Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

The American Franchise

The party that Andrew Jackson founded during his presidency called itself the American Democracy. In those same years, changes in electoral rules and campaign styles were making the country's political ethos more democratic than it previously had been. Both circumstances combined to fix the identity of this era in Americans' historical memory as the age of Jacksonian Democracy.

The currency of this label began with contemporaries. During the years 1831 and 1832, the Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville toured the United States. His classic Democracy in America identified democracy and equality as salient national traits. Tocqueville saw America as "the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions." To Tocqueville and other visitors, both favorable and critical, the United States represented the democratic, egalitarian future, Europe the aristocratic past. Not surprisingly, Andrew Jackson's partisans (and some sympathetic historians) were eager to appropriate this identity exclusively to themselves, counterposing their Democracy's democracy to the opposing Whig party's "aristocracy." This identification, however, should not be accepted uncritically.

The Jacksonian Democratic Party

The Democratic party and its program emerged in stages out of the largely personal following that had elected Andrew Jackson President in 1828. As progressively defined by Jackson during his two terms, the party's outlook was essentially laissez-faire. Anointing themselves as Thomas Jefferson's true heirs, Democrats stood for simple, frugal, and unintrusive government. They opposed government spending and government favoritism, especially in the form of corporate charters for banks and other enterprises. They claimed that all such measures invariably aided the rich, the privileged, and the idle—the aristocracy—against the humble yet meritorious ordinary working people.

Again following Jefferson, the Democrats espoused anticlericalism and rigorous separation of church and state. At a time of great evangelical fervor, Democrats stood aloof from the nation's powerful interdenominational (but primarily Presbyterian-Congregational) benevolent and philanthropic associations; and they denounced the intrusion into politics of religious crusades such as Sabbatarianism, temperance, and abolitionism. Democrats thus garnered adherents among religious dissenters and minorities, from Catholics to freethinkers.

Under Jackson and his successor Van Buren, Democrats pioneered in techniques of party organization and discipline, which they justified as a means of securing popular ascendancy over the aristocrats. To nominate candidates and adopt platforms, Democrats perfected a pyramidal structure of local, state, and national committees, caucuses, and conventions. These ensured coordinated action and supposedly reflected opinion at the grass roots, though their movements in fact were often directed from Washington. The "spoils system" of government patronage inaugurated by Jackson inspired activity and instilled discipline within party ranks.

Jackson and the Democrats cast their party as the embodiment of the people's will, the defender of the common man against the Whig "aristocracy." The substance behind this claim is still in dispute. After the War of 1812, constitutional changes in the states had broadened the participatory base of politics by erasing traditional property requirements for suffrage and by making state offices and presidential electors popularly elective. By the time Jackson was elected, nearly all white men could vote and the vote had gained in power. In 1812, only half the states chose presidential electors by popular vote; by 1832, all did except South Carolina. Jackson and the Democrats benefited from and capitalized upon these changes, but in no sense did they initiate them.

The presence of a class component in Jacksonian parties, setting Democratic plain farmers and workers against the Whig bourgeoisie or business elite, is argued to this day. One can read Democratic hosannas to the plain people as a literal description of their constituency or as artful propaganda. Once the popular Jackson left the scene, the two parties were very nearly equal in their bases of popular support. Presidential elections through the 1840s were among the closest in history, while party control of Congress passed back and forth.

Close competition and nearly universal white-male suffrage turned political campaigns into a combination of spectator sport and participatory street theater. Whigs as well as Democrats championed the common man and marshaled the masses at barbeques and rallies. Both parties appealed to ordinary voters with riveting stump speeches and by crafting candidates into folk heroes. Whigs answered the popularity of "Old Hickory" Andrew Jackson, hero of New Orleans, with figures like "Old Tippecanoe" William Henry Harrison, victor of the rousing "log cabin" presidential campaign of 1840. With both parties chasing every vote, turnout rates spiraled up toward 80 per cent of the eligible electorate by 1840.

The Democratic Spirit of the Age

Looking beyond the white male electorate, many of the Democrats' postures seem profoundly anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic, judged not only by a modern standard but against the goals of the burgeoning humanitarian and reform movements of that time. On the whole, Democrats were more aggressively anti-abolitionist than Whigs, and they generally outdid them in justifying and promoting ethnic, racial, and sexual exclusion and subordination. Jackson's original political base had been in the South. In the 1830s and 1840s, the two parties competed on nearly even terms throughout the country, but in the next decade the Democracy would return to its sectional roots as the party of slaveholders and their northern sympathizers.

Yet even if Jackson's Democrats had no exclusive hold on democratic principles, they still partook of the spirit of a democatic age. As Tocqueville famously observed, "the people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe. They are the cause and the aim of all things; everything comes from them, and everything is absorbed in them." To Tocqueville, Americans' energetic voluntarism, their enthusiasm for societies, associations, reforms, and crusades, their vibrant institutions of local government, the popular style and leveling spirit of their manners, customs, pastimes, art, literature, science, religion, and intellect, all marked democracy's pervasive reign.

From this perspective, the fact that Andrew Jackson—a rough-hewn, poorly educated, self-made frontiersman—could ascend to the presidency mattered more than the policies he embraced. His rhetorical championship of the plain people against the aristocrats, whatever its substance or sincerity, was itself the sign and harbinger of a massive social shift toward democracy, equality, and the primacy of the common man. Jackson stands in this light not as the leader of a party, but as the symbol for a democratic age.