Lesson Three—Political Strategies in the Antebellum Era

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Lesson Three—Political Strategies in the Antebellum Era (Jacksonian Democracy)
California Content Standards


Discuss the election of Andrew Jackson as president in 1828, the importance of Jacksonian democracy, and his actions as president.

Look at the three Van Buren/Harrison/Tyler songs—I’m going to play you these songs 3 times. 1st time—just listen; 2nd time—I’ll give you the words.
3rd time—As you listen, jot some notes. How might these songs have helped mobilize voters?
Quick Write or Discuss with partner—How did these songs help mobilize voters? Pay attention to style, language, presentation (how do you think they were presented)?
Report Out
Could we use catchy songs like this to mobilize voters for Bush? Kerry? Dean?

What techniques DO we use to mobilize voters?

I. Mini-Lecture: Political Parties in Early National and Antebellum America [use ppt]
I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to teach politics, esp. Jacksonian Democracy, because students don’t have a good personal analogy. Often they are not—or cannot be—politically involved. Moreover, they live in a society that is pretty politically disengaged. So trying to get them jazzed about 19th century political participation is a challenge.
To set us up for the next part of the lesson, I need to give you a quick review of the origins of political parties in the U.S. This is quick and dirty, and skips a lot. [Watson’s book is a good source.]

  1. First Political Parties

Arose from the debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over the policies and directions of the early republic. [For those of you who were here last summer, we went over these positions then.] These differences gave rise to the First Party System (Federalists and Democratic Republicans). At this time, many Americans remained ambivalent about the whole idea of political parties, considering them dangerous factions rather than a healthy expression of political debate. There was not much interest in the parties, anyway, beyond the local level, where local issues and events were often key to elections. Finally, the sharp differences between these two parties were fading by the 1810s, giving rise to the “Era of Good Feelings,” in which only the Democratic Republican party existed but which embraced many previously Federalist policies.

  1. Crises in the 1810s

Two crises in the 1810s led many Americans to think again about the value of parties.

  1. The Panic of 1819: Changes in the U.S. economy, and the recreation of a national bank in 1816, gave rise to a widespread economic depression. This was the first such depression in the U.S., and with 75% unemployment in some places, it scared people. It also made many folks hostile to the National Bank; they called it “the monster” but they did not have a good way to attack it politically since the only political party, the one in power, had organized the bank.

  1. The second crisis was the Missouri Crisis. When Congress (as we mentioned yesterday) divided over the question of whether Missouri would be admitted to the union as a slave state or a free state, and when congressmen came to blows over the issue, many Americans wondered if the country would be torn apart by sectionalism. Thomas Jefferson saw this crisis as so grave that he considered it “the [death] knell of the Union.”

  1. The Emergence of the Second Party System

These crises suggested to some politicians, notably Martin Van Buren of New York, that political parties might be very useful to the nation. Organized, disciplined, national parties, Van Buren and others argued, would provide a forum in which Americans could debate important political matters—such as the existence of the bank—without being divided sectionally.
In 1824, four men ran for President in the same party (Democratic Republican). The voter turnout was low, 24%, despite the growing numbers of voters enfranchised as states did away with property restrictions for voting. [overhead]
Then the Democratic Party was organized, with Andrew Jackson as its standard bearer. With this party offering organized, disciplined, national opposition to John Quincy Adams, voters began to be interested and mobilized around national politics. In 1828, voter turnout was up to 56%. [overhead]
By 1840, Americans who opposed the Democratic Party’s policies had organized a second new party—the Whig party—as a national party. Their standard bearers in 1840 were William Henry Harrison for President and John Tyler for vice-president. This constituted the Second Party System—Whigs and Democrats.

  1. Jacksonian Democracy

But along with this new pair of parties came a way of doing politics that transcended the particular parties. Democrats began it; Whigs copied it; various third parties picked it up; and when the Whigs vanished and the Republican Party became a dominant party in the Third Party System, this new style of politics—political culture—continued.
It was this political culture that created the high turnouts by 1840 that continued through the antebellum period. We call this political culture—Jacksonian Democracy (after Andrew Jackson).
What were its characteristics? [ask them]

Organized, disciplined parties organized locally, as well as at state and national levels.

Political patronage to maintain party loyalty.

Fun stuff to mobilize voters—songs, drinks, rallies, BBQs, picnics, parades, women, etc.

Candidates people can relate to—folksy, drinking, fighting, soldiers (esp. Indian fighters), manly; e.g. Jackson and Harrison

Use of partisan newspapers to share information and get out the vote.

We can say this to students—we can even give them an analogy (would you vote if each classroom or grade got a prize for the most voters? Etc.). But let’s look at newspapers in the 1850s to see how the parties used newspapers and other techniques to mobilize voters.
This is the election of 1856—Jacksonian Democracy in action in San Francisco.
II. The Exercise—Done as a Jigsaw.
From your table (tables should have a minimum of six people for this to work), divide into 6-12 groups by counting (1-6; 7-12). Give each group a set of documents plus a question to answer.

[There are six questions and groups of documents; but with a large group, you might want to have two small groups do each question.]

Spend ~15 minutes in small groups answering your assigned question.
Go back to your home group. Report out on what you learned. Give examples. As a group, answer Question 7.
[You could then report back to the class as a whole to be sure they “got” it. I don’t think we’ll report back to the whole.]
III. Beyond

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s campaign manager in the 2004 presidential campaign, has written a book on his interpretation of that campaign, entitled The Revolution will not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything. In it, Trippi argues that the Internet is creating a revolution in American politics by making it possible for people at the grassroots to get involved and to give money in substantial amounts.

His thesis has been contested by reviewers and pundits. For example, in this quotation:
“Trippi states that Dean’s 600,000 Internet supporters made a difference . . . Dean’s cadre [of voters] were activists willing to go to rallies and donate time and money for a candidate they believed in. Most voters were passive observers only committing themselves in the voting bo[o]th . . . hardly Jeffersonian democrats actively participating in the political process. . . . . Maybe Trippi’s enthusiasm for a new Internet democracy is a little early. The Internet and other emerging electronic communication devices have possibilities that may change politics. Whether or not they will be come the dominant force remains to be seen because unless the majority of American voters become more actively involved, an organized minority will always be in control.”
Given your work with 19th century political participation today, do you think the Internet can change American participation in politics? Is it analogous to the techniques of Jacksonian Democracy? Why or why not? [Write!]
Resources for Teachers

Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996 sung by Oscar Brand. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Watson, Harry. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. New York: Hill & Wang, 1990.
Making of America website. Offers many nineteenth century newspapers students can use. http://library8.library.cornell.edu/moa/moa_browse.html

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