In the second quarter of the nineteenth century a new movement swept through the United States: Jacksonian Democracy. The timeline of the Jacksonian Era lasted nearly two decades and coincided with a period of great change throughout the nation.
Andrew Jackson emerged on the political scene following the Treaty of Ghent and the end of the War of 1812. Jackson was a national hero for his role in the war, particularly at the Battle of New Orleans.
He continued to stay in the public view with his contributions during the Seminole War helping lead to the acquisition of Florida in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819.
Jackson ran for president in 1824 amongst a wave of popular support. Jackson was born on the frontier to a poor, working class family. His modest upbringing endeared him to the “common man” who believed that he alone could bring equality to the masses from the wealthy aristocrats that governed the nation.
Although Andrew Jackson would lose in 1824, his supporters rallied to help him ascend to the Presidency in 1828.
The period of Jacksonian Democracy is often characterized via an expansion of democracy via voting rights to more white males, political party organization, distrust of the national bank, and reforms aimed at further equality.
There is often a distinction made between the agrarian vision employed via Jeffersonian Democracy and that of Jacksonian Democracy, though in reality there was little difference.
Regardless, the Jacksonian Era had a significant impact on society in the United States where the common man finally had a “true” defender in the Executive branch.
What Characterized Jacksonian Democracy?
Jacksonian Democracy is typically characterized and associated with the expansion of democracy and voting rights to more white males. The timeline of the Jacksonian Era is concurrent with the “Era of the Common Man” as it highlighted the gains made by working-class men.
Andrew Jackson was seen as a hero to the working-class man. Born to a poor family on the frontier, he symbolized how the average American could climb upwards into the ranks of the elite.
Jackson’s attacks on the wealthy and “corrupt” institutions and his support of reforms for the poor endeared him to his followers. While the term “Jacksonian Democracy” was not used at the time, it is widely-known that he rode a wave of popular support into the presidency.1
He was the first elected President to be born outside of the states of Virginia and Massachusetts, further highlighting the perceived domination of the wealthy, aristocratic elite in the United States.
Jacksonian Democracy is also characterized by the perceived expansion of democracy and equality. The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s commentary following a visit to the United States highlighted the feeling:
“Nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions”
Despite Tocqueville’s insights, the United States was as deeply divided as ever, if not moreso, in the inequality of conditions between rich and poor. While data from rural areas is lacking, in eastern cities the wealthiest Americans were far richer and held a higher percentage of the overall wealth than at any point previously in US history.2
Even the gains made by the “common man” during the Jacksonian Era were not equally shared. While white men without property gained suffrage throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century, free black men gradually lost their rights, even in the “free” states of the north.
Several other features of Jacksonian Democracy included a surge in political organization and thus voter turnout, implementation of patronage or the “spoils system,” rapid population growth and industrialization, and opposition to federal institutions, including the national bank.
Timeline of the Jacksonian Era
1819: The effects of the Panic of 1819 cause deep distrust of the Second Bank of the United States across the US. Andrew Jackson particularly despised the national bank’s charter.
1824: Jackson runs for the presidency, but loses in the so-called “corrupt bargain” election of 1824 to John Quincy Adams.
1828: In a rematch of the election of 1824, Jackson defeats Adams, officially beginning the “Jacksonian Era” or “Era of the Common Man.”
1828: Before Jackson took office Congress passed the 1828 tariff or “Tariff of Abominations” as it was called in the south, which abhorred the high rates.
1830: Jackson’s allies in Congress pass the 1830 Indian Removal Act authorizing the government to negotiate the relocation of the Five Civilized Tribes and other Native American nations to the west of the Mississippi River.
1831: French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visits the United States. He would publish the book Democracy in America in 1835 after observing how the expansion of democracy in America supposedly led to greater equality (this was largely untrue).
1832: In the Nullification Crisis, Andrew Jackson takes a firm stance against South Carolina’s threat of secession. The state backs down after a new tariff is negotiated to replace the Tariff of Abominations. Jackson is reelected for a second term and vetoes a bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States.
1832: In Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall rules that states have no jurisdiction on Native American lands. Jackson ignores federal enforcement of the ruling.
1835: Congress signs and passes the Treaty of New Echota to remove the Cherokee Nation, despite Cherokee protests of its fraudulent nature.
1836: Jackson’s Vice President Martin Van Buren is elected president largely in a continuation of Jacksonian principles.
1837: The Panic of 1837 grips the nation driven in part by the lack of a central, national bank to help regulate monetary policy and commerce.
1838: The forced removal of the Cherokee Nation occurs, leading to the Trail of Tears where nearly 4,000 Cherokee perish in transit to the west.
1840: Van Buren is defeated for reelection by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison as the Jacksonian era traditionally comes to an end.
Jacksonian Democracy vs Jeffersonian Democracy
Scholars and historians alike attempt to make a distinction between Jeffersonian Democracy and Jacksonian Democracy. While there were certainly differences between the eras, Jackson’s Democratic party was largely a continuation of the political ideology of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.
The Jacksonian Era gets most of the credit for the expansion of voting rights to the propertyless and switching to election by popular vote versus election by state legislatures. However, this was merely a continuation of the trend that had begun in the early 1800s.3
While Jackson railed against inequality and the wealthy aristocrats, the wealthiest were largely unaffected by Jackson’s policies. In fact, the trend of increasing wealth inequality began under Jeffersonian Democracy and continued under Jackson’s leadership.
Despite Jackson’s harsh rhetoric, state governments still favored and served the interests of the tax-paying, property-holding elites.3
The major difference between the two was the perception that Jackson “shook up” the eastern elites. Jackson’s humble beginnings and rise allowed a new class of “self-made” men to emerge among the elites.
Another distinct claim is that Jacksonian Democracy featured a rise in organized political parties that led extensive grassroots campaigns. While Jacksonians may have been more organized at the national level, Jeffersonian Democracy had also featured extensive political participation and grassroots campaigns by the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.3
Due to these similarities between the two eras, citizens at the time largely saw Jackson merely as a continuation of the Jeffersonian vision, albeit a more “modern” one that recognized the realities of industrialization.1
In fact, the term “Jacksonian Democracy” was not written until decades after the era. These early writers used the term to describe the political party and Jackson’s influence on it, rather than to describe the social atmosphere of the era.
It was not until the early 1900s when historians morphed “Jacksonian Democracy” into the version most recognized today.1
The Importance of Jacksonian Democracy
The importance of Jacksonian Democracy to societal changes in the United States is often debated by historians.
Was Jackson’s brand of democracy and politics the defining feature of the era, or were the people of the time merely living through a period of such dramatic change that there were many significant events to interpret the period?1
During Jackson’s time there were many social changes occurring at a rapid pace. The western migration of settlers, mass immigration from Europe, continued rise of industrialization, expansion of slavery, and economic upheaval were all drastic societal changes that people of the era lived through.
It is arguable that these dramatic changes as well as the expansion of democracy were all inevitable, regardless of the rise of Andrew Jackson.
The importance of Jacksonian Democracy more directly related to Andrew Jackson’s role can be seen in other avenues such as patronage and the spoils system. Jackson’s “spoils system” of rewarding ardent followers with political appointments led to a wide expansion of the federal bureaucracy, massive turnover upon administration changes, corruption, and political scandals.
The spoils system continued unabated until the Pendleton Act of 1883 finally brought reform to the system.
As President, Jackson was also notorious for defending the Constitution when it was politically convenient for him. While his response to preserve the Union during the Nullification Crisis was admirable, he blatantly ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia; his dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States provoked much criticism.
His opponents dubbed him “King Andrew” which helped lead to the rise of the Whig party. The Jacksonian Era is largely seen as coming to an end with Martin Van Buren’s defeat to Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Moss, Richard J. “Jacksonian Democracy: A Note on the Origins Ana Growth or the Term.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 2, 1975, pp. 145–53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42623515
2) Pessen, Edward. “Society and Politics in the Jacksonian Era.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 82, no. 1, 1984, pp. 1–27, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23381055
3) Pessen, Edward. “We Are All Jeffersonians, We Are All Jacksonians: Or A Pox on Stultifying Periodizations.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 1, no. 1, 1981, pp. 1–26, https://doi.org/10.2307/3122772