The purpose of this research is to show that the era of Jacksonian democracy, roughly the period 1825-1835, not only encompassed the values of its Whig predecessors but also reorganized and redefined those values in ways that directly shaped and prepared America, perhaps unwittingly, for the arrival of the present-day polyarchical pluralist system. But it was, in fact, no accident, as William Chambers explains:
The shapers of the American nation had provided lessons for a second generation of party leaders. They had shown what parties could be, and had marked the way toward a renewed American Party System which could sustain broad representation, mass participation and popular choice in a functioning political democracy.
Americans of this time were experiencing life in a rapidly changing world, convinced that the future would inevitably be better than past or present. Alexis de Tocqueville described the period as follows:
A man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden, and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage, and leaves other men to gather the crop, . . . he settles in a place, which he soon afterward leaves, to carry his changeable longings elsewhere.
As David Lindsey suggests, “the middle third of the 19th century proved to be the heyday of the entrepreneur.” When Jackson entered politics, the United States extended only to the Mississippi River; afterward, by 1950, it reached west to the Pacific Ocean. The American people, numbering 7 million in 1810, increased their population to 23 million by 1850. In economic terms, the United States made gradual but steady gains, with national wealth fixed at $900 million in the period 1810-1830, increasing to $2.3 billion in 1850. Following the Jeffersonian tradition of emphasis on the yeoman farmer, farming was the most widespread occupation, with Jacksonian influence yielding growth “both in size and productivity, especially under the impact of new farming methods and more efficient farm machinery.”
Jackson’s influence on politics may be his most interesting effect on the times. In the absence of established party alignments and efforts to encourage voter activism (within the limits of suffrage at that time), only 5 percent to 8 percent of the eligible voting population exercised its rights at the polls. By 1828, however, a vigorous new party established on Jacksonian principles had formed: “In a surge of egalitarian democracy, a broad range of group interests found representation, popular participation in politics increased, and meaningful options were put before the public.”
One example of this Jacksonian belief in participatory principles with roots in the ideals of James Madison was his belief “in an open economic society which gave all a free, equal opportunity to exercise innate talent and ability in order to ensure continued Progress.” This meant, in operational terms, the absence of artificial government-imposed restraints on financial dealings and no special favors or privileges given to any individual because of birth or government position.
In this light, he rejected the “American System” proposals offered by Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster for a Bank of the United States to stimulate economic growth. Chartered in 1816, the second Bank of the United States (modeled after Hamilton’s first bank) was 80 percent controlled by private stockholders and was the sole depository for federal funds. In 1820, the bank began making special loans to members of Congress. Over Jackson’s condemnation, in 1832 Clay and Webster pushed a bill though Congress which rechartered the Bank.
Just as rapidly, Jackson vetoed the bill, claiming it was “unjust in granting special economic privilege without government control, unAmerican, unconstitutional, undemocratic, and corrupting in its political influence.” Most of the stock, he said, was held by foreigners, “the residue . . . by a few hundred of our own citizens, chiefly of the richest class. For their benefit does this act exclude the whole American people from competition in the purchase of this monopoly.”
Explaining that “mere precedent is a dangerous source of authority,” h erejected the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s McCullough v. Maryland (1819) decision, which approved the constitutionality of the Bank. To Jackson, each branch of government needed to interpret the meaning of the constitution for itself, and, because he firmly believed that the government was responsible for maintaining an economy open to all, an establishment like the Bank of the United States was clearly unacceptable.
Jackson proved victorious, winning re-election over Clay in 1832. Then he established a new national bank of deposit in Washington, D.C., decided that state banks might be better used for deposits of federal money, especially since they were run by Jacksonians, and claimed, “I have chained it, the Monster must perish.” This economic stance was firmly rooted in his political beliefs, which gave rise to an intellectual movement from which “many of the essential elements of Modern American democracy emerged.” Fundamentally, Jackson “epitomized the spirit of hoi polloi democracy” and a belief in the rights and ability of the individual “even more broadly and deeply than Jefferson and the Republicans had.”
Both this Puritan belief that individuals were good in the state of nature and the emphasis on the divine right of Natural Law led Jackson to his belief in government based on majority and consent. “The people are the sovereign power,” he said, “and . . . they have the right to alter and amend their system of government when a majority wills it, as a majority have the right to rule.” This “Jeffersonian conception of government and Democracy” no doubt led to his support for popularly elected nominating conventions and his urging that the popular election of president and vice-president replace the electoral college, ideas that still form the basis of political activity today.
In 1824, Jackson’s presidential campaign bid earned him most of the popular and electoral votes but not a majority because there were many other candidates. As a result, the presidency was to be decided by the House of Representatives, with each state, regardless of size, casting one vote. In a behind-the-scenes deal, Clay gave his support to Adams (in return for his appointment as Secretary of State) and Jackson was defeated. According to James Burns, “the country was angry; the Hero of New Orleans had lost out to a gang of politicians, and a corrupt bargain had turned the trick.”
Thus, Jackson’s support from the people drew thousands of new voters and enthusiasm for the establishment of a new national coalition–the new Democratic Party. This reorganization and unification of the old Republican Party provided the base needed for the intellectual growth of political thought as well as the idea of the National Party convention and the mechanism for popular election. In Jackson’s words,
The Democratic Party of Pennsylvania and of several other states have adopted the plan of calling Conventions of Delegates, elected by the people themselves and charged with their instructions for the purpose of selecting candidates . . . or agents to give effect to their wishes and in maintaining their control in government. It strikes me that this is the only mode by which the people will be able long to retain in their own hands the election of President and Vice-President.
In agreement, then, with Madison’s analysis of the danger of factionalism to democracy, Jackson wished “to be President of a nation, not a party.”
Jackson’s theoretical beliefs, however, are incomplete without re-emphasizing his belief in the right of authority and strong government, actually a Hamiltonian principle. As previously mentioned, Jackson believed the president could ignore the mandate of the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States; each branch of government was to be an equal, yet independent partner.
This right of authority was used again when dealing with the issue of slavery. From his background as a Southerner, owning slaves seemed “natural” to Jackson. He frequently bought and sold slaves, considering it “simply a convenient, cheap arrangement for getting done the work of large-scale plantation agriculture.” He even labeled slave ownership as a “property right” guaranteed by the Constitution. Furthermore, “agitation against slavery, especially from outsiders he thought mischievous and malicious; proposals for the abolition of slavery he considered downright dangerous.” He considered the question of the morality of slavery dangerous because it divided the Union: “If the Union is once severed, the line of separation will grow wider and wider, and the controversies which are now debated and settled in the halls of legislation will then be determined by the sword.” Because he believed so strongly in the right of government to act with authority, he verbally approved an order of the Postmaster General to local southern postmasters not to deliver abolitionist literature, something he clearly did not have the legal right to do.
Jackson, however, did not oppose all forms of aristocracy: those people who had labored honestly were deserving of their position, but those who advocated usury, dealing in paper securities to make their wealth, were to be condemned. Instead, he assigned to all people a duty:
to enlighten the moral and virtuous portion of our citizens, the great laboring classes, to the corrupt designs of these apostates to destroy our republican system and to raise upon its ruins a monied King to rule by its corruption and make the labour of our country hewers of wood and drawers of water to its power.
Because of this belief in the virtue of the individual, individual liberty, natural law, and government based on majority consent yet always maintaining strong authority, his “achieving of Hamiltonian ends by resorting to Jeffersonian appeals” brought together the origins of Whig doctrine. Jackson once said that the first requisite for a public officer was his “character, the composition of which is virtue, talents and the true Whig principles of seventy-six (i.e. 1776).” Thus, the struggle for individual freedom advocated by Payne and Jefferson was tempted by Hamilton’s and Adam’s ideas that a strong government was necessary to combat evil within the individual–the basis for modern day pluralism.
Before him, the presidency had declined in prestige, influence and importance, and “Jackson did much to restore and extend the position, powers and independence of the Presidency.” But perhaps Jackson did not consider what would occur if this strong, revitalized government were in the hands of someone who did not simultaneously maintain Jeffersonian principles, the delicate balance of the Jacksonian age. For when faith in the competence of the individual to act in his or her own best interests is not respected, the elite government becomes stronger still, rationalizing its polyarchical pluralist system to be the only feasible means of maintaining democracy. However, this intellectual stance would surely have horrified Jackson becuase it stratifies society and alienates the individual.