Contrasting Jeffersonian vs. Jacksonian Democracy

Contrasting jeffersonian vs jacksonian democracy

While similar in nature, there are several major differences in Jeffersonian democracy vs Jacksonian democracy.

Jeffersonian democracy and the Jeffersonian beliefs and ideals behind them reigned supreme in the United States from Thomas Jefferson’s victory in the important election of 1800 until John Quincy Adams’ presidency in the election of 1824.

When Andrew Jackson won the election of 1828, he brought with him an altered set of beliefs and ideals that are now referred to as Jacksonian democracy.

Jackson’s victory ushered in the “Jacksonian Era” or the “Era of the Common Man” and dramatically reshaped the nation during a period of intense change.

4 Key Differences of Jeffersonian vs Jacksonian Democracy

There are four key differences between Jeffersonian democracy vs Jacksonian democracy: their views on executive vs legislative power, the aristocracy vs the common man, economic values, and education.

Andrew Jackson considered himself a Jeffersonian in nature, which is why the two belief systems are generally very similar.

The main differences between the two arose when these beliefs were put into practice. Jeffersonian presidencies in effect were very different from the presidencies of the Jacksonians.

Jeffersonian democracy vs Jacksonian democracy chart

Executive vs Legislative Power

One of the major differences between Jeffersonian vs Jacksonian democracy was in how they interpreted the Constitution and executive versus legislative powers.

Jeffersonians’ beliefs included strict constructionism, meaning they interpreted the Constitution as it was written. This interpretation generally limited the powers of the federal government, giving more power to the individual states.1

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison penned the 1798 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions summing their views on states’ rights over federal power.

Jefferson and Madison certainly made exceptions to their beliefs while president: Jefferson during the Louisiana Purchase and Embargo Act of 1807 and Madison backing the Second National Bank of the United States and Tariff of 1816.

However, Jeffersonians generally deferred to Congress and the legislative branch to make federal policy, using the executive branch to help influence direction.

Jacksonians, on the other hand, ran on a platform of states’ rights activism, though they eagerly expanded federal power, particularly in the executive branch, once in office. In the Nullification Crisis of 1832 Jackson outright rejected South Carolina’s claim of state authority over federal authority.

Jackson used the executive veto more than any other previous president, using it to override Congress and expand executive authority.

King Andrew Jacksonian democracy
Jackson’s expansion of executive power earned him the nickname “King Andrew” from opponents via LOC

He almost single-handedly destroyed the Second National Bank of the United States in the Bank War of 1832 and ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling in the significant Worcester v. Georgia case.

Jeffersonians and Jacksonians had very different visions on federal power.

Aristocracy vs Common Man

Both Jefferson and Jackson believed that government should operate in favor of the common man versus the aristocracy.

However, they had different ideas of who should lead the government.

Jeffersonians believed that a “natural aristocracy” would rise from the men most capable of leading the nation. All men were not equal in this regard, and those that proved worthy were the ones best able to lead in government.

To his credit, Jefferson believed in free public education to give every man equal opportunity to demonstrate these abilities. Those that excelled were the most qualified and natural leaders.

Jacksonians did not believe in the aristocracy. They instead believed in the “common man” and that all men were qualified to hold office.

This encouraged common men to be politically active and campaign for their rights and beliefs. Jacksonian democracy is typically attributed with the rise in popular participation in government, and Jackson’s promises had much to do with that.

Jackson found many willing volunteers to campaign for him after promising federal employment to his supporters should he win.

Spoils system Jacksonian democracy
The “spoils system” via Wikimedia

This tactic was later referred to as the “spoils system” where thousands of Jackson loyalists filled the federal bureaucracy after his victory.

The varying opinions on the capabilities of the common man further separate Jeffersonians vs Jacksonians.

Economic Values

Jefferson’s vision for the United States was that of a small agrarian republic where the federal government was too weak to dominate state governments and jeopardize individual liberties.2

An agricultural-dominated society would allow men to own property and be closer to the land. In Jefferson’s view the association between land and virtue was paramount.

Jeffersonians were deeply concerned about the effects of manufacturing on society and resisted attempts to establish a domestic industry. Those who relied upon others to earn their living such as factory workers could be easily manipulated politically.

agrarian farmer
The Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian republic via Wikimedia

Jefferson also feared economic dependence on Europe and did advocate for protectionist policies to reduce that dependence.

By Jackson’s time it was generally accepted that manufacturing was here to stay. The War of 1812 had taught the US the importance of having a thriving domestic manufacturing sector and the nation responded accordingly.

That said, Jacksonians advocated for the “common man,” and at the time a vast majority of the commoners in the United States were small farmers.

Jacksonians understood that farmers needed land and the best way to get more land was to grow the republic and expand ever westward. 

Land availability was a major cause of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which opened up huge swaths of former Native American territory in the south.

This is opposed to Jefferson who agonized over the Louisiana Purchase, uncertain of its constitutionality.

Educational value

A last major difference between Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy was their beliefs in the importance of education.

Their respective beliefs largely arose from their upbringings: Jefferson was a highly-educated intellectual born into the aristocracy while Jackson was an uneducated backwoods frontier commoner.

Jeffersonians believed that all citizens should be educated to be able to best serve their nation. It was considered a citizen’s duty to stay informed on issues of the day, laws that were passed, and the problems facing their representatives.

Free society could only function if all citizens were given equal access to educational opportunities.3

Jefferson thus believed that education for all men, provided at the public’s expense, would help make it easier for citizens to stay well-informed about their nation and representatives.

Monticello
Jefferson’s home of Monticello via Delaware Art Museum

Jackson did not share the same view on education, believing it to be relatively unimportant. He proved it himself: a common man could become president with no formal education as a child.

Jacksonians firmly believed that all men were qualified to hold public office, regardless of their upbringing or education level.

They pushed to remove all pre-qualifications for voting such as property requirements and encouraged mass political participation by rewarding followers with highly-coveted federal employment opportunities.

Despite their respective beliefs, public schooling was sporadic and entirely dependent on local communities throughout the 19th century.

Conclusion

To recap, there are four key differences between the beliefs of Jeffersonian democracy and Jacksonian democracy:

  1. Executive vs Legislative power
  2. Aristocracy vs the Common man
  3. Economic values
  4. Educational value

While scholars tend to focus on the differences between the two philosophies, they share much more in common than their differences would suggest.

Jacksonian democracy was an offshoot of Jeffersonian democracy; the differences were heavily influenced by the personal beliefs of Andrew Jackson. 

Both philosophies would go on to have enormous impacts on the social structure of the United States and influence policies that helped to shape the nation.

While the “common man” made significant gains in suffrage, it is important to note that this often came at the expense of rights for women, free Black men, and Native Americans. In fact, many of these groups saw their rights diminished in the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Eras.

Jeffersonian and Jacksonian principles also helped the institution of slavery to spread and prosper. The divisions within the United States that grew as a result of the issue of slavery would eventually lead to the American Civil War.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Wiltse, Charles M. “Jeffersonian Democracy: A Dual Tradition.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 28, no. 5, 1934, pp. 838–51. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1947407.

2) Beard, Charles A. “Some Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy.” The American Historical Review, vol. 19, no. 2, 1914, pp. 282–98. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1862288.

3) Hoover, Glenn E. “Jeffersonian Democracy: Its Significance for Our Time.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 10, no. 2, 1951, pp. 145–51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3483834.

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