Sunday, 16 October 2016

A populist democracy?

'President's Levée, or all Creation going to the White House'
From Library of Congress:
View of crowd in front of the White House during
President Jackson's first inaugural reception in 1829.

The new politics

The period after the ending of the War of 1812 was described rather complacently by a contemporary journalist as ‘the Era of Good Feelings’. It has been associated above all with the presidency of James MonroeWith his retirement in 1825, and his replacement by John Quincy Adams, the Virginia Dynasty (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) ended. 

The country was changing rapidly. By 1820 there were twenty-two states in the Union and a population of 9.6 million. America was becoming more distinct from Europe and the classical pattern of the American political system was emerging. 

One distinctive feature was the ‘spoils system’first seen in New York and then increasingly widespread.  This was the principle of ‘The the victor belong the spoils’, under which whenever power changed hands it was followed by the dismissal of all office-holders of the wrong party and their replacement by adherents of the new administration.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court was showing itself to be a very active body,
John Marshall,
by  Henry Inman (1832)
upholding Federalist principles even after the party’s demise.  Under Chief Justice John Marshall, who served from 1801-35, a series of landmark cases established the primacy of federal over state law and the power of the judiciary to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. 

In the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) Marshall had  laid down the principle of judicial review and judicial supremacy: 
‘it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is…So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case: the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case.’  
This was the first case in which the Supreme Court declared a federal law unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated provisions of the Constitution. 

The case of McCullough v. Maryland (1819) ruled unconstitutional a Maryland tax on the Second Bank of the United States (which had been incorporated by Congress in 1816). The court ruled that if state law had the right to tax a federal institution then it would also have the right 
‘to tax the mail, [and] tax the mint…which would defeat all ends of the [federal] government’. 
The Supreme Court was thus made the umpire of the Constitution.

The Monroe Doctrine

James Monroe
In December 1823 Monroe delivered his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress that was later described as the Monroe Doctrine. Its context was the series of liberation movements that ended Spanish and Portuguese rule in South America.  Monroe declared that the United States would not permit the European monarchies to interfere in the New World and he also gave an assurance that America would not involve itself in European affairs. 

Economic developments

As settlers poured westwards, the United States developed a transport infrastructure to cope with the movements of population. In 1806 congress authorized the National Road (also known as the Cumberland Road), America’s first inter-state highway. Construction started at Cumberland, Maryland in 1811, and the road reached Vandalia, Illinois, in 1839.  The West was becoming increasingly significant. 

Since 1817 the Erie Canal had been under construction and was opened in 1825. At  363 miles long and with 83 locks it was the longest canal in the world, and it cost $7 million dollars to build. By linking the Great Lakes with New York City via the Hudson River, it connected the Western interior to the Atlantic. 

Lithograph of the Erie Canal at Lockport, New York (1855)

In 1828 the cornerstone for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was laid on 4 July 1828.  At the end of 1829 it carried passengers on the first completed 13-mile stretch. By 1850 America had nine thousand miles of track. 

Agriculture remained central to the American economy: cotton and tobacco in the South, grains and livestock in the North and West. Industry was also growing, as skilled immigrants brought with them their knowledge of British production technologies. In 1822 Boston investors opened the mechanised Lowell cotton mill along the Merrimack River. However the majority of American towns were commercial rather than manufacturing centres, providing goods and services for the surrounding farms. It was only after the Civil War that industrialization seriously took shape. 

Jacksonian Democracy

The 1824 presidential election saw a bitterly fought contest between John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the battle of New Orleans, William Harris Crawford of Georgia, and Henry Clay of Kentucky (‘Harry of the West’), the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  The election turned into a fiasco. Jackson received more electoral and popular votes than any other candidate but not the majority in the electoral college that was needed to win. The election then went to the House of Representatives. Clay knew he could not win, so he persuaded the House to choose Adams, who was elected in February 1825. When he then accepted the post of Secretary of State, Jackson supporters denounced the ‘corrupt bargain’ of ‘the Judas of the West’.

The election showed that the Federalist party (which Adams had left in 1803) was dead. It had failed to expand beyond its New England base and produce leaders who could appeal to the nation as a whole.

Andrew Jackson
7th President of the
United States (1829-37)
The extremely scurrilous election of 1828 was Jackson’s revenge.   The electorate had now increased to comprise all white males in all states except South Carolina.  Adams lost the election by a decisive margin. He retained his support in New England, but Jackson won the rest of the states, picking up 178 electoral votes to Adams' 83 votes. Significantly, he picked up votes from the Irish immigrants. Adams and his father were the only U.S. presidents to serve a single term during the first 48 years of the Presidency (1789–1837). 

In March 1829 Jackson entered Washington like a conqueror. On inauguration day  (4 March) the White House was invaded by a triumphant mob. The revellers pushed into the White House, where a reception was scheduled for all who chose to come. They surged through rooms, broke dishes and leaped onto the furniture in an attempt to shake the president’s hand.  This disorderly behaviour seemed to mark the beginning of the age of the common man.  By 1832 the movement had a name: the Democratic Party. Jackson governed through his close inner-circle, called his ‘Kitchen Cabinet’, which included newspaper editors as well as politicians. His party was suspicious of elites and vested interest, hostile to high tariffs that kept up prices and bitterly opposed to bankers.
Henry Clay
leader of the Whigs

In 1834 the enemies of 'King Andrew' formed the Whig Party, a conservative, business-oriented party that copied the Democrats' campaign tactics of mobilised torchlight parades, miniature log cabins, and hard (i.e. alcoholic) cider. The Whigs supported the supremacy of Congress over the presidency and favoured a programme of banking and tariffs to stimulate manufacturing. Their pre-eminent leader was Henry Clay. Both parties went out to win the support of the common man, by appealing to his prejudices, libelling the opposition, or addressing large crowds.  


In the second quarter of the nineteenth century the patrician republic associated with the Virginia Dynasty gave way to the frontier democracy of the Jacksonians.  Europeans noted the change. 

In 1835 the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville published his two-volume Democracy in America. He saw the United States as the
prototype of an egalitarian democratic order, lacking an aristocracy, governed by majority rule and maintaining order through voluntary associations and strong religious beliefs. In describing this society, he coined a new word – individualism.

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