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Jackson and the Common People 1812-1833

ALTHOUGH THE Federalists continued as a party for some years after their defeat in 1801, they would never again be strong enough to threaten American democracy. Jefferson’s party remained the only strong party in the country during and after Jefferson’s two terms in office as President. Still many citizens were not satisfied. They felt that they should have the right to vote even though they were poor and did not own property.

Some of them won the right to vote by moving westward, into one of the new western states. All the new states gave every white man the right to vote whether he was rich or poor. This was so because in the frontier states no one was very rich and everyone wanted as much opportunity as possible to get ahead. Six western states entered the Union between 1812 and 1821, during the same period four of the older states did away with the requirement that men had to be property owners in order to vote. By the time Andrew Jackson was elected President in 1828, only five of the original thirteen states still limited the right to vote to those who owned property.

Jackson owed his election to the rising strength of the common people, who looked on him as one of their own. He first won fame as an Indian fighter and he became the nation’s hero when he turned back the British in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. That war helped draw Americans closer together and to strengthen their feeling of nationalism. Jackson won the support of both the workers in large eastern cities and the settlers in the new western states and his election was regarded as a victory for democracy. So, in the United States, democracy and nationalism continued to grow side by side.

On March 4, 1829, Jackson was sworn in as President. For days people had been pouring into Washington by the thousands, in wagons‚ in carts, on horseback and on foot. Daniel Webster wrote that never in his life had he seen anything like this gathering of the common people. “People have come Five hundred miles to see General Jackson,” he said “and they really think that the country is rescued from some dreadful danger.”

After Jackson had taken the oath, the crowd followed him back to the White House for a great reception. They trampled the White House lawn. They pushed their way into the house through windows and doors. Waiters were swept off their feet and trays of food and punch crashed to the floor. Men in muddy boots stood on satin-covered chairs and polished tables for a better look at their new President. Some Washington officials, disgusted at the wild reception, charged that the White House had been captured by “King Mob.”

Jackson’s election had actually been a revolt of the people against another kind of king, one known as “King Caucus.” The Constitution of the United States said nothing about how candidates for the Presidency and other public offices were to be chosen. Party leaders in Congress had worked out a system of holding secret committee meetings to decide on their candidates for high office. These meetings were called party caucuses. Common people complained that this method of choosing candidates was not democratic enough and that “King Caucus” gave too much power to party leaders in Washington.

In 1824 a party caucus had refused to appoint Andrew Jackson as its candidate, although he was clearly the choice of the people. This aroused so much feeling against the party leaders that they never again attempted to nominate a candidate for the Presidency by caucus. By 1852, the year that Jackson was nominated for his second term in office, a more democratic method had been worked out. Local party groups throughout the country sent delegates to a national convention to select the party’s candidates for President and Vice-President. This marked the end of “King Caucus,” and the beginning of the national party convention system.

The age of Jackson has been described as the age when ice cream, a dance called the waltz and political power for the common man all became a familiar part of the American scene. It was a time when plain, ordinary Americans began to realize that there were things they could do to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbours. They became interested in public education, better schools, better insane asylums and better prisons. They organized labour unions to protect workers from unreasonable employers and to fight for better working conditions and higher wages. They fought against laws which allowed debtors to be thrown into jail for failure to pay their debts. They fought hardest for the common man’s right to vote in the few states where voting was still limited to men who owned property.

Jackson hated special privilege, or any law or government action that would give one group of citizens special advantages over another. Above everything else, he hated the Bank of the United States, a private bank with which the government was doing all its banking business. Jackson did not think it was right that a few bankers in the East should grow rich on government business and get political power because so much of the national wealth was placed in their care.

The common people, particularly those of the South and the West, supported Jackson in his fight against the national bank. He took the government money out of this bank and placed it in many small banks throughout the country, spreading the nation’s banking business so that no section of the land was favoured above another. By this action he pleased the South and the West and the people felt that he was their friend and would always protect them from powerful business and banking interests.


Under Jackson, the United States became the first truly democratic country in the world. Almost every white man could vote. Large political parties had been organized and these held national conventions where candidates for the Presidency were chosen and where the parties could declare their opinions on all important national questions. Free public schools had been established in most states. Ordinary citizens became so powerful through their votes that they had, in effect, gained control of the national government and made it a government by and for the people.


Jacksonian democracy made it clear once and for all, that the majority of the people and not a privileged minority, ruled the Federal government. A question remained. Was the Union, the country as a whole, stronger than any of its sections or states? The answer would determine the future of American democracy, for majority rule of the government would mean nothing unless the government could enforce the law.

The question arose during Jackson’s administration when Congress passed a law putting a tax on manufactured goods imported from foreign countries. The tax was called a protective tariff, because its aim was to protect American manufacturers by making it possible for them to sell goods below the price charged for imported goods. The South, which did most of its trading with England, strongly objected to the tax. The state of South Carolina went even further. It passed an Ordinance of Nullification, which declared that the Constitution did not give Congress the power to impose such a tax and therefore the people of South Carolina need not obey the law.

President Jackson struck back with a proclamation issued on December 10, 1832. He said that nullification was no less than rebellion and treason, that he would do everything in his power to enforce the nation’s laws. Later, at his request, Congress passed the Force Bill, which allowed the President to use the army and navy to enforce the law. He had already asked Congress to lower the tax and this satisfied the South Carolinians.

The question still remained — was the Union stronger than any of its parts? The question would become increasingly important as bad feeling developed between the North and the South, the answer would be written in blood.

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