Modern history

Jacksonian Democracy in Action

Many ordinary Americans held high expectations for Jackson’s presidency, and Jackson hoped to make government more responsive to the “common man.” But the president’s notion of democracy, while inclusive of white men regardless of wealth or property, did not extend to Indians or African Americans. During his presidency, Indian nations would actively resist his efforts to take more of their land, and blacks would continue to resist their enslavement. Of more immediate importance, since President Jackson had to take clear positions on tariffs and other controversial issues, he could not please all of his constituents. He also confronted experienced adversaries like Clay, Webster, and John Quincy Adams, who was elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts in 1830. The president thus faced considerable difficulty in translating popular support into public policy.

A Democratic Spirit?

On March 4, 1829, crowds of ordinary citizens came to see their hero’s inauguration. Jackson’s wife Rachel had died less than three months earlier, leaving her husband devastated. Now Jackson, dressed in a plain black suit, walked alone to the Capitol as vast throngs of supporters waved and cheered. Wealthy planters were jammed shoulder to shoulder with frontier farmers and working men and women. Local African Americans also turned out for the spectacle. A somber Jackson read a brief inaugural address, took the oath of office, and then rode his horse through the crowds to the White House.

The size and enthusiasm of the crowds soon shattered the decorum of the inauguration. Author Margaret Bayard Smith reported mobs “scrambling, fighting, [and] romping” through the White House reception. Jackson was nearly crushed to death by “rabble” eager to shake his hand. Tubs of punch laced with rum, brandy, and champagne were finally placed on the lawn to draw the crowds outdoors.

Nonetheless, Jackson and his supporters viewed the event as a symbol of a new democratic spirit. Others were less optimistic. Bayard Smith warned against putting too much faith in “the people,” who “have been found in all ages and countries where they get power in their hands, that of all tyrants, they are the most ferocious, cruel, and despotic.” She and other conservative political leaders also saw echoes of the French Revolution in the unruly behavior of the masses. Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, too, feared “the reign of King ‘Mob.’ ”

Tensions between the president and the capital’s traditional leaders intensified in the first months of his administration. Jackson’s appointment of Tennessee senator John Eaton as secretary of war added to the rancor. Eaton had had an affair with a woman thought to be of questionable character and later married her. When Jackson announced his plans to appoint Eaton to his cabinet, congressional leaders urged him to reconsider. When the president appointed Eaton anyway, the wives of Washington’s leading politicians snubbed Mrs. Eaton and refused to accept her social calls. This time Jackson was outmaneuvered in what became known as the Petticoat Affair, and Eaton was eventually forced from office.

From the days of Dolley Madison, political wives had wielded considerable influence in Washington. In 1831 they pressured Eaton to resign. But the Petticoat Affair also led Jackson’s entire cabinet to resign, after which his legislative agenda stalled in Congress and National Republicans regained the momentum lost after Adams’s defeat. The Eaton appointment had reinforced concerns that the president used his authority to reward his friends. So, too, did his reliance on an informal group of advisers, known as the Kitchen Cabinet, rather than his official cabinet. While his administration opened up government posts to a wider range of individuals, ensuring more democratic access, he often selected appointees based on personal ties. The resulting spoils system—introduced by Jackson and continued by future administrations—assigned federal posts as gifts for partisan loyalty rather than as jobs that required experience or expertise.

Confrontations over Tariffs and the Bank

The Democratic Party that emerged in the late 1820s was built on an unstable foundation. The coalition that formed around Jackson included northern workers who benefited from high tariffs as well as southern farmers and planters who did not. It brought together western voters who sought federal support for internal improvements and strict constructionists who believed that such expenditures were unconstitutional. Weakened by conflicts over appointments, Jackson had to decide which factions to reward. In 1830 Congress passed four internal improvement bills with strong support from National Republicans. Jackson vetoed each one, claiming that the “voice of the people” demanded careful spending. These vetoes worried his frontier supporters but pleased his southern constituency.

Southern congressmen, however, were more interested in his stand on tariffs. The tariff of1828 still enraged many southern planters and politicians, but most believed that once Jackson reached the White House, he would reverse course and reduce this “Tariff of Abominations.” Instead, he avoided the issue, and southern agriculture continued to suffer. Agricultural productivity in Virginia, South Carolina, and other states of the Old South was declining from soil exhaustion, while prices for staples like cotton and rice had not fully recovered after the panic of 1819. At the same time, higher duties on manufactured items meant that southerners had to pay more for the goods they bought.

Even as Calhoun campaigned with Jackson in 1828, the South Carolinian developed a philosophical argument to negate the effects of high tariffs on his state. Like opponents of the War of 1812, Calhoun drew on states’ rights doctrines outlined in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 (see chapter 7). In The South Carolina Exposition and Protest, published anonymously in 1828, Calhoun argued that states should have the ultimate power to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. When Jackson, after taking office, realized that his vice president advocated nullification— the right of individual states to declare individual laws void within their borders—it further damaged their relationship, which was already frayed by the Eaton affair.

When Congress debated the tariff issue in 1830, South Carolina senator Robert Hayne defended nullification. He claimed that the North intended to crush the South economically and that only the right of states to nullify federal legislation could protect southern society. In response, Daniel Webster denounced nullification and the states’ rights doctrine on which it was built. At a banquet held after the Hayne-Webster debate, Jackson further antagonized southern political leaders by supporting Webster’s position.

Matters worsened in 1832 when northern and western congressmen ignored their southern counterparts and confirmed the high duties set four years earlier. Jackson signed the 1832 tariff into law. In response, South Carolina held a special convention that approved an Ordinance of Nullification. It stated that duties on imports would not be collected in the state after February 1, 1833, and threatened secession if federal authorities tried to collect them. Many of the state’s residents believed armed conflict was at hand, and some planters raised regiments to secure their property and defend what they viewed as the state’s rights.

The tariff crisis thus escalated in the fall of 1832 just as Jackson faced reelection. The tariff debates had angered many southerners, and Calhoun refused to run again as his vice president. Fortunately for Jackson, however, opponents in Congress had provided him with another issue that could unite his supporters and highlight his commitment to the common man: the renewal of the BUS charter.

Clay and Webster persuaded Nicholas Biddle, head of the BUS, to request an early recharter of the bank. Jackson’s opponents in Congress knew they had the votes to pass a new charter in the summer of 1832, and they hoped Jackson would veto the bill and thereby split the Democratic Party just before the fall elections. The Second Bank was a political quagmire. Although a private institution, it was chartered, or granted the right to operate, by the federal government, which owned 20 percent of its stock. The bank had stabilized the economy during the 1820s by regularly demanding specie (gold or silver) payments from state-chartered banks. This kept those banks from issuing too much paper money and thereby prevented inflation and higher prices. The Second Bank’s tight-money policies also kept banks from expanding too rapidly in the western states. Bankers, merchants, and entrepreneurs in eastern cities as well as most planters applauded the bank’s efforts, but its tight-money policies aroused hostility among the wider public. When state-chartered banks closed because of lack of specie, ordinary Americans were often stuck with worthless paper money. Tight-money policies also made it more difficult for individuals to get credit to purchase land, homes, or farm equipment.

As the president’s opponents had hoped, Congress approved the new charter, and Jackson vetoed it. Yet rather than dividing the Democrats, Jackson’s veto gained enormous support from voters across the country. In justifying his action, the president cast the Second Bank as a “monster” that was “dangerous to the liberties of the people”— particularly farmers, mechanics, and laborers—and promoted “the advancement of the few.” Finally, Jackson noted that wealthy Britons owned substantial shares of the bank’s stock and that national pride demanded ending the Second Bank’s reign over the U.S. economy. Jackson rode the enthusiasm for his bank veto to reelection over National Republican candidate Henry Clay. Within a year, the Second Bank was dead, deprived of government deposits by Jackson.

Soon after his reelection, however, the president faced a grave political crisis related to the tariff issue. Jackson now supported lower tariffs, but he was adamant in his opposition to nullification. In early 1833, he persuaded Congress to pass a Force Bill, which gave him authority to use the military to enforce national laws in South Carolina. At the same time, Jackson made clear that he would work with Congress to reduce tariffs, allowing South Carolina to rescind its nullification ordinance without losing face. Open conflict was averted, but the question of nullification was not resolved.

Contesting indian Removal

On another long-standing issue—the acquisition of Indian land—Jackson gained the support of white southerners and most frontier settlers. Yet not all Americans agreed with his effort to remove or exterminate Indians. In the 1820s, nations like the Cherokee that sought to maintain their homelands gained the support of Protestant missionaries who hoped to “civilize” Indians by converting them to Christianity and “American” ways. In 1819 Congress had granted these groups federal funds to establish schools and churches to help acculturate and convert Indian men and women. Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams supported the rights of Indians to maintain their sovereignty if they embraced missionary goals. Jackson was much less supportive of efforts to incorporate Indians into the United States and sided with political leaders who sought to force eastern Indians to accept homelands west of the Mississippi River.

In 1825, three years before Jackson was elected president, Creek Indians in Georgia and Alabama were forcibly removed to Unorganized Territory (previously part of Arkansas Territory and later called Indian Territory) based on a fraudulent treaty. Jackson supported this policy. When he became president, politicians and settlers in Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, and Illinois demanded federal assistance to force Indian communities out of their states.

The largest Indian nations vehemently protested their removal. The Cherokees, who had fought against the Creeks alongside Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, adopted a republican form of government in 1827 based on the U.S. Constitution. John Ross served as the president of the Cherokee constitutional convention, and a year later he was chosen principal chief in the first constitutional election. He and the other chiefs then declared themselves a sovereign nation within the borders of the United States. The Georgia legislature rejected the Cherokee claims of independence and argued that Indians were simply guests of the state. When Ross appealed to Jackson to recognize Cherokee sovereignty, the president refused. Instead, Jackson proclaimed that Georgia, like other states, was “sovereign over the people within its borders.” At his urging, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, by which the Cherokee and other Indian nations would be forced to exchange ancient claims on lands in the Southeast for a “clear title forever” on territory west of the Mississippi River. Still, the majority of Cherokees refused to accept these terms and worked assiduously to maintain control of their existing territory.

As the dispute between the Cherokee nation and Georgia unfolded, Jackson made clear his intention to implement the Indian Removal Act. In 1832 he sent federal troops into western Illinois to force Sauk and Fox peoples to move farther west. Instead, whole villages, led by Chief Black Hawk, fled to the Wisconsin Territory. Black Hawk and a thousand warriors confronted U.S. troops at Bad Axe, but the Sauk and Fox warriors were decimated in a brutal daylong battle. The survivors were forced to move west.

Cherokee Phoenix As U.S. officials pressured the Cherokee nation to relocate west of the Mississippi River, Cherokee leaders sought to convince them that the tribe had become Americanized. Elias Boudinot, whose Cherokee name was Galagina Uwatie, attended Christian mission schools and married a white woman. In 1828 he published the bilingual Phoenix to build internal unity and gather support against Cherokee removal. Library of Congress

Meanwhile the Seminole Indians, who had fought against Jackson when he invaded Florida in 1818, prepared for another pitched battle to protect their territory, while John Ross pursued legal means to resist removal through state and federal courts. The contest for Indian lands would continue well past Jackson’s presidency, but the president’s desire to force indigenous nations westward would ultimately prevail.


• What did President Jackson's response to the Eaton affair and Indian removal reveal about his vision of democracy?

• To what extent did Jackson's policies favor the South? Which policies benefited or antagonized which groups of southerners?

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!