Jacksonian Democracy

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JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY. The phrase "Jacksonian Democracy" has a dual and ambiguous meaning. In its narrower sense, it denotes both the political party organized under Andrew Jackson, which called itself the American Democracy, and the program espoused by that party. The broader connotation, taking its cue from Alexis de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America (1835), suggests an ethos and an era: the flowering of the democratic spirit in American life around the time of Jackson's presidency. Tocqueville toured the United States in 1831–1832, and found there "the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions." To Tocqueville and other commentators, both favorable and critical, the United States represented the democratic, egalitarian future, Europe the aristocratic past. Andrew Jackson's partisans (and some sympathetic historians) appropriated this broader meaning to themselves, counterposing the Democratic Party's democracy to the opposing Whig Party's "aristocracy." But this identification 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 elected Andrew Jackson president in 1828. The core issues through which the party defined its membership and philosophy concerned economic policy. As fully developed by the end of the 1830s, the Democratic outlook was essentially laissez-faire. Deeming themselves preservers of the Jeffersonian legacy, Democrats demanded simple, frugal, and unintrusive government. They opposed protective tariffs along with federal (and often state) bank charters and internal improvement projects. As president, Jackson articulated this policy through a series of vetoes, most notably the Maysville Road in 1830 and the Bank of the United States in 1832. In official messages, he cast himself as protector of "the humbler members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers" against moneyed, privileged interests seeking to turn the public powers of government to unfair private advantage. In Jackson's reading, tariffs, public works, and corporate charters (especially of banks, whose right of note issue gave them tremendous leverage over credit and the currency) were all devices to siphon wealth from the poor to the rich and to steal power from the many to benefit the few.

Again following Jeffersonian tradition, the Democratic Party embraced anticlericalism and rigorous separation of church and state. Democrats resisted the hegemonizing impulses of 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 adviser and successor Martin Van Buren, Democrats pioneered in techniques of party organization and discipline, which they justified as a means of securing the people's ascendancy over the aristocrats. To nominate candidates and adopt platforms, Democrats perfected a pyramidal structure of local, state, and national party conventions, caucuses, and commit-tees. These ensured coordinated action and supposedly reflected opinion at the grass roots, though their movements in fact were often directed from Washington. Jackson practiced "rotation in office"—the periodic replacement of government officials, often on partisan criteria—and defended it as offering the chance for employment to all citizens alike and thus forestalling the creation of an officeholding elite. His followers frankly employed the spoils of office as rewards for party workers.

Jackson and the Democrats cast their party as the embodiment of the popular will, the defender of the common man against the Whig "aristocracy." The substance behind this claim is still hotly disputed. After the War of 1812, constitutional changes in the states had broadened the participatory base of politics by easing property requirements for suffrage and making state offices and presidential electors popularly elective. By 1828, when Jackson was first elected president, nearly all white men could vote, and the vote had gained in power. Jackson and his partisans benefited from and capitalized upon these changes, but they in no sense initiated them.

The presence of a class component in Jacksonian parties, setting Democratic plain farmers and workers against the Whig bourgeoisie or business elite, has been often asserted and as often denied. Some historians read Democratic paeans to the plain people as a literal description of their constituency. Others dismiss them as artful propaganda.

Sophisticated efforts to quantify class divisions in politics through electoral data have yielded uncertain results. While Democrats usually marshaled a slightly larger (and better organized) following than the Whigs, clearly the latter too had a mass popular appeal. Whether Democratic laissez-faire policies actually worked to the benefit of their claimed plebeian constituency has also been questioned.

Looking beyond the white male electorate, many of the Democrats' postures seem profoundly antiegalitarian and antidemocratic, judged not only by a modern standard but against the goals of the burgeoning humanitarian and reform movements of their own day. On the whole, Democrats were more aggressively anti-abolitionist and racist than Whigs, acting to suppress antislavery's intrusion into politics and to curtail the liberties of free blacks. Jackson's original core constituency was southern. At their competitive height in the 1840s, the two parties were nearly evenly matched throughout the country, but in the 1850s, Jacksonian Democracy would return to its sectional roots as the party of slaveholders and their northern sympathizers.

Democrats outdid Whigs in justifying and promoting ethnic, racial, and sexual exclusion and subordination. Democrats championed territorial acquisition and conquest, portraying it in Jeffersonian terms as securing to all (white) citizens the chance for a landed independence. In 1845, a leading Democratic editor coined the phrase "manifest destiny." Andrew Jackson's drive to compel the remaining eastern Indian tribes beyond the Mississippi produced the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a slew of coerced treaties, and the infamous Cherokee Trail of Tears in 1838. The annexation of Texas in 1845 and war against Mexico in 1846–1848 were Democratic initiatives, denounced by many Whigs. Lastly, though no major party advocated female suffrage, Democrats more than Whigs identified politics as a distinctly masculine activity and relegated women to a subordinate, confined sphere.

The Democratic Spirit of the Age

Given this complex picture, no glib generalizations about Jacksonian Democracy's democracy are sustainable. An alternative, suggested by Tocqueville and other contemporary commentators, is to view democracy as the reigning spirit of the age and to trace its workings in all areas of American life, both within and outside party politics. 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 spoke more than his policies in office. His rhetorical championship of the plain people against the aristocrats, whatever its substance or sincerity, was itself the sign and harbinger of a social sea change toward democracy, equality, and the primacy of the common man. Jackson stands in this view not as the leader of a party, but as the symbol for an age.

Seen thus, many of the particular phenomena that Andrew Jackson and his party treated with indifference or hostility seem themselves emanations of a broader Jacksonian democratic spirit. Within politics, Whigs as well as Democrats championed the common man and marshaled the masses at barbecues 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 the Battle of New Orleans, with figures like "Old Tippecanoe" William Henry Harrison, victor of the rousing "log cabin" presidential campaign of 1840. Close party competition enlivened voter interest, sending turnout rates spiraling upward toward 80 percent of the eligible electorate.

In the religious sphere, evangelical preachers, especially Baptist and Methodist, carried a message of individual empowerment and responsibility, sparking massive revivals and winning thousands of converts. Older, more staid denominations either modified their methods and message to compete in the contest for souls or saw their influence dwindle. Reform crusades from temperance to abolitionism likewise pitched their appeals toward every man and every woman, building networks of local affiliates and mounting massive membership and petition drives. Self-help and mutual-aid societies flourished; experiments in popular education proliferated. Poets and philosophers celebrated the egalitarian ethic and the worth of the individual.

All these may be read as evidence of social democratization. Yet some historians emphasize opposing signs of growing stratification, inequality, and repression in these same years. Jackson's own symbolism can be turned many ways: spokesman for the plain people, he was also a wealthy slaveholder and Indian fighter. Scholars will continue to dispute the extent (and definition) of democracy in the era of Jacksonian Democratic ascendancy, along with the social reality underlying politicians' celebration of the common man. What does seem certain is that, rightly or not, during these years the United States became in both American and foreign eyes "the image of democracy itself" for generations to come.


Benson, Lee. The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. Repudiation of class analysis; egalitarianism as a pervasive, not partisan, impulse.

Feller, Daniel. The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815–1840. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Brief synthetic treatment.

Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, Politics. Rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. Iconoclastic assault on Jackson's character, party, era, and scholarly admirers.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1945. Riveting account, strongly pro-Jackson; starting point for modern debate.

Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Class analysis: Democrats as anticapitalist.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Henry Reeve, corrected by Phillips Bradley. New York: Knopf, 1945. Preeminent interpreter of American national character.

Ward, John William. Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. Jackson as embodiment of national self-image.


See alsoDemocratic Party ; Jeffersonian Democracy ; Maysville Veto ; Removal Act of 1830 ; Rotation in Office ; Spoils System .

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