DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, 1815–1840

• What were the social bases for the nourishing democracy of the early mid-nineteenth century?

• What efforts were made in this period to strengthen the economic integration of the nation, and what major crises hindered these efforts?

• What were the major areas of conflict between nationalism and sectionalism?

• In what ways did Andrew Jackson embody the contradictions of democratic nationalism?

• How did the Bank War influence the economy and party competition?

The inauguration of Andrew Jackson on March 4,1829, made it clear that something had changed in American politics. The swearing-in of the president had previously been a small, dignified event. Jackson’s inauguration attracted a crowd of some 20,000 people who poured into the White House after the ceremony, ruining furniture and breaking china and glassware in the crush.

It was “the reign of King Mob,” lamented Justice Joseph Story of the Supreme Court.

Jackson aroused powerful feelings, pro and con. His supporters viewed his election as the advent of genuine democracy, the coming to power of the “common man.” Philip Hone, a New York political leader who kept a detailed diary for more than thirty years, recorded that Jackson was “the most popular man we have ever known.” Hone had voted for President John Quincy Adams in 1828, but he recognized that Jackson’s democratic bearing and beliefs “suit [the people] exactly.” Jackson’s critics, on the other hand, considered him a tyrant. They called him King Andrew I, and when they organized politically they borrowed their name, the Whig Party, from the opponents of royal power in eighteenth-century England.

Andrew Jackson’s career embodied the major developments of his era— the market revolution, the westward movement, the expansion of slavery, and the growth of democracy. He was a symbol of the self-made man. Unlike previous presidents, Jackson rose to prominence from a humble background, reflecting his era’s democratic opportunities. Born in 1767 on the South Carolina frontier, he had been orphaned during the American Revolution. Early on, Jackson displayed the courage and impetuousness for which he would later become famous. While still a youth, he served as a courier for patriotic forces during the War of Independence. Captured and imprisoned, he was almost killed when a British officer struck him with a sword after Jackson refused an order to polish the officer’s boots.

As a young man, Jackson moved to Tennessee, where he studied law, became involved in local politics, and in the 1790s won election to the House of Representatives and the Senate, and became a judge on the state supreme court. His military campaigns against the British and Indians helped to consolidate American control over the Deep South, making possible the rise of the Cotton Kingdom. He himself acquired a large plantation in Tennessee. But more than anything else, to this generation of Americans Andrew Jackson symbolized one of the most crucial features of national life—the triumph of political democracy.

Americans pride themselves on being the world’s oldest democracy. New Zealand, whose constitution of 1893 gave women and Maoris (the native population) the right to vote, may have a better claim. Even in the nineteenth century, when democracy meant male suffrage, some Latin American nations extended the right to vote to free blacks and the

descendants of the indigenous population well before the United States. Europe lagged far behind. Britain did not achieve universal male suffrage until the 1880s. France instituted it in 1793, abandoned it in 1799, reintroduced it in 1848, and abandoned it again a few years later. More to the point, perhaps, democracy became part of the definition of American nationality and the American idea of freedom.

An anti-Jackson cartoon from 1832 portrays Andrew Jackson as an aspiring monarch, wielding the veto power while trampling on the Constitution.

THE TRIUMPH OF DEMOCRACY

PROPERTY AND DEMOCRACY

The market revolution and territorial expansion were intimately connected with a third central element of American freedom—political democracy. The challenge to property qualifications for voting, begun during the American Revolution, reached its culmination in the early nineteenth century. Not a single state that entered the Union after the original thirteen required ownership of property to vote. In the older states, constitutional conventions during the 1820s and 1830s reconsidered democracy’s economic basis. Even as the expansion of industry and commercial agriculture increased the number of wage earners in cities and older rural areas, men who could not meet property requirements insisted that they were as fit as others to exercise the rights of citizens. Their insistent pressure did much to democratize American politics.

Owning property, declared a petition by “Non-Freeholders” [landless men] of Richmond to the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829, did not necessarily mean the possession of “moral or intellectual endowments” superior to those of the poor. “They alone deserve to be called free,” they continued, “who participate in the formation of their political institutions.” By this time, only North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Virginia still retained property requirements. The large slaveholders who dominated Virginia politics successfully resisted demands for changes in voting qualifications in 1829, but a subsequent constitutional convention, in 1850, eliminated the property requirement. Although the speed of the process varied from state to state, by 1860 all but one had ended property requirements for voting (although several continued to bar persons accepting poor relief, on the grounds that they lacked genuine independence). The personal independence necessary in the citizen now rested not on ownership of property, but on ownership of one’s self—a reflection of the era’s individualism.

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