Political Context

From 1828, when two-term Democratic president Andrew Jackson was first elected, to Republican Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, an energetic and frequently rancorous brand of party politics formed part of the American scene.

Andrew Jackson was a military hero, known as an advocate for the interests of the common man, and a strong president. Determined to establish the sovereignty of the federal government over states' rights and the primary importance of the president within the governmental structure, Jackson used his veto power extensively and was known as "King Andrew" by his opponents. Jacksonian democracy — the political agenda expressed during his tenure in office and in Democratic politics up to the Civil War — included putting the Second Bank of the United States out of operation and attempting to return to a hard-money economy, opposing government-supported internal improvements, promoting minimal government, reforming bureaucracy through the introduction of rotation in office, and resisting government involvement in the growing controversy over slavery. Jackson's image as a champion of the people against the rich and corrupt made him tremendously popular. His appeal can be attributed in large part to widespread suspicion and resentment of the centralization of power and wealth in the hands of the elite, who had traditionally held both.

The democratizing impulse behind much of Jackson's program was counterbalanced by his enthusiasm for territorial expansion, his condemnation of abolition, and his culturally accepted disregard of Native American rights. The common man, whom he represented, was not sensitive to the plight of non-white inhabitants of the country. Those committed to abolition and social reform could not support Jackson in good conscience. Moreover, he had other opponents — for example, Southern aristocrats who bristled at his attitude toward states' rights.

In 1834, Jackson's political opposition formed the Whig Party. The Whigs were unable to settle upon a candidate for the 1836 presidential election, and Democrat Martin Van Buren was elected to the presidency. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison was elected in 1840, but he died soon after taking office and was succeeded by his vice president, John Tyler. Democrat James K. Polk took office in 1845, but two more Whig presidents followed — Zachary Taylorwho took office in 1849, and Millard Fillmorewho took office in 1850, upon Taylor's death. The Democratic/Whig campaign of 1840, featuring slogans, buttons, and mudslinging, was the first example of the type of election process that we know — and have come to expect — today.

The Whigs favored the Second Bank of the United States and protective tariffs, appealed to merchants and manufacturers, and supported reform (prison and educational reform, temperance, the abolition of capital punishment). For close to two decades, they were serious contenders in the competition for office against the Jacksonian Democrats. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were major Whig leaders.

In 1852, the Whigs lost much of their support, and Democrat Franklin Pierce was elected president, followed by Democrat James Buchanan, elected in 1856. With the demise of the Whig Party, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Know-Nothing, or American, Party arose, as did the modern Republican Party. The Republicans quickly became established as the party favored by the North and by antislavery proponents. Following a campaign devoted to the issue of slavery, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected over Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in 1860.

For the New England Transcendentalists, interest in political life presented a philosophical difficulty quite apart from a specific platform or ideology. There was very little about contemporary party politics that nurtured or elevated the inner man. Politics was an outward, sometimes raucous process. Its contentious nature required the expression of aspects of human character not particularly compatible with moral and spiritual perfection. Moreover, in focusing on current politics, the individual was sidetracked from devoting attention to his own development.

The Transcendentalists understood that politics affected some of the issues about which they cared deeply, abolition foremost among them. At the same time, they felt a certain disdain for the process and the people involved in it. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to Andrew Jackson a number of times in his journal. He wrote, for example, in a June 1840 journal entry, "The Democratic party in this country is more magnetic than the Whig. Andrew Jackson is an eminent example of it. . . . The lowest angel is better." Although certain Democratic ideas fit into the Transcendental viewpoint (that of minimal external government, for instance), political action as practiced by the Jacksonian Democrats did not have a place in the framework of Transcendental philosophy.

Moreover, when government policy and legislation — the end results of party politics — required the individual to accept an immoral situation, as in the case of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the Transcendentalists did not hesitate to urge disobedience. Civil Disobedience encapsulated not only Thoreau's thoughts but those of others in the Transcendental circle as well.

Emerson participated in the political process to the extent that his involvement forwarded the cause of abolition. Moreover, even though he did not care for the crudeness and hullabaloo of party politics and did not approve of making popular heroes out of politicians, Emerson was willing to recognize the worth and importance of a politician who conducted himself morally. Emerson voted for Abraham Lincoln. Although he remained for a time unsure of Lincoln's motivations and likely effectiveness, Lincoln won him over completely with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. From that point, Emerson, who devoted considerable thought to the subject of great men, respected Lincoln's greatness. He spoke on Lincoln at the service held in Concord on April 19, 1865, after Lincoln's assassination:

This man grew according to the need. His mind mastered the problem of the day; and, as the problem grew, so did his comprehension of it. Rarely was man so fitted to the event. In the midst of fears and jealousies, and in the Babel of counsels and parties, this man wrought with all his might and all his honesty, laboring to find what the people wanted, and how to obtain that.

Lincoln was, in short, a politician above the political process. Even though the process was flawed, Emerson could appreciate an extraordinary individual who took part in it.

Pop Quiz!

According to Emerson's "The Divinity School Address," the "sentiment of virtue" is described as what?


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