The Jacksonian Era 18-24-1840 was defined by the issues that dominated the political arena. With the growing industrialization of the nation, the widening gap between the north and south, and the constant desire to expand westward, America was in a period of significant change. Andrew Jackson, as president, was an essential player in navigating these pivotal issues that characterized his America.
Reinventing the Presidency
Andrew Jackson strongly disagreed with the Founding Fathers who envisioned that Congress, not the president, would provide political leadership for the nation. Having recently deposed a King, most Founders wanted a president who would merely serve as the federal government's chief law-enforcement officer, responsible for seeing that the laws passed by Congress were duly implemented and obeyed.
Jackson would have none of this.
In his view, the president was the only government official elected by all the people, unlike senators and representatives who were elected by state legislatures and individual voter constituencies, and this bestowed a heavy responsibility—to serve the good of all the people—and significant power on the presidency.
"Andrew Jackson was the first modern president, because he was the first one who asserted that the president was not merely a member of the government's symphony: he was its conductor."
—Jon Meacham, historian
By the early 1820's, Jackson enjoyed immense popularity. Encouraged to run for president in 1822 by friends and supporters, Jackson thought it was important that the American people choose their leader, not a small political elite who had selected America's first five presidents. Though defeated in 1824, his progressive thinking, combined with his supporters' energetic campaigning, enabled Jackson to win the presidency in 1828.
Reforming the Government
Immediately upon taking office, Jackson began "reforming" the federal government. He fired scores of federal employees, alleging they were corrupt. In their place, Jackson appointed politicians and newspaper editors whose only qualification, in the eyes of many, was their loyalty to Old Hickory. To his opponents, this amounted to a "spoils system," in which Jackson's enemies were punished and his friends rewarded.
The Democratic Party, which was established by Jackson's supporters and still exists today, was another important, political legacy of Andrew Jackson. Though he remained skeptical of the value of political parties, many of his supporters defended them for empowering the masses and providing opportunities for regular citizens to participate in the government. Parties, they felt, enabled like-minded voters to rally behind candidates who shared their principles.
In 1832 the Democratic Party held a national delegate convention in Baltimore, nominated Martin Van Buren for vice-president, and launched Jackson's successful reelection bid. When the national Whig Party was organized later in the decade, the current two-party political system was born.
Andrew Jackson carved out a new, far-reaching role for the president during his two terms in office, forcing himself to the forefront of the federal government, and provocatively leading the nation as it navigated the major issues of the day.
Even today, Jackson continues to serve as a model of the activist president.
The year after President Andrew Jackson left office, the majority of the Cherokee people were forced from their ancestral homeland and escorted to current day Oklahoma, then the frontier of American civilization, on what became known as the "Trail of Tears." The Cherokee, like all other Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River, had been under heavy pressure to give up their lands in the east in exchange for lands in the west. Bitterly opposed by the tribes, this "Indian removal" policy was nonetheless implemented by threats and coercion. The removal of the Indians opened new territories for white settlement and allowed white farmers free to fulfill the dream, outlined by Jackson in 1830 in a message to Congress, of an "extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, occupied by more than 12 million happy people, and filled with the blessing of liberty, civilization, and religion."
"What sort of hope have we from a president with an inclination to disregard laws and treaties? We have nothing to expect from such a president."
—Elias Boudinote, the Cherokee Nation
Like Jefferson before him, Jackson regarded the expansion of independent, white farmers as the key to the continued success of the United States. So important was this goal to Jackson, that he slighted the accomplishments of the Cherokee Nation, and defied a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the Cherokees' right to remain on their lands.
Indian Removal Act
In 1830, Congress narrowly passed the Indian Removal Act, which funded and legalized what essentially produced the forced, westward migration of Native Americans. Historian Kathryn Braund recognizes the importance of the Act to Southern politicians and landowners: "In order to keep expanding the cotton and slave economy, Americans needed Indian land."
Many white Americans had deep-seated fear of Native Americans, in part because earlier Indian hostilities against white settlers by Indians had received enormous publicity for decades, while brutal treatment of Native Americans by whites had been ignored. Many whites completely ignored the fact that the Indians of the southeast had adopted many ideals of the dominant culture, including literacy and Christianity-as well a commercial agriculture and race-based slavery. When they were removed from Georgia, a far higher percentage of Cherokees could read and write than could the white settlers who took their land. What many Americans seemed to fear and resent most was lack of access to prime agricultural land that, under Indian sovereignty, would forever remain beyond their reach. And what many Americans seemed to respect the least was their own constitution and the rights of a culturally distinct minority.
After the Constitution was adopted, Americans were presented with two different visions of the nation's economic future. One, championed by Thomas Jefferson, aimed to preserve an economy based on independent farmers producing agricultural products for market. In contrast, Alexander Hamilton envisioned a robust industrial American economy.
Without guidance from the Constitution, these two powerful, competing visions were locked in battle.
By 1830, it had begun to look like Hamilton's ideal of elite-controlled companies and banks fostering national growth and expansion, might win out. The rise of the corporation had important economic consequences, contributing to a shift in power and wealth away from workers and landowners and into the hands of bankers and capitalists.
The dangers were not limited to financial security.
Jackson was convinced that corporations and banks also jeopardized the political rights and influence of the common man. Unless Americans succeeded in reining in big business, the people risked losing control over their country forever.
Reining in Big Business
For Jackson, the cornerstone of this crusade against big business was his opposition to extending the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. He felt the Bank, chartered and backed by the government, enjoyed too much unregulated power over the nation's economy - especially with its ability to manipulate paper money.
And Jackson hated paper money.
In part because of a financial loss he suffered earlier in life from devalued paper notes, he felt that paper money was inherently evil, a device for enriching bankers and bilking farmers and workers of their hard-earned wealth.
In a perfect world, only gold and silver coin would be used for money.
The Bank War
Opposing Jackson was Bank President Nicholas Biddle. Biddle, according to Historian Daniel Feller, believed that "American economic growth had been built on credit. And to get rid of...credit and go back to gold and silver coin, as Jackson wished to do, would throw the country back into the Stone Age."
In what became known as the "Bank War," Biddle clashed with Jackson over the Bank's constitutionality and usefulness.
Eventually Jackson triumphed in 1832 by vetoing a congressional act extending the Bank's charter and depriving the Bank of government funds for the remainder of its current charter.
Jackson genuinely feared the rise of a moneyed elite bent on enriching themselves at the expense of the hardworking people of the United States. Upon retiring from the presidency, Jackson gave a dire warning:
"...unless you become more watchful...and check this spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges you will in the end find that the most important powers of Government have been given...away, and the control over your dearest interests has passed into the hands of these corporations."
—Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address to America, 1837
The Power of Women
Though American women did not gain the right to vote until the twentieth century, they played a vital role in the nation's early history.
According to historian Kirsten Wood, during the Jacksonian era many people believed that "women were the moral sex by definition . . . women were supposed to be guardians of virtue in the domestic sphere." Middle- and upper class women, especially those in Washington, appeared to understand and embrace this role.
In 1829, the wives of Andrew Jackson's cabinet members exercised this moral prerogative by ostracizing Peggy Eaton the wife of Jackson's Secretary of War, who had earned a reputation as sexually promiscuous.
The Eaton Affair
Jackson believed that Peggy was wrongly maligned. His resentment was likely derived, in part, from the fact that his wife Rachel had been attacked by his opponents during the 1828 campaign for having, years earlier, lived with him while she was married to another man.
In the spring of 1831, infighting within Jackson's cabinet over the Eaton affair climaxed. To put an end to it, the Secretary of War and the rest of Jackson's cabinet resigned, enabling the president to replace them with men not involved in the feud.
Exercising Their Power
In the years after the Eaton Affair, American women attempted to exercise power far beyond the narrow bounds assigned to them as arbiters of sexual morality.
Women, for example, played a role in two of the most controversial issues of the time: Indian removal and slavery.
As debate raged in Congress over the Indian Removal Act recommended by Jackson, middle-class Northern women gathered thousands of signatures for petitions opposing the measure.
"...while their efforts were ultimately futile, these women were suggesting a role for women...in politics which was if not unprecedented, then certainly quite dramatic."
—Kirsten Wood, historian
Slavery was also a significant issue for women.
Many saw a direct connection between abolitionism and feminism, between the advancement of the rights of black slaves and those of women.
While women faced opposition from inside and outside the anti-slavery movement, they helped to spread abolitionist ideas and pave the way for female suffrage, which was finally achieved in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment.
What Does America Owe The Slaves?
"Jackson has to own that he owes his farm on the banks of the Mobile to the strong arm of the Negro."
The Founding Fathers understood the divisiveness slavery created within the original thirteen colonies. So that the young union wouldn't die in its infancy, they right or wrongly chose during the Constitutional Convention to let future generations decide the issue.
The United States as a whole was far more dependent on slavery in the first decades of the Republic than most Americans today realize.
While fewer slaves lived in the North, it too reaped the benefits - a prosperous agrarian national economy built on the backs of slaves.
Throughout Andrew Jackson's military and political career, he sought to expand the American Southern frontier, eventually eliminating British, Spanish, and Native Americans in the area. These feats propelled him to national prominence and opened up huge tracks of land to grateful white Americans, who mostly turned these lands into slave-based cotton plantations.
Like most Southerners, Andrew Jackson accepted slavery unquestionably despite the obvious moral dilemmas it poses to us today.
"...wealth accumulation was tied to slavery...Jackson practiced and defended what had been the accustomed way for white men to make money for 200 years."
—John Larson, historian
It was an ancient institution, protected by the Constitution itself, and politicians in the slave holding states felt that anything that threatened to destabilize slavery was dangerous and had to be curbed.
There were others, especially in the North, who thought slavery was wrong and that Americans should look to a future without it.