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.
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.
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:
equal protection of the laws; an aversion to a moneyed aristocracy, exclusive privileges, and monopolies, and a predilection for the common man; majority rule; and the welfare of the community over the individual.
Expanded suffrage – The Jacksonians believed that voting rights should be extended to all white men. By the end of the 1820s, attitudes and state laws had shifted in favor of universal white male suffrage and by 1856 all requirements to own property and nearly all requirements to pay taxes had been dropped.
Manifest destiny – This was the belief that Americans had a destiny to settle the American West and to expand control from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and that the West should be settled by yeoman farmers. However, the Free Soil Jacksonians, notably Martin Van Buren, argued for limitations on slavery in the new areas to enable the poor white man to flourish—they split with the main party briefly in 1848. The Whigs generally opposed Manifest Destiny and expansion, saying the nation should build up its cities.
Patronage – Also known as the spoils system, patronage was the policy of placing political supporters into appointed offices. Many Jacksonians held the view that rotating political appointees in and out of office was not only the right, but also the duty of winners in political contests. Patronage was theorized to be good because it would encourage political participation by the common man and because it would make a politician more accountable for poor government service by his appointees. Jacksonians also held that long tenure in the civil service was corrupting, so civil servants should be rotated out of office at regular intervals. However, patronage often led to the hiring of incompetent and sometimes corrupt officials due to the emphasis on party loyalty above any other qualifications.
Strict constructionism – Like the Jeffersonians who strongly believed in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Jacksonians initially favored a federal government of limited powers. Jackson said that he would guard against "all encroachments upon the legitimate sphere of State sovereignty". However, he was not a states' rights extremist—indeed, the Nullification Crisis would find Jackson fighting against what he perceived as state encroachments on the proper sphere of federal influence. This position was one basis for the Jacksonians' opposition to the Second Bank of the United States. As the Jacksonians consolidated power, they more often advocated expanding federal power, presidential power in particular.
Laissez-faire – Complementing a strict construction of the Constitution, the Jacksonians generally favored a hands-off approach to the economy as opposed to the Whig program sponsoring modernization, railroads, banking and economic growth. The chief spokesman amongst laissez-faire advocates was William Leggett of the Locofocos in New York City.
Opposition to banking – In particular, the Jacksonians opposed government-granted monopolies to banks, especially the national bank, a central bank known as the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson said: "The bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!" and he did so. The Whigs, who strongly supported the Bank, were led by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Nicholas Biddle, the bank chairman. Jackson himself was opposed to all banks because he believed they were devices to cheat common people—he and many followers believed that only gold and silver should be used to back currency, rather than the integrity of a bank.
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.
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.
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:
Jacksonians believed the people's will had finally prevailed. Through a lavishly financed coalition of state parties, political leaders, and newspaper editors, a popular movement had elected the president. The Democrats became the nation's first well-organized national party.
The platforms, speeches and editorials were founded upon a broad consensus among Democrats. As Norton et al. explain:
The Democrats represented a wide range of views but shared a fundamental commitment to the Jeffersonian concept of an agrarian society. They viewed a central government as the enemy of individual liberty and they believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich. They sought to restore the independence of the individual—the artisan and the ordinary farmer—by ending federal support of banks and corporations and restricting the use of paper currency.
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:
Douglas was preeminently a Jacksonian, and his adherence to the tenets of what became known as Jacksonian democracy grew as his own career developed. ... Popular rule, or what he called would later call popular sovereignty, lay at the base of his political structure. Like most Jacksonians, Douglas believed that the people spoke through the majority, that the majority will was the expression of the popular will.
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 removingAmerican 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.
^ abWilliam S. Belko, "'A Tax On The Many, To Enrich A Few': Jacksonian Democracy Vs. The Protective Tariff." Journal of the History of Economic Thought 37.2 (2015): 277-289.
^"Jacksonian Democracy". History.com. History. April 4, 2012. Retrieved March 20, 2022. More loosely, it alludes to the entire range of democratic reforms that proceeded alongside the Jacksonians' triumph—from expanding the suffrage to restructuring federal institutions.
^The Providence (Rhode Island) Patriot 25 Aug 1839 stated: "The state of things in Kentucky..is quite as favorable to the cause of Jacksonian democracy." cited in "Jacksonian democracy", Oxford English Dictionary (2019)
^Engerman, pp. 15, 36. "These figures suggest that by 1820 more than half of adult white males were casting votes, except in those states that still retained property requirements or substantial tax requirements for the franchise – Virginia, Rhode Island (the two states that maintained property restrictions through 1840), and New York as well as Louisiana."
^William S. Belko, "'A Tax On The Many, To Enrich A Few': Jacksonian Democracy Vs. The Protective Tariff." Journal of the History of Economic Thought 37.2 (2015): 277-289.
^Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945)
^Engerman, p. 14. "Property- or tax-based qualifications were most strongly entrenched in the original thirteen states, and dramatic political battles took place at a series of prominent state constitutional conventions held during the late 1810s and 1820s."
^Engerman, pp. 16, 35. "By 1840, only three states retained a property qualification, North Carolina (for some state-wide offices only), Rhode Island, and Virginia. In 1856 North Carolina was the last state to end the practice. Tax-paying qualifications were also gone in all but a few states by the Civil War, but they survived into the 20th century in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island."
^Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2nd ed. 2009) p 29
^David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Manifest Destiny (Greenwood Press, 2003).
^M. Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Party System in the United States (1910)
^Forrest McDonald, States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (2002) pp 97-120
^William Trimble, "The social philosophy of the Loco-Foco democracy." American Journal of Sociology 26.6 (1921): 705-715. in JSTOR
^Louis Hartz, Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776–1860 (1948)
^Richard Hofstadter, "William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy." Political Science Quarterly 58.4 (1943): 581-594. in JSTOR.
^Lawrence H. White, "William Leggett: Jacksonian editorialist as classical liberal political economist." History of Political Economy 18.2 (1986): 307-324.
^Donald B. Cole, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (1993)
^Wulf, Naomi (2001). "'The Greatest General Good': Road Construction, National Interest, and Federal Funding in Jacksonian America". European Contributions to American Studies. 47: 53–72.
^Carl Lane, "The elimination of the national debt in 1835 and the meaning of Jacksonian democracy." Essays in Economic & Business History 25 (2012) pp. 67-78.
^Sean Wilentz, "Politics, Irony, and the Rise of American Democracy." Journal of The Historical Society 6.4 (2006): 537-553, at p. 538, summarizing his book The rise of American democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2006).
^Mark R. Cheathem, The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
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Hofstadter, Richard (1948). The American Political Tradition. Chapter on AJ.
Hofstadter, Richard. "William Leggett: Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy." Political Science Quarterly 58#4 (December 1943): 581–94. in JSTOR
Hofstadter, Richard (1969). The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840.
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Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford History of the United States) (2009), Pulitzer Prize; surveys era from ant-Jacksonain perspective
Howe, Daniel Walker (1991). "The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture during the Second Party System". Journal of American History. Organization of American Historians. 77 (4): 1216–1239. doi:10.2307/2078260. JSTOR2078260.
Kruman, Marc W. (1992). "The Second American Party System and the Transformation of Revolutionary Republicanism". Journal of the Early Republic. Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. 12 (4): 509–537. doi:10.2307/3123876. JSTOR3123876.
Lane, Carl. "The Elimination of the National Debt in 1835 and the Meaning Of Jacksonian Democracy." Essays in Economic & Business History 25 (2007). online
McCormick, Richard P. (1966). The Second American Party System: Party Formation in the Jacksonian Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Influential state-by-state study.
McKnight, Brian D., and James S. Humphreys, eds. The Age of Andrew Jackson: Interpreting American History (Kent State University Press; 2012) 156 pages; historiography
Mayo, Edward L. (1979). "Republicanism, Antipartyism, and Jacksonian Party Politics: A View from the Nation's Capitol". American Quarterly. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 31 (1): 3–20. doi:10.2307/2712484. JSTOR2712484.
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Myers, Marvin (1957). The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Pessen, Edward (1978). Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics.
Pessen, Edward (1977). The Many-Faceted Jacksonian Era: New Interpretations. Important scholarly articles.
Remini, Robert V. (1998). The Life of Andrew Jackson. Abridgment of Remini's 3-volume biography.
Remini, Robert V. (1959). Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party.
Rowland, Thomas J. Franklin B. Pierce: The Twilight of Jacksonian Democracy (Nova Science Publisher's, 2012).
Sellers, Charles (1991). The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. Influential reinterpretation
Shade, William G. "Politics and Parties in Jacksonian America," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 1986), pp. 483–507 online
Shade, William G. (1983). "The Second Party System". In Kleppner, Paul; et al. (eds.). Evolution of American Electoral Systems. Uses quantitative electoral data.
Silbey, Joel H. (1973). Political Ideology and Voting Behavior in the Age of Jackson.
Simeone, James. "Reassessing Jacksonian Political Culture: William Leggett's Egalitarianism." American Political Thought 4#3 (2015): 359–390. in JSTOR
Syrett, Harold C. (1953). Andrew Jackson: His Contribution to the American Tradition.
Taylor, George Rogers (1949). Jackson Versus Biddle: The Struggle over the Second Bank of the United States. Excerpts from primary and secondary sources.
Van Deusen, Glyndon G. (1963). The Jacksonian Era: 1828-1848. Standard scholarly survey.
Wallace, Michael (1968). "Changing Concepts of Party in the United States: New York, 1815-1828". American Historical Review. American Historical Association. 74 (2): 453–491. doi:10.2307/1853673. JSTOR1853673.
Ward, John William (1962). Andrew Jackson, Symbol for an Age.
Wellman, Judith. Grassroots Reform in the Burned-over District of Upstate New York: Religion, Abolitionism, and Democracy (Routledge, 2014).
Wilentz, Sean (1982). "On Class and Politics in Jacksonian America". Reviews in American History. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 10 (4): 45–63. doi:10.2307/2701818. JSTOR2701818.
Wilentz, Sean (2005). The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. Highly detailed scholarly synthesis.
Wilson, Major L. (1974). Space, Time, and Freedom: The Quest for Nationality and the Irrepressible Conflict, 1815-1861. Intellectual history of Whigs and Democrats.