Lecture Four

The Rise of Democratic

     When James Monroe began his second term as president in 1821, he rejoiced at the idea that the country was no longer divided by political parties, which he considered “the curse of the country,” breeding disunity, demagoguery, and corruption. Yet even before Monroe’s second term had ended, new political divisions had already begun to evolve, creating an increasingly democratic system of politics.

     In 1821, American politics was still largely dominated by deference. Competing political parties were nonexistent and voters generally deferred to the leadership of local elites or leading families. Political campaigns tended to be relatively staid affairs. Direct appeals by candidates for support were considered in poor taste. Election procedures were, by later standards, quite undemocratic. Most states imposed property and taxpaying requirements on the white adult males who alone had the vote, and they conducted voting by voice. Presidential electors were generally chosen by state legislatures. Given the fact that citizens had only the most indirect say in the election of the president, it is not surprising that voting participation was generally extremely low, amounting to less than 30 percent of adult white males.

     Between 1820 and 1840, a revolution took place in American politics. In most states, property qualifications for voting and office holding were repealed; and voting by voice was largely eliminated.  Direct methods of selecting presidential electors, county officials, state judges, and governors replaced indirect methods. Because of these and other political innovations, voter participation skyrocketed. By 1840 voting participation had reached unprecedented levels. Nearly 80 percent of adult white males went to the polls.

     A new two-party system, made possible by an expanded electorate, replaced the politics of deference to and leadership by elites. By the mid-1830s, two national political parties with marked philosophical differences, strong organizations, and wide popular appeal competed in virtually every state. Professional party managers used partisan newspapers, speeches, parades, rallies, and barbecues to mobilize popular support. Our modern political system had been born.

The Expansion of Voting Rights

     The most significant political innovation of the early nineteenth century was the abolition of property qualifications for voting and office holding. Hard times resulting from the panic of 1819 led many people to demand an end to property restrictions on voting and office holding. In New York, for example, fewer than two adult males in five could legally vote for senator or governor. Under the new constitution adopted in 1821, all adult white males were allowed to vote, so long as they paid taxes or had served in the militia. Five years later, an amendment to the state’s constitution eliminated the taxpaying and militia qualifications, thereby establishing universal white manhood suffrage. By 1840, universal white manhood suffrage had largely become a reality. Only three states—Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Virginia—still restricted the suffrage to white male property owners and taxpayers.

     In order to encourage popular participation in politics, most states also instituted statewide nominating conventions, opened polling places in more convenient locations, extended the hours that polls were open, and eliminated the earlier practice of voting by voice. This last reform did not truly institute the secret ballot, which was only adopted beginning in the 1880s, since voters during the mid-nineteenth century usually voted with straight-ticket paper ballots prepared by the political parties themselves. Each party had a different colored ballot, which voters deposited in a publicly viewed ballot box, so that those present knew who had voted for which party. By 1824 only 6 of the nation’s 24 states still chose presidential electors in the state legislature, and eight years later the only state still to do so was South Carolina, which continued this practice until the Civil War. In addition to removing property and tax qualifications for voting and office holding, states also reduced residency requirements for voting. Immigrant males were permitted to vote in most states if they had declared their intention to become citizens. During the nineteenth century, 22 states and territories permitted immigrants who were not yet naturalized citizens to vote. States also allowed voters to choose presidential electors, governors, and county officials.

     While universal white manhood suffrage was becoming a reality, restrictions on voting by African Americans and women remained in force. Only one state, New Jersey, had given unmarried women property holders the right to vote following the Revolution, but the state rescinded this right at the time it extended suffrage to all adult white men. Most states also explicitly denied the right to vote to free African Americans. By 1858 free blacks were eligible to vote in just four northern states: New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

Popular Attacks
on Privilege

     The "democratic impulse" that swept the country in the 1820s was also apparent in widespread attacks on special privilege and aristocratic pretension. Established churches, the bench, and the legal and medical professions all saw their elitist status diminished.

     The judiciary became more responsive to public opinion through election, rather than appointment, of judges. To open up the legal profession, many states dropped formal training requirements to practice law. Some states also abolished training and licensing requirements for physicians, allowing unorthodox “herb and root” doctors, including many women, to compete freely with established physicians.

     The surge of democratic sentiment had an important political consequence: the breakdown of the politics of deference and its terminology. The eighteenth-century language of politics—which included such terms as “faction,” “junto,” and “caucus”—was rooted in an elite-dominated political order. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, a new democratic political vocabulary emerged that drew its words from everyday language. Instead of “standing” for public office, candidates “ran” for office.  Politicians “log-rolled” (made deals) or “straddled the fence” or promoted “pork barrel” legislation (programs that would benefit their constituents).

     During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, local elites lost much of their influence. They were replaced by professional politicians. In the 1820s, political innovators such as Martin Van Buren, the son of a tavern keeper, and Thurlow Weed, a newspaper editor in Albany, New York, devised new campaign tools such as torchlight parades, subsidized partisan newspapers, and nominating conventions. These political bosses and manipulators soon discovered that the most successful technique for arousing popular interest in politics was to attack a privileged group or institution that had used political influence to attain power or profit.

     The “Anti-Masonic party” was the first political movement to win widespread popular following using this technique. In the mid-1820s, a growing number of people in New York and surrounding states had come to believe that members of the fraternal order of Freemasons, who seemed to monopolize many of the region’s most prestigious political offices and business positions, had used their connections to enrich themselves. They noted, for instance, that Masons held 22 of the nation’s 24 governorships.

     Then, in 1826, in the small town of Batavia, New York, William Morgan, a former Mason, disappeared. Morgan had written an exposé of the organization in violation of the order’s vow of silence, and rumor soon spread that he had been tied up with heavy cables and dumped into the Niagara River. When no indictments were brought against the alleged perpetrators of Morgan’s kidnapping and presumed murder, many upstate New Yorkers accused local constables, justices of the peace, and judges, who were members of the Masons, of obstruction of justice.

      By 1830 the Anti-Mason movement had succeeded in capturing half the vote in New York State and had gained substantial support throughout New England. In the mid-1830s, the Anti-Masons were absorbed into a new national political party, the Whigs.

Emergence of a New Party System

     The first years of the new republic had given rise to two competing political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The first two parties, unlike the present-day political parties, tended to have a strong sectional character, with the Federalists dominant in New England and the Republicans elsewhere.

     After the War of 1812, the nation reverted to a period of one-party government in national politics. The decline of the Federalist party created the illusion of national political unity, but appearances were deceptive. Without the discipline imposed by competition with a strong opposition party, the Republican party began to fragment into cliques and factions.

     During James Monroe’s presidency, the Republican party disintegrated as a stable national organization. Following his overwhelming victory in 1816, Monroe sought to promote the ideal expressed by George Washington in his Farewell Address: a nation free of partisan divisions. Like Washington, he appointed rival factional leaders, such as John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, to his cabinet. He refused to use federal patronage to strengthen the Republican party. He also took the position that Congress, not the president, was the best representative of the public will and therefore should define public policy.

     The absence of a strong leader, however, led to the fragmentation of the Republican party during Monroe’s administration. Factional and sectional rivalries grew increasingly bitter and party machinery fell into disuse.

     Over time, local and personal factions began to coalesce into a new political party system. Three critical factors contributed to the creation of the second party system. The first was the financial panic of 1819 and the subsequent depression.

     The panic resulted in significant political differences over such issues as debt relief, banking and monetary policy, and tariffs. Farmers, particularly in the South and West, demanded enactment of stay laws to postpone repayment of debts. Many artisans and farmers blamed banks for causing the panic by printing an excess of worthless paper money. They demanded that bank notes be replaced by hard money, gold and silver coinage. These groups often disagreed with pro-business interests, which called for the extension of credit, higher tariffs to protect infant industries, and government-financed transportation improvements to reduce the cost of trade.

     A second source of political division was southern alarm over the slavery debates in Congress in 1819 and 1820. Many southern leaders feared that the Missouri crisis might spark a realignment in national politics along sectional lines. Such a development, John Quincy Adams wrote, was “terrible to the South—threatening in its progress the emancipation of all their slaves, threatening in its immediate effect that Southern domination which has swayed the Union for the last twenty years.” Anxiety over the slavery debates in 1819 and 1820 induced many southerners to seek political alliances with the North. As early as 1821, Old Republicans in the South—who opposed high tariffs, a national bank, and federally-funded internal improvements—had begun to form a loose alliance with Senator Martin Van Buren of New York and the Republican party faction he commanded.

     The third major source of political division was the selection of presidential candidates. The “Virginia dynasty” of presidents, a chain that had begun with George Washington and included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, was at its end by 1824. Traditionally, a caucus of the Republican party’s members of Congress selected the Republican party’s candidate. At the 1824 caucus, the members met in closed session and chose William Crawford, Monroe’s secretary of the Treasury, as the party’s candidate. Not all Republicans, however, supported this method of nominating candidates and therefore refused to participate.

     When Crawford suffered a stroke and was left partially disabled, four other candidates emerged: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the son of the nation’s second president and the only candidate from the North; John C. Calhoun, Monroe’s secretary of war, who had little support outside of his native South Carolina; Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House; and General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and victor over the Creek and Seminole Indians. About the latter, Thomas Jefferson commented dryly, one might as well try “to make a soldier of a goose as a President of Andrew Jackson.”

     In the Election of 1824, Jackson received the greatest number of votes both at the polls and in the electoral college, followed (in electoral votes) by Adams, Crawford, and then Clay. But he failed to receive the constitutionally required majority of the electoral votes. As provided by the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, the election was therefore thrown into the House of Representatives, which was required to choose from among the top three vote-getters in the electoral college. There, Henry Clay persuaded his supporters to vote for Adams, commenting acidly that he did not believe “that killing two thousand five hundred Englishmen at New Orleans” was a proper qualification for the presidency. Adams was elected on the first ballot.

      The Philadelphia Observer charged that Adams had made a secret deal to obtain Clay’s support. Three days later, Adams’s nomination of Clay as secretary of state seemed to confirm the charges of a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson was outraged, since he could legitimately argue that he was the popular favorite. The general exclaimed, “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver.”

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

john quincy adams
John Quincy Adams

     John Quincy Adams was one of the most brilliant and well-qualified men ever to occupy the White House. A deeply religious, intensely scholarly man, he read Biblical passages at least three times a day—once in English, once in German, and once in French. He was fluent in seven foreign languages, including Greek and Latin. During his remarkable career as a diplomat and secretary of state, he negotiated the treaty that ended the War of 1812, acquired Florida, and conceived the Monroe Doctrine.

     But Adams lacked the political skills and personality necessary to create support for his program. Like his father, Adams lacked personal warmth. His adversaries mockingly described him as a “chip off the old iceberg.” Adams’s problems as president did not arise exclusively from his temperament. His misfortune was to serve as president at a time of growing partisan divisions. The Republican party had split into two distinct camps. Adams and his supporters, known as National Republicans, favored a vigorous role for the central government in promoting national economic growth, while the Jacksonian Democrats demanded a limited government and strict adherence to laissez-faire principles.

     As the only president to lose both the popular vote and the electoral vote, Adams faced hostility from the start. Jackson and his supporters accused the new president of “corruptions and intrigues” to gain Henry Clay’s support. Acutely aware of the fact that “two-thirds of the whole people [were] averse” to his election as president, Adams promised in his inaugural address to make up for this with “intentions upright and pure; a heart devoted to the welfare of our country.” A staunch nationalist, Adams proposed an extraordinary program of federal support for scientific and economic development that included a national university, astronomical observatories (“lighthouses of the skies”), federal funding of roads and canals, and exploration of the country’s territory—all to be financed by a high tariff.

     Adams’s advocacy of a strong federal government and a high tariff enraged defenders of slavery and states’ rights advocates who clung to traditional Jeffersonian principles of limited government and strict construction of the Constitution. They feared that any expansion of federal authority might set a precedent for interference with slavery. Thomas Jefferson himself condemned Adams’s proposals, declaring in a stinging statement that they would undermine the states and create a national elite—“an aristocracy...riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”

     Adams met with further frustration because he was unwilling to adapt to the practical demands of politics. Adams made no effort to use his patronage powers to build support for his proposals and refused to fire federal officeholders who openly opposed his policies. During his entire term in office he removed just 12 incumbents, and these only for gross incompetence. He justified his actions by saying that he did not want to make “government a perpetual and unremitting scramble for office.”

     Adams’s Indian policies also cost him supporters. Although he, like his predecessor Monroe, wanted to remove Native Americans in the South to an area west of the Mississippi River, he believed that the state and federal governments had a duty to abide by Indian treaties and to purchase, not merely annex, Indian lands. Adams’s decision to repudiate and renegotiate a fraudulent treaty that stripped the Georgia Creek Indians of their land outraged land-hungry Southerners and Westerners.

     Even in the realm of foreign policy, his strong suit prior to the presidency, Adams encountered difficulties. His attempts to acquire Texas from Mexico through peaceful means failed, as did his efforts to persuade Britain to permit more American trade with the British West Indies. The “American System” and the “Tariff of Abominations” (the Tariff of 1828--see next paragraph) committed President Adams to using the federal government to promote national economic development. His program included a high protective tariff to promote industry, the sale of public lands at low prices to encourage western settlement, federally financed transportation improvements, expanded markets for western grain and southern cotton, and a strong national bank to regulate the economy.

     Adams’s secretary of state, Henry Clay, called this economic program the American System because it was supposed to promote growth in all parts of the country. But the program infuriated Southerners who believed that it favored Northeastern industrial interests at their region’s expense. Southerners particularly disliked a protective tariff, since it raised the cost of manufactured goods, which they did not produce.

     Andrew Jackson’s supporters in Congress sought to exploit the tariff question in order to embarrass Adams and help Jackson win the presidency in 1828. They framed a bill, which became known as the Tariff of Abominations, to win support for Jackson in Kentucky, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania while weakening the Adams administration in New England. The bill raised duties on iron, hemp, and flax (which would benefit Westerners), while lowering the tariff on woolen goods (to the detriment of New England textile manufacturers). John Randolph of Virginia accurately described the object of the bill as an effort to encourage “manufactures of no sort or kind, except the manufacture of a President of the United States.”

     The Tariff of Abominations created a political uproar in the South, where it was denounced as unconstitutional and discriminatory. The tariff, southerners insisted, was essentially a tax on their region to assist northern manufacturers. South Carolina expressed the loudest outcry against the tariff. At a public meeting in Charleston, protesters declared that a tariff was designed to benefit “one class of citizens [manufacturers] at the expense of every other class.” Some South Carolinians called for revolutionary defiance of the national government.

     Vice President John C. Calhoun, a skilled logician well versed in political theory, offered a theoretical framework for Southern discontent. Retreating from his early nationalistic position, the South Carolinian anonymously published the “South Carolina Exposition,” an essay that advanced the principle of nullification. A single state, Calhoun maintained, might overrule or “nullify” a federal law within its own territory, until three-quarters of the states had upheld the law as constitutional. In 1828 the state of South Carolina decided not to implement this doctrine but rather to wait and see what attitude the next president would adopt toward the tariff.

Proceed to Next Lecture


Large parts of this lesson were derived from Digital History, "The Era of Good Feelings," and "Jacksonian Democracy"

© Kahne Parsons, 2007-08