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Today we are going to learn about Andrew Jackson and his political era that is called Jacksonian America. We are going to learn about the rise of a new style of political engagement called Jacksonian democracy. When we examine Jackson, we are going to do so by looking at him in context with Turner’s Frontier Thesis. For many historians, Jackson is the epitome of a frontier politician.
Turner’s Frontier Thesis
At the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, an event to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, 12 million visitors showed up over the course of 6 in order to see displays of technological innovations, cultural artifacts of countries around the world, and scholarly presentations. One of those presentations was from a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” He was a historian at the University of Wisconsin, and his new theory about the role of the Western frontier in shaping a uniquely American ideology about ourselves.
Turner’s theory began with a simply fact that startled him. In the 1890 Census, the government reported that the frontier had closed. Essentially, that census ruled that the United States was essentially “settled” from coast-to-coast. There was no more open land to moved west to, the U.S. now covered the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. On one hand, this struck fear in the minds of people during the 1890s. Given the social tensions of the time period, they believed that the U.S. needed to continue expanding. For others, this Frontier Thesis was simply a new way to reconsider the importance of the west for the nineteenth century. Turner summarized the mindset of people like Jackson very well. He argued that the West, with its vast supply of “free land,” encouraged democracy in the East. The West, therefore, was critical to the survival of the United States.
Frederick Jackson Turner asserted that the frontier had played a vital role in shaping the American character and American institutions. The frontier, he said, was important as far back as for the earlier settlers. During the colonial period, settlers settle the eastern seaboard but continued to move west every succeeding generation. This seemingly endless supply of land created widespread opportunity for upward mobility. Turner also argued that the demands of the frontier forced Americans to develop the spirit of rugged individualism and innovation. Frontier life, he argued, also fostered values such as equality and democracy because success was determined not by one’s background but rather by one’s ability to work hard, sacrifice, and command the respect of neighbors.
The idea was that the frontier acted as a safety valve. He suggested that the frontier drained off potential sources of discontent before they disrupted society: “Whenever social conditions tended to crystallize in the East, whenever capital tended to press upon labor or political restraints to impede the freedom of the mass, there was this gate of escape to the free condition of the frontier…Men would not accept inferior wages and a permanent position of social subordination when this promised land of freedom and equality was theirs for the taking.”
When historians look at Andrew Jackson, they know with him for three things. Number one, people think of him in relation to Indian removal. After all, Andrew Jackson was one of the first presidents who would win the position because he framed himself as an Indian fighter. Number two, people think of him in relation to the bank veto and the way he used his own personal vendettas in a manner that hurt the country. Lastly, people think about Andrew Jackson in the idea of what is called Jacksonian democracy. This is not something that Jackson invented, this is something that existed during his time period. The title Jacksonian democracy is misleading. Again, he did not invent this. These were changes that took place before Jackson came to power. Jackson was the beneficiary of Jacksonian democracy, he was not necessarily the initiator. The United States in the antebellum period was a complicated political system. In 1828 Andrew Jackson ran for president. This was a significant election because it was a massive popular election. It was an ugly and intense campaign and there was a very large turnout. This election was a turning point in American politics. In many ways Jackson redefine the role of the president in this election. Jackson thought the president ought to be more popular and more tied to the people than tied to other members of government. For example, when Jackson disagreed with Congress he would make his appeal to the people.
Jacksonian democracy is characterized by the rise of everyday people to positions of power and access in government. It involved the spread of new practices and new institutions that spread political power to people who did not have it before. There are two aspects of this: mass participation in elections, and the rise of the modern two-party system. Now, what makes a democracy? In theory, a democracy is defined by popular sovereignty. This is the idea that people decide on things through majority rule as expressed through free elections. There is supposed to be rational debate in a democracy rather than force being used to sway opinion one way or the other. In theory, civil procedures are supposed to be used in a democracy. These are just two ways of thinking about what a democracy is. In 1815 the US was not a democracy. In 1860 the US was not democracy either. But, between 1815 and 1860 significant number of changes took place in the United States that we call democratization. The US had a brief experimental government called the articles of Confederation government. If you’ve taken history 146 you’ll remember the problems tied to the articles of Confederation government. In a nutshell, the federal government had very little power to force states to do anything including paying taxes.
Once we develop the Constitution in the 1780s we started the form of government that we are used to now. This includes the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judiciary, and the system of checks and balances. In a Republic, people were considered to be equal before the law. However, those of you who know the history of the 19th century and know the history of the 20th century and know the history of your own life over the last decade or so, know that there have always been restrictions on the idea that people were equal before the law.
During the early national period—in the decades before Jacksonian democracy—there were significant restrictions. Number one, strict and severe property requirements were in place for voting. Number two, very few political offices were directly elected. Most people were elected by representatives. Third, there was a very deferential political culture in place. Every day folks gave their power to people who claim to be there “betters.” People who had the right to vote view themselves as socially superior, intellectually superior, and morally superior. Lastly, these were not competitive elections. They were very few elections that had contested results.
Over the course of antebellum America, these four things eroded away. From 1800 to 1820, many states rewrote their constitutions. The states started to allow nontraditional voters to participate in elections. Why do you think that happen during this time period? There were factional rivalries within states who were competing for fans and followers. Also, as new states were admitted into the Union, they began with more egalitarian constitutions then older states simply because it was later in the century.
Universal manhood suffrage is a good phrase to describe the antebellum period. This was an extension of voting rights based upon manhood. This is manhood as opposed to womanhood, childhood, and status as a slave. During the 1820s white men got the right to vote by virtue of being white, male, adults, and not a slave. So, universal manhood suffrage was the extension of suffrage to some but the denial of suffrage to even more. This was a very big deal and a huge move towards democratization if you were a poor white man living in antebellum America. You would have finally felt as though you were included in the political process of your country. You would have finally felt as though you had a voice and that your voice matter. Why wouldn’t women, children, or slaves be considered unfit to have a say in government? They were considered to be dependent and therefore incapable of self-government.
So, when we look at Jacksonian democracy, was this just a smokescreen? Not quite. Eliminating property requirements for free white man was a very big deal and a big accomplishment that cannot be ignored. The more obvious change that took place with Jacksonian democracy was the creation of mass rituals and a system that included two parties and new ideas about what could count as political participation. Again, Jackson did not cause Jacksonian democracy. This is not a new law that was passed during his time. His being elected was a consequence of Jacksonian democracy.
The two-party system was a radical change caused by Jacksonian democracy. There is no precedent for it. Parties started to emerge during the 1790s. Before there were parties, there were two camps of people who were fighting either for the signing of the Constitution or against the signing of the Constitution. These people were called Federalists and anti-Federalists. Those two groups of people move into the two parties in the United States during the early national period: the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans.
The Federalists was the party of the elite, well-educated men in government who wanted a strong federal government. Many of the founding fathers were Federalists. The Democrat-Republicans had their roots in the Anti-Federalists who were suspicious of a strong federal government and who tended to live in the frontier areas or more rural areas and were not directly involved in the American Revolution or daily matters of government. The Democrat-Republican party will later morph into Jackson’s party that was called the Democratic Party. They were considered to be the first modern, mass democratic party. What this meant was that they had well organized grassroots activities that were regulated by rigid party loyalty. This was a partisan time period. People voted according to their party even if they did not particularly like the candidate. The people who were behind the growth of this two-party system thought that parties were better for voters because people could attach themselves to larger themes of broader national significance. People thought that rivalries would exist anyways, so why not just have party rivalries versus personal rivalries between two different candidates?
In the Jacksonian era, the two major parties were the Democratic Party and the Whig party. There were other groups like the anti-Masons and there would be many additional parties, but the two major ones were the Democrats and the Whigs. The Whigs were very interested in federal government spending on internal improvements like building roads, bridges, canals, and railroads. They wanted to strengthen the infrastructure of America. They also tended to be more critical of slavery. Whigs also tended to be located in the north. The Democrats were suspicious of any and all attempts to restrict slavery. They also wanted to take Indian land. The Democrats tended to be in the South and in the frontier areas of the West. The Democrats had a very populist rhetoric. There were fundamental cultural differences between these two groups and we will talk about those differences over the course of the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Now, what are these elections like? This was a boisterous political climate. The elections were boisterous. People held rallies, banners, floats, parades, there were even riots tied to elections. Voting was the way that people express themselves. This is not something that was done in an orderly fashion. These were also not private ballots. People thought to gain physical control of the ballot box. Election day was a chance for one big party. Politics were also associated with the activities of being male during the Jacksonian era: infidelity, drinking, fighting, etc.
Who was Jackson?
The politics of the Jacksonian era are associated with drinking and fighting, but so is Jackson as a political leader. His life seems like it belongs in a novel about a frontiersman, but these were all things that actually happened to him. People at the time period observed him to have a larger than life personality, and that helped him as he marketed himself as a politician who was a champion of the common people on the frontier. His parents were Scotch-Irish immigrants who at first moved to Pennsylvania, but settled in the North Carolina frontier country. His father died before he was born, and his 2 brothers and mother died during the American Revolution. At a young age he was left without a family and he lived a very rowdy life. He was known for gambling, drinking, fighting, and dueling in bars with other young men, and flirting and partying with young women as a teenager and when he was in his twenties. He came to military fame during the War of 1812, and his career as a politician began in Tennessee where he was a lawyer, a prosecutor, and a judge.
Bank of the US
Jackson warred against the bank of the United States as much as he warred against the Indians. The Bank of the United States was a central bank. Its function was to determine how much other banks could borrow and lend out. The bank of the US was supposed to control the money supply. It was a for-profit organization. It was chartered. This meant that it was a private corporation that had investors and a Board of Trustees. The federal government put money into this bank. Even though it was called the Bank of the United States, it was not a branch of the government, but it was merely the only bank that the government put its money in.
The first bank of the US was set up in 1791. In 1816 the second Bank of the US was started. It was bigger than the first bank. In 1832 the bank charter was renewed. What Jackson does in response to the second Bank of the United States’ charter renewal will transform the function of the presidential veto. The presidential veto had only been used nine times from 1789 to 1829. Jackson used it 12 times in eight years often for reasons that had nothing to do with the legality of the laws. He was against the back of the US because he thought that the bank of the US was simply an institution where rich and powerful people use that bank in order to make money. Remember the way he framed himself was as a man who was for them white men of the countryside. Everybody in the United States thought that Jackson’s bank veto was a horrible decision. They saw that Jackson was playing games with the economy simply because of his own personal dislike of the banking system. The second Bank of the US dies and the US was launched into a small economic depression. Economic depressions during the 19th century are called panics. Jackson’s bank veto led the US into the panic of 1837. Everyone in the United States was affected by that depression.
Now, when people talked about democracy in America during the Jacksonian era, people were not equal. There was a big perception of the quality in America that the rest of the world perceived, but people in the United States didn’t perceive when in the United States knew that a small population possessed the majority of the nation’s wealth. People in the United States knew all about slavery. The rest of the world thought that the United States was a place of the quality because they were looking at two different concepts of equality. During the antebellum period people thought of the quality as either the quality of condition or the quality of opportunity. An equality of condition meant that people lived more or less the same way people would have more or less the same education, property size, and wealth.
An equality of opportunity meant that people might not have the same things, but that they had a level playing field for upward mobility. This is the idea that everyone who is rich today might be poor tomorrow, and that everyone who is poor today might be rich tomorrow. People in Jackson’s Democratic Party thought that equality of opportunity was what defined the United States people around the world also looked at the idea is equality of opportunity and thought that it applied in the United States. In reality, it did not, but people tended to believe that upward mobility was possible for everyone regardless have how unrealistic it might actually be. America, even for visitors to this country during the 1830s and 1840s, represented the possibility of social mobility. In reality, most people who were wealthy in the antebellum period had been born wealthy. Most people who were born poor in antebellum America would remain poor. Most people who were born slaves in antebellum America would remain slaves for the rest of their life. This is an example of the difference between rhetoric and reality. People during this time closed their eyes to the inequality that was around them.