Between 1824 and 1848, commonly referred to as the Jacksonian Period, American rights and ideals of the common man were implemented. This idea was pioneered by Andrew Jackson, the self-proclaimed ‘champion of the common man’. Jackson, unlike the candidates preceding the election of 1828, had come from humble beginnings. Jackson grew up in relative poverty with his widowed mother. As a young man, he moved to Tennessee to become a prominent self-taught lawyer and congressman, eventually becoming a renowned military leader in the War of 1812. Jackson’s inspirational background and support of the common man drove his popularity in the election of 1828. After winning the election, his focus on the common American man shaped the characterization of American politics, economic values, and resulting reform movements during the Jacksonian Period.
Recognizing the impact of the common people’s vote on Jackson’s chances of winning, he specifically tailored his campaigns and political values to common men and gaining their favor. As opposed to previous elections, Jackson’s campaigns and his opponents’ became a spectacle to appeal to mass audiences. Jackson held wildly popular rallies, parades, and even barbecues that focused on fair treatment and opportunity for common men. These exciting events led to more and more American people becoming interested in politics, and ultimately voting. This way of campaigning appealed to a much wider audience of Americans seeking to move up the social ladder as Jackson had previously done. Jackson’s way of political campaigning varied greatly from previous runners who had focused on the higher aristocratic classes for their vote, but it stuck with American society. Instead of focusing on those of the aristocratic upper class, candidates, following Jackson’s lead, focused on giving common men more say in how their country was run. As more white men gained rights to vote during the 19th century, politics became centered around gaining their popular vote. In order to appeal to and be understood by lower classmen, who were largely uneducated, politicians like Jackson adjusted their content so every man would be able to understand their ideals. With the rise in voter turnout came major competition between candidates to win the popular vote of the common man, now a vital part in the election. Politicians moved from largely talking about political issues to pointing out untrustworthy or unsatisfactory actions of their political counterparts in order to gain favor over them. Even in the beginning stages of the Jacksonian period, these directed attacks could be observed. In the election of 1828, Jackson and John Quincy Adams went head-to-head to win over the American people. John Quincy Adams directed most of his attention on Jackson’s ‘adultery’, when he married his wife, unknowingly, before her divorce had been finalized. Jackson, on the other hand, pointed at the “corrupt bargain” that took place between Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams that allowed him to beat Jackson in the election of 1824. They both thoroughly displayed the shift that had occurred in American politics during the Jacksonian period. Coupled with the increase in the distribution of newspapers, American political issues and propaganda became widely accessible to the American public. With this extensive political understanding available to the American people, voter turnout increased greatly. With his immense political popularity among the common men of America, Jackson had to restructure the American economy to reflect their values.
One of the most significant areas of economic concern characterized during the Jacksonian Period centered around the National Bank of the United States. Jackson, like many common Americans, saw bankers of any kind as men who didn’t work hard, but profited off of the labor of hard-working Americans. He even went as far as to say that ‘hard money’ like gold and silver was the only viable currency. This was based on the history of banks, especially that of the national bank, in overissuing paper money, which reduced the value of the dollar and income of these hard-working Americans. When Jackson came to power in 1828, he strongly shared this negative view of banks, mainly the national bank, with the American people. Run by Nicholas Biddle, the Second Bank of the United States regulated currency and was established to maintain stability within the American economy. During the 1820s, Biddle successfully used the National Bank’s power to prevent overissuing of money in local banks and maintain a stable currency within the country. Though Biddle was intelligent in running the National Bank, the running of his mouth got him and the National Bank into ultimate disfavor with Jackson. In 1832, Biddle was quoted as saying that the National Bank could ‘destroy’ any state bank if they desired to. Jackson saw this as an overstretch of power and a threat against the hard-working local banks of America. Like many Americans at the time, Jackson felt something must be done to remove this kind of threatening power out of the hands of the National Bank. So, in 1832, when Biddle convinced Congress to approve the extension of the National Bank’s charter for another twenty years, Jackson vetoed it. Reflecting the values of his ‘humble’ American supporters, Jackson thought that Congress gave the National Bank too much power and influence on the nation’s economy. Jackson’s veto also exemplified the amplified power that the presidency had gained during the Jacksonian period. In his second term (1832-36), Jackson began placing federal funds into state or ‘pet’ banks rather than the National Bank. Without regular federal deposits, the Bank of the United States had no control over the actions of state banks. Coupled with the rapid westward expansion, industrial, and agricultural improvements during the time period, state banks began to print more and more paper money to facilitate the country’s development. Prices increased greatly, along with wages, but these wage increases were not able to offset the dramatic increase in prices. Due to this, the actual value of workers’ wages greatly depreciated. Then the economic boom collapsed. This resulted mainly due to England’s demands that American merchants pay in hard money and Jackson’s implementation of the Specie Circular, which said the government would only accept gold or silver for land. Coupled with Britain’s lack of demand for cotton, a major American export, the US economy collapsed in the Panic of 1837. This would create a subsequent depression that would last until 1843.
With the rise of democracy during the Jacksonian Period, there emerged multiple influential reform movements. Because of the destruction of the previous aristocratic society, American men disconcerted themselves with society as a whole. They became more focused on their own inner feelings and how the government affected them, which drove reformers to effect change within individualist America. Reforms within society became focused on improving American society by restoring social harmony to a world of individuals, and to continue to blur the gap between the poor and wealthy. Many reform movements were religiously sparked by the Second Great Awakening which had democratized American Christianity, but even secular convictions of fair treatment drummed up support for change. An example of this was Abolitionism, which became one of the most important reform movements of the Jacksonian period. Religious men felt convicted of slavery, seeing it as a terrible sin posed upon African-Americans, while secular men viewed it as a contradiction of the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. Both sides viewed slavery as unacceptable, and therefore it needed to be immediately removed from American culture. One of the most prominent speakers on abolitionism was Frederick Douglas, a runaway slave who pushed against slavery and called for equal women’s rights. He published books on his experience as a slave, held rallies, and utilized newspaper articles to promote his cause. Similar to the new political campaigns of the period, Douglas and many other reformers utilized the media to reach more people. This allowed many reform movements to become known and supported by all types of Americans. More strict religious reformers sought to reform society by creating their own utopian societies. They made these communities to model what a perfect society in America would and should look like. These communities pictured society in America to be more cooperative as opposed to divided by individualism. These utopian societies, though not entirely effective to the desired extent, pushed for equal treatment between all people, particularly women, considered minorities at the time. Another rampant problem within America that promoted female protest and voiced concern was alcoholism. Men in the United States tended to drink large amounts of alcohol, which drained American families of the money they needed to stay afloat. Due to this, many women began to speak up, causing many states to pass anti-alcohol laws. Reforms during the Jacksonian period exemplified the response to the increase of individualism and rights for the common man, while still displaying the desire of American people for freedom. Due to seeing the heightened rights given to common men in government, it drove minorities like women and African-Americans to voice their desire for equal and fair treatment. In conjunction with the increase of media access and knowledge, these movements became very powerful and influential in American society.
The Jacksonian Period substantially developed the role of the common man in American government. Characterized by changing political strategies and economic values, the common man shaped the focus and interests of American society. Because of this, Americans became focused on protecting and exercising their rights and freedoms. The move from aristocratic hierarchy in the government to the common man elicited many reform movements to improve society, promote freedom, and give voices to minorities. These changes made during the Jacksonian Period moved America towards values of democracy, human equality, and freedom that have permeated American politics ever since.
- ‘ANDREW JACKSON, BANKS, AND THE PANIC OF 1837’. The Lehrman Institute, http://lehrmaninstitute.org/history/Andrew-Jackson-1837.html
- ‘Abolitionism’. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/place/United-States/Abolitionism
- Brown, Alice, and Kathleen Day-Ketel. ‘The Expansion of Democracy during the Jacksonian Era – America in Class – Resources for History; Literature Teachers’. America in Class, 4 Dec. 2015, http://americainclass.org/the-expansion-of-democracy-during-the-jacksonian-era/
- Corps, Terry. ‘The A to Z of the Jacksonian Era and Manifest Destiny’. Scarecrow Press, 2009.
- History.com Editors. ‘Bank War’. History.com, A&E Television Networks, 15 Dec. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/bank-war
- Kohl, Lawrence Frederick. ‘The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era’. Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘Economy in The Jackson Era’. Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, http://www.shmoop.com/jackson-era/economy.html