The party that Andrew Jackson founded during his presidency called itself the American Democracy. In those same years, changes in electoral rules and campaign styles were making the country's political ethos more democratic than it previously had been. Both circumstances combined to fix the identity of this era in Americans' historical memory as the age of Jacksonian Democracy.
The currency of this label began with contemporaries. During the years 1831 and 1832, the Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville toured the United States. His classic Democracy in America identified democracy and equality as salient national traits. Tocqueville saw America as "the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions." To Tocqueville and other visitors, both favorable and critical, the United States represented the democratic, egalitarian future, Europe the aristocratic past. Not surprisingly, Andrew Jackson's partisans (and some sympathetic historians) were eager to appropriate this identity exclusively to themselves, counterposing their Democracy's democracy to the opposing Whig party's "aristocracy." This identification, however, should not be accepted uncritically.
The Jacksonian Democratic Party
The Democratic party and its program emerged in stages out of the largely personal following that had elected Andrew Jackson President in 1828. As progressively defined by Jackson during his two terms, the party's outlook was essentially laissez-faire. Anointing themselves as Thomas Jefferson's true heirs, Democrats stood for simple, frugal, and unintrusive government. They opposed government spending and government favoritism, especially in the form of corporate charters for banks and other enterprises. They claimed that all such measures invariably aided the rich, the privileged, and the idle—the aristocracy—against the humble yet meritorious ordinary working people. Again following Jefferson, the Democrats espoused anticlericalism and rigorous separation of church and state. At a time of great evangelical fervor, Democrats stood aloof from the nation's powerful interdenominational (but primarily Presbyterian-Congregational) benevolent and philanthropic associations; and they denounced the intrusion into politics of religious crusades such as Sabbatarianism, temperance, and abolitionism. Democrats thus garnered adherents among religious dissenters and minorities, from Catholics to freethinkers.
Under Jackson and his successor Van Buren, Democrats pioneered in techniques of party organization and discipline, which they justified as a means of securing popular ascendancy over the aristocrats. To nominate candidates and adopt platforms, Democrats perfected a pyramidal structure of local, state, and national committees, caucuses, and conventions. These ensured coordinated action and supposedly reflected opinion at the grass roots, though their movements in fact were often directed from Washington. The "spoils system" of government patronage inaugurated by Jackson inspired activity and instilled discipline within party ranks.
Jackson and the Democrats cast their party as the embodiment of the people's will, the defender of the common man against the Whig "aristocracy." The substance behind this claim is still in dispute. After the War of 1812, constitutional changes in the states had broadened the participatory base of politics by erasing traditional property requirements for suffrage and by making state offices and presidential electors popularly elective. By the time Jackson was elected, nearly all white men could vote and the vote had gained in power. In 1812, only half the states chose presidential electors by popular vote; by 1832, all did except South Carolina. Jackson and the Democrats benefited from and capitalized upon these changes, but in no sense did they initiate them.
The presence of a class component in Jacksonian parties, setting Democratic plain farmers and workers against the Whig bourgeoisie or business elite, is argued to this day. One can read Democratic hosannas to the plain people as a literal description of their constituency or as artful propaganda. Once the popular Jackson left the scene, the two parties were very nearly equal in their bases of popular support. Presidential elections through the 1840s were among the closest in history, while party control of Congress passed back and forth.
Close competition and nearly universal white-male suffrage turned political campaigns into a combination of spectator sport and participatory street theater. Whigs as well as Democrats championed the common man and marshaled the masses at barbeques and rallies. Both parties appealed to ordinary voters with riveting stump speeches and by crafting candidates into folk heroes. Whigs answered the popularity of "Old Hickory" Andrew Jackson, hero of New Orleans, with figures like "Old Tippecanoe" William Henry Harrison, victor of the rousing "log cabin" presidential campaign of 1840. With both parties chasing every vote, turnout rates spiraled up toward 80 per cent of the eligible electorate by 1840.
The Democratic Spirit of the Age
Looking beyond the white male electorate, many of the Democrats' postures seem profoundly anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic, judged not only by a modern standard but against the goals of the burgeoning humanitarian and reform movements of that time. On the whole, Democrats were more aggressively anti-abolitionist than Whigs, and they generally outdid them in justifying and promoting ethnic, racial, and sexual exclusion and subordination. Jackson's original political base had been in the South. In the 1830s and 1840s, the two parties competed on nearly even terms throughout the country, but in the next decade the Democracy would return to its sectional roots as the party of slaveholders and their northern sympathizers.
Yet even if Jackson's Democrats had no exclusive hold on democratic principles, they still partook of the spirit of a democatic age. As Tocqueville famously observed, "the people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe. They are the cause and the aim of all things; everything comes from them, and everything is absorbed in them." To Tocqueville, Americans' energetic voluntarism, their enthusiasm for societies, associations, reforms, and crusades, their vibrant institutions of local government, the popular style and leveling spirit of their manners, customs, pastimes, art, literature, science, religion, and intellect, all marked democracy's pervasive reign.
From this perspective, the fact that Andrew Jackson—a rough-hewn, poorly educated, self-made frontiersman—could ascend to the presidency mattered more than the policies he embraced. His rhetorical championship of the plain people against the aristocrats, whatever its substance or sincerity, was itself the sign and harbinger of a massive social shift toward democracy, equality, and the primacy of the common man. Jackson stands in this light not as the leader of a party, but as the symbol for a democratic age.
Jacksonian DemocratsHistorical leadersAndrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren
James K. Polk
Thomas Hart Benton
Stephen A. DouglasFounded1825 (1825)Dissolved1854 (1854)Split fromDemocratic-Republican PartyPreceded byJeffersonian Republicans
Old RepublicansMerged intoDemocratic PartyIdeologyAgrarianism
Universal white male suffrage
• Strict constructionismNational affiliationDemocratic Party (after 1828)Colors Blue
Jacksonian Era1825–1849 President(s)John Quincy Adams
Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
James K. PolkKey eventsTrail of Tears
Second Great Awakening
Prelude to the Civil War
Jacksonian democracy was a 19th-century political philosophy in the United States that expanded suffrage to most white men over the age of 21, and restructured a number of federal institutions. Originating with the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson and his supporters, it became the nation's dominant political worldview for a generation. The term itself was in active use by the 1830s.
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 with the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854 and the political repercussions of the American Civil War dramatically reshaped American politics. It emerged when the long-dominant Democratic-Republican Party became factionalized around the 1824 United States presidential election. Jackson's supporters began to form the modern Democratic Party. His political rivals John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay created the National Republican Party, which would afterward combine with other anti-Jackson political groups to form the Whig Party.
Broadly speaking, the era was characterized by a democratic spirit. It 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 which the Jacksonians celebrated. Jacksonian democracy also promoted the strength of the presidency and the executive branch at the expense of the United States 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 expansionism, 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 European Americans, and voting rights were extended to adult white males only. There was little or no change, and in many cases a reduction of the rights of African Americans and Native Americans during the extensive period of Jacksonian democracy, spanning from 1829 to 1860.
Historian Robert V. Remini, in 1999, stated that Jacksonian Democracy involved the belief that the people are sovereign, that their will is absolute and that the majority rules.
William S. Belko, in 2015, summarized "the core concepts underlying Jacksonian Democracy" as:
Historian and social critic Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. argued in 1945 that Jacksonian democracy was built on the following:
Election by the "common man"
An important movement in the period from 1800 to 1830—before the Jacksonians were organized—was the gradual expansion of the right to vote from only property owning men to include all white men over 21. Older states with property restrictions dropped them, namely 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 any resident 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.
More former Democratic-Republicans supported Jackson, while others such as Henry Clay opposed him. More 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—a fusion of the National Republicans and other anti-Jackson parties—politically battled it out nationally and in every state.
Founding of the Democratic Party
1837 cartoon playing on "Jackson" and "jackass", showing the Democratic Party as a donkey, which has remained its popular symbol into the 21st century
The spirit of Jacksonian democracy animated the party that formed around him, 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 poor farmers, city-dwelling laborers and Irish Catholics.
The new party was pulled together by Martin Van Buren in 1828 as Jackson crusaded on claims of corruption by 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:
The platforms, speeches and editorials were founded upon a broad consensus among Democrats. As Norton et al. explain:
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. For instance, they believed 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 forced the Indians to fresh lands with no white rivals in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Among the leading followers was Stephen A. Douglas, senator from Illinois, who was the key player in the passage of the compromise of 1850, and was a leading contender for the 1852 Democratic presidential nomination. According to his biographer Robert W. Johanssen:
A Democratic cartoon from 1833 shows Jackson destroying the Bank with his "Order for the Removal", to the annoyance of Bank President Nicholas Biddle, shown as the Devil himself. Numerous politicians and editors who were given favorable loans from the Bank run for cover as the financial temple crashes down. A famous fictional character, Major Jack Downing (right), cheers: "Hurrah! Gineral!"
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 removing American 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.
Carl Lane argues "securing national debt freedom was a core element of Jacksonian democracy". Paying off the national debt was a high priority which would make a reality of the Jeffersonian vision of America truly free from rich bankers, self-sufficient in world affairs, virtuous at home, and administered by a small government not prone to financial corruption or payoffs.
What became of Jacksonian Democracy, according to Sean Wilentz was diffusion. Many ex-Jacksonians turned their crusade against the Money Power into one against the Slave Power and became Republicans. He points to the struggle over the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, the Free Soil Party revolt of 1848, and the mass defections from the Democrats in 1854 over the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Other Jacksonian leaders such as Chief Justice Roger B. Taney endorsed slavery through the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Southern Jacksonians overwhelmingly endorsed secession in 1861, apart from a few opponents led by Andrew Johnson. In the North, Jacksonians Martin Van Buren, Stephen A. Douglas and the War Democrats fiercely opposed secession, while Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and the Copperheads did not.
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. He helped shape modern presidential campaign organizations and methods.
Van Buren was defeated in 1840 by Whig 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.
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