Jacksonian Politics in America

Nancy B. Alston

Though the emergence of distinct political parties in American politics predated the Jacksonian era by forty years or more, the election of a populist president like Andrew Jackson was arguably the catalyzing moment for the wealthy elites of America. Their response – the formation of the Whig party – was set to counteract Jackson’s actions and help to preserve this minority’s majority in the national political scene.

How could politics be considered fair in this period of American history when, for example, nearly one-fifth of the legislators came from the elite power centers such as Connecticut, while the state represented something on the order of one-twentieth of the nation’s population? With his belief in the fair and equanimious redistribution of wealth in American society, Brinkley points out how Jackson ordered the redistribution of the federal surplus to all of the states in the nation. Jackson espoused a great deal of the same social and political mores of liberals in America today. These particular beliefs, coupled with Jackson’s actions, would incite not only the creation of the Whig Party, but foment the development of a number of political institutions and mechanisms that exist even today, such as the party convention system. His presidency would have long-standing implications.

The foundation of the Whig party made the distinctions between they and the Democrats more and more obvious. In his writings de Toqueville claims that one of the few protections against the “tyranny of the majority” is the right of political association. We see such a right exercised in the massing of individuals in the form of political parties. “The right of political associations,” wrote de Toqueville, “[enabled] the supporters of an opinion to unite in electoral colleges and appoint delegates to represent them in a central assembly… This is properly speaking the representative system applied to one party.” With his power consolidated quite well, Jackson was free to deftly make executive decisions that advanced his agenda, while agitating the political and social elites of both the Northern power centers as well as the landed, elite Southern planters. Interestingly enough, Jackson and his Democrats appealed to individuals out West as they sought opportunities to better themselves through land acquisitions; less affluent Northerners, and even Southerner planters who wanted less government intrusion. This stands in stark contraposition to the Democratic party of today, whose power base is increasingly centered outside the Southern United States, which up until a few decades ago was overwhelmingly Democratic in affiliation.

In response to many of Jackson’s decisions, such as breaking up the Bank of the United States or returning the federal surplus to the states, wealthy agitators were galvanized in their desire to oppose and upset Jackson wherever they could. In his Essays on the American Whig Party, Thomas Brown writes “Whig statesmanship was not an ideology directed at a small elite but one that assumed that American voters generally ‘were capable of reason, moderation, and self-control’ in pursuit of the principle.” This could be seen later in their attempts to defeat William Henry Harrison’s bid for the presidency when they touted themselves as the party of the common man, certainly a jibe aimed directly at the Jacksonian Democrats. Brown’s commentary is an interesting view that feels Millsian; “capable of reason, moderation and self-control” certainly reflects a view that left to their own devices, individuals will make decisions that ultimately in their best interest, and moreover that their best interests would drive votes away from the Jacksonian party. Of course, this would prove to be an erroneous belief.

Brown argues that “the birth of the Whig party was a consolidation of diverse factions brought together successfully only when events of Jackson’s administration attracted a popular base under the rallying cry of ‘executive usurpation.'” Anyone who argues against a strong, centralized federal government (as de Toqueville certainly did) would be anguished by many of Jackson’s actions. Though the Whig party did not last, its root beliefs laid the foundation for the later Republican party, which even today still embraces social and fiscal conservatism, less government intrusion, and more power on the states as opposed to a large federal bureaucracy. Jackson would surely be at odds with them today were he alive.

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