Politics of the Jacksonian Era

Even though Andrew Jackson was president only from 1829 to 1837, his influence on American politics was pervasive both before and after his time in office. The years from about 1824 to 1840 have been called the “Age of Jacksonian Democracy” and the “Era of the Common Man.” By modern standards, however, the United States was far from democratic. Women could not vote and were legally under the control of their husbands; free blacks, if not completely disenfranchised, were considered second‐class citizens at best; slavery was growing in the southern states. Moreover, the period witnessed the resettlement of Native Americans west of the Mississippi River and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. But changes did occur that broadened participation in politics, and reform movements emerged to address the inequalities in American society.

Even while states were moving toward denying free blacks the right to vote, the franchise was expanding for white men. All states admitted to the Union after 1815 adopted white male suffrage, and between 1807 and 1821, others abolished the property and tax qualifications for voting. These developments had a dramatic effect on national elections. Measuring voter turnout before the presidential election of 1824 is impossible because only electoral votes were counted, but in the 1824 presidential election, 355,000 popular votes were cast, and the number more than tripled—to more than 1.1 million—just four years later, in large part due to the end of property requirements.

The method of voting also began to change. Until the 1820s, a man voted by going to his precinct's voting place and orally stating his choices. The absence of a secret, written ballot allowed intimidation; few would vote against a particular candidate when the room was crowded with his supporters. Printed ballots gave the voter a more independent voice, even though the first ballots were published by the political parties themselves. A ballot printed by the government, the so‐called Australian ballot, was not introduced until the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, many political offices became elective rather than appointive, making office holders more accountable to the public. By 1832, almost all the states (South Carolina was the sole exception) shifted the selection of members of the Electoral College from their legislature directly to the voters. In 1826, the provisions of the Maryland constitution that barred Jews from practicing law and holding public office were removed.

The election of 1824. The Era of Good Feelings came to an end with the presidential election of 1824. Although Republicans dominated national politics, the party was breaking apart internally. Monroe's cabinet included no fewer than three men with presidential ambitions, each representing sectional interests. John C. Calhoun and Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford contended for the role of spokesperson for the South, while Secretary of State John Quincy Adams promoted the interests of New England. Outside the cabinet, Speaker of the House Henry Clay stood for his “American System,” and the military hero Andrew Jackson, the lone political outsider, championed western ideas.

Party leaders backed Crawford. Although a paralyzing stroke removed him from an active role in the campaign, he received almost as many votes as Clay. Calhoun removed himself from the race, settling for another terra as vice president and making plans for another run at the presidency in 1828 or 1832. Jackson received 43 percent of the popular vote compared to Adams's 31 percent, and he won 99 electoral votes to Adams's 84. Because Jackson did not receive a majority in the Electoral College, the election was decided by the House of Representatives, where Speaker Clay exercised considerable political influence. With no chance of winning himself, Clay threw his support to Adams, who shared his nationalist views. Thirteen of the twenty‐one states voted for Adams, and he became president. When Adams appointed Clay his secretary of state, Jackson's supporters angrily charged that a “ corrupt bargain” had been made between the two men. Although there is no firm evidence to support the charge, it became an issue that hounded Adams during his presidency and was raised by Jackson himself during the next presidential campaign.

The Adams presidency. Few candidates were as qualified as John Quincy Adams to be president, yet few presidents have had such a disappointing term. In his first annual message to Congress (1825), he laid out an extensive program of federal spending that stretched even the most liberal definition of internal improvements. Among other things, Adams called for the creation of a national university and a national observatory. But the president faced determined opposition everywhere he turned, both from Jackson's backers and Calhoun, who filled Senate committees with men who did not support the administration's policies. When Adams asked Congress for funds to send a delegate to the Congress of Panama, a meeting of the newly independent nations of Latin America, southerners argued so vociferously against the idea that the conference had ended by the time money was actually appropriated. Adams did not help his own cause. Refusing to engage in partisan politics, he did not remove opponents from appointed office when he became president and thereby alienated his own supporters. His rather idealistic position earned him little backing for a second term.

Politics had an impact on one of the most important domestic issues—protective tariffs. The Tariff of 1824 imposed duties on woolen goods, cotton, iron, and other finished products to protect textile mills in New England and industries in the mid‐Atlantic states. Four years later, Congress raised tariffs to the highest level before the Civil War and increased taxes on imports of raw wool. The Jacksonians included the duties on raw material in the legislation to weaken Adams's support from the mid‐Atlantic and northern states in the upcoming election. Indeed, Jacksonians believed the bill to be so onerous to different interest groups in different parts of the country that it had no chance of passing. But the Tariff of 1828 did become law, and it was soon called the Tariff of Abominations.

The election of 1828. The factionalism within the Republican ranks led to a split and the creation of two parties—Jackson's Democratic Republicans (soon shortened to “Democrats”) and Adams's National Republicans. Martin Van Buren of New York, who preferred rivalries between parties to disputes within one party, masterminded the emergence of the Democrats.

The campaign itself was less about issues than the character of the two candidates. Jacksonians denounced Adams for being “an aristocrat” and for allegedly trying to influence Russian policy by providing Tsar Alexander I with an American prostitute during Adams's term as ambassador. Supporters of Adams vilified Jackson as a murderer (he had fought several duels), an adulterer (he and his wife had mistakenly married before her divorce from her first husband was final), and an illiterate backwoodsman. These attacks by the National Republicans did little to detract from Jackson's popularity. Ordinary Americans admired his leadership qualities and decisiveness; they preferred to remember Jackson the Indian fighter and hero of the Battle of New Orleans and forget about the important role Adams played in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Jackson also had clear political advantages. As a westerner, he had secure support from that part of the country, while the fact that he was a slave owner gave him strength in the South. Conversely, Adams was strong only in New England. Jackson was swept into office with 56 percent of the popular vote from a greatly expanded electorate.