On Jacksonian Democracy

On Jacksonian Democracy Assessing the impact of Andrew Jackson and the policies associated with his name in the America of the second quarter of the 19th century has become a preoccupation of writers since the very time of the Old Hero’s death, and the consensus of views among these writers has been no more conspicuous than was that among Jackson‘s contemporary supporters and detractors. In fact the images of Jackson and Jacksonianism now purveyed by historians and other commentators are a good deal more diverse and numerous than were the popular images of the less sophisticated 19th century (Blau 15-19).

Though such a phenomenon was never spoken of during Jackson’s lifetime, in the 20th Century a generalized historiographical concept of Jacksonian Democracy has come to embrace all aspects and all interpretations of Jackson’s presidency and certain of the policies identified with the Democratic Party down to the Civil War. In its evolution the concept of Jacksonian Democracy was first descriptive of a political phenomenon and has since been given social and intellectual significance also, though the extent to which Jackson created or merely reflected Jacksonianism is still a matter of debate (Benson 22).

At a superficial glance, it may seem that the only thing common to all views of the concept of Jacksonian Democracy is the name of Andrew Jackson, though elements of many subsequent versions of the idea are to be found in the work of the historian who seems first to have popularized it. Frederick Jackson Turner is of course the author most frequently associated with the idea of Jacksonian Democracy as a libertarian and egalitarian movement which had a Western sectional basis.

And the origin of the concept of Jacksonian Democracy seems closely associated with Turner’s frontier hypothesis. Turner made emphatically clear his belief that Jacksonian Democracy was based on the characteristics of the back country, the Trans-Appalachian area in particular. There may have been Jackson “men” in such other places as New York and the Southern tidewater but at least in the early years, Jacksonian Democrats were most conspicuously Westerners who stood for such things as suffrage extension and relief for debtors, and against excessive taxation (Benson 25).

Coupled with these was suspicion of corporations with monopolistic charters, banks especially, and distrust of the legislative and judicial branches of both state and Federal government. Turner also anticipated a later argument by agreeing with “socialist critics” of the early West that that region was a competitive society whose members were “expectant capitalists”--men who looked upon equality and competitive individualism as concomitant.

Yet sectional influences were not the exclusive defining criteria in Turner’s conception of Jacksonianism, though they may have been primary. He clearly distinguished the conflicting economic interests of East and West and viewed the election of 1828 as the Victory of “an agricultural society, strongest in the regions of rural isolation rather than in the area of greater density of population and of greater wealth… over the conservative, industrial, commercial and manufacturing society of the New England type”.

It would appear then that at least the germ of later interpretations of Jacksonian Democracy can be found in the writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, though as is the case with so much of Turner’s work the stimulating ideas are there but the substantiating evidence is lacking (Blau 21). Turner’s overall view of the Jackson movement as one based on sectional and economic antagonisms—antagonisms that were economic because they were sectional—remained the generally accepted one into the 1940s.

The only notable lapse was that of Thomas P. Abernethy who looked upon the West as the scene of such liberal ferment as Turner described, but concluded that Jackson  had little to do with it. But in 194, there appeared a book which moved the vital center of Jacksonian Democracy from West to East, and more emphatically than any of Turner’s work made the movement a large-scale remodeling of society that grew out of bitter social and economic class divisions. Arthur M.

Schlesinger, Jr. , found the truly seminal portion of the Jackson movement in the Eastern locofoco agitation of the late 1830s, and he meticulously endeavored to show that locofocoism was irrelevant to, if not inconsistent with Western demands and desires. If anything, social equality stimulated the race for power and privilege, and led to the opposite result. The East, on the other hand “had the consistent and bitter experience which alone could serve as a crucible of radicalism”.

This bitter experience was social inequality, out of which generally arise demands for economic equality (Kramer 1992). Arthur M. Schlesinger perceives the Whigs saw government as the agency most effective in promoting the general welfare and thus subject to a great variety of uses, though at the same time he thought the Whigs may have been less concerned than the Jacksonians about the maintenance of equality and less alive to the threat to equality that might be posed by state-favored or monopolistic enterprise.

Restated as briefly as possible then, there is common to almost all 20th Century adherents to the idea of Jacksonian Democracy a conviction, explicit or implicit, that political action in the age of Jackson was founded on issues which in turn were produced by conflicts that were essentially socio-economic in nature. This idea of course is at the core of Schlesinger’s treatment, but Turner made the same point in posing the underdeveloped and underprivileged West against the more prosperous East; Hammond and Hofstadter do likewise in emphasizing the ambitions of those on the make as over against those already made.

The concept is least pervasive among recent authors who have attempted to pry more deeply into the roots and nature of the conflict, by rigorous empirical studies or by scholarly preoccupation with the Whig opposition equal to that with the Jacksonians themselves.

Reference: Benson, L. (1961). The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York As a Test Case: Princeton University Press. Blau, J. (1954). Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy: Representative Writings of the Period 1825-1850: Bobbs Merrill Kramer, M. (1992). The Political Interest. Time.