Jacksonian Democracy refers to an ideology and political movement in the second quarter of nineteenth century America characterized by the widespread expansion of suffrage and a pervasive egalitarian sentiment (in terms of opportunity, not outcome). Its primary figure was President Andrew Jackson, while Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835 and 1840) offers the most sophisticated contemporaneous appraisal of the time, sympathetic to its promise while critical of its excess.
The Jacksonian era was dominated by a hostile reaction to the alliance between the state and privileged private interests, who were accused of using their influence within government to restrict access to the economic opportunities created by rapid expansion. Jacksonian Democrats sought to reduce the privileges of moneyed interests and restore genuine equality of opportunity to the common people. There was no hostility to wealth, only a fear of exclusion from it. Preserving economic access for the small capitalist would require enhancing the people’s political power and using that power to limit the elites’ ability to co-opt the state. Though women, Native Americans, and blacks were still excluded, the era saw the culmination of a broad movement to open democratic participation to more Americans. Barriers to participation fell (increasing access to the vote and reducing the power of party elites to determine candidates) while immigrants were welcomed into “The Democracy” to swell vote totals and turn the Democrats into a genuine mass party. Gradually the National Republican/Whig opposition adopted similar strategies, with mixed results.
Jacksonians were united by their commitment to a producerist ideology. Rejecting traditional arguments that only those with property could be invested in the well-being of the nation, Jacksonians (theoretically) extended a political voice to any white male who was willing to work to pacify the continent and add to America’s bounty. The act of labor, more than the type, was the source of civic virtue. One need not be a farmer to be a good citizen, as was often the case for Jeffersonians. Individualism was the spirit of the age, but it was an individualism that connected individual prosperity with a larger common good. The generation of private wealth was given a public dimension, becoming an important component of citizenship. One served the republic by serving himself.
The Jacksonians purged themselves of the founders’ fear of excessive democracy and ignored de Tocqueville’s concern that the uncritical sanctification of majority could lead to a “tyranny of the majority” potentially more destructive of liberty than the tyranny of the monarch. The movement was far more democratic than it was liberal; believed that the will of the people was by definition virtuous and just, rendering restraints on it unnecessary and illegitimate. The national character of the people was somewhat uncertain, however. Given the rapid increase in size and population, the instability caused by the rise of bourgeois capitalism, and the social dynamics of immigration, about the only thing that could unite the Jacksonians as a national coalition was a focus on participation itself (alongside their fear of entrenched elites). However, that participation most prominently manifested itself at the state and local levels, where the illiberal, coercive strains of democratic rule were most likely to manifest, both politically and socially.
The presidency of Andrew Jackson embodied the spirit of Jacksonian democracy. Jackson believed the presidency was the only authentically national office in the country, a direct attack on the authority of the Congress. As president he claimed to be the “tribune of the people,” and he used his authority to eliminate some of the checks on executive power that interfered with institutionalizing the popular will. If the president was indeed the voice of the people, then by extension most limits on executive power were antidemocratic. Of particular institutional consequence was Jackson’s argument that the president could veto legislation solely on the grounds of his (and by extension the people’s) personal opposition to the bill, rather than solely on issues of constitutionality. However, Jackson primarily used his influence to weaken the federal government (e.g., the fight over the National Bank), provided the states accepted the overarching sovereignty of the union (e.g., the nullification crisis).
- Blau, Joseph, ed. Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1954.
- Meyers, Marvin. Jacksonian Persuasions. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960.
- Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. The Age of Jackson. New York: Back Bay, 1945.
- Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by George Lawrence, edited by J. P. Mayer. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.
- Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy. New York: Norton, 2005.