As strange as it seems today, most Americans didn’t embrace the goal of democracy for most of American history. If they had, then it wouldn’t have been such a struggle for most people to attain it. The Federalists argued that those who owned the country should run it; it was they who paid property taxes. But the democratic tide turned with Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800 and gained momentum during the Jacksonian Era, named for the two-term presidency of Andrew Jackson, aka “Old Hickory.” Reviled as a demagogue by some and beloved by others, Jackson catered to the very voters who were just winning the vote. He put such a decisive stamp on the 1820s and 30’s that they are often called the Age of Jackson, or Jacksonian Democracy. It’s also called the “Era of the Common Man” because it was when American politics adjusted to the implications of an enlarged electorate.
By the 1830s, all white American males could vote whereas in the Colonies and Early Republic only those that owned sufficient property had suffrage. New western states synced their constitutions to the Bill of Rights and wrote their constitutions to allow for white male suffrage. Eventually, the original thirteen states caved in and revised their laws to allow property-less white men to vote (Georgia and Pennsylvania had it from the start). If early states hadn’t loosened restrictions, more middle-class people would’ve emigrated west partly for more political power. Increased voting rights created a ratchet effect that made it harder to oppose voting rights the way Federalists had in the 1790s. While universal white manhood suffrage (UWMS) may not seem generous to modern readers, it was radical for the times. France was the first country to allow it in 1792, preceded and followed by the U.S. piecemeal from 1776 to 1830, and then Switzerland in 1848. The German Confederation and Britain didn’t do likewise until 1866 and 1885, respectively. The U.S. probably wouldn’t have granted suffrage to black men (1870), women (1920), American Indians (1924), and all minorities for keeps (1965) if it hadn’t started down this path with whites males.
America’s embrace of participatory democracy in the early 19th century, while initially limited to white men, laid the foundation for increased suffrage down the road. At the same time, the very white men who won the vote were the ones blocking others from getting it. As we’ll see in Chapter 22, the inheritors of Jackson’s Democratic Party helped thwart democracy for others after the Civil War. Still, though it didn’t come about until the 1960s, there seemed to be natural impulse or trajectory built it into American history toward democracy, or at least that’s how more Whiggish historians have seen it; non-Whigs reject historical inevitability altogether and are skeptical of oversimplified, uniform trends and single “turning points.” In the Jacksonian Era, French travel writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans’ most distinctive trademark was a sense of egalitarianism.
Democracy’s seeds were planted earlier than the 1820s, during the colonial and Revolutionary era, if not back in Classical Greece and Rome and medieval England. The American Revolution scared away many of the Loyalists most likely to interfere with its egalitarian bent. Then Jefferson’s win in 1800 helped steer the 19th century toward greater suffrage. With a more market-oriented economy in the 1820s and 30’s and steam-powered printing presses providing cheap newspapers filled with political commentary, an increasing number of these newly eligible men voted. The 1792 Postal Act granted cut rates for newspapers and post offices often left extras lying around for people to read. Newspapers took up a big portion of the postal systems’ bulk weight, much the same way that YouTube® and Netflix® swallow bandwidth today on the Internet.
Tocqueville wrote that these accessible newspapers kept rural Americans, at least literate ones, more informed than European farmers. They were printed in large cities, with New York’s Sun (1833-1850) pioneering the mass-circulation penny press, followed by the Philadelphia Public Ledger (1836), New Orleans Picayune (1837), Baltimore Sun (1837), and Cleveland Plain Dealer (1842). News ranged from serious political content and local coverage to fake stories about things like winged Martian “man-bats” and unicorns seen through telescopes. These fanciful stories quickly made the Sun the most successful paper in the world. Historian Matthew Goodman described how hoaxes were democratic because people exercised their own right to distinguish truth from fiction, just as they would at P.T. Barnum’s museum, but penny presses also spread legitimate news while displacing more high-minded six-penny papers that had catered to merchants and politicians. With the advent of telegraphs — about which we’ll cover more in the next chapter — news agencies like the Associated Press (AP, 1846- ) in America and Reuters (1851- ) in Britain aggregated news “wires” for subscribing papers, eventually writing in the top-down inverted pyramid style (right) that put the most important information first so that newspapers could edit out the bottom to save space or cost. Less purely partisan than the Newspaper Wars of the 1790s (Chapter 11), steam-powered papers of the 19th century enhanced participatory democracy while still making it incumbent on readers to distinguish between truth and fiction.
Then there was the rise of the market-oriented economy that we’ll also discuss in the next chapter (14). There’s a saying that people “vote with their pocketbooks” and that’s truer in a market economy than one where most voters are simple dirt farmers, whose lives wouldn’t be much different regardless of who is in power. The Panic of 1819 underscored how integrated most people were into the market economy. The downturn started in Europe due to fluctuations after the Napoleonic Wars and Britain reverting to the gold standard. Other factors exacerbated its impact in America, including bad bank loans and saturation of the cotton market. Cotton prices dropped from 34¢ to 15¢/lb. due to over-supply, with more cotton in the pipeline than clothes factories and sellers could keep up with. The Panic of 1819 led to foreclosures on homes and farms that turned many citizens against the National Bank started by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s. Since the central government ran the bank voters blamed government for the recession. Bad loans are largely the fault of borrowers (or bankers that shouldn’t have put their faith in borrowers to begin with) but people rarely blame themselves for financial difficulties.
Anti-bank sentiment, rational or otherwise, played mainly into the hands of the Democratic-Republicans, the peoples’ party. They’d acquiesced in Hamilton’s bank, re-chartering it even in 1816, but the faction nonetheless appealed to voters who distrusted high finance. Federalists were more the party of big business, but they hadn’t survived the War of 1812. They died off partly because some of them considered secession during the war, but mostly because you can’t oppose poor whites voting if they can – it’s too late since they obviously won’t vote to disenfranchise themselves. A more business-oriented faction of the Democratic-Republicans called the National Republicans (later Whigs) forked out of Jefferson’s old faction by the late 1820s while the rump (original core group) embraced the working classes, yeoman farmers, and frontiersmen. The original group called themselves by the name the Federalists had used to insult them in the 1790s: the Democrats, or “the Democracy.” If you had to be dumber than a donkey’s ass to allow regular white men to vote then, by God, a kicking donkey their mascot it would be.
Parties organized to mobilize these new voters and cohere their views. These parties weren’t run by the government and weren’t generated by the Constitution; they formed outside the government as a way for people to get elected to serve in the government. Founders like George Washington hoped to avoid parties but, as we saw in the previous two chapters, informal Congressional factions called the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans coalesced around Jefferson and Hamilton’s competing policies in the 1790s. Next-generation Democrats like Martin Van Buren of New York argued that, far from being a bad thing, actual parties as formal institutions had upsides. For one, they gave unprivileged men like Van Buren, whose parents were tavern-keepers, a stepping-stone into politics by allowing them to work their way up through the organization, similar to a company ladder. They allowed strategists to build coalitions that could somehow or another garner over 50% of the vote, by setting differences aside and uniting against common opponents or issues. In the 19th century, parties organized barbecues, torchlight parades, and meetings to give voters a sense of identity and mobilize (manipulate?) them with slogans, songs, and alcohol. By the early 1830s, they held conventions to nominate single president/vice-president tickets, so that candidates within a party didn’t steal votes from each other. Politicians now had to grovel for votes directly, often chopping down a tree and giving a stump speech.
All this required a new generation of politicians. Washington never would’ve lowered himself to begging for votes and no one would’ve been able to hear the soft-spoken Jefferson without a megaphone. Unlike today, when politicians have to endlessly “press the flesh” on campaign trails, Washington refused to shake hands as president, even with elites, because he thought it was beneath the dignity of the office. But parties are inevitable in a republic because coalitions naturally team up to defeat common enemies. Ideally, they provide a non-violent way to channel peoples’ hatreds and disagreements, though they can lead to war as well. The party system was complicit in bringing about the Civil War in 1860, or at least failed to prevent it. The system tends to spin off third parties like the Workingman’s Party, Populists, Greens, Tea Party, etc., and then revert toward two. The reason is that, as new parties splinter off, they siphon votes, at which point they re-form alliances with one of the existing parties to oppose those they mutually hate more than each other. One historian noted that third parties are like honeybees: “once they’ve stung, they die.” Third parties impact the main two before they die off, as the existing parties co-opt their most popular ideas. On rare occasion, a new party will supplant one of the main parties. That happened in the 1850s when the new Republicans displaced the Whigs. It’s too soon to tell whether it will happen today with the Tea Party and Republicans.
This is a good time to remind us that democrat and republican have different meanings depending on whether the first letter is capitalized. Americans all live in a republic or representative democracy, but today’s two main parties, each trying to appeal to a broad electorate with their generic name, are known as the Democrats and Republicans, with caps. Presumably, names that stood for something specific would be too exclusive to win elections.
For the figurehead of the Democratic Party in the 1820s, Van Buren favored Andrew Jackson, the most popular and famous man in the America and hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson was rough-hewn frontiersman and the face of a new breed of politicians born into humble circumstances. Regardless of their parents’ wealth (only Hamilton wasn’t born into at least some privilege), all the Founders were well educated. Jackson was not and was the first important leader not old enough to have participated directly in the Revolution, though much of his family was killed in it, including his mother. He came from the Carolina frontier and had a scar etched into his cheek were a Redcoat cut him as a young boy when he refused to shine his boots.
Jackson’s minimal formal education didn’t mean he wasn’t intelligent, but he was foremost a man of action, thus the title of our sub-heading. He taught himself to read well enough to become a country lawyer and led filibusters (private military expeditions) that cleared Indians off frontier land, then resold it for a higher price. Through these means, Memphis and Nashville came to be. Jackson came by his nickname, Old Hickory, honestly — hickory being a hard wood used for hunting bows and wheel spokes. He carried two slugs around inside him, one near his lung and the other in his shoulder, as souvenirs of his life as a dueler, brawler, and soldier. He was in fourteen duels. The ball in his lung, which he took in a duel before killing his opponent, caused him constant problems and he often pulled out a handkerchief to cough up blood, sometimes for theatrical effect.
In the 1824 election, Jackson won more popular votes than the other three candidates (43%) but failed to win an electoral majority. Democrats undercut their chances by running three candidates, who stole votes from each other. At that time, there was no apparatus to compel candidates otherwise. That threw the election into the House of Representatives, where some of the congressmen who helped John Quincy Adams win the presidency won cabinet appointments in his administration. This “Corrupt Bargain” was legal, but it looked bad considering that Jackson won the popular vote. It looked worse, yet, considering that Adams (National Republican) symbolized the older Founding elite (he was John Adams’ son), while Jackson represented the “common man” voter and frontiersman. They were not only attracted to his take-charge, no-nonsense style; now they were angry that their democratic will had been denied. But Old Hickory’s story didn’t end with his loss in 1824.
Jackson’s loss mobilized the Democratic Party just as more voters became eligible, and they pioneered party politics by broadening and solidifying their coalition. It’s easy for voters to get frustrated because few people agree with all the items on any one party’s platform. But parties provide the best mechanism for anyone serious about winning precisely because they create broad, umbrella coalitions among people who don’t agree on everything. In 1828, the Democrats nominated Jackson and Jackson alone — three years early to avoid stealing votes from each other — and they arrived at a comprehensive platform they took to the voters. Platforms are agendas or lists of ideas and positions on major issues. They made sure to win mid-terms elections so that they could control votes in the House in case no one, including Jackson, won a majority of electoral votes. Their theme was “Hunters of Kentucky,” a song that commemorated Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and captured the spirit of their party’s southern and western base.
Jackson came out swinging in 1828, accusing Adams of being an educated, elitist dandy. Indeed, Adams’ childhood tutor was Thomas Jefferson! They even accused him of (in effect) being a pimp, for procuring the services of the world’s oldest profession on behalf of a Russian diplomat. Adams’ camp shot back that Jackson’s mom was a prostitute brought over by Redcoats who married a mulatto, and that Jackson stole his wife Rachel from another man and married her before her divorce came through, making her a bigamist. In truth, the Jacksons never knew her earlier divorce wasn’t finalized but, technically, the charges were true. Rachel took the news hard and died of a heart attack just as Andrew was winning the election. Jackson was already “outside the beltway” long before a highway encircled Washington, D.C., but now the thin-skinned, confrontational brawler arrived in the town he hated with an even bigger chip on his shoulder, thinking that his political enemies had killed his wife. “May God almighty forgive her murderers,” Jackson said. “I never can.”
The “Jackson Men” stormed the Federal City for the celebration, crashing the most famous inaugural ball in presidential history. Only a generation before, Martha Washington attributed a small grease stain on the Executive Mansion wall to “Democratick rabble.” One can almost envision her nose angled upwards as she said it. Now, in 1829, Jackson’s ruffians tore down the drapes and chandeliers, muddied the carpet, and essentially had themselves a kegger on the White House lawn.
Their hero, Jackson, strengthened the executive branch in relation to both the legislative (Congress) and judicial (courts) branches, as well as the states. He came to office with a clear platform, unlike the overseer-type administrations that characterized most of the earlier presidents, Jefferson being the main exception. Previous presidents, for instance, understood the veto as intended for unconstitutional or crazy congressional laws, but Jackson understood that part of the checks and balances system was the president’s right to veto any law he disagreed with, just as Congress can override the president’s veto with a 2/3rd majority. His twelve vetoes eclipsed the ten total from the previous six administrations.
A good example of both Jackson’s agenda and willingness to veto was his stance against the National Bank. Jackson thought that only specie, defined as hard money or precious metals like gold and silver, should be used as currency. He represented working farmers, craftsmen, and factory workers, and distrusted financiers who shuffled some paper around and made more money than producers who worked with their hands. We can only shudder to imagine what Jackson and his followers would’ve thought of the financial meltdown of 2008, when $10 trillion evaporated from American households, mainly because of the irresponsibility of mortgage lenders and big banks and the complexity of their derivative products. In this case, the biggest bank was associated with the government and, as mentioned, tied in the publics’ imagination to the Panic of 1819.
Proponents of the National Bank feared that, when it came up for its second re-chartering in 1836, Jackson would veto it without concern for the political fallout because he would be a lame duck at the tail end of his second administration. They brought it up for re-chartering four years early, in the 1832 election, thinking Jackson wouldn’t dare block it, but he happily “killed the monster” anyway.
After firing an uncooperative Treasury Secretary, and listening to state bank supporters like his VP Van Buren, Jackson’s administration drained the National Bank and redistributed the money to state banks. This, unfortunately, only spread the type of corruption and over-speculation in western land that Jackson feared. Old Hickory naively shared the common misconception that corruption is only something associated with higher levels of power. With the Bank War, we see Jackson strengthening the executive branch in relation to congress, but not strengthening the American economy.
Tariff of Abominations
Despite Jackson’s hostility toward the National Bank, he was a Unionist. True, he was a slaveholder and looked out for the constituents Democrats had catered to dating back to Jefferson’s day. But, banks and slavery aside, Jackson did not favor state power over the national government, especially when he was the one presiding over the national government. The controversy over tariffs, or import taxes, was a case in point that underscored his Unionist leanings. Northern manufacturers favored protectionism to elevate American industries so that they could compete with European manufacturers with access to cheaper labor. Southerners had less to gain from manufacturing and relied instead on exporting cotton to Europeans who could slap retaliatory tariffs on American imports. Tariffs only made the items they bought in the U.S. more expensive.
As the tariff debate ensued, Jackson had a falling out with his vice-president, John C. Calhoun, during a soap operatic episode involving one of the cabinet member’s wives, Peggy Eaton. This Petticoat Affair was interesting enough in its own right (we don’t have space here), but the upshot of it was that Calhoun resigned as VP and returned to his home state of South Carolina, where he led resistance to the “tariff of abominations.” He recycled Jefferson and Madison’s old Nullification Theory from the controversy over the Sedition Act in the 1790s: the theory that states could nullify any national law they deemed unconstitutional. Sure enough, like the Sedition Act, the 1828 Tariff was unconstitutional; in this case, because it was a protective, high tariff rather than a legal, moderate, revenue-raising tariff (high tariffs don’t raise any revenue because no one imports the item). On the other hand, if any state could overturn a national law per nullification theory, then the states would essentially have all the power.
Jackson thought the South Carolina Tariff Crisis, or Nullification Crisis, offered him an excellent opportunity to get in front of an army and wage war on South Carolina, ala George Washington in the Whiskey Rebellion. He was reaffirming the power of the executive branch and national government over the states. Jackson didn’t favor the tariff, but neither did he like a state defying the nation on his watch. Congress authorized the military action as the Force Bill (1833) though no battle ever materialized. In the meantime, Jackson went to Congress and asked them to lower the tariff, which they reduced by 50%. The combination of those two actions settled down the more rebellious Carolina Fire Eaters. Jackson came across looking like a strong-willed Unionist but regretted for the rest of his life that he missed his chance to “hang Calhoun from the nearest tree.”
The Tariff Crisis had another long-term, unintended consequence. When Calhoun resigned from the vice-presidency (mainly because his wife refused to socialize with another cabinet member’s wife, Peggy Eaton), Martin Van Buren replaced him. With Van Buren being from New York and Jackson from Tennessee, their administration helped forge a national identity for the Democratic Party. Rather than morphing into a regional (mainly southern) party, they stayed strong along a north-south axis, with a common support for slavery binding them together. That helped stave off regional conflict for another quarter-century, though the Democrats ultimately broke apart regionally during the sectional crisis leading up to the Civil War. The South seceded from the Union shortly after the Democrats split into northern and southern factions at their summer convention in 1860, paving the way for Abraham Lincoln’s victory as a Republican.
If Jackson put South Carolina in its proper place, he over-stepped his bounds in his treatment of Indians and the Supreme Court. In fairness to his harsh reputation, Jackson’s Indian policy was no less enlightened than the Founders or the presidents that followed. As we saw in Chapter 3, Europeans granted themselves the right to conquer and take land from anyone on Earth not ruled by a Christian sovereign through the Discovery Doctrine. As we saw in Chapter 9, George Washington saw the “merciless savages” as “wolves and beasts” that deserved nothing from Whites but “total ruin.” Washington thought buying land from Indians would be more cost effective, though, than war. As we saw in Chapter 12, a harsh policy of displacement continued from Thomas Jefferson on through the administrations of Abraham Lincoln and his successors, all the way to 1890. At the beginning of the 19th century, Jefferson told Indians they had to migrate west or acculturate among Whites, defined as converting to Christianity, farming instead of hunting, and developing a written language. American rulers underestimated how many groups would take them up on their offer, which some of the Five Civilized Tribes did. These major eastern tribes included the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, Cherokees, and Seminoles. Some Cherokees even bought slaves to grow cotton.
By Jackson’s administration, though, Whites coveted that cotton land (and gold in White County Georgia) and started overturning treaties to take it for themselves. Take a moment to scroll over the 1830s on the Invasion of America’s timeline. In Georgia, Cherokees sued based on their treaties and actually won in the Supreme Court on their second try. Unlike every president before and most after (Lincoln and Nixon were arguably exceptions), Jackson didn’t honor the Court as the final arbiter of American law. He mocked Justice John Marshall and the judicial branch for not having an army and encouraged citizens to ignore them.
Technically, the Constitution does not give the Court final say but, without that power, the judicial branch is powerless against the other two. Obviously, they don’t have an army. After Marbury v. Madison (1803) politicians agreed that the Supreme Court was the final arbiter of law. In the Cherokees’ case, Jackson was increasing the power of the executive branch over the judicial but went too far in that direction. Despite the Court’s ruling that the Cherokee could remain on their property in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Jackson forced the remaining Indians west to Oklahoma, then part of the western Arkansas Territory. Oklahoma is a combination of the Choctaw words okla for people and humma for red. Jackson’s miscarriage of justice against Cherokees was especially tragic because they’d been allies in his battle against Creeks in the War of 1812. By the time he left office, nearly 50k Indians had been pushed west. Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, made those who refused to go voluntarily march west in the dead of winter, 1838, on the Trail of Tears. Not all Americans supported Indian Removal. Transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a long, angry letter to Martin Van Buren, calling the forced march and confiscation of property an “outrage” that would make the U.S. “stink to the world.” Only the Seminoles, led by Osceola, held out against the U.S. army, leading them on a wild goose chase through the Florida Everglades.
Opposition to Jackson
Opposition to Old Hickory formed by the early 1830s, not just in reaction to his strong-armed tactics, but because the U.S. hadn’t really had two parties since the demise of the Federalists years earlier. Though the Federalists were out of the picture, their idea of a strong national government supporting business was still alive. A new party calling themselves the Whigs, led by Kentuckian Henry Clay, established a platform they called the American System: higher tariffs, renewal of the National Bank, support for education, and promotion of internal improvements (infrastructure) like roads and canals. The Democrats said the Whigs favored industry over farming, but there was nothing anti-farming about their stance beside tariffs arguably hurting cotton planters. Otherwise, most farmers stood to gain from improved infrastructure. But the Whigs included many southern Planters, too, who thought that Jackson’s conservative banking policies slowed down the growth of “King Cotton.”
The name Whigs was a clever way for the new party to shed the elitist reputation of the Federalists. The Whigs were the English party that supported the people in Parliament’s House of Commons (and American Revolution) and opposed the Tories, aristocracy, and king. The American Whigs even tried spinning Jackson as a king — an obvious contradiction in terms since he was fairly elected and grew up in a log cabin with his single mom, but it resonated among people who thought he’d abused power. Even during his candidacy, critics feared Jackson would become an “American [Napoleon] Bonaparte.” This turned out to be a common pattern in American politics, as opposition parties commonly accuse sitting presidents of being dictators. One lunatic tried to assassinate Jackson but, when his pistol misfired, the president grabbed it, beat the daylights out of him and tried to frame a senator he disliked. Old Hickory didn’t need the Secret Service.
Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, struggled with the country’s second recession, this one caused by another glut in the fast-growing cotton market, a Hessian fly infestation, and fallout from Jackson’s dismantling of the National Bank. Jackson’s 1836 Specie Circular mandated that all government land be purchased with gold or silver and that, combined with British banks fearing a downturn in cotton land, dried up credit. Due to the ensuing Panic of 1837, his opponents called him Martin Van Ruin and the bad economy set the table for the Whigs to make their first successful run at the White House in 1840.
Despite their different platform, the Whigs copied the Democrat’s campaigning blueprint. Like Jackson, they too nominated a War of 1812-era hero, William Henry Harrison, who also had a catchy nickname: Old Tippecanoe, after his 1811 victory at Tippecanoe Creek in Indiana. The Democrats cried foul because of Harrison’s seeming lack of interest and experience in politics, saying that he’d never even voted and had mostly just sat on his front porch rocker drinking whiskey since the war. One Democratic newspaper opined, “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.” Neither charge was true. Harrison, in fact, had run for office several times and, while he ran a distillery for a while, forsook alcohol when he saw its ill effects. But justice was served. The Democrats’ slanders accidentally played into the hands of the Whigs, who emphasized his apolitical, outsider status. They “took ownership” as we’d say today and even coined the phrase Log Cabin Campaign. The last thing voters want in their elected officials is a politician, a word generally spoken with a sneer on one’s face. E.C. Booz’ distillery gave voters log cabin-shaped whiskey bottles with “Tippecanoe & Tyler Too” emblazoned on them (Tyler was Harrison’s VP).
Harrison won the 1840 election and proceeded to give a one-hour-and-forty-minute inaugural speech in a driving sleet storm. He caught pneumonia and died a month later. Legend attributed his death not to divine punishment for his lengthy speech, but rather to the curse Shawnee Indian Tecumseh put on the U.S. at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1814, as Harrison became the first victim of the zero curse. Presidents elected in a year ending in zero died in office for seven administrations in a row: Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was shot but lived, breaking the curse.
Age of the Common Man?
It’s easy for modern students, born into a democratic society, to notice the glaring limitations of the Jacksonian Era. It’s worth noting that the Democrats’ opponents, while supposedly more “elitist” in their endorsement of infrastructure and the bank, were more open to abolition and respecting the rights of women and Indians than the working-class men who voted Democrat. To this day, elite is a slippery term in American political jargon, often a term wealthy Whites use pejoratively to discourage working-classes from listening to progressives. Jacksonian democracy was a decidedly white man’s democracy. Racism wasn’t something that was just taken for granted because it was an earlier era, and that we notice today because we’re applying modern standards. Once regular white men got the right to vote, they blocked women and minorities from getting that same right.
Nevertheless, with their populist appeal, the early Democrats set the long-term pattern for electoral politics. Numerous movies, most famously Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, played to voters’ frustrations about a seemingly over-powerful distant government unresponsive to the people. Today’s politicians fall all over themselves to prove who is most “outside the beltway,” to use Ross Perot’s phrase from 1992, even though their obvious career goal is to be inside the beltway. We’re caught in a loop of voting people in to clean up the system who are running for office to enjoy the spoils of the system. Once in office, they can’t get anything done without making the sort of backroom deals they opposed as candidates or working with well-funded lobbies (industry representatives and interest groups) that control campaign money for the next election. If you don’t submit, your party support evaporates and no one will vote for any bills you introduce. Then, come election time, campaigners use the money lobbies give them to run commercials accusing their opponent of being beholden to lobbies.
Another annoying feature is the contest to see who can come across as most “regular,” like you and me. No campaigner in his or her right mind would consider a good education a selling point. Each politician, no matter how privileged, has to weave a rags-to-riches narrative into his or her biography, with parents whose calloused hands taught them the value of hard work. Should it even be voters’ overriding goal to elect regular people to the White House? Obviously, one has to be fairly extraordinary to even aspire to higher office. But do Americans, in practice, at least elect extraordinary people from ordinary backgrounds, like Andrew Jackson? It varies from year to year. In 1996, for instance, presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole both hailed from middle-class backgrounds. In 2000 and 2004, however, when George W. Bush ran against Al Gore, Jr. and John Kerry, respectively, the election pitted sons of prominent politicians and Yale graduates against each other. In the case of Kerry and Bush, both were members of the same fraternity at Yale, Skull & Bones. Privilege is still a big advantage in politics (Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Romney) and wealth is essential for a third-party candidate (Nader, Perot, Trump). But people from regular backgrounds with extraordinary ability and/or ambition occupy the White House around half the time (Truman, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama). Like Van Buren, their only chance was to rise up through a political party or, in Reagan’s case, gain fame in another profession first (acting). The Age of Jackson, not the American Revolution, gave ordinary white men a chance to participate. The American Revolution planted the seeds of democracy that sprouted in the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to widen the pool of potential candidates in the 21st.
Optional Reading & Researching:
Origin of the Republican Elephant (Danbury GOP)
“The Jacksonian Revolt,” Walter Russell Mead (Foreign Affairs Reprint, 1.17)
Early Voting: American Election Returns, 1787-1825 (Tufts Univ.)