Jacksonian Democracy

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Andrew Jackson

The Era of Andrew Jackson is often equated with a rise in voter participation among everyday Americans and with establishing a blueprint for a democratic society.

The Jacksonian Era is often identified with the political rise of the common man in America, representing a time of significant changes in political participation affecting more voters than ever before. In the years preceding Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1828, laws were changed allowing all male citizens to vote, not just those with property.

Additionally, Jackson himself characterized the common man, a product of the frontier who despised the trappings of wealthy establishment power brokers. For the first time in American history, Jackson’s leadership and policies helped to usher in a “general equality of condition among peoples…” according to Alexis de Tocqueville.

Andrew Jackson as the Champion of the Common Man

Jackson was recognized as a leader among everyday Americans before he took the oath of office, a fact demonstrated by the more than 20,000 people, mostly from the newly emerging states, that came to Washington City for the inauguration. Their arrival, according to the scions of the Virginia Dynasty circle, was compared to the invasion of Rome by the barbarians.

One of Jackson’s goals was to kill the Bank of the United States, rechartered after the War of 1812. Jackson’s hatred of banks was partly traced to losses he suffered as a younger man when banks failed. For Jackson, the national bank was the “great whore of Babylon” and he identified it with the bankers and financiers that made fortunes manipulating the poor. His reelection bid in 1836 was a national referendum on the bank and he won.

Although it was an age of democracy, it was, as de Tocqueville put it, “wild” democracy, exacerbated by the economic highs and the lows, the cycles between profit and panic. In 1945, New Deal historian Arthur Schlesinger published The Age of Jackson. In many ways, Franklin Roosevelt was an archetype of Schlesinger’s Jackson. Both men appealed strongly to the common man; both men had powerful enemies among the political, religious, and social elites.

Jackson’s Religious Conviction

John Quincy Adams, the preceding president, had been a Unitarian. Jackson’s religious beliefs were born out of frontier evangelical revivalism. He freely quoted the scriptures and had a literal interpretation of the Bible. His speeches and letters – even his outbursts, are peppered with Biblical references. Yet, as historian James Morone points out, these convictions did not extend to Native Americans or to slaves. In some ways a paradox, Morone writes that “rising democracy unleashed racial demons” and “…pushed a…genocidal Indian war…”

This was the great contradiction between the frenzy of democracy and the realities of American life. It would be a contradiction lasting throughout the century. While the Civil War amendments to the Constitution granted freedom from slavery and political rights, they ignored social equality. Abraham Lincoln was one of the few to see this and used the age of Jackson to illustrate the contradiction.

The Blueprints of Expanding Democracy

Jacksonian democracy ushered in the extensive use of newspapers that spoke for politicians and swayed the public. Candidates and parties frequently bought newspapers for this purpose. National nominating conventions, campaign managers, and strong political machines developed. The Jackson years fostered a two-party system that is still there today. Additionally, increased political awareness by everyday Americans frequently caused the birth of third parties, usually devoted to single issues.

De Tocqueville traced the democratic phenomenon to the town meetings of New England. Even in 2009, this aspect of democracy in action has been seen to play a significant role in conveying constituent concerns to members of Congress. Further, the expansion of democracy was tied to individualism, a singular feature of American life. Jacksonian democracy gave Americans a long-lasting foundation toward building, ultimately, the most inclusive and egalitarian society on earth.

Sources:

  1. James A. Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (Yale University Press, 2003)
  2. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Volume Four (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)