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Arts Entertainments

Jacksonian politics in the United States

Although the rise of different political parties in American politics predated the Jacksonian era by forty years or more, the election of a populist president like Andrew Jackson was arguably the catalytic moment for America’s moneyed elites. His response, the formation of the Whig party, was intended to counter Jackson’s actions and help preserve the majority of this minority on the national political scene.

How could politics be considered fair in this period of American history when, for example, almost a fifth of legislators came from elite centers of power like Connecticut, while the state accounted for something like a twentieth of the majority? population of the country? ? With his belief in the just and equal redistribution of wealth in American society, Brinkley notes how Jackson ordered the redistribution of the federal surplus to every state in the nation. Jackson espoused much of the same social and political mores as liberals in the United States today. These particular beliefs, along with Jackson’s actions, would spur not only the creation of the Whig Party, but would further the development of a number of political institutions and mechanisms that exist even today, such as the party’s convention system. His presidency would have long-term implications.

The founding of the Whig party made the distinctions between them and the Democrats increasingly obvious. In his writings, de Toqueville asserts that one of the few protections against the “tyranny of the majority” is the right of political association. We see such a right exercised in the concentration of individuals in the form of political parties. “The right of political associations,” de Toqueville wrote, “[enabled] supporters of one opinion unite in electoral colleges and appoint delegates to represent them in a central assembly… Properly speaking, this is the representative system applied to a party.” With his power fairly well entrenched, Jackson was free to do skillfully decisions that furthered his agenda, while agitating the political and social elites of both the power centers of the North and the landed elite of the South Interestingly, Jackson and his Democrats appealed to the people of the West for opportunities to improve themselves through less wealthy northerners, and even southern planters who wanted less government intrusion. This is in contrast to today’s Democratic Party, whose power base is increasingly centered outside the southern United States, which until a few decades ago it was overwhelmingly Democratic in affiliation.

In response to many of Jackson’s decisions, such as breaking up the Bank of the United States or returning the federal surplus to the states, wealthy agitators were galvanized in their desire to oppose and annoy Jackson wherever they could. In his Essays on the American Whig Party, Thomas Brown writes: “Whig statecraft was not an ideology aimed at a small elite, but rather assumed that American voters generally ‘were capable of reasoning, moderating, and controlling themselves. ‘ in search of the beginning.” This could later be seen in their attempts to defeat William Henry Harrison’s bid for president when they promoted themselves as the common man’s party, certainly a taunt aimed squarely at Jacksonian Democrats. Brown’s comment is an interesting insight that feels Millsian; “capable of reasoning, moderating, and controlling themselves” certainly reflects a view that, with their own resources, individuals will make decisions that are ultimately in their best interests, and furthermore, their best interests would drive party votes away jacksonian. Of course, this would turn out to be a mistaken belief.

Brown argues that “the birth of the Whig party was a consolidation of various factions that came together successfully only when the events of the Jackson administration attracted a popular base under the rallying cry of ‘executive usurpation.'” Anyone opposed to a strong, centralized federal government (as de Toqueville certainly did) would be distraught by many of Jackson’s actions. Although the Whig party did not last, its core beliefs laid the foundation for the later Republican party, which even today still embraces social and fiscal conservatism, less government intrusion, and more power in the states rather than a large federal bureaucracy. Jackson would surely disagree with them today if he were alive.

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