09. Democracy in America

George Caleb Bingham's painting "The County Election" shows the crowded and chaotic scene of an election. Children play on the floor. A long line of men queue up to vote while others drink, sleep, or conduct business.
George Caleb Bingham, The County ElectionReynolda House Museum of American Art.

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 *The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 On May 30, 1806, Andrew Jackson, a thirty-nine-year-old Tennessee lawyer, came within inches of death. A duelist’s bullet struck him in the chest, just shy of his heart (the man who fired the gun was purportedly the best shot in Tennessee). But the wounded Jackson remained standing. Bleeding, he slowly steadied his aim and returned fire. The other man dropped to the ground, mortally wounded. Jackson—still carrying the bullet in his chest—later boasted, “I should have hit him, if he had shot me through the brain.” ((Quoted in James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Vol. 1 (New York: Mason Brothers, 1860), 297.))

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The duel in Logan County, Kentucky, was one of many that Jackson fought during the course of his long and highly controversial career. The tenacity, toughness, and vengefulness that carried Jackson alive out of that duel, and the mythology and symbolism that would be attached to it, would also characterize many of his later dealings on the battlefield and in politics. By the time of his death almost forty years later, Andrew Jackson would become an enduring and controversial symbol, a kind of cipher to gauge the ways that various Americans thought about their country.

II. Democracy in the Early Republic

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Today, most Americans think democracy is a good thing. We tend to assume the nation’s early political leaders believed the same. Wasn’t the American Revolution a victory for democratic principles? For many of the founders, however, the answer was no.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 A wide variety of people participated in early U.S. politics, especially at the local level. But ordinary citizens’ growing direct influence on government frightened the founding elites. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton warned of the “vices of democracy” and said he considered the British government—with its powerful king and parliament—“the best in the world.” ((Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1911), 288.)) Another convention delegate, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who eventually refused to sign the finished Constitution, agreed. “The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy,” he proclaimed. ((Ibid., 48.))

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Too much participation by the multitudes, the elite believed, would undermine good order. It would prevent the creation of a secure and united republican society. The Philadelphia physician and politician Benjamin Rush, for example, sensed that the Revolution had launched a wave of popular rebelliousness that could lead to a dangerous new type of despotism. “In our opposition to monarchy,” he wrote, “we forgot that the temple of tyranny has two doors. We bolted one of them by proper restraints; but we left the other open, by neglecting to guard against the effects of our own ignorance and licentiousness.” ((Benjamin Rush, “Address to the People of the United States,” in Hezekiah Niles, ed., Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America (Baltimore: William Ogden Niles, 1822), 402. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000315501.))

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Such warnings did nothing to quell Americans’ democratic impulses in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Americans who were allowed to vote (and sometimes those who weren’t) went to the polls in impressive numbers. Citizens also made public demonstrations. They delivered partisan speeches at patriotic holiday and anniversary celebrations. They petitioned Congress, openly criticized the president, and insisted that a free people should not defer even to elected leaders. In many people’s eyes, the American republic was a democratic republic: the people were sovereign all the time, not only on election day.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The elite leaders of political parties could not afford to overlook “the cultivation of popular favour,” as Alexander Hamilton put it. ((Alexander Hamilton to James A. Bayard, April 1802, Founders Online, National Archives. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-25-02-0321. From The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. 25, July 1800–April 1802, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), 605–610.)) Between the 1790s and 1830s, the elite of every state and party learned to listen—or pretend to listen—to the voices of the multitudes. And ironically, an American president, holding the office that most resembles a king’s, would come to symbolize the democratizing spirit of American politics.

III. The Missouri Crisis

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 A more troubling pattern was also emerging in national politics and culture. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, American politics shifted toward “sectional” conflict among the states of the North, South, and West.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the state of Virginia had wielded more influence on the federal government than any other state. Four of the first five presidents, for example, were from Virginia. Immigration caused by the market revolution, however, caused the country’s population to grow fastest in northern states like New York. Northern political leaders were becoming wary of what they perceived to be a disproportionate influence in federal politics by Virginia and other southern states.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Furthermore, many northerners feared that the southern states’ common interest in protecting slavery was creating a congressional voting bloc that would be difficult for “free states” to overcome. The North and South began to clash over federal policy as northern states gradually ended slavery but southern states came to depend even more on enslaved labor.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The most important instance of these rising tensions erupted in the Missouri Crisis. When white settlers in Missouri, a new territory carved out of the Louisiana Purchase, applied for statehood in 1819, the balance of political power between northern and southern states became the focus of public debate. Missouri already had more than ten thousand enslaved labors and was poised to join the southern slave states in Congress. ((A Century of Population Growth: From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth, 1790–1900 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1909), 133, table 60. http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/00165897ch14.pdf.))

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Accordingly, Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed an amendment to Missouri’s application for statehood. Tallmadge claimed that the institution of slavery mocked the Declaration of Independence and the liberty it promised to “all men.” He proposed that Congress should admit Missouri as a state only if bringing more enslaved people to Missouri were prohibited and children born to those enslaved there were freed at age twenty-five.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Congressmen like Tallmadge opposed slavery for moral reasons, but they also wanted to maintain a sectional balance of power. Unsurprisingly, the Tallmadge Amendment met with firm resistance from southern politicians. It passed in the House of Representatives because of the support of nearly all the northern congressmen, who had a majority there, but it was quickly defeated in the Senate.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 When Congress reconvened in 1820, a senator from Illinois, another new western state, proposed a compromise. Jesse Thomas hoped his offer would not only end the Missouri Crisis but also prevent any future sectional disputes over slavery and statehood. Henry Clay of Kentucky joined in promoting the deal, earning himself the nickname “the Great Compromiser.”

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Their bargain, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, contained three parts. ((Conference committee report on the Missouri Compromise, March 1, 1820, Records of Joint Committees of Congress, 1789–1989, National Archives. http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=22.)) First, Congress would admit Missouri as a slave state. Second, Congress would admit Maine (which until now had been a territory of Massachusetts) as a free state, maintaining the balance between the number of free and slave states. Third, the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory would be divided along the 36°30’ line of latitude—or in other words, along the southern border of Missouri. Slavery would be prohibited in other new states north of this line, but it would be permitted in new states to the south. The compromise passed both houses of Congress, and the Missouri Crisis ended peacefully.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Not everyone, however, felt relieved. The Missouri Crisis made the sectional nature of American politics impossible to ignore. The Missouri Crisis split the Democratic-Republican party entirely along sectional lines, suggesting trouble to come.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Worse, the Missouri Crisis demonstrated the volatility of the slavery debate. Many Americans, including seventy-seven-year-old Thomas Jefferson, were alarmed at how readily some Americans spoke of disunion and even civil war over the issue. “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror,” Jefferson wrote. “I considered it at once as the [death] knell of the Union.” ((Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, Founders Online, National Archives. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-1234.))

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 For now, the Missouri Crisis did not result in disunion and civil war as Jefferson and others feared. But it also failed to settle the issue of slavery’s expansion into new western territories. The issue would cause worse trouble in years ahead.

IV. The Rise of Andrew Jackson

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The career of Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), the survivor of that backcountry Kentucky duel in 1806, exemplified both the opportunities and the dangers of political life in the early republic. A lawyer, enslaver, and general—and eventually the seventh president of the United States—he rose from humble frontier beginnings to become one of the most powerful Americans of the nineteenth century.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Andrew Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, on the border between North and South Carolina, to two immigrants from northern Ireland. He grew up during dangerous times. At age thirteen, he joined an American militia unit in the Revolutionary War. He was soon captured, and a British officer slashed at his head with a sword after he refused to shine the officer’s shoes. Disease during the war had claimed the lives of his two brothers and his mother, leaving him an orphan. Their deaths and his wounds had left Jackson with a deep and abiding hatred of Great Britain.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 After the war, Jackson moved west to frontier Tennessee, where despite his poor education, he prospered, working as a lawyer and acquiring land and enslaved laborers. (He would eventually come to keep 150 enslaved laborers at the Hermitage, his plantation near Nashville.) In 1796, Jackson was elected as a U.S. representative, and a year later he won a seat in the Senate, although he resigned within a year, citing financial difficulties.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Thanks to his political connections, Jackson obtained a general’s commission at the outbreak of the War of 1812. Despite having no combat experience, General Jackson quickly impressed his troops, who nicknamed him “Old Hickory” after a particularly tough kind of tree.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Jackson led his militiamen into battle in the Southeast, first during the Creek War, a side conflict that started between different factions of Muskogee (Creek) fighters in present-day Alabama. In that war, he won a decisive victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. A year later, he also defeated a large British invasion force at the Battle of New Orleans. There, Jackson’s troops—including backwoods militiamen, free African Americans, Native Americans, and a company of slave-trading pirates—successfully defended the city and inflicted more than two thousand casualties against the British, sustaining barely three hundred casualties of their own. ((Robert V. Remini, The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory (New York: Penguin, 1999), 167–168.)) The Battle of New Orleans was a thrilling victory for the United States, but it actually happened several days after a peace treaty was signed in Europe to end the war. News of the treaty had not yet reached New Orleans.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The end of the War of 1812 did not end Jackson’s military career. In 1818, as commander of the U.S. southern military district, Jackson also launched an invasion of Spanish-owned Florida. He was acting on vague orders from the War Department to break the resistance of the region’s Seminole people, who protected runaway enslaved people and attacked American settlers across the border. On Jackson’s orders in 1816, U.S. soldiers and their Creek allies had already destroyed the “Negro Fort,” a British-built fortress on Spanish soil, killing 270 formerly enslaved people and executing some survivors. ((Kenneth Wiggins Porter, “Negroes and the Seminole War, 1817–1818,” Journal of Negro History 36, no. 3 (July 1951): 264.)) In 1818, Jackson’s troops crossed the border again. They occupied Pensacola, the main Spanish town in the region, and arrested two British subjects, whom Jackson executed for helping the Seminoles. The execution of these two Britons created an international diplomatic crisis.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Most officials in President James Monroe’s administration called for Jackson’s censure. But Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the son of former president John Adams, found Jackson’s behavior useful. He defended the impulsive general, arguing that he had been forced to act. Adams used Jackson’s military successes in this First Seminole War to persuade Spain to accept the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, which gave Florida to the United States.

This print shows a young Andrew Jackson defying a British officer. The bottom reads, Andrew Jackson, the Seventh President of the United States, in 1780 when a boy of 13 enlisted in the cause of his country and was taken prisoner by the British. Being ordered by an officer to clean his boots, he indignantly refused, and received a sword cut for his temerity.
Images like this—showing a young Jackson defending his family from a British officer—established Jackson’s legend. Currier & Ives, The Brave Boy of the Waxhaws, 1876. Wikimedia.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Any friendliness between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, however, did not survive long. In 1824, four nominees competed for the presidency in one of the closest elections in American history. Each came from a different part of the country—Adams from Massachusetts, Jackson from Tennessee, William H. Crawford from Georgia, and Henry Clay from Kentucky. Jackson won more popular votes than anyone else. But with no majority winner in the Electoral College, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. There, Adams used his political clout to claim the presidency, persuading Clay to support him. After his election, Adams then named Henry Clay the Secretary of State, a position that had often been held by politicians before winning the presidency. Jackson would never forgive Adams, whom his supporters accused of engineering a “corrupt bargain” with Clay to circumvent the popular will.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Four years later, in 1828, Adams and Jackson squared off in one of the dirtiest presidential elections to date. ((See Lynn Hudson Parsons, The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).)) Pro-Jackson partisans accused Adams of elitism and claimed that while serving in Russia as a diplomat he had offered the Russian emperor an American prostitute. Adams’s supporters, on the other hand, accused Jackson of murder and attacked the morality of his marriage, pointing out that Jackson had unwittingly married his wife Rachel before the divorce on her prior marriage was complete. This time, Andrew Jackson won the election easily, but Rachel Jackson died suddenly before his inauguration. Jackson would never forgive the people who attacked his wife’s character during the campaign.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 In 1828, Jackson’s broad appeal as a military hero won him the presidency. He was “Old Hickory,” the “Hero of New Orleans,” a leader of plain frontier folk. His wartime accomplishments appealed to many voters’ pride. Over the next eight years, he would claim to represent the interests of ordinary white Americans, especially from the South and West, against the country’s wealthy and powerful elite. This attitude would lead him and his allies into a series of bitter political struggles.

V. The Nullification Crisis

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Nearly every American had an opinion about President Jackson. To some, he epitomized democratic government and popular rule. To others, he represented the worst in a powerful and unaccountable executive, acting as president with the same arrogance he had shown as a general in Florida. One of the key issues dividing Americans during his presidency was a sectional dispute over national tax policy that would come to define Jackson’s no-holds-barred approach to government.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Once Andrew Jackson moved into the White House, most southerners expected him to do away with the hated Tariff of 1828, the so-called Tariff of Abominations. This import tax provided protection for northern manufacturing interests by raising the prices of European products in America. Southerners, however, blamed the tariff for a massive transfer of wealth. It forced them to purchase goods from the North’s manufacturers at higher prices, and it provoked European countries to retaliate with high tariffs of their own, reducing foreign purchases of the South’s raw materials.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Only in South Carolina, though, did the discomfort turn into organized action. The state was still trying to shrug off the economic problems of the Panic of 1819, but it had also recently endured the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy, which convinced white South Carolinians that antislavery ideas put them in danger of a massive uprising.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Elite South Carolinians were especially worried that the tariff was merely an entering wedge for federal legislation that would limit slavery. Andrew Jackson’s own vice president, John C. Calhoun, who was from South Carolina, asserted that the tariff was “the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things.” The real fear was that the federal government might attack “the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States”—meaning slavery. ((John C. Calhoun to Virgil Maxcy, September 11, 1830, quoted in William M. Meigs, The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun, Vol. 1 (New York: Stechert, 1917), 419.)) When Jackson failed to act against the tariff, Vice President Calhoun was caught in a tight position.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 In 1828, Calhoun secretly drafted the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” an essay and set of resolutions that laid out the doctrine of nullification.” ((John C. Calhoun, “Exposition and Protest,” in Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, ed. Ross M. Lence (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992), 311–365. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/683.)) Drawing from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, Calhoun argued that the United States was a compact among the states rather than among the whole American people. Since the states had created the Union, he reasoned, they were still sovereign, so a state could nullify a federal statute it considered unconstitutional. Other states would then have to concede the right of nullification or agree to amend the Constitution. If necessary, a nullifying state could leave the Union.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 When Calhoun’s authorship of the essay became public, Jackson was furious, interpreting it both as a personal betrayal and as a challenge to his authority as president. His most dramatic confrontation with Calhoun came in 1832 during a commemoration for Thomas Jefferson. At dinner, the president rose and toasted, “Our Federal Union: it must be preserved.” Calhoun responded with a toast of his own: “The Union: next to our Liberty the most dear.” ((Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’ View: Or, a History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850, Vol. 1 (New York: Appleton, 1854), 148. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000405607.)) Their divorce was not pretty. Martin Van Buren, a New York political leader whose skill in making deals had earned him the nickname “the Little Magician,” replaced Calhoun as vice president when Jackson ran for reelection in 1832.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Calhoun returned to South Carolina, where a special state convention nullified the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832. It declared them unconstitutional and therefore “null, void, and no law” within South Carolina. ((South Carolina ordinance of nullification, November 24, 1832, Avalon Project, Yale Law School. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ordnull.asp.)) The convention ordered South Carolina customs officers not to collect tariff revenue and declared that any federal attempt to enforce the tariffs would cause the state to secede from the Union.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 President Jackson responded dramatically. He denounced the ordinance of nullification and declared that “disunion, by armed force, is TREASON.” ((Andrew Jackson, proclamation regarding nullification, December 10, 1832, Avalon Project, Yale Law School. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jack01.asp.)) Vowing to hang Calhoun and any other nullifier who defied federal power, he persuaded Congress to pass a Force Bill that authorized him to send the military to enforce the tariffs. Faced with such threats, other southern states declined to join South Carolina. Privately, however, Jackson supported the idea of compromise and allowed his political enemy Henry Clay to broker a solution with Calhoun. Congress passed a compromise bill that slowly lowered federal tariff rates. South Carolina rescinded nullification for the tariffs but nullified the Force Bill.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The legacy of the Nullification Crisis is difficult to sort out. Jackson’s decisive action seemed to have forced South Carolina to back down. But the crisis also united the ideas of secession and states’ rights, two concepts that had not necessarily been linked before. Perhaps most clearly, nullification showed that the immense political power of enslavers was matched only by their immense anxiety about the future of slavery. During later debates in the 1840s and 1850s, they would raise the ideas of the Nullification Crisis again.

VI. The Eaton Affair and the Politics of Sexuality

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Meanwhile, a more personal crisis during Jackson’s first term also drove a wedge between him and Vice President Calhoun. The Eaton Affair, sometimes insultingly called the “Petticoat Affair,” began as a disagreement among elite women in Washington, D.C., but it eventually led to the disbanding of Jackson’s cabinet.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 True to his backwoods reputation, when he took office in 1829, President Jackson chose mostly provincial politicians, not Washington veterans, to serve in his administration. One of them was his friend John Henry Eaton, a senator from Tennessee, whom Jackson nominated to be his secretary of war.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 A few months earlier, Eaton had married Margaret O’Neale Timberlake, the recent widow of a navy officer. She was the daughter of Washington boardinghouse proprietors, and her humble origins and combination of beauty, outspokenness, and familiarity with so many men in the boardinghouse had led to gossip. During her first marriage, rumors had circulated that she and John Eaton were having an affair while her husband was at sea. When her first husband’s death was originally (but incorrectly) labeled a suicide, and she married Eaton just nine months later, the society women of Washington had been scandalized. One wrote that Margaret Eaton’s reputation had been “totally destroyed.” ((Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 200.))

Peggy Eaton unintentionally created a serious scandal with her beauty, wit, and loquaciousness, all of which combined with the questionable circumstances of her marriage caused Washington’s elite ladies (and thus their husbands) to spurn her. Jackson, in his obsessive adherence to a southern “code of honor”, did what no president ever did before or after: fired his entire cabinet over gossip and scandal. The photograph of Eaton shows her at a much older ager, but her gumption still shines through. “Eaton, Mrs. Margaret (Peggy O'Neill), old lady,” c. 1870-1880. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/brh2003000411/PP/.
This photograph shows Eaton at a much older age. “Eaton, Mrs. Margaret (Peggy O’Neill), old lady,” c. 1870-1880. Library of Congress.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 John Eaton was now secretary of war, but other cabinet members’ wives refused have anything to do with his wife. No respectable lady who wanted to protect her own reputation could exchange visits with her, invite her to social events, or be seen chatting with her. Most importantly, the vice president’s wife, Floride Calhoun, shunned Margaret Eaton, spending most of her time in South Carolina to avoid her. Even Jackson’s own niece, Emily Donelson, visited Eaton once and then refused to have anything more to do with her.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Although women could not vote or hold office, they played an important role in politics as people who controlled influence. ((Elizabeth R. Varon, We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).)) They helped hold official Washington together. And according to one local society woman, “the ladies” had “as much rivalship and party spirit, desire of precedence and authority” as male politicians had. ((Margaret Bayard Smith to Margaret Bayard Boyd, December 20 [?], 1828, Margaret Bayard Smith Papers, quoted in ibid., 215.)) These women upheld a strict code of femininity and sexual morality. They paid careful attention to the rules that governed personal interactions and official relationships.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Margaret Eaton’s social exclusion thus greatly affected Jackson, his cabinet, and the rest of Washington society. At first, President Jackson blamed his rival Henry Clay for the attacks on the Eatons. But he soon perceived that Washington women and his new cabinet had initiated the gossip. Jackson scoffed, “I did not come here to make a cabinet for the ladies of this place,” and claimed that he “had rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.” ((Andrew Jackson to John Christmas McLemore, April [26], 1829, in The Papers of Andrew Jackson, eds. Daniel Feller, Harold D. Moser, Laura-Eve Moss, and Thomas Coens, Vol. 7 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007), 184; John F. Marszalek, The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson’s White House (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997), 64.)) He began to blame the ambition of Vice President Calhoun for Floride Calhoun’s actions, deciding “it was necessary to put him out of the cabinet and destroy him.” ((Andrew Jackson to John McLemore, November 24, 1829, quoted in Richard E. Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights and the Nullification Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 61.))

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Jackson was so indignant because he had recently been through a similar scandal with his late wife, Rachel. Her character, too, had been insulted by leading politicians’ wives because of the circumstances of her marriage. Jackson believed that Rachel’s death had been caused by those slanderous attacks. Furthermore, he saw the assaults on the Eatons as attacks on his authority.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 In one of the most famous presidential meetings in American history, Jackson called together his cabinet members to discuss what they saw as the bedrock of society: women’s position as protectors of the nation’s values. There, the men of the cabinet debated Margaret Eaton’s character. Jackson delivered a long defense, methodically presenting evidence against her attackers. But the men attending the meeting—and their wives—were not swayed. They continued to shun Margaret Eaton, and the scandal was resolved only with the resignation of four members of the cabinet, including Eaton’s husband.

VII. The Bank War

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Andrew Jackson’s first term was full of controversy. For all of his reputation as a military and political warrior, however, the most characteristic struggle of his presidency was financial. As president, he waged a “war” against the Bank of the United States.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 The charter of the controversial national bank that Congress established under Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan had expired in 1811. But five years later, Congress had given a new charter to the Second Bank of the United States. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the bank was designed to stabilize the growing American economy. By requiring other banks to pay their debts promptly in gold, it was supposed to prevent them from issuing too many paper banknotes that could drop suddenly in value. Of course, the Bank of the United States was also supposed to reap a healthy profit for its private stockholders, like the Philadelphia banker Stephen Girard and the New York merchant John Jacob Astor.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Though many Democratic-Republicans had supported the new bank, some never gave up their Jeffersonian suspicion that such a powerful institution was dangerous to the republic. Andrew Jackson was one of the skeptics. He and many of his supporters blamed the bank for the Panic of 1819, which had become a severe economic depression. The national bank had made that crisis worse, first by lending irresponsibly and then, when the panic hit, by hoarding gold currency to save itself at the expense of smaller banks and their customers. Jackson’s supporters also believed the bank had corrupted many politicians by giving them financial favors.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 In 1829, after a few months in office, Jackson set his sights on the bank and its director, Nicholas Biddle. Jackson became more and more insistent over the next three years as Biddle and the bank’s supporters fought to save it. A visiting Frenchman observed that Jackson had “declared a war to the death against the Bank,” attacking it “in the same cut-and-thrust style” with which he had once fought Native Americans and the British. For Jackson, the struggle was a personal crisis. “The Bank is trying to kill me,” he told Martin Van Buren, “but I will kill it!” ((Michel Chevalier and Andrew Jackson, quoted in Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson (New York: Knopf, 2003), 200.))

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 The bank’s charter was not due for renewal for several years, but in 1832, while Jackson was running for reelection, Congress held an early vote to reauthorize the Bank of the United States. The president vetoed the bill.

Edward Clay lithograph praises Jackson for terminating the Second Bank of the United States. Clay shows Nicholas Biddle as the Devil running away from Jackson as the bank collapses around him, his hirelings, and speculators. Jackson says, "Major Jack Downing I must act in this case with energy and decision, you see the downfall of the party engine and corrupt monopoly!!" Downing tips his hat and says, "Hurrah! General! If this don't beat skuning I'm a n----r only see that varmnit Nick how spry he is. He runs along like a Weatherfield Hog with an onion in his mouth."
“The bank,” Andrew Jackson told Martin Van Buren, “is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!” That is just the unwavering force that Edward Clay depicted in this lithograph, which praised Jackson for terminating the Second Bank of the United States. Clay shows Nicholas Biddle as the Devil running away from Jackson as the bank collapses around him, his hirelings, and speculators. Edward W. Clay, c. 1832. Wikimedia.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 In his veto message, Jackson called the bank unconstitutional and “dangerous to the liberties of the people.” The charter, he explained, didn’t do enough to protect the bank from its British stockholders, who might not have Americans’ interests at heart. In addition, Jackson wrote, the Bank of the United States was virtually a federal agency, but it had powers that were not granted anywhere in the Constitution. Worst of all, the bank was a way for well-connected people to get richer at everyone else’s expense. “The rich and powerful,” the president declared, “too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” ((Andrew Jackson, veto message regarding the Bank of the United States, July 10, 1832, Avalon Project, Yale Law School. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ajveto01.asp.)) Only a strictly limited government, Jackson believed, would treat people equally.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Although its charter would not be renewed, the Bank of the United States could still operate for several more years. So in 1833, to diminish its power, Jackson also directed his cabinet to stop depositing federal funds in it. From now on, the government would do business with selected state banks instead. Critics called them Jackson’s “pet banks.”

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Jackson’s bank veto set off fierce controversy. Opponents in Philadelphia held a meeting and declared that the president’s ideas were dangerous to private property. Jackson, they said, intended to “place the honest earnings of the industrious citizen at the disposal of the idle”—in other words, redistribute wealth to lazy people—and become a “dictator.” ((“The Philadelphia Meeting,” Niles’ Weekly Register (July 21, 1832), 375.)) A newspaper editor said that Jackson was trying to set “the poor against the rich,” perhaps in order to take over as a military tyrant. ((“The Bank Veto,” National Intelligencer, August 9, 1832, in David A. Copeland, ed., The Antebellum Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1820 to 1860 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003), 153.)) But Jackson’s supporters praised him. Pro-Jackson newspaper editors wrote that he had kept a “monied aristocracy” from conquering the people. ((Quoted in Harry Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 151. See also Stephen W. Campbell, The Bank War and the Partisan Press: Newspapers, Financial Institutions, and the Post Office in Jacksonian America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019).))

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 By giving President Jackson a vivid way to defy the rich and powerful, or at least appear to do so, the Bank War gave his supporters a specific “democratic” idea to rally around. More than any other issue, opposition to the national bank came to define their beliefs. And by leading Jackson to exert executive power so dramatically against Congress, the Bank War also helped his political enemies organize.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Increasingly, supporters of Andrew Jackson referred to themselves as Democrats. Under the strategic leadership of Martin Van Buren, they built a highly organized national political party, the first modern party in the United States. Much more than earlier political parties, this Democratic Party had a centralized leadership structure and a consistent ideological program for all levels of government. Meanwhile, Jackson’s enemies, mocking him as “King Andrew the First,” named themselves after the patriots of the American Revolution, the Whigs.

VIII. The Panic of 1837

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Unfortunately for Jackson’s Democrats (and most other Americans), their victory over the Bank of the United States worsened rather than solved the country’s economic problems.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Things looked good initially. Between 1834 and 1836, a combination of high cotton prices, freely available foreign and domestic credit, and an infusion of specie (“hard” currency in the form of gold and silver) from Europe spurred a sustained boom in the American economy. At the same time, sales of western land by the federal government promoted speculation and poorly regulated lending practices, creating a vast real estate bubble.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Meanwhile, the number of state-chartered banks grew from 329 in 1830 to 713 just six years later. As a result, the volume of paper banknotes per capita in circulation in the United States increased by 40 percent between 1834 and 1836. Low interest rates in Great Britain also encouraged British capitalists to make risky investments in America. British lending across the Atlantic surged, raising American foreign indebtedness from $110 million to $220 million over the same two years. ((Alasdair Roberts, America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 31, 36.))

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 As the boom accelerated, banks became more careless about the amount of hard currency they kept on hand to redeem their banknotes. And although Jackson had hoped his bank veto would reduce bankers’ and speculators’ power over the economy, it actually made the problems worse.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Two further federal actions late in the Jackson administration also worsened the situation. In June 1836, Congress decided to increase the number of banks receiving federal deposits. This plan undermined the banks that were already receiving federal money, since they saw their funds distributed to other banks. Next, seeking to reduce speculation on credit, the Treasury Department issued an order called the Specie Circular in July 1836, requiring payment in hard currency for all federal land purchases. As a result, land buyers drained eastern banks of even more gold and silver.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 By late fall in 1836, America’s economic bubbles began to burst. Federal land sales plummeted. The New York Herald reported that “lands in Illinois and Indiana that were cracked up to $10 an acre last year, are now to be got at $3, and even less.” The newspaper warned darkly, “The reaction has begun, and nothing can stop it.” ((Quoted in ibid., 38.))

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 Runs on banks began in New York on May 4, 1837, as panicked customers scrambled to exchange their banknotes for hard currency. By May 10, the New York banks, running out of gold and silver, stopped redeeming their notes. As news spread, banks around the nation did the same. By May 15, the largest crowd in Pennsylvania history had amassed outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, denouncing banking as a “system of fraud and oppression.” ((“Great Public Meeting in Philadelphia,” Niles’ Weekly Register (May 27, 1837), 198.))

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 The Panic of 1837 led to a general economic depression. Between 1839 and 1843, the total capital held by American banks dropped by 40 percent as prices fell and economic activity around the nation slowed to a crawl. The price of cotton in New Orleans, for instance, dropped 50 percent. ((Roberts, America’s First Great Depression, 23.))

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Traveling through New Orleans in January 1842, a British diplomat reported that the country “presents a lamentable appearance of exhaustion and demoralization.” ((Quoted in ibid., 21.)) Over the previous decade, the American economy had soared to fantastic new heights and plunged to dramatic new depths.

Many Americans blamed the Panic of 1837 on the economic policies of Andrew Jackson, who is sarcastically represented in the lithograph as the sun with top hat, spectacle, and a banner of “Glory” around him. The destitute people in the foreground (representing the common man) are suffering while a prosperous attorney rides in an elegant carriage in the background (right side of frame). Edward W. Clay, “The Times,” 1837. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_times_panic_1837.jpg.
Many Americans blamed the Panic of 1837 on the economic policies of Andrew Jackson, who is sarcastically represented in the lithograph as the sun with top hat, spectacle, and a banner of “Glory” around him. The destitute people in the foreground (representing the common man) are suffering while a prosperous attorney rides in an elegant carriage in the background (right side of frame). Edward W. Clay, “The Times,” 1837. Wikimedia.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Normal banking activity did not resume around the nation until late 1842. Meanwhile, two hundred banks closed, cash and credit became scarce, prices declined, and trade slowed. During this downturn, eight states and a territorial government defaulted on loans made by British banks to finance internal improvements. ((Ibid., 53. Also see Jessica Lepler, The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).))

IX. Rise of the Whigs

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 The disaster of the Panic of 1837 created an opportunity for the Whig Party, which had grown partly out of the political coalition of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay and opposed Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. The National Republicans, a loose alliance concentrated in the Northeast, had become the core of a new anti-Jackson movement. But Jackson’s enemies were a varied group; they included pro-slavery southerners angry about Jackson’s behavior during the Nullification Crisis as well as antislavery Yankees.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 After they failed to prevent Andrew Jackson’s reelection, this fragile coalition formally organized as a new party in 1834 “to rescue the Government and public liberty.” ((Henry Clay to Francis Brooke, December 16, 1833, quoted in Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 29.)) Henry Clay, who had run against Jackson for president and was now serving again as a senator from Kentucky, held private meetings to persuade anti-Jackson leaders from different backgrounds to unite. He also gave the new Whig Party its anti-monarchical name.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 At first, the Whigs focused mainly on winning seats in Congress, opposing “King Andrew” from outside the presidency. They remained divided by regional and ideological differences. The Democratic presidential candidate, Vice President Martin Van Buren, easily won election as Jackson’s successor in 1836. But the Whigs gained significant public support after the Panic of 1837, and they became increasingly well organized. In late 1839, they held their first national convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

This political cartoon depicts Andrew Jackson as a king. He holds the veto in one hand and stands on top of the shredded Constitution and legislation labeled "internal improvements." The border of the image says King Andrew the First, Born to Command, Hand I Been Consulted, Of Veto Memory.
Andrew Jackson portrayed himself as the defender of the common man, and in many ways he democratized American politics. His opponents, however, zeroed in on Jackson’s willingness to utilize the powers of the executive office. Unwilling to defer to Congress and absolutely willing to use his veto power, Jackson came to be regarded by his adversaries as a tyrant (or, in this case, “King Andrew I”.) Anonymous, c. 1832. Wikimedia.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 To Henry Clay’s disappointment, the convention voted to nominate not him but General William Henry Harrison of Ohio as the Whig candidate for president in 1840. Harrison was known primarily for defeating Shawnee warriors led by Tecumseh before and during the War of 1812, most famously at the Battle of Tippecanoe in present-day Indiana. Whig leaders viewed him as a candidate with broad patriotic appeal. They portrayed him as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate, a plain man of the country, unlike the easterner Martin Van Buren. To balance the ticket with a southerner, the Whigs nominated a slave-owning Virginia senator, John Tyler, for vice president. Tyler had been a Jackson supporter but had broken with him over states’ rights during the Nullification Crisis.

“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was a popular and influential campaign song and slogan, helping the Whigs and William Henry Harrison (with John Tyler) win the presidential election in 1840. Pictured here is a campaign banner with shortened “Tip and Ty,” one of the many ways that Whigs made the “log cabin campaign” successful. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tip_and_Ty_banner.jpg.
The popular slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” helped the Whigs and William Henry Harrison (with John Tyler) win the presidential election in 1840. Pictured here is a campaign banner with shortened “Tip and Ty,” one of the many ways that Whigs waged the “log cabin campaign,”  Wikimedia.

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Although “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” easily won the presidential election of 1840, this choice of ticket turned out to be disastrous for the Whigs. Harrison became ill (for unclear reasons, though tradition claims he contracted pneumonia after delivering a nearly two-hour inaugural address without an overcoat or hat) and died after just thirty-one days in office. Harrison thus holds the ironic honor of having the longest inaugural address and the shortest term in office of any American president. ((Joseph Nathan Kane, Presidential Fact Book (New York: Random House, 1998), 61.)) Vice President Tyler became president and soon adopted policies that looked far more like Andrew Jackson’s than like a Whig’s. After Tyler twice vetoed charters for another Bank of the United States, nearly his entire cabinet resigned, and the Whigs in Congress expelled “His Accidency” from the party.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 The crisis of Tyler’s administration was just one sign of the Whig Party’s difficulty uniting around issues besides opposition to Democrats. The Whig Party succeeded in electing one more president but remained deeply divided. Its problems grew as the issue of slavery strained the Union in the 1850s. Unable to agree on a consistent national position on slavery, and unable to find another national issue to rally around, the Whigs broke apart by 1856.

X. Anti-Masons, Anti-Immigrants, and the Whig Coalition

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 The Whig coalition drew strength from several earlier political movements, including two that harnessed American political paranoia. The Anti-Masonic Party formed in the 1820s for the purpose of destroying the Freemasons. Later, anti-immigrant sentiment formed the American Party, also called the Know-Nothings. The American Party sought and won office across the country in the 1850s, but nativism had already been an influential force, particularly in the Whig Party, whose members could not fail to notice that urban Irish Catholics strongly tended to support Democrats.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 Freemasonry, an international network of social clubs with arcane traditions and rituals, seems to have originated in medieval Europe as a trade organization for stonemasons. By the eighteenth century, however, it had outgrown its relationship with the masons’ craft and had become a general secular fraternal order that proclaimed adherence to the ideals of the Enlightenment.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 Freemasonry was an important part of the social life of men in the new republic’s elite. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay all claimed membership. Prince Hall, a free leather worker in Boston, founded a separate branch of the order for African American men. However, the Masonic brotherhood’s secrecy, elitism, rituals, and secular ideals generated a deep suspicion of the organization among many Americans.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 In 1820s upstate New York, which was fertile soil for new religious and social reform movements, anti-Masonic suspicion would emerge for the first time as an organized political force. The trigger for this was the strange disappearance and probable murder of William Morgan. Morgan announced plans to publish an exposé called Illustrations of Masonry. ((William Morgan, Illustrations of Masonry, by One of the Fraternity, Who Has Devoted Thirty Years to the Subject (Batavia, NY: Miller, 1826). http://archive.org/details/illustrationsofm00morg.)) This book purported to reveal the order’s secret rites, and it outraged other local Freemasons. They launched a series of attempts to prevent the book from being published, including an attempt to burn the press and a conspiracy to have Morgan jailed for alleged debts. In September, Morgan disappeared. He was last seen being forced into a carriage by four men later identified as Masons. When a corpse washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario, Morgan’s wife and friends claimed at first that it was his.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 The Morgan story convinced many people that Masonry was a dangerous influence in the republic. The publicity surrounding the trials transformed local outrage into a political movement that, though small, had significant power in New York and parts of New England. This movement addressed Americans’ widespread dissatisfaction about economic and political change by giving them a handy explanation: the republic was controlled by a secret society.

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 In 1827, local anti-Masonic committees began meeting across the state of New York, committing not to vote for any political candidate who belonged to the Freemasons. This boycott grew, and in 1828, a convention in the town of LeRoy produced an “Anti-Masonic Declaration of Independence,” the basis for an Anti-Masonic Party. In 1828, Anti-Masonic politicians ran for state offices in New York, winning 12 percent of the vote for governor. ((William Preston Vaughn, The Anti-Masonic Party in the United States: 1826–1843, paperback ed. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 31.))

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 In 1830, the Anti-Masons held a national convention in Philadelphia. But after a dismal showing in the 1832 presidential elections, the leaders of the Anti-Masonic Party folded their movement into the new Whig Party. The Anti-Masonic Party’s absorption into the Whig coalition demonstrated the importance of conspiracy theories in American politics. Just as Andrew Jackson’s followers detected a vast foreign plot in the form of the Bank of the United States, some of his enemies could detect it in the form of the Freemasons. Others, called nativists, blamed immigrants.

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 Nativists detected many foreign threats, but Catholicism may have been the most important. Nativists watched with horror as more and more Catholic immigrants (especially from Ireland and Germany) arrived in American cities. The immigrants professed different beliefs, often spoke unfamiliar languages, and participated in alien cultural traditions. Just as importantly, nativists remembered Europe’s history of warfare between Catholics and Protestants. They feared that Catholics would bring religious violence with them to the United States.

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 In the summer of 1834, a mob of Protestants attacked a Catholic convent near Boston. The rioters had read newspaper rumors that a woman was being held against her will by the nuns. Angry men broke into the convent and burned it to the ground. Later, a young woman named Rebecca Reed, who had spent time in the convent, published a memoir describing abuses she claimed the nuns had directed toward novices and students. ((Rebecca Theresa Reed, Six Months in a Convent, or, The Narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed (Boston: Russell, Odiorne and Metcalf, 1835. http://archive.org/details/sixmonthsinconve00reedr.)) The convent attack was among many eruptions of nativism, especially in New England and other parts of the Northeast, during the early nineteenth century.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 Many Protestants saw the Catholic faith as a superstition that deprived individuals of the right to think for themselves and enslaved them to a dictator, the pope, in Rome. They accused Catholic priests of controlling their parishioners and preying sexually on young women. They feared that Catholicism would overrun and conquer the American political system, just as their ancestors had feared it would conquer England.

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 The painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, for example, warned in 1834 that European tyrants were conspiring together to “carry Popery through all our borders” by sending Catholic immigrants to the United States. If they succeeded, he predicted, Catholic dominance in America would mean “the certain destruction of our free institutions.” (([Samuel F. B. Morse], Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (New York: Leavitt, Lord, 1835), 16, 127. http://archive.org/details/foreignconspira00mors.)) Around the same time, the Protestant minister Lyman Beecher lectured in various cities, delivering a similar warning. “If the potentates of Europe have no design upon our liberties,” Beecher demanded, then why were they sending over “such floods of pauper emigrants—the contents of the poorhouse and the sweepings of the streets—multiplying tumults and violence, filling our prisons, and crowding our poorhouses, and quadrupling our taxation”—not to mention voting in American elections? ((Lyman Beecher, A Plea for the West, 2nd ed. (Cincinnati, OH: Truman and Smith, 1835), 54, http://archive.org/details/pleaforwest00beec.))

XI. Race and Jacksonian Democracy

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 More than anything else, however, it was racial inequality that exposed American democracy’s limits. The most deadly racist policy of the era is discussed in chapter twelve–Jackson’s seizure of Native American lands culminating in the Trail of Tears. But other racist policies also attacked the purported ideas of American democracy, eroding freedom for Black Americans even as it expanded them for poor white people. Over several decades, state governments had lowered their property requirements so poorer men could vote. But as northern states ended slavery, whites worried that free Black men could also go to the polls in large numbers. In response, they adopted new laws that made racial discrimination the basis of American democracy.

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 At the time of the Revolution, only two states explicitly limited Black voting rights. By 1839, almost all states did. (The four exceptions were all in New England, where the Democratic Party was weakest.) For example, New York’s 1821 state constitution enfranchised nearly all white male taxpayers but only the richest Black men. In 1838, a similar constitution in Pennsylvania prohibited Black voting completely.

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 The new Pennsylvania constitution disenfranchised even one of the richest people in Philadelphia. James Forten, a free-born sailmaker who had served in the American Revolution, had become a wealthy merchant and landowner. He used his wealth and influence to promote the abolition of slavery, and after the 1838 constitution, he undertook a lawsuit to protect his right to vote. But he lost, and his voting rights were terminated. An English observer commented sarcastically that Forten wasn’t “white enough” to vote, but “he has always been considered quite white enough to be taxed.” ((Frederick Marryat, Diary in America with Remarks on Its Institutions (London: Longman, 1839), Vol. 1, 297, quoted in Eric Ledell Smith, “The End of Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania: African Americans and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837–1838,” Pennsylvania History 65, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 296.))

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 During the 1830s, furthermore, the social tensions that had promoted Andrew Jackson’s rise also worsened race relations. Almost four hundred thousand free Black people lived in America by the end of the decade. ((Michael R. Haines, “Table Aa145-184: Population, by Sex and Race: 1790–1990,” Historical Statistics of the United States, millennial ed. online, eds. Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). http://hsus.cambridge.org.)) In the South and West, Native Americans stood in the way of white expansion. And the new Irish Catholic immigrants, along with native working-class whites, often despised nonwhites as competitors for scarce work, housing, and status.

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 Racial and ethnic resentment thus contributed to a wave of riots in American cities during the 1830s. In Philadelphia, thousands of white rioters torched an antislavery meeting house and attacked Black churches and homes. Near St. Louis, abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered as he defended his printing press. Contemplating the violence, another journalist wondered, “Does it not appear that the character of our people has suffered a considerable change for the worse?” ((Niles’ Weekly Register (August 23, 1834), 426.))

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 Racial tensions also influenced popular culture. The white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice appeared on stage in Blackface, singing and dancing as a clownish enslaved man named “Jim Crow.” Many other white entertainers copied him. Borrowing from the work of real Black performers but pandering to white audiences’ prejudices, they turned cruel stereotypes into one of antebellum America’s favorite forms of entertainment.

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 Some whites in the 1830s, however, joined free Black activists in protesting racial inequality. Usually, they lived in northern cities and came from the class of skilled laborers, or in other words, the lower middle class. Most of them were not rich, but they expected to rise in the world.

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 In Boston, for example, the Female Anti-Slavery Society included women whose husbands sold coal, mended clothes, and baked bread, as well as women from wealthy families. In the nearby village of Lynn, many abolitionists were shoemakers. They organized boycotts of consumer products like sugar that came from slave labor, and they sold their own handmade goods at antislavery fund-raising fairs. For many of them, the antislavery movement was a way to participate in “respectable” middle-class culture, a way for both men and women to have a say in American life.

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 Debates about slavery, therefore, reflected wider tensions in a changing society. The ultimate question was whether American democracy had room for people of different races as well as religions and classes. Some people said yes and struggled to make American society more welcoming. But the vast majority, whether Democrats or Whigs, said no.

XII. Primary Sources

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 1. Missouri Controversy documents, 1819-1820

94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 Southerners dominated the highest federal offices for the first decades of the United States, as Virginians held the Presidency for nation’s first thirty-two of the first thirty-six years. Northerners resented this dominance and sectional tensions simmered until they threatened to boil over in 1820 when James Tallmadge included the below amendment to Missouri’s application for statehood. Included below is Tallmadge’s amendment; the final act which settled the crisis, at least temporarily; and a private letter from Thomas Jefferson illustrating his reaction to the crisis.

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 2. Rhode Islanders protest property restrictions on voting, 1834

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 Many poor white men gained voting rights, also known as suffrage, for the first time in the 1830s. These changes in American democracy did not take place without conflict. Voting rights in Rhode Island only changed after poor Rhode Islanders raised a militia and threatened violence. Below is the proposal of many of the men who seven years later took up arms to right for voting rights. 

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 0 3. Black Philadelphians defend their voting rights1838

98 Leave a comment on paragraph 98 0 The expansion of voting rights to poor white men brought a loss of voting rights for Black men. Race, rather than class, quickly became the most important social distinction in the United States. Some wealthy Black men, like James Forten and Robert Purvis of Pennsylvania, lost voting rights that they previously enjoyed. In this document, Philadelphians protest the loss of their voting rights.

99 Leave a comment on paragraph 99 0 4. Andrew Jackson’s veto message against re-chartering the Bank of the United States, 1832

100 Leave a comment on paragraph 100 0 President Andrew Jackson, like Thomas Jefferson before him, was highly suspicious of the Bank of the United States. He blamed the bank for the Panic of 1819 and for corrupting politics with too much money. After Congress renewed the bank charter, Jackson vetoed the bill. The following was the message he gave to Congress after issuing his veto. Jackson’s decision was controversial. Some Americans accused him of acting like a dictator to redistribute wealth. Others saw the act as an attack on a corrupt system that only favored the rich. 

101 Leave a comment on paragraph 101 0 5. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” 1852

102 Leave a comment on paragraph 102 0 Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland in 1818. He was separated from his mother in infancy and lived with his grandmother until he was separated from her as well at age seven. After several attempts, he finally successfully escape slavery in 1838. He became one of the most influential abolitionist speakers and before a crowd of white abolitionists in 1852, he delivered this, one of the greatest abolitionist speeches. 

103 Leave a comment on paragraph 103 0 6. Rebecca Reed accuses nuns of abuse, 1835

104 Leave a comment on paragraph 104 0 In 1834 anti-Catholic rioters burned the Ursuline Convent in Charestown, Massachusetts. In 1835, Rebecca Reed published a memoir about her time staying at the convent. Prior to its publication, rumors existed about Reed’s experience that may have motivated the arsonists. In these documents, we read excerpts from Reed’s account and the response from the convent’s Mother Superior Mary St. George. 

105 Leave a comment on paragraph 105 0 7. Samuel Morse fears a Catholic conspiracy, 1835

106 Leave a comment on paragraph 106 0 Irish immigrants in the early nineteenth century filled jobs created by the Market Revolution. Their arrival provided an important source of labor for a growing economy, but many Americans worried about the influence of these arrivals. Samuel Morse, an inventor who contributed to the development of the telegraph and Morse Code, feared that Irish immigrants represented the front line of a Catholic conspiracy to destroy the United States.

107 Leave a comment on paragraph 107 0 8. County election painting, 1854

108 Leave a comment on paragraph 108 0 Beginning in the late 1840s, George Caleb Bingham created a series of paintings illustrating American democracy. He was drawn to the energy and near-chaos of speeches, rallies, election days, public announcements of voting results and more. Prior to painting this work, Bingham himself ran for state office in Missouri as a Whig. Here he shows the tumult of a county election day. Children play games, drunkards raise their glass (while political operatives drag inebriated men to the poll), citizens carefully debate the issues, while others study the newspaper. Art historians argue whether Bingham is celebrating or mocking American democracy. 

109 Leave a comment on paragraph 109 0 9. Martin Van Buren cartoon, 1837

110 Leave a comment on paragraph 110 0 This caricature of President Martin Van Buren cloaked in worthless bank notes was created during the Panic of 1837. The artist mocks Van Buren and the policies of his predecessor, Andrew Jackson. The cartoon includes mentions to Jackson’s “Specie Circular,” an order that government officials only accept gold or silver as payment for land and Van Buren’s “Safety Fund,” a program designed to offset the damage of bank failures.  A document labeled “Indian claims” also refers to Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal. These and other subtle details reveal the anxieties of economic collapse and the policy differences between Democrats and Whigs. 

XIII. Reference Material

111 Leave a comment on paragraph 111 0 This chapter was edited by Jonathan Wilfred Wilson, with content contributions by Myles Beaupre, Christopher Childers, William Cossen, Adam Costanzo, Nathaniel C. Green, Robert Gudmestad, Spencer McBride, Kevin Waite, and Jonathan Wilfred Wilson.

112 Leave a comment on paragraph 112 0 Recommended citation: Myles Beupre et al., “Democracy in America,” Jonathan Wilfred Wilson, ed., in The American Yawp, eds. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 Recommended Reading

  • Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.
  • Burstein, Andrew. The Passions of Andrew Jackson. New York: Knopf, 2003.
  • Ellis, Richard E. The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights and the Nullification Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Feller, Daniel. The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815–1840. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  • Foster, A. Kristen. Moral Visions and Material Ambitions: Philadelphia Struggles to Define the Republic, 1776–1836. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Hansen, Deborah Gold. Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
  • Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Jeffrey, Julie Roy. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Kamensky, Jane. The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse. New York: Penguin, 2008.
  • Lepler, Jessica. The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Malone, Christopher. Between Freedom and Bondage: Race, Party, and Voting Rights in the Antebellum North. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • McInnis, Maurie D. The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Parsons, Lynn Hudson. The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Roberts, Alasdair. America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.
  • Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, rev. ed. New York: Verso, 1999.
  • Siddali, Silvana R. Frontier Democracy: Constitutional Conventions in the Old Northwest. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Stansel, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. New York: Knopf, 1986.
  • Varon, Elizabeth R. We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Vaughn, William Preston. The Anti-Masonic Party in the United States: 1826–1843, paperback ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.
  • Watson, Harry. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.
  • Wellman, Judith. Grassroots Reform in the Burned-Over District of Upstate New York: Religion, Abolitionism, and Democracy. New York: Routledge, 2016.
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: Norton, 2005.

115 Leave a comment on paragraph 115 0 Notes

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