The election of andrew jackson to the presidency in 1828 was only the second time since the adoption of the Constitution that the "out" party came to power. The first occurred in 1800 with the election of thomas jefferson, who at that time opted for a course of action that stressed moderation and reconciliation. Jefferson revised several of the government's policies and changed many of its personnel, but he refused to go along with any assault on the Constitution itself or on major federalist enactments. If anything, through the louisiana purchase treaty and the embargo acts of 1807–1809, he increased the powers of the national government. Jackson took a very different approach. He favored amendment of the Constitution and other policies to make the central government more amenable to popular control. Jackson also championed a strict interpretation of the Constitution and the decentralization of authority, stressing the close links between the will of the people, majority rule, and states ' rights. He also was critical of the broad powers of interpretation that the Supreme Court had arrogated to itself over the preceding quarter-century.
Although the campaign of 1828 was particularly scurrilous, with much of it centered on the candidates' personalities, it also involved fundamental constitutional and even ideological considerations. Jackson's opponent, john quincy adams, had organized his whole administration and run for reelection on a platform of the american system—a federal program of internal improvements, a high protective tariff, and the second bank of the united states—which was predicated upon a loose interpretation of the Constitution and the need for a strong and active national government. These views were a major issue in the election of 1828, and opposition to them explains much of the support Jackson received in the South, the Old West, and the Middle Atlantic states, from people who had strong emotional and ideological ties to antifederalism and Old Republicanism. This group—which included thomas hart benton, Amos Kendall, Silas Wright, Francis Preston Blair, nathaniel macon, and Thomas Ritchie—was strongly committed to the view of the origin and nature of the Union that had been articulated in the virginia and kentucky resolutions of 1798–1799. These resolutions viewed the Constitution as the product of a compact between the different states and asserted that the federal government was one of clearly defined and specifically delegated and limited powers. The resolutions denied that the Supreme Court was either the exclusive or final arbiter of constitutional questions and argued instead that the states should act as sentinels to watch over the activities of the federal government. They believed that these principles had been validated by Jefferson's election in 1800, but that they had been abandoned as the country pursued wealth and power between 1801 and 1828. Jackson's most avid supporters wanted him to reverse this development and to return the country to plain republican principles, and they justified this by invoking the "Spirit of '98."
Jackson did not disappoint them. He began by advocating the principle of rotation of office for federal office-holders. This had been a popular constitutional concept in the 1780s and had found expression in the articles of confederation, the pennsylvania constitution of 1776, and a number of other state constitutions. The failure to include it in the United States Constitution had been a major concern of the Antifederalists, and Jackson's espousal of it in regard to presidential appointments was considered by his opponents to be a direct assault on the Constitution. Throughout his first administration Jackson also urged that the Constitution be amended to eliminate the electoral college, limit the tenure of the President and vice-president to a single term of four or six years, provide for the popular election of senators and members of the federal judiciary, and give self-government to the district of columbia. He and most of his closest advisers also favored a repeal of section 25 of the judiciary act of 1789.
But these proposals were never endorsed by Congress, which was at odds with Jackson throughout most of his two terms in office. As a consequence, Jackson was forced to enunciate his views of the Constitution through his various annual addresses, veto messages, proclamations, policy decisions, and appointments. In these ways, Jackson made clear his opposition to a federal program of internal improvements on both constitutional and policy grounds. He also vetoed the bill to recharter the second Bank of the United States, in large part because its activities impinged on the rights of the states. Moreover, in exercising this veto and in implementing his policy toward american indians, he took direct issue with the nationalist claim that the Supreme Court was the exclusive or final arbiter in disputes between the federal and state governments. Jackson also appointed five Justices to the Supreme Court—john mclean, henry baldwin, james m. wayne, philip p. barbour, and roger brooke taney as chief justice—who were unsympathetic to the broad construction and the nationalist decisions of the marshall court.
Although deeply committed to the concept of states' rights, the Jacksonians had no sympathy for the doctrine of nullification, promulgated by john c. calhoun and South Carolina, who believed that the protective tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and who were concerned with protecting the institution of slavery from outside interference. The Jacksonians, for their part, advocated states' rights as a way of achieving majority rule, while the proslavery interests espoused the doctrine of states' rights as a way of protecting the interests of a minority. The difference can be seen most clearly in the two groups' positions on the issues of when and by whom the Constitution should be amended. The Jacksonians, consistent with their faith in majority rule, took upon themselves the burden of obtaining amendments to the Constitution in order to make the federal government more directly responsive to the will of the people and to limit and clarify the powers of the Supreme Court. Such a course would require the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states. Historically, these have been difficult majorities to obtain, and the Jacksonians were never successful. Proslavery interests, on the other hand, argued during the nullification crisis that a single state had a right to nullify federal law and that, in the event of nullification, the law's proponents would have the responsibility of gaining the requisite majorities to alter the Constitution. This argument shifted in a decisive way the burden of obtaining the amendment.
Jacksonians also opposed Calhoun's version of the states' rights doctrine because they believed it threatened the existence of the Union. The right of states to secede from the Union had not traditionally been part of the concept of states' rights. The Jacksonian commitment to the rights of the states in no way precluded a belief that the Union was perpetual or that within its properly limited sphere of power (like the making of tariff laws) the federal government was supreme. The Jacksonians rejected the nullifiers' claim that secession was a legal or constitutional right that could be peacefully exercised. Instead, they insisted it was only a natural or revolutionary right that had to be fought for and could be suppressed.
After Jackson left office, the Jacksonian interpretation of the Constitution dominated the administrations of three other Presidents. martin van buren was a product of the Virginia-New York alliance that played such a dominant role in the politics of the early Republic and that had its roots in the strong Antifederalist tradition in both these states. As President, Van Buren was a strong advocate of states' rights, opposed a federal program of internal improvements, and implemented the independent treasury system, which divorced banking from the federal government. james k. polk was also a doctrinaire Jacksonian. He prevented the creation of a third Bank of the United States, reinstated the independent treasury system, and further circumscribed federal spending on internal improvements. franklin pierce also viewed the world from a Jacksonian perspective. He had a great respect for states' rights and opposed the federal government's involvement in the economy.
The Jacksonians were never proslavery in the sense that Calhoun and other southerners were, but they shared an antipathy to abolitionists, who wanted the federal government to move against the "peculiar institution." In fact, the Jacksonians never developed an effective position on the slavery question—a failure that, as much as anything else, explains the lack of success of two other Presidents who had roots in Jacksonianism, james buchanan and andrew johnson.
Nonetheless, while the Jacksonian constitutional position did not lead to any basic changes in the Constitution itself and its orientation toward states' rights and strict interpretation was overturned by the extreme nationalist thrust of the civil war, it did dominate much of American politics in the second third of the nineteenth century.
Richard E. Ellis
Van Deusen, Glyndon G. 1959 The Jacksonian Era, 1828–1848. New York: Harper & Row.