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Image The Jacksonian Coalition: A Border Chieftain in the White House, 1829-37

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the great questions of a revolutionary age suddenly lost their urgency in American politics. The immediate result was the collapse of the first party system. The Federalist party disappeared and the Jeffersonian coalition rapidly disintegrated in a post-war period inaccurately remembered as the Era of Good Feelings. During the presidency of James Monroe (1817-25), national politics became a conflict of personal cliques and followings. One of those factions gained the presidency in 1825 for New Englander John Quincy Adams in a series of complex and highly controversial parliamentary maneuvers.

The presidency of John Quincy Adams attained few of its own goals, but it had an unintended consequence of high importance in American history. Once again, the New England spirit of ordered freedom was brought to Washington by a moralistic President who favored an active role for the national government in economics, education and morality. These measures were strongly supported in New England. But Americans from three regions deeply disliked the policies of the Yankee President, and detested his political style. In the elections of 1828, John Quincy Adams won every electoral vote except one in his native region of New England. He also ran well in boundary states which had voted Federalist in the early republic.14

But Adams was deeply unpopular in other regions. Once again, Pennsylvania, the coastal south and the highland south joined together against New England in a new coalition which governed the nation for twelve years, from 1829 to 1841. Its structure was similar to the Jeffersonian coalition; voting patterns in 1828 and 1832 were much the same as in 1804 and 1808. But its style was very different. Its leader was not a Virginia planter but a back-country border captain, Andrew Jackson. The values of Jackson-ian democracy varied broadly from one cultural region to another, but the dominant purposes of Andrew Jackson himself owed much to the folkways of his ancestors.15

President Jackson was deeply conscious of cultural differences between American regions. In his Farewell Address he declared:

In a country so extensive as the United States and with pursuits so varied, the internal regulations of the several States must frequently differ from one another in important particulars; and this difference is unavoidably increased by the varying principles upon which the American colonies were originally planted; principles which had taken deep root in their social relations before the Revolution, and, therefore, of necessity influencing their policy since they became free and independent states. But each state has an unquestionable right to regulate its own internal concerns.16

Jackson’s goals for the government of an “extensive republic” were the preservation of honor abroad and the protection of liberty at home. By liberty, he had in mind the natural freedom of the backcountry—minimal government, maximal autonomy for each individual and no “unwarrantable interference” by the people of one region in the customs of any other.

The Jacksonian coalition was built upon principles which most Americans accepted, but many voters were deeply troubled by the behavior of President Jackson himself—a political style characterized by intensely personal leadership, charismatic appeals to his followers, demands for extreme personal loyalty, and a violent antipathy against all who disagreed with him. This style of leadership had long been rooted in the political folkways of the back-country, but it was alien to other American cultures. In some ways it seemed merely absurd to others—as in the Peggy Eaton affair (1831), when a petty quarrel among Cabinet wives grew into a test of personal loyalty which became a matter of the highest moment to a border chieftain. To the astonishment of Americans from other regions, this tempest ended in the disruption of the administration, the discharge of the Cabinet, and political feuds that continued for many years.

If the Peggy Eaton affair amused Jackson’s critics, other events genuinely alarmed them. In the Nullification crisis, Jackson’s proclamations and force bills challenged southern ideas of hegemonic liberty. In his battle with Nicholas Biddle and the “Monster Bank,” and the removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, the President badly frightened the elite of Philadelphia. His refusal to respect a ruling of the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia and his trampling of Indian rights outraged moral opinion in New England.

During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, voting returns were mainly regional in nature. Patterns of partisan allegiance to the Jacksonian Democratic Republicans and anti-Jacksonian National Republicans in 1828 and 1832 were very similar to those in the early republic. Jackson was deeply distrusted in greater New England and in the Delaware Valley. He was generally supported in central and western Pennsylvania, in the Mississippi Valley, the coastal south and the highland south. These regional patterns were so strong that in 1828 Jackson carried the electoral votes of every southern and western state, and lost virtually all of New England. Congregationalists, Quakers, Mennonites and Moravians were strenuously hostile to him. Most large denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Baptist—divided on regional lines.

Regional culture was the primary determinant of party allegiance in this period. The backcountry rallied to the idea of natural freedom under the banners of Jackson’s Democratic Republican party. Greater New England supported the idea of ordered liberty and the National Republicans. The coastal south held to its idea of hegemonic liberty. Other regions and ethnic groups aligned themselves with one group or another, according to their customs and beliefs.17 In the election of 1832, the pattern was a little different as a consequence of the defection from the Democratic party of South Carolina and Kentucky, caused by feuds between Andrew Jackson and his rival border chieftains Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Otherwise, the Jacksonian coalition continued to dominate the republic from 1824 to 1840, against the minority opposition of greater New England.

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