Jacksonians

Consisting of President Andrew Jackson and his circle of advisors, the Jacksonians were recognized as leaders of the Democratic Party both nationally and within Tennessee. Jackson's Tennessee associates included Judge John Overton; Senator John H. Eaton; Major William B. Lewis; Andrew Jackson Donelson, the president's nephew and private secretary; Nashville postmaster Robert Armstrong; Governor William Carroll; and Congressman James K. Polk. Among prominent secondary figures, more associated with Polk, but equally devoted to Jackson's presidency, were Supreme Court Justice John Catron, Congressmen Aaron V. Brown and Cave Johnson, and Senator Felix Grundy. The first group played a major role in elevating Jackson to the White House and were among his principal advisors early in his presidency. The latter figures defended Jackson's political principles as national and state politics divided into the nation's first modern political party system. With Polk's election to the presidency, they helped to establish Jacksonian ideals as federal government policy until the Civil War.

The inner circle of advisors for Jackson's first administration came together during the 1820s out of a Tennessee politics riven by factionalism. Most, including Jackson himself, were associated with a group of planters and land speculators led by Overton who had long dominated state politics. The Overton faction's preeminence, however, had recently been shaken by Carroll's election as governor in 1821 as the opponent of the Overton clique's control of the state's banks. Grundy, a former "War Hawk" congressman, meanwhile acted as a maverick in state politics by seeking to return to power as the champion of public relief for those suffering from the effects of the financial Panic of 1819. Jackson's initial nomination for the presidency by the state legislature in 1822 appears to have been orchestrated by the Overton group as a way to restore its credibility with Tennessee's voters. With Overton, Lewis, and Eaton most actively promoting his candidacy, the general's unexpected but widespread popularity brought most Tennessee politicians into open support of his election. Jackson won a plurality of popular votes in the 1824 election, but his failure to gain a majority in the electoral college left the choice of the president to the House of Representatives. The House, however, chose runner-up John Quincy Adams over Jackson. When Adams appointed House Speaker Henry Clay as secretary of state, it provoked charges of a "corrupt bargain." Virtually all of the state's leading figures united behind Jackson's election in 1828. He became the champion of "the people" against the "bargain, intrigue, and corruption" that had "stolen" the presidency in 1824.

Jackson and his associates viewed his overwhelming triumph over Adams in 1828 as a restoration of Jeffersonian Republican principles, for he had been promoted on a platform calling for a return to a strict construction of the Constitution, the retrenchment of public expenditures, and the payment of the national debt. Over the course of Jackson's two terms, his presidency became more closely identified with opposition to Clay's "American System," a series of policy proposals by which the national government would encourage economic development through chartering a Bank of the United States, providing tariff protection for American manufacturers, and funding the construction of internal improvements. Jackson's hostility to the American System lay the foundation for a new Democratic Party, since he believed that such policies--despite their promise of national prosperity--would unfairly benefit a privileged, wealthy elite at the expense of farmers, laborers, and mechanics. Instead, he concluded that the government should withdraw from the economy as much as possible and provide its favors equally for the rich and poor.

Acting upon this belief, Jackson pitted his presidency against the economic nationalism that had dominated federal policy since the War of 1812. He vetoed several bills to appropriate funds for local internal improvements, and--especially after tariff revenues had helped to pay off the national debt by 1835--he encouraged free trade through a reduction in tariff rates. In 1832, in the most controversial move of his presidency, Jackson vetoed a bill to recharter the existing Bank of the United States. He then initiated a "war" to destroy the bank by ordering the withdrawal of the federal deposits. Despite the severe recession caused by the bank's retaliation to the removal of the deposits, Jackson's perseverance with this policy led to the lapsing of the bank's charter--with popular approval--in 1836. Following the bank's demise, the president more aggressively promoted a money supply that consisted exclusively of gold and silver coin, believing that such "hard money" possessed a standard, inflexible value, while the fluctuating value of paper money issued by state banks could defraud hardworking Americans of their labor and property. Shortly before the end of his presidency, he issued an order directing government officials to accept only specie in payment for public funds.

While Jackson's policy developed, the president and his associates also came to accept the need for a well-disciplined party organization to perpetuate his administration's principles. Following the rationale of his first secretary of state, Martin Van Buren, Jackson believed that the absence of organization had led to the fractionalization of the Jeffersonian Republicans in the 1820s. This division among the Republican leaders ultimately thwarted the people's will by allowing unscrupulous demagogues to secure Adams's election to the presidency. A party organization rooted in local public meetings that would elect delegates to state conventions, which in turn selected delegates to a national convention, would permit the people to speak in a unified voice on both policy and leaders. The use of party discipline and rewards, mostly through patronage appointments, would compel politicians to obey the popular will. By the end of his first term, Jackson and his allies were encouraging the formation of committees at the local, state, and national levels to direct the party's electioneering activities. At the same time, his policy of "rotation in office," through which he had dismissed and replaced about one-tenth of the federal officeholders, increasingly came to be used to secure party loyalty. In 1832 party leaders organized the first national Democratic convention to nominate Martin Van Buren as vice-president for Jackson's second term. In 1835 the nomination by another national convention of Van Buren as Jackson's successor in the presidency became, for Jackson, the ultimate test of party loyalty.

Although Jackson's reliance on particular advisors always shifted, the development of the Democratic Party marked a move away from the Tennessee politicians who had initiated his presidential candidacy toward newer leaders who understood the realities of party politics. In particular, Polk and Grundy, assisted by Brown and Johnson, strongly endorsed the destruction of the Bank of the United States and cooperated with the creation of a party structure. By 1835 Polk and Grundy were acknowledged openly as the leaders of the Jacksonian forces in Tennessee. The defining of Jackson's principles also produced a more coherent national opposition. Supporters of Adams and Clay, calling themselves first "National Republicans" and after 1834 "Whigs," defended the American System while accusing Jackson of abusing executive power. Deriding the president as "King Andrew I," Whigs charged that Jackson's vetoes both violated the Constitution and negated the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives. Whigs decried his dismissal of federal officials and subsequent use of patronage as a "spoils system" that removed faithful public servants to make room for unqualified and subservient party hacks. The Whigs condemned the new emphasis on party loyalty as the sacrifice of freedom of opinion to follow the dictates of self-anointed party leaders.

In Tennessee, as in other southern states, Jackson's overwhelming popularity delayed the emergence of an opposition, even though politicians with connections to merchants, bankers, and other advocates of commerce doubted the wisdom of destroying the Bank of the United States. The opportunity to challenge the president came when he made clear his preference that Van Buren succeed him and insisted that Tennesseans support the New Yorker as the Democratic nominee. John Bell and Ephraim H. Foster led the dissenters, claiming that the convention, having been packed with Van Buren supporters, did not represent the people's will. By demanding party loyalty, they claimed, Jackson was attempting to "dictate" his will and deny Tennesseans the right to express their preference for the presidential nomination. To strengthen this appeal, Bell and Foster promoted the candidacy of popular Tennessee Senator Hugh Lawson White, whom they proclaimed more loyal than Van Buren to the original Jacksonian principles of 1828. The state legislature in 1835 unanimously nominated White, and although he finished third in the 1836 election behind Van Buren and William Henry Harrison, he won 58 percent of the vote in Tennessee while carrying the electoral votes of his home state and of Georgia. By carrying 49 percent of the southern vote, White's candidacy destroyed southern unity behind Jackson and made possible the establishment of a permanent opposition party.

The presentation of White as a loyal Jacksonian who challenged the president only on the question of succession meant that most Tennesseans viewed the 1836 contest as a dispute within the Democratic Party. For the next few years the distinction between Jacksonian Democratic and White supporters remained unclear. The division into competing political parties within Tennessee followed the clarification of the national political division that occurred after the financial Panic of 1837, which had begun as an economic depression and lasted until the mid-1840s. In a special session of Congress President Van Buren introduced, as his response to the panic, a plan to create an Independent Treasury, or "subtreasury," that would hold the government's money separately from the nation's banking system. The effect of the Independent Treasury, Van Buren explained, would be to "divorce" the government from the banks, and its creation would fulfill Jackson's desire to remove the government's influence from the national economy. White supporters, now accepting the label "Whig," condemned the subtreasury as impractical and claimed that it gave the executive too much control over the government's money. Still, party lines in Tennessee remained vague until Polk challenged the Whig incumbent Newton Cannon for the governorship in 1839, demanding that voters choose between "Polk, Van Buren, and the Subtreasury," and "Cannon, Clay, and a National Bank." Polk won a narrow victory over Cannon as Democrats gained control of the state legislature. More significantly, the 1839 state elections established a permanent party division within Tennessee. Over the next two decades, Democrats and Whigs competed in a series of close contests that followed the patterns established in 1839, with party loyalties now deeply entrenched in the electorate.

Since Tennessee's two parties each won the allegiance of roughly half of the state's voters, party competition became particularly heated, as victory seemed possible for either party in every election. Although Whigs enjoyed a majority in East and West Tennessee and Democrats held an advantage in Middle Tennessee, party support cut across the state's three grand divisions. In general, Whigs tended to win the votes of those living in towns, county seats, and regions with relatively easy access to commercial markets; Democratic voters, on the other hand, tended to live in regions more distant from the world of commerce. This geographic divergence resulted from the Whigs' advocacy of government action to promote economic development, a policy that they encouraged on the state as well as on the national level. In the general assembly Whigs supported, while Democrats opposed, legislation that would expand the state's banking capital, allow the state's banks to suspend specie payments during hard times, increase the availability of paper money, grant unlimited liability to corporate stockholders, and permit corporations to operate in the state without the threat of interference by the legislature. These policies, along with the promise of relief offered by their advocacy of a new national bank, made the Whigs' appeal especially strong during the depression of the early 1840s, and throughout the decade they enjoyed a slight advantage over the Democrats. Between 1839 and 1853 each party won the governor's office four times, but Whigs carried Tennessee in all four presidential elections. Whigs also controlled the state legislature five times during this period; Democrats won a majority only twice, and in one session, both parties won fifty of the assembly's one hundred seats.

Despite Polk's victory in 1839, Democrats entered the 1840s in a weak condition. Polk twice lost reelection contests for the governorship to Whig James C. Jones. His continued support for Van Buren, who had lost the presidency to William H. Harrison in 1840 but remained the expected Democratic nominee in 1844, provoked dissatisfaction with his leadership of the state party. Yet Polk's and the Democrats' prospects revived when John Tyler, who became president at Harrison's death, opened negotiations with the independent Republic of Texas to annex that region to the United States. Anticipating Whig candidate Henry Clay's opposition to annexation, Democrats adopted the Texas issue as their own. When Van Buren unexpectedly announced his own opposition to annexation, Jackson--long in retirement at the Hermitage--used his remaining influence to promote Polk's candidacy instead. Astute maneuvering at the national convention by Johnson, Brown, and Gideon J. Pillow secured Polk's nomination. In the campaign Democrats stressed American expansion as their defining issue by joining Texas annexation with a call for American possession of the Oregon territory, which the United States had occupied jointly with Britain since 1818. With the economy beginning a slow recovery without the enactment of the American System, expansion proved a popular issue. Although Polk lost in his home state by 123 votes, he upset Clay in one of the closest presidential elections in American history.

Polk's victory completed the shift in leadership of the Jacksonians from the older to a newer generation. Against Jackson's wishes, Polk fired Lewis from his position in the Treasury Department, and he helped to organize a new, quasi-official administration newspaper to replace the Washington Globe, which had been the Jackson administration's organ and which was still edited by one of Jackson's closest advisors, Francis Preston Blair. Nevertheless, Polk's presidency marked the triumph of the Jacksonians. By endorsing and signing into law acts that established the Independent Treasury and reduced tariff rates and by vetoing a bill to provide federal funding for river and harbor improvements, Polk established Jacksonian principles as national policy. They remained the government's guiding principles for more than a decade after the end of Polk's term. Polk's administration also carried out the Democrats' expansionist aims. Tyler completed the Texas annexation before Polk's inauguration, but the new president negotiated a settlement of the Oregon boundary with Britain and led the nation into a war with Mexico that brought the southwestern lands between Texas and California under the authority of the United States. The question of whether slavery would exist in these territories, however, brought a new concern to the forefront of national politics and ultimately became the issue that would take the country down the road to the Civil War.

The Jacksonians had a significant impact on the history of both the United States and Tennessee. Their ideological justification for Jackson's elevation to the presidency furthered the national enshrinement of "Jacksonian Democracy"--the belief that the government should execute the will of the people as represented by a majority of a mass electorate. Their role in the creation of the Democratic Party helped to establish the nation's oldest political party. Their organization of the party's machinery and their competition with the Whigs promoted the acceptance of the idea of a party system as a component of American politics. The Jacksonian policy helped to legitimate what later came to be known as laissez-faire as an acceptable relationship between government and society. Ironically, after the Civil War, the laissez-faire doctrine was so distorted that it ultimately aided the corporations and special interests that the Jacksonians had opposed.

Suggested Reading

Jonathan M. Atkins, Parties, Politics, and the Sectional Crisis in Tennessee, 1832-1861 (1997); Paul H. Bergeron, Antebellum Politics in Tennessee (1982); Donald B. Cole, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (1993); Richard B. Latner, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson: White House Politics, 1829-1837 (1979); Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (1957); Charles Sellers, James K. Polk, vol. 1, Jacksonian, 1795-1843 (1957) and vol. 2, Continentalist, 1843-1846 (1966).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010