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Jacksonian Democracy

The Presidency of Andrew Jackson

Period: 1820-1860

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The Election of 1828

“J. Q. Adams who can write” squared off against “Andy Jackson who can fight” in the election of 1828, one of the most bitter campaigns in American history. Jackson’s followers repeated the charge that Adams was an “aristocrat” who had obtained office as a result of a “corrupt bargain.” The Jackson forces also alleged that the president had used public funds to buy personal luxuries and had installed gaming tables in the White House. They even charged that Mrs. Adams had been born out of wedlock.

AdamsÂ’s supporters countered by digging up an old story that Jackson had begun living with his wife before she was legally divorced from her first husband (which was technically true, although neither Jackson nor his wife Rachel knew her first husband was still living). They called the general a slave trader, a gambler, and a backwoods buffoon who could not spell more than one word out of four correctly. One Philadelphia editor published a handbill picturing the coffins of 12 men allegedly murdered by Jackson in numerous duels.

The Jackson campaign in 1828 was the first to appeal directly for voter support through a professional political organization. Skilled political organizers, like Martin Van Buren of New York, Amos Kendall of Kentucky, and Thomas Ritchie of Virginia, created an extensive network of campaign committees and subcommittees to organize mass rallies, parades, and barbecues, and to erect hickory poles, JacksonÂ’s symbol.

For the first time in American history, a presidential election was the focus of public attention, and voter participation increased dramatically. Twice as many voters cast ballots in the election of 1828 as in 1824, four times as many as in 1820. As in most previous elections, the vote divided along sectional lines. Jackson swept every state in the South and West and Adams won the electoral votes of every state in the North except Pennsylvania and part of New York.

Contemporaries interpreted Jackson’s resounding victory as a triumph for political democracy. Jackson’s supporters called the vote a victory for the “farmers and mechanics of the country” over the “rich and well born.” Even Jackson’s opponents agreed that the election marked a watershed in the nation’s political history, signaling the beginning of a new democratic age. One Adams supporter said bluntly, “a great revolution has taken place.”

Who Was Andrew Jackson?

In certain respects, Jackson was truly a self-made man. Born in 1767 in a frontier region along the North and South Carolina border, he was the first president to be born in a log cabin. His father, a poor farmer from Northern Ireland, died two weeks before his birth, while his mother and two brothers died during the American Revolution. At the age of 13, Jackson volunteered to fight in the American Revolution. He was taken prisoner and a British officer severely slashed JacksonÂ’s hand and head when the boy refused to shine the officerÂ’s shoes.

Jackson soon rose from poverty to a career in law and politics, becoming TennesseeÂ’s first congressman, a senator, and judge on the state supreme court. Although he would later gain a reputation as the champion of the common people, in Tennessee he was allied by marriage, business, and political ties to the stateÂ’s elite. As a land speculator, cotton planter, and attorney, he accumulated a large personal fortune and acquired more than 100 slaves. His candidacy for the presidency was initially promoted by speculators, creditors, and elite leaders in Tennessee who hoped to exploit JacksonÂ’s popularity in order to combat anti-banking sentiment and fend off challenges to their dominance of state politics.

Expanding the Powers of the Presidency

In office, Jackson greatly enhanced the power and prestige of the presidency. While each member of Congress represented a specific regional constituency, only the president, Jackson declared, represented all the people of the United States.

Jackson convinced many Americans that their votes mattered. He espoused a political ideology of “democratic republicanism” that stressed the common peoples’ virtue, intelligence, and capacity for self-government. He also expressed a deep disdain for the “better classes,” which claimed a “more enlightened wisdom” than common men and women.

Endorsing the view that a fundamental conflict existed between working people and the “nonproducing” classes of society, Jackson and his supporters promised to remove any impediments to the ordinary citizen’s opportunities for economic improvement. According to the Jacksonians, inequalities of wealth and power were the direct result of monopoly, favoritism, and special privileges, which made “the rich richer and the powerful more potent.” Only free competition in an open marketplace would ensure that wealth would be distributed in accordance with each person’s “industry, economy, enterprise, and prudence.” The goal of the Jacksonians was to remove all obstacles that prevented farmers, artisans, and small shopkeepers from earning a greater share of the nation’s wealth.

Nowhere was the Jacksonian ideal of openness made more concrete than in JacksonÂ’s theory of rotation in office, known as the spoils system. In his first annual message to Congress, Jackson defended the principle that public offices should be rotated among party supporters in order to help the nation achieve its republican ideals.

Performance in public office, Jackson maintained, required no special intelligence or training, and rotation in office would ensure that the federal government did not develop a class of corrupt civil servants set apart from the people. His supporters advocated the spoils system on practical political grounds, viewing it as a way to reward party loyalists and build a stronger party organization. As Jacksonian Senator William Marcy of New York proclaimed, “To the victor belongs the spoils.”

The spoils system opened government positions to many of JacksonÂ’s supporters, but the practice was neither as new nor as democratic as it appeared. During his first 18 months in office, Jackson replaced fewer than 1,000 of the nationÂ’s 10,000 civil servants on political grounds, and fewer than 20 percent of federal officeholders were removed during his administration. Moreover, many of the men Jackson appointed to office had backgrounds of wealth and social eminence. Jackson did not originate the spoils system. By the time he took office, a number of states, including New York and Pennsylvania, practiced political patronage.

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