the white house historical association
the rise of jacksonian democracy - 1828

Part I. The People's President


When Andrew Jackson became the seventh president of the United States on March 4, 1829, he was best known as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. By the time he walked through the doors of the Capitol rotunda, just before noon, 20,000 people had arrived to cheer him. From among the throngs rose shouts of "Huzza, there is the old man . . . there is the old veteran . . . the general." Years before, in January 1815, Jackson had led his troops to an unlikely victory in the largest battle yet to be fought on the American continent. Never mind that as the acrid smoke of cannon fire cleared from that triumph, a peace treaty to end the war was already two weeks old, negotiated in Ghent, Belgium, between American and British ministers. From the viewpoint of the American people, whose capital had recently been burned by the British, the victory in New Orleans restored national pride and symbolized the collective belief that the United States had finally broken away from a parent country that had doubted their independence for decades. Jackson, who had led an army made up of rough western volunteers with little formal military training, became the personification of that restored pride. Towns were named for him, songs were written extolling his glories, and many began to imagine him as the president. Now, on inauguration day, so enthusiastic were the mobs of people who rushed him after his inaugural speech, he had to take temporary refuge in the Capitol building.

Those who revered Jackson had been determined that their hero would be elected in 1828, because, to many minds, Jackson had been cheated of the presidency in 1824 by a "corrupt bargain." Indeed, that election had proven one of the most difficult in the nation’s young history. In 1820, James Monroe had been elected president almost unanimously, so much so that his administration was called "The Era of Good Feelings." Yet those supporters in the Democratic-Republican Party were not as single-minded as they seemed - factions were emerging that suggested the increasingly diverse interests of the people of the United States. Other factors came into play as well, changing the political environment of that decade.

Playing by New Rules

In the early 1800s, as new states entered the Union, the requirements that their legislatures placed on the right to vote were less strict than in the original thirteen states. Furthermore, over time most of the older states relaxed laws that made property ownership a prerequisite for voting, so that by the election of 1824, most white males who were 21 or older could vote. The method for choosing the presidential nominees was changing too. Previously, a congressional caucus, made up of a small number of political leaders, had determined the candidates. By 1824, this system was breaking down. Several men aspired to the presidency, and neither they nor their followers were willing to let a small group of congressmen determine their fate. True, a congressional caucus did meet in 1824, though only about one-third of the Congress showed up for the meeting, and true, the caucus did select a candidate, William H. Crawford of Georgia, then secretary of the treasury. Crawford's opponents immediately attacked this method of candidate selection as undemocratic, dictatorial, and unconstitutional. The erosion of this selection approach was further indicated when three other candidates received nominations from state legislatures, and endorsements from irregular mass meetings throughout the country. John Quincy Adams, Monroe's vice president, was named, as was Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky, and General Jackson, a Tennessee senator who would, as he said, speak for "the humble members of society - the farmers, mechanics and laborers."

An Unusual Election

Another element shaping a broader political base for the common man had to do with changing methods for choosing electors. Rather than leaving the decision to a small group of state legislators, the states - one by one - had begun to allow the people to elect electors. Perhaps electors chosen by this liberalized method would more closely reflect the interests and desires of the common folks. The 1824 popular election mirrored this change, with Jackson gaining a plurality of the vote. Though Jackson had the most electoral votes as well, with so many candidates competing, he did not receive the electoral majority required by the Constitution. Thus, the election would be settled in the House of Representatives from among the top three candidates: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. Since Crawford had suffered a serious illness, the real election came down to Jackson and Adams. Henry Clay of Kentucky, now out of the running, would control the outcome, since he controlled the vote of the three states that he had carried in the general election. A powerful voice in the House of Representatives, Clay apparently persuaded a single New York congressman, Stephen Van Rensselaer, to support Adams over Jackson. That sealed the New York delegation’s vote, and the election. In terms of political beliefs, Clay was closer politically to Adams than Jackson, finding the Tennessee senator inexperienced in public office, a bit vague on what he called "reform issues," and lacking in restraint as a military commander. When Adams appointed Henry Clay to the prestigious secretary of state position only days after the House election "squeaker," it was easy enough for Jackson supporters to cry "foul" and "corrupt bargain." Jackson himself called Clay "the Judas of the West," who received his "thirty pieces of silver" as the reward for his "betrayal" of the people's will. No matter what Clay's motivations, the "corrupt bargain" became a part of the campaign fodder that would put Jackson in the White House in 1828.

An Emerging Party and a Long Campaign

John Quincy Adams - White House Collection


Almost from the time Adams became president in the spring of 1825, the drive began to send "the people's choice" to Washington by 1828. Jackson resigned his senate seat and went back to Tennessee. By October 1825, the Tennessee legislature had already nominated Jackson for president with the next race three years away. Supporters got aggressive in advancing their candidate. In Nashville, Tennessee, Jackson's backers formed a new party, soon to be called the Democratic Party, and developed an impressive organizational structure to promote their man. In Washington, Martin Van Buren - a savvy New Yorker with a reputation as a political wizard - applied new campaign strategies. Van Buren was among the first leaders of the time to see political parties as a legitimate means for providing voters with opposing views on political issues, not as dangerous tools of division. Especially in this environment of one-party dominance, Van Buren believed that competing parties could curb the tendency for those in power to become corrupt and tyrannical. He put into place a campaign headquarters in Washington that would be impressive even by today's standards. The themes he emphasized were simple: 1) Adams was not a legitimate president; 2) only Jackson could bring the citizenry a "true democracy."

Marketing a Candidate

Van Buren and the Nashville men knew how to market Jackson's popularity as a war hero and to fan the anti-Adams fires with the fuel of a "stolen presidency." They organized parades and barbeques where the liquor flowed, and gave out thousands of buttons and hats. Earlier in his career, Jackson had been given the name "Old Hickory," because as a leader, especially during battle, he was "as strong as a hickory stick." Hickory canes became the rage, with Democrats proudly carrying them to show support for the hero of New Orleans. Identifying friendly newspapers, Jackson promoters courted editors, feeding them prepared speeches and reports, and leveling accusations against Adams as a "stingy, undemocratic aristocrat." Jackson's opponents fired their own shots: Jackson was violent, they said, a temper-driven dueler, a slaveholder, and a general who had overstepped the orders of his president during military raids into Spanish Florida. The Jacksonians countered with "select" public opinion polls and circulated their favorable results to newspapers, along with neatly finished rebuttal articles.

President Jackson's inauguration celebration at the White House - WHHA


The People Have Ruled

By the time the inauguration of 1829 rolled around, everyone understood that Andrew Jackson was to be considered the "democratic president." Jackson himself saw it that way, telling a political supporter in a letter that the verdict of the people "has pronounced to an admiring world that the people are virtuous, and capable of self-government, and that the liberty of our beloved country will be perpetual." That judgment would be tested and questioned during the next eight years of his two-term presidency.

primary document activities

  close window