Toward discussion the sport of politics

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Students often consider politicians as somehow irrelevant to the political system itself. In fact, of course, those who serve in office shape the system as much as written laws or constitutions do. Students should know that government in the United States was not always the province of politicians. It was once the avocation of “gentlemen” and became the business of professionals at a certain time only because of particular circumstances.

There were no professional politicians in the 1700s. People like Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Adams could be political, but they were not politicians in our sense of the term. They did not derive an appreciable part of their income from public office, nor did they spend much time campaigning for votes. By contrast, the leading public figures of the early nineteenth century, Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, were hardly ever out of office and spent most of their time devising ways of advancing themselves politically. Unlike Jefferson or Washington, who suffered financially from serving in government, successful public officials in the later period tended to leave office richer than when they had entered.

The growing federal and state bureaucracies made it possible for ambitious young men to make politics a career. By the 1830s, the Democrats and Whigs rewarded their workers with civil servant jobs. In return, these bureaucrats “kicked back” a part of their income to the party, which used the funds to finance other campaigns. At the center of each political party, there was a corps of professionals, usually living off the public payroll, whose careers were inextricably tied to the success of the party. As one New York politician confessed, he would vote for a dog if his party nominated it.

Coincident with this development was the disappearance of all real issues from American politics. In the 1790s, politics was intensely ideological, partly because of the influence of the French Revolution and partly because party leaders were intellectuals. The second-party system emerged in a nation where it seemed the white, Protestant, small farmer and his family made up the soul of society and that only their interests should be protected and advanced. There were differences of opinion about how this was to be done, but these were disputes about means rather than ends.

Because politicians must campaign on something that resembles an issue in order to distinguish themselves from their opponents, they created issues. The ideal issue was one that everyone agreed on so that endorsing it would not lose votes. Unfortunately, it was hard to get votes by being for motherhood and apple pie, because any opponent would be just as enthusiastic about them. Nevertheless, then, as now, politicians would suddenly proclaim undying devotion to common verities, which always seemed to be in danger of extinction whenever an election took place. The second best issue was one that was too complicated for the average person to understand. The tariff fitted this qualification. In his autobiography, Van Buren recorded an instance of how artfully he used the complexity of the tariff question to befuddle an audience. After his speech on the subject, he mingled with the audience and overheard the following conversation:

“Mr. Knower! that was a very able speech!”

“Yes, very able,” was the reply.

“Mr. Knower! on which side of the Tariff question was it?”

Van Buren was infamous for evasion and was accused by his contemporaries of having raised the art of double-talk to a true philosophy, called “noncommitalism,” but even the plain-speaking Andrew Jackson found the tariff an excellent opportunity for his own species of political hedging. Jackson never budged from his support of a “judicious” tariff, nor did he ever explain what that meant.

To say that there were no real political issues does not mean that there were no real issues. Slavery clearly violated the fundamental ideals on which the nation had been founded, and slavery was an issue that would not go away. Because divisive, controversial issues were avoided at all costs by professional politicians, the second-party system closed the political forum to the question of slavery. Emancipation, when it came, had to come from outside the normal political process.

The second-party system extended the reality of democracy in America. Parties eagerly enlisted young men of talent and financed their political careers, enabling sons of average families to seek high public office. The parties made politics what it remains today, an exciting spectator sport full of sound and fury, even if it often signifies nothing.


Andrew Jackson dominated the political arena in the 1830s. His forcefulness was illustrated at the annual Jefferson Day dinner on April 15, 1830, in the midst of the nullification controversy. When the time for giving toasts arrived, Jackson stared at the South Carolinians present and offered, “Our Union, it must be preserved!” John C. Calhoun replied, “The Union, next to our liberty most dear! May we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the states and distributing equally the benefit and burden of the Union!” Contrast the two toasts and you begin to realize that Jackson’s pithiness, in an oratorical age, confirmed his reputation as a man of action. Martin Van Buren reported the above incident in his autobiography, an immensely valuable source that was edited and first published by John C. Fitzpatrick in 1920 and more recently reprinted by the Da Capo Press in 1973.

Van Buren’s great rival in New York and national politics was Thurlow Weed. He too wrote an autobiography, now out of print and not easy to find. It is a good supplement to Van Buren’s because it gives us the Whig version of events. One of the characteristics that made Weed a superb politician was his ability to face reality. When asked by a political ally to agree that the

Democrats could never answer Daniel Webster’s attack on Jackson’s veto of the Bank bill, Weed correctly predicted that, “two sentences in the veto message would carry ten electors against the bank for every one that Mr. Webster’s arguments and eloquence secured in favor of it.” Weed’s autobiography was edited by his daughter, Harriet Weed, and was published by Houghton Mifflin and Company in 1883.


The author uses the “hotel culture” of the early nineteenth century to exemplify the democratic culture of the new republic. The hotel welcomed all white males who could pay their way in, but excluded the poor, women alone, and blacks.


Americans in the 1820s and 1830s no longer feared that democracy would lead to anarchy. Each individual was to be given an equal start in life, but equality of opportunity did not mean equality of result. The American people were happy to accept a society of winners and losers.

A. Democracy and Society

Despite persistent and growing economic inequality, Americans generally believed they had created an egalitarian society, and in many ways they had. Political equality for all white males was a radical achievement, and Americans came to prefer the “self-made” man to one who had inherited wealth and refinement. The egalitarian spirit carried over into an attack on the licensed professions, and it was believed that any white male should have a chance to practice law or medicine, whether or not he was trained.

B. Democratic Culture

The democratic ethos also affected the arts in this period. Artists no longer worked for an aristocratic elite, but for a mass audience. Many writers and painters pleased the public by turning out Gothic horror stories, romantic women’s fiction, melodramas, or genre paintings that lovingly depicted the American way of life. More serious artists sought to inspire the masses with neoclassical sculpture, or landscapes of untamed nature. Only a few individuals, like Edgar Allan Poe, were truly avant-garde, romantic artists.

C. Democratic Political Institutions

Democratic ideals had a real impact on the American political system. Nearly all adult white males gained the right to vote whether or not they had property. Offices that had been appointive, such as judgeships or the Electoral College, were made elective. The greatest change took place in the style of politics. Professional politicians emerged, actively seeking votes and acting as servants of the people.

Men such as Martin Van Buren in New York extolled the public benefits of a two-party system, and political machines began to develop on the state level. National parties eventually developed, the Democrats and the Whigs. Although political parties often served special economic interests, it should be remembered that American politics always retained a strong republican ideology and that all parties sought to preserve equality of opportunity. The Whigs and Democrats differed on whether this could be done best with or without active intervention by the national government, but neither party gave much thought to extending rights to anyone other than adult white males. It was left to other, more radical, parties to argue the cause of African Americans, women, and working people.

D. Economic Issues

The Panic of 1819 made economic issues a matter of great concern, but there was no consensus on what should be done. Some wanted to retreat to simpler times to avoid the boom and bust associated with a growing market economy, while others wanted the government to subsidize the growth of that sort of economy. These demands for what seemed like favors aroused fears that a “money power” had become a threat to liberty.

E. Labor Radicals and Equal Rights

The growth of economic inequality prompted the formation of working men’s parties, who agitated for a ten-hour working day, among other things. The same dismay at the rise of great wealth made abolitionists and advocates of women’s rights to organize in order to preserve liberty and democracy. All of these movements, however, were fatally flawed because they shared the pervasive racism that would deny to blacks the rights being demanded for whites.


The period from the 1820s to the 1840s is with some justice called “the Age of Jackson.” This section explains why.

A. The Election of 1824 and J. Q. Adams’s Administration

The election of 1824 furthered Jackson’s political career even though he lost the election. The election began as a scramble between five men, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Andrew Jackson. Because no one received a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives had to decide the election, and its choice came down to Adams or Jackson. When Clay gave his support to Adams, the House elected him president. Adams began his administration under a cloud of suspicion because it was widely believed that he had “bought” the presidency. By 1826, it was apparent that Adams had failed as a president. The Jackson forces took control of Congress by simply giving every special interest whatever it wanted.

B. Jackson Comes to Power

The Jackson people, who became the Democratic party, were well organized for the election of 1828. The Democrats appealed to sectional self-interest and pioneered the art of making politics exciting to the average man, but the greatest asset the Democrats had was Jackson himself. Rigid and forceful, Jackson was accepted as a true man of the people, and he defeated Adams easily, especially in the slaveholding states. Jackson’s triumph was a personal one; he stood on no political platform. As President, he democratized the office by firing at will whatever officeholders he did not like, defending the practice by asserting the right of all men to a government post.

C. Indian Removal

Jackson inherited the Indian removal policy from previous administrations but carried it to its harshest conclusion. He agreed with the southern states that the federal government had not pushed the Indians hard enough. He urged Congress to speed up the relocation of the Indians living east of the Mississippi, and when the Cherokees resisted, Jackson sent the army in 1830 to evict them from their homes and herd them over the Mississippi. Some 4,000 Cherokees died along that “Trail of Tears.”

D. The Nullification Crisis

The South had reason to fear a strong national government that might some day decide to do something about slavery. Led by John C. Calhoun, southern intellectuals began working out a defense of state sovereignty. The first major controversy between federal authority and states’‘ rights came when South Carolina objected to the high tariff of 1828. The South, however, trusted Jackson to be sympathetic, and South Carolina took no action on the 1828 tariff. By 1832, the Carolinians had come to distrust Jackson, partly as a result of a personal feud between Jackson and Calhoun, but mainly because South Carolina feared a forceful president and Jackson rejected the idea of state sovereignty.

When in 1832 a new tariff was passed, South Carolina, still unhappy with the rates, nullified it. Jackson responded by threatening to send the army into South Carolina. Both sides eventually retreated; South Carolina got a lower tariff, but Jackson had demonstrated the will of the federal government to rule the states, by force if necessary.


One of the most important actions taken by Jackson was his destruction of the Bank of the United States. “The Bank War” was a symbolic defense of democratic values and led to two important results, economic disruption and a two-party system.

A. Mr. Biddle’s Bank

Although the Bank of the United States contributed to the economic growth and stability of the United States, it had never been very popular. In a democratic era, it was open to charges of giving special privileges to a few. Its manager, Nicholas Biddle, was a competent man who looked and behaved like an aristocrat. Also, in an era of rising democracy, the Bank possessed great power and privilege without accountability to the public.

B. The Bank Veto and the Election of 1832

Jackson came into office suspecting the Bank of the United States and made vague threats against it. Biddle overreacted and asked Congress to recharter the Bank in 1832, four years before the old charter was due to expire. Henry Clay took up the Bank’s cause, hoping that congressional approval of the Bank would embarrass Jackson.

When Congress passed the new charter, Jackson vetoed it on the grounds that the Bank was unconstitutional, despite a Supreme Court decision to the contrary. Jackson claimed he vetoed the Bank charter because it violated equality of opportunity and Congress upheld the veto. Clay and Jackson took their argument to the public in the election of 1832 where Jackson’s victory spelled doom for the Bank.

C. Killing the Bank

Jackson showed his opponents no mercy and proceeded to destroy the Bank by withdrawing the government’s money and depositing it into selected state banks (the “pet banks”). Biddle then used his powers as a central banker to bring on a nationwide recession, which he hoped would be blamed on Jackson. That ploy failed, but Jackson’s destruction of the Bank cost him support in Congress, especially in the Senate, where fears of a dictatorship began to emerge.

D. The Emergence of the Whigs

Opposition to Jackson formed the Whig party. Along the way, the Whigs absorbed the Anti-Masonic party, which had suddenly flourished after 1826 when it attacked the Masons as a secret, privileged elite. The Anti-Masons brought with them to the Whig party a disgust of “loose” living and a willingness to use government powers to enforce “decency.” The Democratic party was also weakened by the defection of working-class spokesmen who criticized Jackson for not destroying all banks. Furthermore, Jackson’s financial policies led to a runaway inflation, followed by an abrupt depression.

E. The Rise and Fall of Van Buren

Jackson chose his friend and advisor, Martin Van Buren, as his successor. The Whigs, still unorganized, presented Van Buren with little opposition in the election of 1836, but Van Buren’s inauguration coincided with the arrival of the depression of 1836, for which the Democrats were blamed.

Van Buren felt no responsibility to save individuals and businesses that were going bankrupt, but he did want to save the government funds in the state banks by placing them in “independent subtreasuries.” It was a sign of the growing strength of the Whigs that they could frustrate Van Buren in this aim for three years. Economic historians today conclude that the Panic of 1837 was international in scope, reflecting complex changes in the world economy beyond the control of American policy makers, but the Whigs blamed Van Buren for the mess.

In 1840 the Whigs were fully organized and had learned the art of successful politicking. They nominated William Henry Harrison, a non-controversial war hero, and built his image as a common man who had been born in a log cabin. As his running mate, the Whigs picked John Tyler, a former Jacksonian, because he would attract some votes from states’‘-rights Democrats. Harrison and Tyler beat Van Buren, although the popular vote was close.


The election of 1840 signaled the emergence of a permanent two-party system in the United States. For the next decade, Whigs and Democrats evenly divided the electorate. Although there was much overlapping, both parties attracted distinct constituencies and offered voters a clear choice of programs. The Whigs stood for a “positive liberal state,” which meant active government involvement in society. The Democrats stood for a “negative liberal state,” which meant that the government should intervene only to destroy special privileges. Both parties shared a broad democratic ideology, but the Democrats were the party of the individual, while the Whigs were the party of the community.


Alexis de Tocqueville, the French visitor who made so many astute observations about life in Jacksonian America, praised most aspects of American democracy, but warned of disaster in the future if while males refused to extend the liberties they enjoyed to women, African Americans, and Indians.

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