Andrew Jackson is the most significant political figure in American history, for under Jackson modern American government took shape. In the Jacksonian era the white middle class took power and has never relinquished it. Also under Jackson the modern Democratic party came to replace the Democratic-Republican party. These events ended government as envisioned by Jefferson, who had thought that the middle class would be radical in nature. The Age of Jackson is important for another reason. The rise of the middle class saw the end of the kinds of elites that had congregated in Philadelphia in 1776. The previously disenfranchised middle class voted for people more like themselves -- for those who would uphold their interests. This resulted in a group of leaders very different from the upper- class founding fathers -- a group of men who would do anything to avoid being thought aristocratic or elitist, or even non-middle class.



We have already discussed how in its early days the nation had limited the vote to the propertied classes. We also saw how Jefferson refused to help alter the situation. The growing conservative reaction to Jefferson ensured that actions extending the vote to other social classes would be delayed.


The Rise of the West

From its beginnings, the thirteen colonies had various areas known as the frontier. In the 1600s, the frontier was the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. By the early 1700s, inhabitants from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina advanced the frontier west by pushing through gaps in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains and moving into lands of the Ohio Valley. The French controlled much of this territory as well as western New York and Pennsylvania. The English took the land from France after the English victory in the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763.

In 1774 the British Parliament created the province of Quebec, which included America's future Northwest Territory. This act alienated the thirteen colonies by cutting off their hinterland. Reflecting the bitterness over this action, one of the first American campaigns in the Revolutionary War was against Canada. Thanks to the efforts of George Rogers Clark and a force from Virginia that swept through what today is Illinois and Indiana, the Americans took the Ohio Valley from the British. With a victory at Vincennes in 1779, Clark established American control of the entire area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

After the revolution, American settlers in great numbers moved into the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Thousands of people crossed the mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Ohio. The American government regulated the flow by passing two ordinances. The first was the Land Ordinance of 1785. It directed that the Northwest Territory be surveyed. The survey divided the area into sections with each section to be sold to one company of buyers. The government often agreed to sell the land to these companies for only a few cents an acre because the government needed money to operate. Land companies bought much of the land and later resold it in smaller lots.

The second ordinance, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, established the system of governance for the territory. This law directed that Congress name a governor, a secretary, and three judges to administer the area. It also set up the rules by which settlers could apply for statehood. Kentucky became a state in 1792, followed by Tennessee in 1796, and Ohio in 1803. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase further opened up western lands to settlement. With sustained migration to the west and south, a number of these territories, as well as other areas, applied for statehood: Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), Alabama (1819), Maine (1820), and Missouri (1821).

Along with the expansion of the West came the liberalization of voting laws. Back east, restrictions on suffrage had been steadily disappearing since the foundation of the government, but developments were slow indeed. The Constitution allowed each state to decide which of its citizens could vote. Older state laws had limited voting to white males who owned property. Moreover, there were often religious restrictions on voting.

Between 1812 and 1821, six western states entered the union with universal or near universal white manhood suffrage. The laws of the eastern states changed more slowly, but between 1810 and 1821 four of the older states dropped property qualifications. By 1850, all the states except North Carolina had eliminated property restrictions on voting. This liberalization of state voting laws definitely helped secure Jackson's presidential victory.

In addition to this voting liberalization, a significant change in the electoral system occurred. Previously, the presidency had been far removed from the control of the people. Candidates for president and vice-president had been selected by party leaders in closed meetings, or caucuses. Electors, picked by state governments, selected the president and vice-president from among the candidates. By the early 1830s, however, conventions nominated candidates, and citizens voted directly for presidential electors.

North and South

In New England and the Mid-Atlantic states economic development proceeded apace. Relatively large firms and banks developed with substantial funds and resources. As economic development continued, the differences between the two northern regions receded. Meanwhile, the South proceeded with its slave economy. Cotton had become "king" and the plantation system absolutely dominant. Thus, two regions -- one a developing capitalist economy, the other a slave economy -- dominated the United States. As the two regions proceeded in entirely different directions, the differences between the two systems became more and more obvious. The issue of slavery became so potentially divisive that the nation agreed to Senator Henry Clay's Missouri Compromise of 1820, which limited slavery to the area below the latitude of 36 degrees 30 minutes.

The North, especially New England, opposed the coming Jacksonian revolution. Rich merchants there did not look with favor on the liberalization of voting laws and the expansion of the West's political power. They saw these trends as a threat to their regional power. Their spokesman in Congress was the famous orator Daniel Webster (see Peterson 1987).

The South supported Andrew Jackson largely because he was seen as a counterweight to the power of the northern capitalists. But the region, although in the Jacksonian revolution, was not of it. The South, dominated by a landed oligarchy and fearful of less fortunate whites as well as slaves, was hardly likely to support wholeheartedly any movement that smacked of a "second revolution." Although the South would gladly condemn the New England economic and financial bullies, one could hardly expect that region to be in the forefront of a movement to increase equality. The great spokesman for the South was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. (Besides Jackson himself, the great spokesman for western interests was Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky.)

Other Jacksonians

While the West was growing in power, there was a slow rise in the power of the urban working class. This new class helped Jackson's cause in some of the Mid-Atlantic states. Especially crucial was the growth of Democratic strength in New York, particularly that of Tammany Hall in New York City. This party controlled the state for most of the time between 1825 and 1848 (Ellis et al. 1957:211).

Richard Hofstadter (1963) argued that the Jacksonian revolution was in great part caused by the revolt of the small capitalist and skilled craftsman. He noted that the movement was the reflection of the philosophy of a rising middle class that wanted to liberate business from large capitalists. There is some truth in this, but this group was hardly large enough to deserve equal credit with the rise of the West or even the rise of the working class.

An important trend benefiting the Democratic party was the increase in immigration. From 1820 to 1840, over 700,000 immigrants landed on the shores of the United States. Moreover, these immigrants differed from previous immigrant waves. Here was the first large-scale immigration of non-Protestants, with a large proportion of Irish Catholics. Many of these new immigrants became solid Democratic party loyalists.

During this period, many Germans also arrived. An important difference between the Germans and the Irish was that the Germans had enough money to buy farm properties and accordingly dispersed throughout the nation. The Irish had less money and settled in the cities. This brought a new challenge to America. The response was largely set by racism. The immigrants came into the country without the benefits of any planning for their care and advancement. (There were, however, many liberal reform movements at this time set off by the desire to lessen the terrible social consequences of ignoring the immigrants.) Receiving little help, the Irish had to work their way up the ladder of success gradually. Yet the Irish, like all white immigrant groups, rose above black Americans. The skin color of the Irish assured them of higher status than black Americans.

In contrast to the many reform movements, there was one movement that was openly hostile to the new immigrants: the nativists. There were violent clashes between the Irish and nativist groups. In the 1850s the nativists formed a national party formally called the American party, but popularly known as the Know-Nothings. The name originated because when asked about opposition to immigrants, its members answered: "I know nothing." Only the slavery issue was able to push this nativist party into the background.


Panic of 1819

Schlesinger (1953:31) wrote that the scarcity of money during the War of 1812 and the inflationary policies of the Second United States Bank in the first few years after 1816 caused the spread of banks in Kentucky, Tennessee, and other western states. With the depression of 1819, however, the main bank reversed its policies and contracted. Specie flowed out of the West, leaving a trail of bankruptcies and a large debtor population.

The panic that resulted hit the South and West hard. Through foreclosures, many eastern banks came to own great tracts of land in these areas. The West began to feel that eastern institutions hampered the region's economic development. While the South would not talk about revolutionary change, the West did not have such inhibitions.

Since the Democratic-Republican candidate James Monroe ran unopposed for the presidency in 1820, there was little hope for relief from competing political parties. So westerners turned toward the states. Class conflict became the order of the day in state governments and many states passed "relief" legislation (e.g., stop laws, stays of execution, and replevin acts) and established state banks to issue millions of dollars in paper. The end result was considerable inflation. This provided some relief for debtors; their incomes increased to keep up with inflation, but their debts stayed the same.

In 1823 the Kentucky Court of Appeals declared the relief system unconstitutional. The reaction against this ruling was electorally decisive; the Relief party won a substantial victory in the 1824 election. In Tennessee the courts were flooded with suits for debt. A one-time resident of Kentucky, Felix Grundy, championed the less fortunate and ran for state senator on a relief platform (Perkins 1967:chapter 5). Once elected, he pushed for a state bank. General William Carroll became the governor of the state and introduced a great deal of progressive legislation to relieve the pressure on the less fortunate. Similar stories could be told about other western states. The benefactor of all this unrest was Andrew Jackson because the Jacksonian revolution coalesced these state movements into a national movement.

The Early Role of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was a somewhat reluctant participant in the Jacksonian revolution. This was partly because he was a man of divided opinions on the subject of expanded democracy. This division can be traced in his personal story (told by Hofstadter 1963). Jackson had gone to Philadelphia in order to sell his several thousand acres of land to a rich merchant and speculator, David Allison. The Tennessean wanted to open a general merchandise store in Nashville. Jackson accepted notes from Allison in order to buy the supplies he needed to start his store. Unfortunately, Allison's business failed, and he defaulted on the notes, leaving Jackson liable. Unable to pay the notes, Jackson had to give up his estate and sell many of his slaves. Indeed, the unfortunate man was in debt from 1796 to 1815.

Jackson painfully worked his way back to economic health. On recovery, he began to speculate in land. Just at this vulnerable time, the panic of 1819 hit, and he found himself once again with serious money problems. He struck back, suing 129 of his debtors in one massive lawsuit. Given his economic situation, it is no wonder that in his home state the future president sided with the opponents of the progressive Felix Grundy and Governor Carroll.

This biographical description of Jackson does not seem to fit the man for whom a great democratic era took its name. But Jackson's attitude changed with the 1824 election.


The Jacksonians gradually developed a rationale for democracy that was "a congeries of assumptions, attitudes, and opinions meant to explain and promote the rise of the common man" (Curti 1982:28). Whereas Jefferson saw suffrage as a privilege, restricted mostly to those with an economic stake in the society, Jackson believed it was the right of every white man. Many Jacksonians used the principle of laissez-faire to justify the egalitarian drive. They felt that perfectly free competition would eventually lead to a condition of equality of wealth (Curti 1982:292-293). Jacksonians also employed the ideas of Romanticism because this movement idealized the common folk (Curti 1982:296).

An additional source of support for Jackson came from New England intellectuals and writers who attacked the harsher aspects of Puritanism in a period known as the "Flowering of New England." (This period also saw the related flowering of Unitarianism, a religion that remained popular long enough to help cool the fires of Puritanism.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and many others wrote magnificently in order to make American puritanism less harsh and judgmental. In doing so they also spread the Jacksonian revolution because their Romantic philosophy of transcendentalism glorified all men.

The Second Great Awakening

The new era of the common man let loose a whole set of religious reform movements: revivals such as those of Charles Finney; religious groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; and the Chataqua movement. But the largest group, and one that was especially attractive to westerners, was Methodism.

Methodism started with the English Wesley brothers, who had been brought up in the Anglican faith. At Oxford University the brothers joined a group that concentrated on rigorous expressions of a version of Anglo Catholicism. They were dubbed Methodists, and the name stuck. In 1735 George Whitefield, the future leader of the Great Awakening in America, became a member of the same group.

The Wesley brothers preached in America but their religion was seen as too "High Church." On board ship to America and later in the Georgia colony, John Wesley came into contact with travelers who were followers of the Moravians and the Salzburgers. German pietism also greatly influenced him. Once back in England, the brothers started the "evangelical revival" in Britain. The message was reformed and puritan in many of its major themes and in its stress on morality. John Wesley's most original contribution to Protestant theology was his doctrine of Christian perfection, the belief that one could be saved by grace through the power of faith (Ahlstrom 1972:436-437). This doctrine especially appealed to many common people.

No group prospered more in the West than the Methodists (see Ahlstrom 1972:436-437). What really helped the spread of the new religion was its interest in the common man. Methodists even recruited their ministry from among the common people. With a preaching style that was simple, direct, and forceful, Methodist ministers reduced the religious message to simple terms that appealed to the masses. Methodism, along with Baptism, also rapidly spread in the South. The success of Methodism is remarkable. It began its independent American history in 1784, but quickly built up a web of preaching circuits that covered almost the entire country. Membership grew from fewer than 2,700 in 1800 to over 30,000 in 1812 and 175,000 by 1830. By 1844, when the church split into north and south divisions, the Methodists had become the most numerous religious body in America with more than a million members. Even in New England it proved popular, becoming the second largest denomination there.

It seems needless to stress that the Jacksonian movement was almost solidly racist. The movement concerned itself only with the equality of white men, never considering the possibility that blacks might also be worthy of the vote. But this is the point of the book. Successful political movements in America are either conservatively or liberally racist. No solidly non-racist political ideology has ever been successful in America, which still is thoroughly racist.

White reformers, of course, rejected radical alternatives or extensions to the Jacksonian reforms (Allen 1974:13-14). For instance, Jacksonians certainly never consorted with the Negro Convention Movement. This movement grew out of the response to the 1816 formation of the American Colonization Society, which advocated the deporting of free blacks. This beginning of organized black abolitionism in the nation created such outstanding black spokespersons as Richard Allen and Henry Highland Garnet. The movement also influenced the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In 1832 white and black abolitionists formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which was the first organized group to call for the immediate abolition of slavery without any compensation to the slaveowners. The following year the abolitionists organized the American Anti-Slavery Society. The white middle class largely ignored these organizations, and, even within the abolition movement, tensions were high between white and black advocates of change (Allen 1974:18).


John Quincy Adams and the Election of 1824

In the 1824 election the nation's increasing sectionalism became manifest. Andrew Jackson received a plurality of the popular vote, but since there were four candidates, he did not receive a clear majority. The House of Representatives decided the election outcome, giving the nod to John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. The election outcome was primarily the result of candidate Henry Clay's throwing his support to Adams. Adams in turn named Clay secretary of state.

Jackson felt he had been robbed of the election, declaring the Clay-Adams agreement a "corrupt bargain." He attributed the agreement to the corruption of power, feeling the Democratic-Republican party had grown corrupt and unfeeling because it had no political opposition. This set the ground for the Jacksonian formation of the Democratic party from elements of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican party. The new party was a major step to the ascendancy to full power of the white middle class.

The Elections of 1828 and 1832

Jackson's interpretation of the political situation as the result of the corruption of a one party system and not a result of class and regional conflict increased his appeal to a variety of groups. In the 1828 election campaign, the Democrats' main attack was against Adams for being a closet aristocrat. Jackson successfully won the presidency, the victory marking the recognition of the expansion of democracy to many groups previously disenfranchised.

Jackson served two terms as president. His distrust of the national bank, which he shared with the West, marked his administrations. His main political target was the Second Bank of the United States. The president went after bank president Nicholas Biddle with a vengeance, but because the administration restricted credit too severely, by 1837 it had brought about a short-lived but severe depression. A bout of inflation then hit. This made for a rough presidential term for Jackson's hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, elected in 1836.

Another challenge for Jackson was the threat of secession by the South. This incident illustrates both the continuing regional tensions in the nation and the president's strong willed nature. Upset by the negative impact of the 1828 protective tariff on the economy of South Carolina, leaders of that state seriously talked about applying a doctrine of nullification that would give states the right to declare federal laws unconstitutional and prevent their enforcement within state boundaries. This crisis passed, but southern tempers grew hotter when Senator Henry Clay pushed through an 1832 tariff bill. In response, South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification that both forbade federal officers from collecting customs duties and threatened secession if force were used. Jackson's response (unlike the presidents that followed him) was immediate and decisive. He reinforced Forts Moultrie and Sumter in Charleston, told revenue cutters to collect duties if South Carolinians prevented customs officials from doing so, and told would-be rebels that states do not possess any right to secede. He signed a bill that authorized the use of the military to collect customs duties if need be. Force was not needed, however, as both sides compromised on the tariff issue, and South Carolina repealed the nullification ordinance.


Prior to Jackson, Congress had considerable power in relation to the presidency. For instance, President Madison was not able to maintain the power over the House that Jefferson had (Boinville 1982:104, 109). Instead, he lost control to a group of representatives known as young "war hawks" (including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun), who eventually pushed the nation into the War of 1812 against England. Compared to the Senate, the House had the dominant position during the Speakership of Henry Clay (1811-1820, 1823- 1825).

Jackson turned the situation around, gaining unprecedented power over Congress. His main weapons were the presidential veto and the removal and patronage powers of his office. Jackson's assault on Congress helped convince Clay, Webster, and Calhoun to move to the Senate. The so-called Golden Age of the Senate (1829-1861) dawned with the great antislavery debates. The Senate with its longer term and more stable membership was able to resist Jackson more than the House. The president met vigorous opposition from the new Whig party. A showdown over a censure resolution against Jackson led to a struggle for power in which Jackson gained control toward the end of his second term (Boinville 1982:217). Thereafter the Senate took a back seat to presidents until the start of the Civil War.

Potter (1972:15) writes that by the time of Jackson the national system of legislation had grown so complex and opportunities for obstruction so extensive that the respective political parties became the real power brokers. Decisions were made primarily in party caucuses. Indeed, no effective action could be taken without the involvement of the caucuses. Andrew Jackson changed all this (Remini 1976:174-178). He transformed the United States from an elitist republic into a democracy representative of the white male middle class. In order to do so, he had to augment the powers of the presidency. Through his boldness he made the president the leader of the nation, the one who formulates national issues and sets priorities for the American people. He made the president the actual head of the government, and in so doing, "Old Hickory" established the fundamental political pattern for the American future.

Turning to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Marshall opposed the Jacksonian revolution, believing that the new democracy represented rule by the "mob." Obviously, the Court was out of step with the new age; it reflected the past, Federal era, not the age of the common man.

In all, Jackson was able to appoint six justices, more than any president since Washington and not surpassed until Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. Marshall died in 1835. Jackson named as his successor Roger B. Taney of Maryland. Taney's reputation will be forever tarnished by the Dred Scott decision), which left him with the label of bigot and protector of slavery. But the Taney Court did support the Jacksonian fight against the property rights emphasized by the Federalists and then the Whigs. For instance, the Taney Court developed the idea of police power (see Schwartz 1974:57). This doctrine held that the community or state had the power of policing property rights in order to control them in the name of the public interest. Community rights were held to be paramount to private rights. This gave the federal government the clear-cut power to proceed with internal improvements, such as public construction of roads, bridges, and canals.



The depression of 1837 swamped Martin van Buren's presidency and led to considerable political opposition to him. His opponents were those hurt by and opposed to Jacksonian policies. These included victims of the depression and the war on the bank; southerners offended by Jackson's support of the union; and even many westerners, who felt that they could get a better land deal from someone other than a Jacksonian. And, of course, many northerners did not like the Jackson's West-South coalition. Southerners especially had become more conservative. After the rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831, the South became increasingly paranoid and intolerant. Where once black slaves could worship in their separate churches, the whites now forced them to worship in white churches where the whites could keep an eye on the reluctant slaves.

The depression caused by the constant fights over the Bank of the United States not only ruined Van Buren's presidency but encouraged the rise of conservatism. An important demographic trend was the push still farther west. This shifted attention away from egalitarian trends to considerations of what to do about the Mexican barrier to territorial expansion.


Following the passing of Jackson, the ideas of states' rights and sectionalism came to dominate conservative circles and the nation itself. There were only a handful of critics of the growing emphasis on patriotism and nationalism (Henry David Thoreau and James Russell Lowell among them). But growing sectionalism, especially in the South, drowned out these voices as virtually everyone began to think in sectional terms.


The Jacksonians had created too many enemies and the voters looked for a change. In 1840 they elected the Whig candidate General William Henry Harrison, the war hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. The vice-presidential nominee was John Tyler, hence the campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too." Unfortunately for the Whigs, old Tippecanoe died of pneumonia and congestion of the liver after just one month in office. Tyler succeeded to the presidency. Henry Clay tried to usurp the power of the new president with virtual war breaking out between Tyler and Clay. In this battle, Tyler went over to the Democrats.

In 1845 still another Democrat, the slaveholder James K. Polk of Tennessee, became president. The story behind the selection of Polk by the Democrats is an interesting one that shows the power of the South. In 1832 the Democrats established a convention rule that a vote of two-thirds of the delegates was needed to win a nomination. Southern Democrats used this rule to prevent Van Buren from gaining the Democratic nomination, even after he had attained a majority in the convention of 1844. The South was thus able to bring about the nomination of Polk. This election in turn made it possible to add the slave state of Texas to the union.

The issue of territorial expansion into Texas dominated Polk's administration. This expansion eventually forced the nation to face the question whether or not slavery should extend into the territories. This question was so divisive that the nation elected a series of conservative presidents who were prominent for their delaying tactics on the issue: General Zachary Taylor (with Millard Fillmore assuming the presidency on Taylor's death) in 1848; Franklin Pierce in 1852; and James Buchanan in 1856.


Back to Main Page Table of Contents

Return to Home Page