Monday, March 13, 2017
March 13, 2017: Andrew Jackson’s America: Jacksonian Democracy
[March 15th marks the 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five sides to this controversial, influential figure and president, leading up to a special weekend post on Jackson and Trump!]
On what’s accurate about a central image of Jackson’s legacy, and what too often gets left out.
It can be difficult to remember, given the similarly humble origins of subsequent presidents from Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield to Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, but upon his election to the presidency in 1828 Andrew Jackson represented a sea-change in presidential identity from all of his six predecessors. The first five of those had been Founding Fathers, members of the period’s most famous community of Americans and all prominent and successful men by any measure; the sixth, John Quincy Adams, was the son of one of those five. While Jackson had achieved substantial fame as a military leader over the decade and a half prior to his election, he was known at least as fully—and with just as much accuracy—for his humble beginnings. Born to a widowed single mother with two older sons (his father passed away three weeks before Andrew’s birth) in the Scots-Irish Appalachian community of Waxhaws, an area so isolated that the border between North and South Carolina had not yet been surveyed there (making the site of Jackson’s birth particularly uncertain to this day), Jackson lost his mother when he was only fourteen, one of many such tragedies and challenges that faced the young man in those formative years. Whatever Jackson did or didn’t do as president, the election of a man with such a background to the office certainly did signal a democratic alternative to the precedent his predecessors as president had begun to set.
The longstanding phrase and concept of “Jacksonian democracy” didn’t just, and indeed didn’t much at all, apply to Jackson’s birthplace, family, and childhood, however. Instead, the phrase refers to an even more significant national sea-change, an emphasis on extending both the vote specifically and the very concept of who had a voice and place and role in American government and civic life to all European white men (still a narrow category, to be sure, on which more in a moment). The move toward universal white male suffrage had already begun by the time of Jackson’s election—and indeed contributed directly to that result, as well as the extremely close prior election of 1824—but Jackson certainly extended, deepened, and broadened those democratizing efforts. He did so most strikingly with a famous symbolic gesture toward the end of his second and final presidential term: featuring a giant block of cheese in the White House and hosting a reception where more than 10,000 visitors were allowed to enter and share in that bounty of dairy. But he also and more influentially pursued a number of policies that sought to deepen this extension of democracy to “the common man,” from his opposition to the national bank (on which more in a subsequent post) to his controversial creation of a “spoils system” to allow each presidential administration to replace government officials with new ones of their choosing (obviously problematic in many ways, but certainly a way to break any hold elite families or legacies might have had on government offices).
So Jackson wasn’t just a symbolic representation of a more democratic side to the American political system, he was certainly also an advocate for it and its extension. Given that he was also a slaveowner (at his Nashville plantation The Hermitage he owned more than 100 slaves), it’s of course not surprising that he did not see that process of democratization as extending to African Americans (enslaved or free). Given that he had risen to prominence as an “Indian fighter” in a series of bloody Southeastern wars, it’s similarly unsurprising that Native Americans were not included in Jackson’s conception of the common man. But the fact that those discriminations and limitations within Jacksonian democracy are not surprising should not, in any way, lessen an emphasis on just how much they—and other parallel limitations, such as the absolute exclusion of women from this extension of suffrage and democracy—circumscribed whatever meaningful effects and successes these policies and philosophies achieved. That is, it’s tempting to simply set aside these discriminations and exclusions as part and parcel of the period, and to focus on Jacksonian democracy on what we might call its own terms. But of course, a term like “democracy” has been—coupled with other complementary ones like “freedom” and “liberty”—at the center of American self-images and theories of government from the framing on down to the present day. And since each of those terms can mean and have meant many different things in each era, it’s vital that we remember and analyze where and how those meanings were constructed, and what and who were and weren’t included in them in each and every case.
Next JacksonStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jackson histories or contexts you’d highlight?