U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Jacksonian Backlash

o'connorThe following is a guest post from Mike O’Connor (the third of a series–see the first post here and the second here). Mike is one of the original USIH bloggers and a founder of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He is the author of A Commercial Republic: America’s Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism, which will be published in May by the University Press of Kansas. The book’s Facebook page can be found here, and information from the publisher is available here.

Like many in the early nineteenth century who called themselves “Jacksonians,” Amos Kendall could boast of a rise to political prominence that would not have been possible in a previous generation. The editor of the Kentucky-based pro-Jackson vehicle Argus of Western America had served in various posts under President Jackson and his protégé and successor Martin Van Buren, exerting significant influence as a member of the “kitchen cabinet.” In 1840, however, Van Buren was ejected from office upon a humiliating rebuke from the voters; as a consequence of the “spoils system” that had been initiated by Jackson himself, Kendall also lost his post.

Within a year, however, he had founded a new journal devoted to the Jacksonian message. The inaugural issue of Kendall’s Expositor opened with a column dedicating the new enterprise to the defense and protection of Jacksonian principles, which include the tenet that the primary functions of government are to “to protect man in…the exercise of equal political power” and in “the unmolested enjoyment of his own labor and skill.” Kendall further established that the citizens who are most likely to see this equality threatened are those who lack significant wealth. “Our aim,” he declared “is to call the earnest attention of every American freeman…to the principles and measures which are calculated insidiously to…make him the dependant [sic] of the idle and the rich, who, as a necessary consequence, will assume all the political powers of society.”

Many of the themes of Kendall’s short manifesto might have been familiar to the Jeffersonians of a generation before. Its title, however, would not have been. The editorial was called, “What Is Democracy?”

Until the Jacksonian era, the term “democracy” had been associated with bread riots and mob rule; few among the nation’s founders would have professed any desire to steer their new country by the light of that particular star. Yet the framers’ intentions were soon overtaken by events. The most significant of these was the spread of what was then called “universal suffrage,” a movement to eliminate the requirement that a person own property in order to vote. Marching state-by-state, by 1860 the various campaigns succeeded in eliminating these requirements from the country entirely. The universal suffrage idea did not confront racial or gender barriers to voting, but it nonetheless represented the first successful challenge to the widespread assumption that voting should be reserved for a better class of people. Spurred by this popular movement, democracy—both the word and the practice—came into favor during this period. The party of Jefferson (and Jackson) began to call itself the Democrats, and prominent books by James Fenimore Cooper (1838) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1835/40) both took as their point of departure the presumption that democracy was essential to an understanding of the contemporary United States.

Similarly, it was only in the Jacksonian era that capitalism began to assume a shape that would be familiar to modern eyes. Industry had taken hold in New England, and advances in transportation allowed for the development of nationally integrated markets. Culture and government changed as well: Americans were far more willing to move in search of land and wealth, and states competed against each other for the settlers who would stimulate economic growth. Charles Sellers summarized these developments in 1994 by calling them a “market revolution.” In Jacksonian America, he wrote, commercial transactions came to define everyday life, exerting “capitalist hegemony over economy, politics and culture.”

Jacksonianism was a response to those conditions. Politically, it embraced the new democracy: these propertyless men, formerly disenfranchised, counted among the movement’s biggest supporters. Economically, however, the Jacksonian position was less clear, and historians have struggled and competed to convincingly define its central attribute.  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s Age of Jackson noted in 1945 that the Jacksonian outlook was premised on the belief “that there was a deep-rooted conflict in society between the ‘producing’ and ‘non-producing’ classes—the farmers and laborers, on the one hand, and the business community on the other.” Schlesinger argued that this class hostility made the Jacksonians proto-Progressives who tried to rein in business with regulation. More recent historians, impressed by the changes in market attitudes noted by Sellers and later writers, have suggested that Schlesinger mistook hostility toward the wealthy for hostility toward capitalism itself. On this interpretation, Jacksonians welcomed the opportunities brought by a more developed economy, and wanted to become rich themselves. But they also remembered the elitism of the Federalists, and resented wealth and status that they felt was not earned, but bestowed through political connections or other forms of government economic intervention. Under this line of interpretation, summarized Herbert Hovenkamp in his 1991 Enterprise and American Law, Jacksonian “arguments for a noninterventionist state leaned to the left, not to the right.”

Believing that government economic intervention was generally a tool used by the wealthy to game the system against the “common man,” Jacksonians sought to eliminate it entirely. The clearest expression of this mentality was their notion of “divorce,” the idea that the federal government should be kept completely separate from the workings of the private economy. This idea underwrote the central Jacksonian economic positions: hard money, general incorporation and opposition to the Second Bank of the United States. Yet a contradiction lay at the heart of this attitude: keeping the government out of the economy conflicts with the democratic impulse if the voters themselves demand public economic support.

Old Hickory himself largely escaped the political consequences of this Jacksonian paradox, but Van Buren was not so lucky. Only weeks after he took office as president, a series of banks began to fail, resulting in an economic catastrophe called the Panic of 1837. Even as citizens cried out for some governmental solution to this crisis, Van Buren could offer little more than a plan to remove federal funds from private banks. It was “apparent” to the president “that the events of the last few months have greatly augmented the desire, long existing among the people of the United States, to separate the fiscal operations of the [g]overnment from those of individuals or corporations.”

Van Buren, called by many the first professional politician in U.S. history, did not read the popular will effectively. In the election of 1840, his presidency was defined by the Panic of 1837, and Van Buren was proud to run on a Jacksonian platform. The voters had seen enough and elected William Henry Harrison, leading directly to the founding of Kendall’s Expositor.

Jacksonianism represented an attempt to revoke the Hamiltonian mandate for government economic stewardship. In the end, it was rejected by the voters and failed. From that point forward, Americans would put aside the question of whether the government should intervene in the economy, debating instead the purposes to which that intervention should be put.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I am curious how you incorporate the work of the scholars working in the sub field known as “American Political Development?” For example, in 2009 Brian Balogh wrote a book entitled A Government out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority which argues the federal government intervened through a series of “hidden hand” actions through subsidies, state governments, and private associations to accomplish its ends in ways that a more visible national bureaucracy could not.

  2. That’s a great question, Brian. I have read some American political development, but it only figures in my work in a broad way. I suspect that’s because of my interest in intellectual history. As I understand APD, it’s primarily interested in the development and growth of institutions. As a result, those who write about them, in my somewhat limited experience, often analyze political changes in ways that place less emphasis on ideas.

    As a side note, I tried to buy the Balogh’s book this weekend at OAH. The publisher didn’t have it out. When I asked about it, he told me it wasn’t even on the list. I was pretty surprised, as it seems to me like a very influential book.

    Mike

  3. Thanks for the early American content. Good luck with the book. May your publisher have copies out next year.

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