Age of Jackson: 1824–1840

Politics of the Jacksonian Era

Political Parties

The single-party political system of the early 19th century fractured into a two-party system following the election of 1824.

Two political parties emerged from the American Revolution and the founding of the United States: Federalists and Democratic-Republicans (formerly known as the Jeffersonian Republicans). Federalists, who lived mostly in New England, supported the supremacy of the federal government and a lenient interpretation of the Constitution. Democratic-Republicans, who generally lived in the South, believed in states' rights and a rigid Constitutional interpretation. The first three Democratic-Republican presidents—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—were in office from 1801–25. With no political opposition, members of the Democratic-Republican Party began fighting among themselves.

In 1824 the heads of two Democratic-Republican wings, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, were each nominated for president. When Adams won the election, the Democratic-Republicans split into two groups: the National Republicans (led by Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans (led by Jackson). During Jackson's tenure as president, the Democratic-Republicans dropped "republican" from their name and became known as Democrats or Jacksonian Democrats. "The Democratic Party" became the group's official title in 1844.

The Democrats declared themselves the party of the "common man"—everyday workers and farmers. They focused on the concept of majority rule through broadening the voting process and on promoting greater equality between wealthy elites and ordinary working people. Democrats opposed corporate charters for banks and businesses—which they believed provided aid to the rich and ignored needs of the population's majority.

Democrats were intent on granting voting rights to all white male citizens—not just rich, property-owning individuals. They promoted printed secret ballots rather than public, oral voting—which gave the electorate greater independence. The Democrats' initial support of states' rights flipped during the Nullification Crisis of 1832–33. In a controversial move, Jackson asserted states could not void, or nullify, legislation passed by the federal government. Thus the federal government was more powerful than state government.

National Republicans advocated tariffs to boost the economy and federally funded improvements, like better roads. After losing two presidential elections, the National Republicans joined with the Whig Party in 1834. The Whigs were a group of conservative political factions united against the "tyranny" of "King Andrew" Jackson. Their name comes from the British Whig party, which opposed royalty's supreme power and privileges. Like their British namesakes, American Whigs thought the federal government's legislative branch should have more power than the executive branch. Though the Whigs elected William Henry Harrison president in 1840, their nationalistic agenda was never put into practice. Harrison died a month after his inauguration and was replaced by John Tyler, who vetoed proposed Whig legislation. By the late 1840s the Whigs divided on the issue of slavery, and most in the North joined the newly formed Republican Party.

Election of 1828

Andrew Jackson beat incumbent John Quincy Adams in the fractious presidential election of 1828.

The presidential election of 1828 was between John Quincy Adams, the incumbent, and Andrew Jackson, a war hero from Tennessee. Jackson and Adams had run against each other in the previous presidential election in 1824. In that election Jackson won the popular vote and the greatest number of votes in the Electoral College. However, he didn't have the constitutionally required number of electoral votes. The House of Representatives then had to choose between the top three candidates, including Adams and Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford. Adams received the most votes, winning his second term as president.

The 1828 rematch between Adams and Jackson was one of the bitterest elections in the country's history. Though both nominees maintained their civility during the campaign, their supporters were vicious. Jackson's supporters alleged Adams was an "elitist" who bought his way to the presidency and accused him of using public money to buy "personal luxuries." They even spread rumors about Adams's wife. Adams's supporters retaliated in a similar fashion, saying Jackson's wife wasn't legally divorced from her first husband before marrying Jackson. Although that was true, the situation had been rectified long ago. Jackson firmly believed the stress caused by the scandal led to his wife's early death.

Jackson's 1828 campaign was the first in history to appeal directly to voters by way of a political organization. Organizers around the country held rallies to spread the word about Jackson's hopes for the future of the United States and its citizens. Though he was a wealthy landowner, Jackson characterized himself as a champion of the "common man." Like the voters he was trying to woo, he was born in poverty and had to make his way in the world on his own. That—plus his military service in the American Revolution and the War of 1812—made him a relatable and aspirational figure. He was the exact opposite of Adams, who refused to campaign at all. Adams reasoned the presidency was not a popularity contest but a position of service and—if people wanted his service—they should ask for it. This made him seem more of an elitist than ever before.

Jackson defeated Adams with an Electoral College vote of 178 to 83. He was the first president from west of the Appalachian Mountains and the first to be born in a log cabin. His ascension to the presidency indicated a westward shift of power and political authority and a move away from the eastern establishment.
In 1828 political advertising contributed to the mudslinging that characterized the presidential election. Pamphlets dubbed "coffin handbills" were published by supporters of incumbent President Adams. These pamphlets derided Andrew Jackson for the "murders" of six soldiers. Under Jackson's command the soldiers had actually been executed for desertion during the War of 1812.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-43901

Jacksonian Democracy

Andrew Jackson's presidency saw an expansion of rights for some citizens, white men in particular.

Andrew Jackson was the first populist president. He vowed to represent the interests of regular, working-class people instead of the moneyed elite. Jackson believed the upper class was powerful only because of unfair advantages like monopolies and favoritism. This, he said, made "the rich richer and the potent more powerful." Believing in the equality of the common man and the elite classes, Jackson advocated free competition in an open marketplace. He felt this would give an even chance of success to both the wealthy and the poor. Jackson called his vision of a country where farmers, artisans, and small merchants prospered "democratic republicanism." His supporters called this ideology Jacksonian Democracy.

During the Jackson administration, democracy—in terms of suffrage—was still quite limited. In the early 19th century, voting laws were determined by individual states, not the federal government. In most cases suffrage, or the right to vote, was given only to landowners. That meant voters were primarily wealthy white men. That small pool of eligible voters shrank after many lost their property in the financial panic of 1819. Former landowners became fearful of losing their voice in the American political system and began pushing their home states to get rid of the land restrictions. This would give all white men the right to vote. Enfranchisement—granting the right to vote—to nonlandowners happened slowly, state by state, between 1820 and 1840. Just as Jackson promised, the voices of "common men" were finally being heard. Yet other voices were silenced by the revision of state voting laws. Several states that had previously allowed women or free black people to vote rescinded those privileges. Overall the majority of American citizens could not vote.

Jackson wasn't a fan of the way his presidential predecessors had managed the federal government. Instead of allowing "career politicians" to continue running Washington, DC, he advocated for the rotation of government employees. That means firing individuals appointed by one's predecessors and replacing them with campaign workers and political supporters. In the 19th century such political appointments were referred to as "spoils," much like the loot won in a conflict. In the spoils system, as it came to be called, loyalty was more important than an applicant's qualifications. This system led to significant corruption and government inefficiencies. Such hiring practices had been going on since 1812, albeit in more limited forms. However, the spoils system is attributed to Jackson thanks to an 1832 speech by Senator William Marcy of New York. While defending one of Jackson's appointments, Marcy famously said, "To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy."
A cartoon published in Harper's Weekly (1877) celebrates the end of Jackson's spoils system. With Jackson on its back, the pig treads on "fraud," "bribery," and "spoils" and devours "plunder."
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-100254