a one-time land speculator, opponent of debtor relief, and fervent wartime nationalist. By the 1820s, however, Jackson’s personal business experiences had long since altered his opinions about speculation and paper money, leaving him eternally suspicious of the credit system in general and banks in particular. His career as an Indian fighter and conqueror of the British made him a popular hero, especially among land-hungry settlers. His enthusiasm for nationalist programs had diminished after 1815, as foreign threats receded and economic difficulties multiplied. Above all, Jackson, with his own hardscrabble origins, epitomized contempt for the old republican elitism, with its hierarchical deference and its wariness of popular democracy.
After losing the “corrupt bargain” presidential election of 1824, Jackson expanded upon his political base in the lower and mid-South, pulling together many strands of disaffection from around the country. But in successfully challenging President John Quincy Adams in 1828, Jackson’s supporters played mainly on his image as a manly warrior, framing the contest as one between Adams who could write and Jackson who could fight. Only after taking power did the Jacksonian Democracy refine its politics and ideology. Out of that self-definition came a fundamental shift in the terms of national political debate.
The Jacksonians’ basic policy thrust, both in Washington and in the states, was to rid government of class biases and dismantle the top-down, credit-driven engines of the market revolution. The war on the Second Bank of the United States and subsequent hard-money initiatives set the tone—an unyielding effort to remove the hands of a few wealthy, unelected private bankers from the levers of the nation’s economy. Under the Jacksonians, government-sponsored internal improvements generally fell into disfavor, on the grounds that they were unnecessary expansions of centralized power, beneficial mainly to men with connections. The Jacksonians defended rotation in office as a solvent to entrenched elitism. To aid hard-pressed farmers and planters, they pursued an unrelenting (some say unconstitutional) program of Indian removal, while backing cheap land prices and settlers’ preemption rights.
Around these policies, Jacksonian leaders built a democratic ideology aimed primarily at voters who felt injured by or cut off from the market revolution. Updating the more democratic pieces of the republican legacy, they posited that no republic could long survive without a citizenry of economically independent men. Unfortunately, they claimed, that state of republican independence was exceedingly fragile. According to the Jacksonians, all of human history had involved a struggle between the few and the many, instigated by a greedy minority of wealth and privilege that hoped to exploit the vast majority. And this struggle, they declared, lay behind the major problems of the day, as the “associated wealth” of America sought to augment its domination.
The people’s best weapons were equal rights and limited government—ensuring that the already wealthy and favored classes would not enrich themselves further by commandeering, enlarging, and then plundering public institutions. More broadly, the Jacksonians proclaimed a political culture predicated on white male equality, contrasting themselves with other self-styled reform movements. Nativism, for example, struck them as a hateful manifestation of elitist puritanism. Sabbatarians, temperance advocates, and other would-be moral uplifters, they insisted, should not impose righteousness on others. Beyond position-taking, the Jacksonians propounded a social vision in which any white man would have the chance to secure his economic independence, would be free to live as he saw fit, under a system of laws and representative government utterly cleansed of privilege.
As Jacksonian leaders developed these arguments, they roused a noisy opposition—some of it coming from elements of the coalition that originally elected Jackson president. Reactionary southern planters, centered in South Carolina, worried that the Jacksonians’ egalitarianism might endanger their own prerogatives—and perhaps the institution of slavery—if southern nonslaveholders carried them too far. They also feared that Jackson, their supposed champion, lacked sufficient vigilance in protecting their interests—fears that provoked the nullification crisis in 1832-1833 and Jackson’s crushing of extremist threats to federal authority. A broader southern opposition emerged in the late 1830s, mainly among wealthy planters alienated by the disastrous panic of 1837 and suspicious of Jackson’s successor, the Yankee Martin Van Buren. In the rest of the country, meanwhile, the Jacksonian leadership’s continuing hard-money, antibank campaigns offended more conservative men—the so-called Bank Democrats—who, whatever their displeasure with the Second Bank of the United States, did not want to see the entire paper money credit system dramatically curtailed.
The oppositionist core, however, came from a cross-class coalition, strongest in rapidly commercializing areas, that viewed the market revolution as the embodiment of civilized progress. Far from pitting the few against the many, oppositionists argued, carefully guided economic growth would provide more for everyone. Government encouragement—in the form of tariffs, internal improvements, a strong national bank, and aid to a wide range of benevolent institutions—was essential to that growth. Powerfully influenced by the evangelical Second Great Awakening, core oppositionists saw in moral reform not a threat to individual independence but an idealistic cooperative effort to relieve human degradation and further expand the store of national wealth. Eager to build up the country as it already existed, they were cool to territorial expansion. Angered by Jackson’s large claims for presidential power and rotation in office, they charged that the Jacksonians had brought corruption and executive tyranny, not democracy. Above all, they believed that personal rectitude and industriousness, not alleged political inequalities, dictated men’s failures or successes. The Jacksonians, with their spurious class rhetoric, menaced that natural harmony of interests between rich and poor which, if only left alone, would eventually bring widespread prosperity.
By 1840, both the Jacksonian Democracy and its opposite (now organized as the Whig party) had built formidable national followings and had turned politics into a debate over the market revolution itself. Yet less than a decade later, sectional contests linked to slavery promised to drown out that debate and fracture both major parties. In large measure, that turnabout derived from the racial exclusiveness of the Jacksonians’ democratic vision.
The Jacksonian mainstream, so insistent on the equality of white men, took racism for granted. To be sure, there were key radical exceptions—people like Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen—who were drawn to the Democracy’s cause. North and South, the democratic reforms achieved by plebeian whites—especially those respecting voting and representation—came at the direct expense of free blacks. Although informed by constitutional principles and genuine paternalist concern, the Jacksonian rationale for territorial expansion assumed that Indians (and, in some areas, Hispanics) were lesser peoples. As for slavery, the Jacksonians were determined, on both practical and ideological grounds, to keep the issue out of national affairs. Few mainstream Jacksonians had moral qualms about black enslavement or any desire to meddle with it where it existed. More important, they believed that the mounting antislavery agitation would distract attention from the artificial inequalities among white men and upset the party’s delicate intersectional alliances. Deep down, many suspected that the slavery issue was but a smokescreen thrown up by disgruntled elitists looking to regain the initiative from the real people’s cause.
Through the 1830s and 1840s, the mainstream Jacksonian leadership, correctly confident that their views matched those of the white majority, fought to keep the United States a democracy free from the slavery question—condemning abolitionists as fomenters of rebellion, curtailing abolitionist mail campaigns, enforcing the congressional gag rule that squelched debate on abolitionist petitions, while fending off the more extremist proslavery southerners. In all of this fighting, however, the Jacksonians also began to run afoul of their professions about white egalitarianism. Opposing antislavery was one thing; silencing the heretics with gag rules amounted to tampering with white people’s equal rights. More important, Jacksonian proexpansionism—what one friendly periodical, the Democratic Review boosted as “manifest destiny”—only intensified sectional rifts. Slaveholders, quite naturally, thought they were entitled to see as much new territory as legally possible opened up to slavery. But that prospect appalled northern whites who had hoped to settle in lily white areas, untroubled by that peculiar institution whose presence (they believed) would degrade the status of white free labor.
It would take until the 1850s before these contradictions fully unraveled the Jacksonian coalition. But as early as the mid-1840s, during the debates over Texas annexation, the Mexican War, and the Wilmot Proviso, sectional cleavages had grown ominous. The presidential candidacy of Martin Van Buren on the Free-Soil ticket in 1848—a protest against growing southern power within the Democracy—amply symbolized northern Democratic alienation. Southern slaveholder Democrats, for their part, began to wonder if anything short of positive federal protection for slavery would spell doom for their class—and the white man’s republic. In the middle remained a battered Jacksonian mainstream, ever hopeful that by raising the old issues, avoiding slavery, and resorting to the language of popular sovereignty, the party and the nation might be held together. Led by men like Stephen A. Douglas, these mainstream compromisers held sway into the mid-1850s, but at the cost of constant appeasement of southern concerns, further exacerbating sectional turmoil. Jacksonian Democracy was buried at Fort Sumter, but it had died many years earlier.
There was a grim, ironic justice to the Jacksonians’ fate. Having tapped into the disaffection of the 1820s and 1830s and molded it into an effective national party, they advanced the democratization of American politics. By denouncing the moneyed aristocracy and proclaiming the common man, they also helped politicize American life, broadening electoral participation to include an overwhelming majority of the electorate. Yet this very politicization would ultimately prove the Jacksonian Democracy’s undoing. Once the slavery issue entered the concerns of even a small portion of the electorate, it proved impossible to remove without trampling on some of the very egalitarian principles the Jacksonians were pledged to uphold.
None of this, however, should be a source of self-satisfaction to modern Americans. Although the Jacksonian Democracy died in the 1850s, it left a powerful legacy, entwining egalitarian aspirations and class justice with the presumptions of white supremacy. Over the decades after the Civil War, that legacy remained a bulwark of a new Democratic party, allying debt-ridden farmers and immigrant workers with the Solid South. The Second Reconstruction of the 1950s and 1960s forced Democrats to reckon with the party’s past—only to see party schismatics and Republicans pick up the theme. And at the close of the twentieth century, the tragic mix of egalitarianism and racial prejudice so central to the Jacksonian Democracy still infected American politics, poisoning some of its best impulses with some of its worst.