What was distinctive about “Jacksonian Democracy”?

The epoch of Jacksonian Democracy has intrigued historiography whether they praise or criticise it in that its distinction cannot be simply cordoned to a single narrative or even to a single time period. This is especially true when the developments or detriments associated with it are not based on a single-issue political cause but rather connected to a whole new political philosophy of its time; which had set the foundations for a young nation to become the global hegemon of the twentieth century. It is therefore distinctive in many ways and the reasons behind this must therefore be explained. To diagnose and succinctly explain these distinctions, we must consider the most controversial and significant topics associated with it. Firstly, its ideology and it being transmitted into practice through its namesake, US President Andrew Jackson. Secondly, the reputation and legacy it left behind, especially over the moral questionability regarding who it served for and those it didn’t. Thirdly, the character of Jackson himself. And finally, the long-term impact it had on the United States’ conduct in both domestic policy and on the world stage beyond the Jackson Era itself.

The American Revolution that preceded Jackson’s presidency 50 years ago has been argued by George Bancroft as being a prelude to the rise of Jacksonian Democracy, which should be considered as an expansion of the virtues the Founding Fathers wished to establish.[1] It is no mistake to refer to Jackson’s era as that of a ‘Jacksonian Revolution’ through it evolving the virtues used to oppose previous British rule into actual political practice, rather than just remaining a set of ideals that can only be deemed as political theory. As defined by Patterson, Jackson continued what his Jeffersonian predecessors attempted to pursue when he “championed the common man and actively encouraged the view that ordinary people could participate in government”.[2] This appetite for representation that Jackson possessed was not exclusive to him, as there was a “rising popular sentiment for democracy” which was “given the name “Jacksonianism” to these democratizing tendencies of the period”.[3]

The demand for franchise was not monopolised by Jacksonianism nor by even the United States, especially when considering the Chartist movement emerging in Britain at the end of Jackson’s tenure as President. However, it must be reiterated that Jacksonian Democracy cannot be limited to the single issue of the demand for democracy alone. As a political philosophy, it introduced a whole new system of how democracy should be interpreted and implemented, both politically and economically. The foundation of this was like that of the foundations of houses, property rights. Despite being occupied by Europeans for over two centuries, America remained a largely untamed land by 1829. Unlike England and the rest of Europe where 70% of the former’s land had been occupied by the elite and establishment in 1436 (and remained largely unchanged by the 1820s), America was instead a land of opportunity for the common man wanting to establish his own property and develop from it.[4] Jackson realised this opportunity and intended to make this a distinctive element of both his policy and philosophy of his democratic vision for the still young US.

The eight years of Jackson’s presidency between 1829-1837 oversaw 70 land treaties signed, which added more than 100 million acres of land to the American public domain.[5] Jackson and his administration could have kept this land for themselves like their European counterparts, yet he and other liberals wished to renounce this concept held by conservatives and that instead the right of property should be expanded to the common man who did not have such a right at the time. The raison d’etre for this was through directly referencing the doctrine of “land, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” stated on the US Declaration of Independence.[6] With this, the “rights of man” to Jacksonians was to be put before any establishment in their “rich man’s citadel”.[7] Jackson’s panacea for the stubbornness of the conservatives was through the manifest destiny of acquiring more land for those who not had any, selling 50 million acres of the 88 million acres sold in between 1820 to 1849 to the public market.[8] This granted the common man the opportunity for one to call a piece of his own and to participate and develop in the real estate market.

While the right to property was proposed by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government and implemented by the first colonists in Carolina over 100 years before Jackson’s inauguration, Jacksonian democracy had reinvented this principle. It was one which had simultaneously reduced the landowner hierarchy and its flaws that Locke proposes, while remaining true to the original principles of the American Revolution and expanding on them. This uniqueness established the phenomenon of the “property-owning democracy”, which Ferguson denotes as being “made in America”, contrary to “elite property ownership” being “distinctively British”.[9] Such uniqueness therefore makes Jacksonian Democracy distinctive in its expansion of the ideals of its new nation through a new and liberal methodology of emancipating its citizens.

 As mentioned earlier, Jacksonian Democracy was not distinctive through one sole factor, and neither did all its factors being necessarily considered morally adequate by modern standards. One such other distinctive feature was the controversy revolving around the methods used to serve the ‘common man’ and used against its enemies, some of who were just as common in economic circumstances but not by ethnicity. Patterson argues that “though there were many admirable features in the Jacksonian system, it remained racist and divisive in many respects”.[10] Even though the “most respectable political oratory” in the US’s spring had criticised slavery and its practice, the Constitution they established “had accepted it as a fundamental institution in the new republic”, and thus continued until the American Civil War, with Jackson himself being a slave holder.[11] While indeed remaining true to the Constitution, it seemed the ‘rights of man’ to Jacksonian Democracy only applied to those of white colonial blood, not to all who simply situated themselves within the American realm. Jackson’s ‘democracy’ therefore being a Catch 22, in that it aids the common white man rather than all men regardless of race, has garnered its distinction from the controversy revolving around this contradiction.

The lack of concern for blacks however is just scratching the surface of such debate if one considers the treatment of the Native Americans by Jackson’s establishment. The acquisition of land for the common man to purchase from the charitable US Government was one which came with costs; one being the lack of such charity towards those who originally inhabited the lands in question. Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed such absence of altruism in Memphis where, in “an air of ruin and destruction”, the Choctaw natives were being ousted from their own land “to be free” in the ironic sense of giving liberty to the white Americans.[12] Again, the distinction of Jacksonian Democracy being only a land of opportunity to the white Americans, but not for the “most celebrated and ancient American peoples” like the Choctaw, is the distinction of its moral philosophy being hypocritical.[13]

On the other hand, one must consider that the methods practiced for the Jacksonian cause is one that must make necessary compromises. America as an omelette could not be made without breaking a few eggs. While contemporary critics such as de Tocqueville and the revisionists of the late 20th century may judge Jackson for his aggressive methods, it did not deter the electorate from giving him two landslide victories in the 1828 and 1832 elections.[14] While the armchair critic of today may look back at Jackson’s policies with repugnance, it does not prevent the fact that Jackson was serving those who elected him, thus being compelled to carry out his duty for the movement and its philosophy bearing his name.

Putting aside morality in favour of efficiency through the generation of capital, it can be alternatively argued that there was a just cause for the Trail of Tears in that the Natives had not fully utilised their land as those of European blood would. At the time, the average Native hunter-gatherer required 2,000 acres of land to meet their needs from hunting because prey required much land to grow and be hunted on; contrary to the white man where this amount of land was adequate to serve several individuals’ needs of food and beverage, partially thanks to their higher technological development.[15] Because such land used by the Natives was not being developed to its best potential, it was terra nullius to the Jacksonians and therefore legitimate for the white man to claim it for his own purposes of development. Locke stated that “there are still great tracts of ground” which “lie waste, and are more than the people who dwell on it do, or can make use of, and so still lie in common”.[16] While critics will make Jacksonian Democracy distinctive by the immoral methods it practiced to serve its electorate’s emancipation, it is not so unique when considering that other nations of the time were using similar methods for their own pretences and doctrines. This is especially the case with the British and its empire, who did it for the sole purpose of expanding power displayed through the ‘red on the map’; rather than for the rights of its citizens being expanded through the greater opportunity for the right to property that the Jacksonians desired. The means were the same, but the ends for the Jacksonians were arguably for the greater good.

The Jacksonian Democracy movement also receives much pessimistic distinction in that its namesake is seen as completely synonymous with it. On a personal level, Jackson received many attacks by both contemporary and modern critics, especially by Whig historiography. Henry Clay regarded him as “ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt”, with James Parton stating he was “most unfit for the office”.[17] Some 21st century critics are even harsher, with Whaples noting that they see Jackson as “at best a lunatic, at worse a monster” who used the Bank War, the spoils system and his populism as a Machiavellian method of maintaining power through the electorate.[18] de Tocqueville was also critical of Jackson in his Democracy in America, stating he was a “slave of the majority: he yields to its wishes, its propensities, and its demands”.[19]

Yet, the Jacksonian movement itself cannot be subjected to such criticism by simply criticising Jackson himself, nor should it be distinctive through him. As Sellers points out, it was neither Jackson’s personality, nor his ideology, that fuelled the movement that made 19th century liberal historians turn against him. Instead, it was his aggressive and reckless methods in the Bank War’s mishandling, and his “policy of removing his political enemies from federal office and replacing them with his friends”, that caused such disillusionment.[20] It is easy to make a movement’s leader its distinctive trait, but movements can outlive its founder and therefore its founder’s methods.

This is indeed true when arguing that Jacksonian Democracy had influenced the future of the United States beyond its own epoch and nation. Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson is probably the most powerful argument for this theory. He believed that the ‘Age of Jackson’ itself was of “power and prestige”, which acted as the prelude of the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal, very much in the way George Bancroft argued that the American Revolution was a prelude to Jacksonian Democracy itself.[21] The significance of Jacksonian Democracy’s relation to the New Deal is that the latter had formed the pillars of American hegemony in the 20th century. Considering that the New Deal and its subsequent projects outside the US such as the Marshall Plan had helped prepare the war and victory over European totalitarianism, as well as the continent’s following reconstruction, this is very much a valid connection to make. Such successes had inspired other nations of committing to “striving to emulate the American way”, thus making the 20th century “the American century”.[22] This is especially true when considering Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, with its praises of democratic peace theory being a model for the world as a result of America’s triumph in the Cold War against communism.[23] The era of Jacksonian Democracy can therefore be seen as part of a dialectical process similar to that theorised by Hegel and Marx, except this process is one of America developing its form of liberal democracy on the global scale. That is a distinctive trait that should not be ignored, especially for the present era.

It should therefore be said that the general essence of what was distinctive about Jacksonian Democracy was its policies, in tandem with its philosophy, establishing what the Founding Fathers envisioned for their new nation. The success of this is insurmountable in that, not only did it succeed within its own period of history, but it had left a legacy that inspired future generations to believe in the principles of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, both for US citizens and its world allies that adhere to the principles of democracy. Pessimists of it will always exist especially with the cost it brought to those not considered part of the American social contract, particularly the Native Americans. But as said before, it is important to realise that ideals can evolve from its founders, like genes within species by each generation. Jacksonianism is no different from it evolving from President Jackson, nor should his personal flaws characterise the ideals he established. Even without considering that, the negatives of Jacksonian Democracy should not be considered distinctive in that they are not unique. All transitions of society and systems are not without sacrifices. Criticisms will persist because everyone is a critic, and criticisms simply attempt to diagnose issues. That doesn’t necessarily generate a cure for them. A panacea for Jacksonian Democracy’s ills is therefore futile to theorise as being possible for its time by just lambasting it. As Robert V. Remini eloquently puts it, “[Jacksonian Democracy] stretches the concept of democracy about as far as it can go and still remain workable”.[24] One would find it a Sisyphean task of trying to beg to differ with this statement, just as much as it is Sisyphean in arguing that Jacksonian Democracy was not distinctive at all.

Featured image credit: “Andrew Jackson” by dbking is licensed under CC BY 2.0


[1] Donald B. Cole, “Review: The Age of Jackson: After Forty Years,” Reviews in American History 14, no. 1 (1986): 149-159.

[2] Orlando Patterson, “Liberty against the democratic state: on the historical and contemporary sources of American distrust,” in Democracy and Trust, ed. Mark E. Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 151-207.

[3] Max J. Skidmore, Legacy to the World: A Study of America’s Political Ideas (Bern: Peter Lang, 1998), 115.

[4] Niall Ferguson, Civilisation: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 111.

[5] Robert Whaples, “Were Andrew Jackson’s Policies “Good for the Economy”?,” The Independent Review 18, no. 4 (2014): 545–558.

[6] Skidmore, Legacy to the World, 116.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Whaples, “Good for the Economy”, 548.

[9] Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 242.

[10] Patterson, “Liberty against the democratic state”, 166.

[11] Skidmore, Legacy to the World, 117.

[12] George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Baltimore: JHU Press, 1996), 598.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Whaples, “Good for the Economy”, 545.

[15] Ibid., 547

[16] John Locke, “Second Treatise of Government,” in Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, Second Edition, ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008), 285-353.

[17] Charles G. Sellers Jr, “Andrew Jackson versus the Historians,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44, no. 4 (1958): 615-634.

[18] Whaples, “Good for the Economy”, 545.

[19] Alexis de Tocqueville, eds., On Democracy in America: Volume 1 (New York: Sheba Blake Publishing, 2017), 468.

[20] Sellers Jr, “Andrew Jackson versus the Historians”, 617.

[21] Cole, “Review: The Age of Jackson:”, 149.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Macmillan, 1992).

[24] Robert V. Remini, The Life of Andrew Jackson (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 307.