The Emergence of a more Democratic Republic

We should recall that democracy as we understand it at the end of the Twentieth Century did not exist in the ages of Jefferson and Jackson. Today we accept the notion that democracy means that every citizen has a vote, with certain reasonable restrictions such as age, registration requirements and so on. In the early 1800s it was generally accepted that in order to vote a person needed to have a legal stake in the system, which could mean property ownership or some economic equivalent. In many states the people did not vote for presidential electors, and U. S. senators were elected by the state legislatures. Even eligibility to vote for members of the House of Representatives was left to the individual states. Women, Indians and Blacks (whether slave or free) were restricted from voting almost everywhere. When Sam Houston was elected governor of Tennessee in 1828, his friends had to make him a gift of 500 acres of land, which was a requirement for holding that office.

In the decades surrounding the presidency of Andrew Jackson democracy began to expand. States rewrote constitutions and extended the franchise to all free white males. European visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the spirit of equality that pervaded the United States, unlike anything known in the Old World. (Not all Europeans, nor Americans, for that matter, were sure that was a good idea--terms like "mobocracy" and "anarchy" were thrown around from time to time.) By the late 1830s, the United States had become a full democracy for adult white males, but inequalities still existed: poor people were still poor, and while wealth may not have bought votes directly, it certainly was a prerequisite for any kind of real power. What was different about America was not that the gap between rich and poor had narrowed--indeed, the opposite was probably true--but that there were few systemic barriers (except for slavery) that prevented people from gaining wealth and power. However limited, the idea of America as a land of unprecedented opportunity was not inaccurate in the context of the times. Importantly, equality of opportunity did not necessarily mean equality of result, a concept with which Americans continue to wrestle in making political choices.

The other major change in the Jacksonian era was the emergence of a solid two-party system. The modern Democratic Party was founded under Jackson, and an opposition party—the Whigs—soon evolved. When that party disappeared in the early 1850s, it was soon replaced by the Republican Party, giving the U.S. the basic political structure that survives to this day. Although many issues have changed since the 1800s, the present Republican and Democratic parties have much in common with their ancestors.

Another development in the Age of Jackson was that the idea of political service as a sort of noblesse oblige—which was the way people like Washington and Jefferson tended to look at it—was gone. Politics for many men became if not a career, than certainly something they pursued because they wanted to, not because they thought they ought to. What rewards they sought are no easier to establish then than they are today—recognition, a sense of power, perhaps financial gain and other factors were no doubt present in those who sought office of government related jobs, but in any case it became possible to think in terms of the profession of politics. John Quincy Adams was probably the man who personified that transition, having served in a variety of public offices for most of his life during a career that went back to his father\'s time, but in the election of 1828 he was criticized for that fact: the notion of a professional politician still did not sit well with many.


The Election of 1824

The election of 1824 is most interesting for the fact that it is the last election in which the result was not decided by the electoral college. Because no one won a majority of votes in that body, it went into the House of Representatives, which decided in favor of John Quincy Adams even though Andrew Jackson had won the popular vote. Although it is not known what went on behind the scenes, Jackson\'s supporters spoke of a "corrupt bargain" between Adams