Although Andrew Jackson would not be elected president until 1828, the Jacksonian age can be said to have begun on January 8, 1815, when troops under Jackson’s command successfully repelled a much larger British force at the Battle of New Orleans, sealing the War of 1812 treaty that had been signed a month before in Ghent, Belgium.
Americans greeted peace with a new optimism about the future of the nation, and that optimism helped prompt developments in the public and private sectors that would dramatically change American life.
Those changes, however, created a backlash spurred by concerns that the achievements of the generation of the American Revolution were being lost. Those who feared economic changes generally cheered the ongoing political democratization that has often been associated with Jackson’s name.
Andrew Jackson was an unusual figure to be associated with a democratic movement. Born in 1767, probably in South Carolina, to a widowed mother, he participated as a young teenager in the American Revolution and spent some time as a prisoner of war.
That experience, coupled with the deaths of his mother and brother from disease (deaths that Jackson blamed on the British), led Jackson to distrust the British and the idea of aristocracy. Nevertheless, Jackson made his place in the world as a lawyer, politician, and slave-holding planter, ultimately rising to prominence in his adopted state of Tennessee.
Jackson would also assume leadership of the Tennessee militia, leading it during the War of 1812 against those among the Creek Indians who had allied with the British as part of their attempt to resist further American incursions on their lands.
After the war, Jackson would be called to service to subdue other Creek and Seminole, and he entered Spanish Florida in pursuit of that goal, causing an international incident, but paving the way for Spain to cede Florida to the United States. His national fame, however, rested on his stunning victory at New Orleans, where he lost just 71 men, compared to British casualties of more than 2,000.
Even as Jackson’s men were assembling in New Orleans, a third event that would profoundly shape the age of Jackson was taking place—a meeting of the Federalist Party in Hartford, Connecticut.
Although calmer voices would prevail, some of the sentiments voiced during this Hartford Convention approached treason to many Americans, seeming to suggest the utter futility of resisting the British and the need for New England to secede and sue for a separate peace. The demise of the Federalist Party ensued amid public outrage.
Early Political Alignment
As the Federalist Party faded from the political scene, a group of Democratic-Republicans with nationalist ideas similar to the former Federalists took control of the now one-party nation.
These National Republicans embraced a stronger standing army, a series of internal improvements to aid in the movement of troops and goods, a revenue tariff with protective elements, and, most important, a Second Bank of the United States to replace the Federalist’s First Bank, which the Democratic-Republicans had gleefully allowed to die just five years previously. For a short period after the war, a sense of optimism prevailed, as the leaders of the country began to come together in a common vision of the public good.
That optimism was punctured by the panic of 1819. As the ripples from the panic made their way across America, questions arose as to its source. For many Americans, a properly working political economy would have no panics; therefore, a panic signaled a failure of that political economy, generally the result of the political system giving to some person, or group of persons, special privileges.
Their eyes rested on the Second Bank of the United States, to whom many privileges of doing business, including limited liability and the issuance of money, had been given by the U.S. Congress.
The sense of many on the periphery of society that some kind of cabal was controlling the government and privileging the few at the expense of the many was reinforced by the perception that those in Congress exercised unwarranted power in the selection of the president via the congressional caucus. The caucus system would take a hit in 1824, nominating William Crawford of Georgia.
Among the other candidates were John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, obvious congressional insiders, but outsiders coalesced around Jackson’s candidacy. Jackson won a plurality of both the popular and electoral votes, but since no candidate won an electoral majority, presidential selection returned to Congress’s hands.
Congress chose Adams as president, and Adams’s selection of Clay as his secretary of state caused Jackson’s supporters to suspect a “corrupt bargain.” For four years, Jackson’s supporters seethed, and, in 1828, elected Jackson the clear winner.
In the minds of his supporters, Jackson represented the triumph of the common man; the political races in which he ran certainly drew much greater participation in the political life of the nation.
Since the American Revolution, more and more states had eliminated property qualifications for voting. Still, as late as 1824, a number of states did not even poll for the presidency but left selection of electors to their state legislatures.
In states that did poll, these November elections were generally held separately from state and local campaigns, and voter turnout was often substantially lower—until the Jacksonian era, when both presidential and local elections began to attract more than 90 percent of eligible voters in some states.
Three Major Issues of Jackson’s Presidency
Jackson’s personal belief that he was the instrument of the people emerged from this popular support and played a significant role in shaping his positions on the three major issues that defined his presidency: Indian removal, the nullification crisis, and the Bank war.
Indian removal involved the relocation of a number of Native American nations from their lands east of the Mississippi to land in Indian Territory, primarily the modern state of Oklahoma.
The plan for removal far predated Jackson, as Thomas Jefferson believed such removal would be necessary to buy time for these nations to become “civilized,” when they would then be assimilated into European-American society.
Rather than move farther west, many of these nations attempted to remain on their lands and resist outright assimilation efforts, even while taking on many European-American ways.
Their failure to move west angered a racist electorate, who sought their lands not as much for greed as for the belief that land secured the independence that was the birthright of white men.
When nations, particularly the Cherokee, resisted, Jackson was willing to do whatever it took to secure their removal. His approaches included political intrigue within Native American nations and defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court, all the while touting his efforts as necessary to save these nations from their demise.
Despite his professions of paternalistic concern for the Native people, Jackson got their land for the many small farmers and large planters who desired it for their own livelihood.
Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis also illustrates his majoritarian outlook. When South Carolina attempted to defy a federal tariff, claiming the authority to nullify any federal law, Jackson took it as a personal and national affront, even though his ideological sympathies were with South Carolina.
Some of his intransigence was rooted in his personal differences with one of the leaders of South Carolina’s efforts, his own vice president, John C. Calhoun. His stubbornness on this issue was also driven by his belief that South Carolina was defying the will of the American people.
Jackson threatened to use federal troops to prevent South Carolina from enforcing nullification, but he would later sign off on a compromise tariff that met many of South Carolina’s demands. As long as South Carolina achieved its ends through the democratic process, Jackson was willing to agree.
The fight over the Second Bank of the United States represented the melding of Jackson’s commitment to the will of the people and his supporters’ belief that a cabal of men had taken charge in Washington, doling out special privileges to some.
Nothing loomed larger in that belief than the creation of the Second Bank of the United States, chartered in 1816 and blamed by Jackson’s supporters for the panic of 1819.
Jackson’s own position on the bank was never clear. As the election of 1832 approached, supporters of the bank realized that if he were reelected, he would be in position to veto the rechartering of the bank that was due in 1836.
Bank supporters planned to place the bank up for recharter in 1832. They believed that Jackson would agree to the bank to ensure his reelection; if he opposed the bank, he would sour the electorate, and Henry Clay would be elected and agree to a second recharter bill.
Their plan was brilliant but for one false premise—the majority of the American people opposed the bank. Jackson vetoed the bank as a bastion of privileges not afforded to ordinary Americans and won reelection.
Seeds of Democratic Movement
Jackson’s supporters were deeply ambivalent about the direction that the American economy and society were heading; the increasing importance of the market revolution economy drove them to support Jackson as a means to limit the market’s penetration into their lives and maintain their independence.
But if they were pessimistic about the emerging capitalist society and the creation of a plutocracy, they held an optimistic vision of the continued potential of a democratic nation of small producers.
The democratic movement that emerged behind Jackson sought to create its vision of the good society, politically giving voice to the majority will of white men and economically resting on the continued dispossession of the lands of native peoples to provide the independent farms of those white men.
Jackson left office in 1837 and died in 1845, but the Democratic Party founded in his wake would continue on. The optimistic spirit of the Jacksonian era would soon be tested by the economic and social transformations of urbanization and industrialization that the Jacksonians proved incapable of preventing and by the great conflagration of the Civil War.