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Jacksonian Democracy

Emergence of a New Party System

Period: 1820-1860

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The first years of the new republic had given rise to two competing political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The first two parties, unlike the present-day political parties, tended to have a strong sectional character, with the Federalists dominant in New England and the Republicans elsewhere.

After the War of 1812, the nation reverted to a period of one-party government in national politics. The decline of the Federalist Party created the illusion of national political unity, but appearances were deceptive. Without the discipline imposed by competition with a strong opposition party, the Republican Party began to fragment into cliques and factions.

During James Monroe’s presidency, the Republican Party disintegrated as a stable national organization. Following his overwhelming victory in 1816, Monroe sought to promote the ideal expressed by George Washington in his Farewell Address: a nation free of partisan divisions. Like Washington, he appointed rival factional leaders, such as John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, to his cabinet. He refused to use federal patronage to strengthen the Republican Party. He also took the position that Congress, not the president, was the best representative of the public will and therefore should define public policy.

The absence of a strong leader, however, led to the fragmentation of the Republican Party during Monroe’s administration. Factional and sectional rivalries grew increasingly bitter and party machinery fell into disuse.

Birth of the Second Party System

Over time, local and personal factions began to coalesce into a new political party system. Three critical factors contributed to the creation of the second party system. The first was the financial panic of 1819 and the subsequent depression.

The panic resulted in significant political differences over such issues as debt relief, banking and monetary policy, and tariffs. Farmers, particularly in the South and West, demanded enactment of stay laws to postpone repayment of debts. Many artisans and farmers blamed banks for causing the panic by printing an excess of worthless paper money. They demanded that bank notes be replaced by hard money, gold and silver coinage. These groups often disagreed with pro-business interests, which called for the extension of credit, higher tariffs to protect infant industries, and government-financed transportation improvements to reduce the cost of trade.

A second source of political division was southern alarm over the slavery debates in Congress in 1819 and 1820. Many southern leaders feared that the Missouri crisis might spark a realignment in national politics along sectional lines. Such a development, John Quincy Adams wrote, was “terrible to the South--threatening in its progress the emancipation of all their slaves, threatening in its immediate effect that Southern domination which has swayed the Union for the last twenty years.” Anxiety over the slavery debates in 1819 and 1820 induced many southerners to seek political alliances with the North. As early as 1821, Old Republicans in the South--who opposed high tariffs, a national bank, and federally-funded internal improvements--had begun to form a loose alliance with Senator Martin Van Buren of New York and the Republican Party faction he commanded.

The third major source of political division was the selection of presidential candidates. The “Virginia dynasty” of presidents, a chain that had begun with George Washington and included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, was at its end by 1824. Traditionally, a caucus of the Republican Party’s members of Congress selected the Republican Party’s candidate. At the 1824 caucus, the members met in closed session and chose William Crawford, Monroe’s secretary of the Treasury, as the party’s candidate. Not all Republicans, however, supported this method of nominating candidates and therefore refused to participate.

When Crawford suffered a stroke and was left partially disabled, four other candidates emerged: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the son of the nation’s second president and the only candidate from the North; John C. Calhoun, Monroe’s secretary of war, who had little support outside of his native South Carolina; Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House; and General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and victor over the Creek and Seminole Indians. About the latter, Thomas Jefferson commented dryly, one might as well try “to make a soldier of a goose as a President of Andrew Jackson.”

In the election of 1824, Jackson received the greatest number of votes both at the polls and in the electoral college, followed (in electoral votes) by Adams, Crawford, and then Clay. But he failed to receive the constitutionally required majority of the electoral votes. As provided by the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, the election was therefore thrown into the House of Representatives, which was required to choose from among the top three vote-getters in the Electoral College. There, Henry Clay persuaded his supporters to vote for Adams, commenting acidly that he did not believe “that killing two thousand five hundred Englishmen at New Orleans” was a proper qualification for the presidency. Adams was elected on the first ballot.

The Philadelphia Observer charged that Adams had made a secret deal to obtain Clay’s support. Three days later, Adams’s nomination of Clay as secretary of state seemed to confirm the charges of a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson was outraged, since he could legitimately argue that he was the popular favorite. The general exclaimed, “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver.”

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This site was updated on 23-Jul-10.

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