Jacksonian Democracy

Topics: Democracy, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson Pages: 7 (2575 words) Published: December 11, 2012
An ambiguous, controversial concept, Jacksonian Democracy in the strictest sense refers simply to the ascendancy of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic party after 1828. More loosely, it alludes to the entire range of democratic reforms that proceeded alongside the Jacksonians' triumph—from expanding the suffrage to restructuring federal institutions. From another angle, however, Jacksonianism appears as a political impulse tied to slavery, the subjugation of Native Americans, and the celebration of white supremacy—so much so that some scholars have dismissed the phrase “Jacksonian Democracy” as a contradiction in terms. Jacksonian Democracy was an authentic democratic movement, dedicated to powerful, at times radical, egalitarian ideals—but mainly for white men.Socially and intellectually, the Jacksonian movement represented not the insurgency of a specific class or region but a diverse, sometimes testy national coalition. Its origins stretch back to the democratic stirrings of the American Revolution, the Antifederalists of the 1780s and 1790s, and the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans. More directly, it arose out of the profound social and economic changes of the early nineteenth century.Recent historians have analyzed these changes in terms of a market revolution. In the Northeast and Old Northwest, rapid transportation improvements and immigration hastened the collapse of an older yeoman and artisan economy and its replacement by cash-crop agriculture and capitalist manufacturing. In the South, the cotton boom revived a flagging plantation slave economy, which spread to occupy the best lands of the region. In the West, the seizure of lands from Native Americans and mixed-blood Hispanics opened up fresh areas for white settlement and cultivation—and for speculation. Not everyone benefited equally from the market revolution, least of all those nonwhites for whom it was an unmitigated disaster. Jacksonianism, however, would grow directly from the tensions it generated within white society. Mortgaged farmers and an emerging proletariat in the Northeast, nonslaveholders in the South, tenants and would-be yeomen in the West—all had reasons to think that the spread of commerce and capitalism would bring not boundless opportunities but new forms of dependence. And in all sections of the country, some of the rising entrepreneurs of the market revolution suspected that older elites would block their way and shape economic development to suit themselves. By the 1820s, these tensions fed into a many-sided crisis of political faith. To the frustration of both self-made men and plebeians, certain eighteenth-century elitist republican assumptions remained strong, especially in the seaboard states, mandating that government be left to a natural aristocracy of virtuous, propertied gentlemen. Simultaneously, some of the looming shapes of nineteenth-century capitalism—chartered corporations, commercial banks, and other private institutions—presaged the consolidation of a new kind of moneyed aristocracy. And increasingly after the War of 1812, government policy seemed to combine the worst of both old and new, favoring the kinds of centralized, broad constructionist, top-down forms of economic development that many thought would aid men of established means while deepening inequalities among whites. Numerous events during and after the misnamed Era of Good Feelings—among them the neo-Federalist rulings of John Marshall's Supreme Court, the devastating effects of the panic of 1819, the launching of John Quincy Adams's and Henry Clay's American System—confirmed a growing impression that power was steadily flowing into the hands of a small, self-confident minority.Proposed cures for this sickness included more democracy and a redirection of economic policy. In the older states, reformers fought to lower or abolish property requirements for voting and officeholding, and to equalize representation. A new generation of...

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