The Jacksonian Era of Popular Democracy

November 26, 2012

Andrew Jackson's Inauguration, 1829. Painting by Allyn Cox.

Andrew Jackson, elected president in 1828, was the first president of the United States who did not come from the traditional elites. His rise to the presidency marked the end of the aristocratic republic, and the beginning of a broader and more profound diffusion of the democratic ideology into the country’s political, social, and cultural life. Indeed, Jackson is the symbol around which the myth of American democratic equality crystallized, the myth, as we have already seen, formulated in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Andrew Jackson was a man with a strong personality, a self-made man transformed into a hero, the incarnation of the American ideal of a common man who overcame the unjust aristocratic domination of American political, economic, and social life. According to social historian James Bugg, “Jackson, the hero of the people, set apart to convert and save the world…. There were in reality two Jacksons, one the historical figure, and the other the symbol in the American myth.”(1)

Richard Hofstader comments on the implications of the Jackson movement: “With Old Hickory’s election a fluid economic and social system broke the bonds of a fixed and stratified political order. Originally a fight against political privilege, the Jacksonian movement had broadened into a fight against economic privilege, rallying to its support a host of ‘rural capitalists and village entrepreneurs.’”(2)

The years between the election of Jackson and the Civil War saw a gradual transformation in the very nature of American republicanism. During this period, notes Robert Remini, a leading authority on Andrew Jackson, the country went from a government regarded, in Madison’s words in the Federalist, as “the medium of a chosen body of citizens’ whose wisdom, patriotism, and love of justice would best discern what was in the country’s genuine interests” to a government of popular majority. “By 1837 the word democracy had largely supplanted the term republicanism in national discourse.”(3)

This is a painting of election day during the Jacksonian era.

Just as during the Virginia dynasty there had been a revolutionary attempt to establish political equality, Jacksonian democracy also attempted “the realization of social equality, so that the actual condition of men in society shall be in harmony with their acknowledged rights as citizens.”(4)

Showing their true ideological inspiration, the Jacksonian democrats applauded the riots and revolts that were shaking Europe at that time, and considered themselves part of the same worldwide revolutionary movement. As Schlesinger relates:

Portrait of President Andrew Jackson by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl

“The Jacksonians watched with keen interest the stirrings of revolt abroad. Jackson and his cabinet joined in the celebrations in Washington which followed the Revolution of 1830 in France…. Lammennais, the eloquent voice of French popular aspirations, was read in Jacksonian circles….

“Jacksonians everywhere had this faith in the international significance of their fight. America was the proving ground of democracy and it was the mission of American Democrats to exhibit to the world the glories of government by the people.”(5)

View of crowd in front of the White House during President Jackson's first inaugural reception in 1829. Made by Robert Cruickshank as an illustration in the The Playfair papers, published in London by Saunders and Otley in 1841

(1) James L. Bugg, Jr., Jacksonian Democracy: Myth or Reality? (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), p. 107.

(2) Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), quoted in Bugg, Jacksonian Democracy, p. 7.

(3) Robert Remini, The Legacy of Andrew Jackson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), pp. 24, 8.

(4) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Jacksonian Democracy as an Intellectual Movement,” in Bugg, Jacksonian Democracy, p. 77.

(5) Ibid., pp. 81, 82.

 


 

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 285-286.

 

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