The party battles of the Jacksonian era reflected the clash between “public” and “private” definitions of American freedom and their relationship to governmental power, a persistent tension in the nation’s history. For Democrats, liberty was a private entitlement best secured by local governments and endangered by powerful national authority. “The limitation of power, in every branch of our government,” wrote a Democratic newspaper in 1842, “is the only safeguard of liberty.” A “splendid” government was always “built upon the ruins of popular rights.”

Under Jackson, even as democracy expanded, the power of the national government waned. Weak national authority, in the Democratic view, was essential to both private freedom and states’ rights—“the freedom of the individual in the social union, [and] the freedom of the State in the Federative Union.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called antebellum Americans “fanatics in freedom,” whose obsession expressed itself in hatred of “tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.” Democrats regularly condemned the faraway federal government as the greatest “danger to liberty” in America and identified government-granted privilege as the root cause of social inequality. During Jackson’s presidency, Democrats reduced expenditures, lowered the tariff, killed the national bank, and refused pleas for federal aid to internal improvements. By 1835, Jackson had even managed to pay off the national debt. As a result, states replaced the federal government as the country’s main economic actors, planning systems of canals and roads and chartering banks and other corporations.

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