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Oligarchy is a form of government in which a small group of powerful elite rule. It is a common form in many nations, even those that purport to be democracies. In fact, the United States after the Revolution could accurately be described as an oligarchy. A small group of wealthy, landed white men created a government that supported their interests and was designed to ensure the election of members of their own class to high office. For the first half century of its existence, the only presidents were Virginia planters or wealthy New Englanders.
Although critics might argue that our current politics still give little room for anyone other than the wealthy and well connected, presidents who grew up poor are no longer unheard of. Some of our most celebrated leaders are celebrated in part because they had no connection to the ruling class. Abraham Lincoln famously grew up in a log cabin. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer, and Bill Clinton was the “man from Hope,” a tiny rural town in Arkansas.
How did this happen? How did America’s government stop being ruled by a tiny class of the wealthy few, and become a land ruled by the many? In a nation whose Constitution begins with “We the People,” when did the people actually begin to guide the affairs of state?
What do you think? Why isn’t America an oligarchy?
REPUBLICANISM VS. THE PEOPLE
The social forces that reshaped the United States in its first half century were profound. Western expansion, growing racial conflict, unprecedented economic changes linked to the early Industrial Revolution, and the development of a stronger American Protestantism in the Second Great Awakening all overlapped with one another in ways that were both complementary and contradictory. These changes all had a direct impact on American political culture that attempted to make sense of how these varied impulses had transformed the country.
The changing character of American politics can be divided into two time periods separated by the War of 1812. In the early republic that preceded the war, republicanism had been the guiding political value. Although an unquestioned assault on the aristocratic ideal of the Colonial Era, republicanism also included a deep fear of the threat to public order posed by the decline of traditional values of hierarchy and inequality. Republicanism prioritized the stability of the Republic over the will of the people.
While it seems surprising today, at the start of the early republic many people, and almost all public leaders, associated democracy with anarchy. Although the Constitution begins with the famous phrase “We the People”, in reality the Founding Fathers built many protections against the rule of the people into their plan for government. The people did not elect senators. They were chosen by state legislatures, and most famously, presidents were chosen by a college of electors rather than by the people directly. In this way, the Founders thought that they could insulate the government from the capricious will of the people.
Things began to change in the early national period following the War of 1812. Democracy began to be championed as an unqualified key to improving the country. By the time the nation was 30 years old, widespread fear of democracy was held only by small and increasingly isolated groups.
Although a belief in democratic principles remains at the center of American life today, the growth of democracy in the early national period was not obvious, easy, or without negative consequences. The economic boom of the early Industrial Revolution distributed wealth in shockingly unequal ways that threatened the independence of working-class Americans. Similarly, western expansion drove increased attacks on Native American communities as well as the massive expansion of slavery.
Finally, even within white households, the promise of Jacksonian Democracy could only be fully attained by husbands and sons. The changes American society underwent in the early national period, including many of its troubling problems, created a framework of modern American life that we can still recognize today.
THE ERA OF GOOD FEELINGS
The War of 1812 closed with the Federalist Party all but destroyed. The 1816 presidential election was the last one when the Federalists’ ran a candidate, and he lost resoundingly.
The 1818 Congressional election brought another landslide victory for Democratic-Republicans who controlled 85% of the seats in Congress. James Monroe, yet another Virginian, followed Madison in the Presidency for two terms from 1817 to 1825. Although this period has often been called the Era of Good Feelings due to its one-party dominance, in fact, Democratic-Republicans were deeply divided internally and a new political system was about to be created.
Although Democratic-Republicans were the only active national party, its leaders incorporated major economic policies that had been favored by Federalists since the time of Alexander Hamilton. President Monroe continued the policies begun by Madison at the end of his presidency to build Henry Clay’s American System of national economic development: a national bank, protective tariffs to support American manufactures, and federally funded internal improvements.
The first two elements received strong support after the War of 1812. The chartering of the Second Bank of the United States in 1816, once again headquartered in Philadelphia, indicates how much of the old Federalist economic agenda the Democratic-Republicans had adopted. Whereas Jefferson had seen a national bank as a threat to ordinary farmers, the leaders of his party in 1816 had come to a new understanding of the need for a strong federal role in creating the basic infrastructure of the nation.
The cooperation among national politicians that marked the one-party Era of Good Feelings lasted less than a decade. A new style of American politics took shape in the 1820s and 1830s whose key qualities have remained central to American politics up to the present. In this new system, political parties played the crucial role building broad and lasting coalitions among diverse groups in the American public. Furthermore, these parties represented more than the distinct interests of a single region or economic class. Most importantly, modern parties broke decisively from a political tradition favoring personal loyalty and patronage. Although long-lasting parties were totally unpredicted in the 1780s, by the 1830s they had become central to American politics.
The New York politician Martin Van Buren played a key role in the development of the Second Party System. He rose to lead a new Democratic Party by breaking from the more traditional leadership of the Democratic-Republican party. He achieved this in New York by 1821 and helped create the system on a national scale while serving in Washington as a senator and later as president.
Van Buren perceptively responded to the growing democratization of American life in the first decades of the 19th century by embracing mass public opinion. As he explained, “Those who have wrought great changes in the world never succeeded by gaining over chiefs; but always by exciting the multitude. The first is the resource of intrigue and produces only secondary results, the second is the resort of genius and transforms the face of the universe.” Rather than follow a model of elite political leadership like that of the Founding Fathers, Van Buren saw “genius” in reaching out to the “multitude” of the general public.
Like other new party leaders of the period, Van Buren made careful use of newspapers to spread the word about party positions and to ensure close discipline among party members. In fact, the growth of newspapers in the new nation was closely linked to the rise of a competitive party system. In 1775, there had been just 31 newspapers in the colonies, but by 1835 the number of papers in the nation had soared to 1200. Rather than make any claim to objective reporting, newspapers existed as propaganda vehicles for the political parties that they supported. Newspapers were especially important to the new party system because they spread information about the party platform, a carefully crafted list of policy commitments that aimed to appeal to a broad public.
UNIVERSAL WHITE MANHOOD SUFFRAGE
Immediately after the Revolution, most states retained some property requirements that prevented poor people from voting. Following republican logic, citizens were believed to need an economic stake in society in order to be trusted to vote wisely. If a voter lacked economic independence, then it seemed that those who controlled his livelihood could easily manipulate his vote.
As the Industrial Revolution began creating dependent laborers on a large new scale, the older republican commitment to propertied voters fell out of favor. As property requirements for voting were abolished, economic status disappeared as a foundation for citizenship. By 1840, more than 90% of adult white men possessed the right to vote.
Not only that, voters could now cast their opinion for more offices. Previously, governors and presidential electors had usually been selected by state legislatures as part of a strategy that limited the threat of direct democratic control over the highest political offices. The growing democratic temper of the first decades of the 19th Century changed this as a growing number of officials were chosen by direct vote. The United States was the world leader in allowing popular participation in elections. This triumph of American politics built upon, but also expanded, the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution.
This democratic triumph, however, also had sharp limitations that today seem quite shocking. At the same time that state legislatures opened suffrage to all white men, they simultaneously closed the door firmly on white women and free African Americans. This movement was especially disappointing since it represented a retreat from a broader sense of political rights that had been included in some early state constitutions.
For example, New Jersey revised its state constitution to abolish property requirements in 1807, but at the same time prevented all women from voting. Even wealthy women had been allowed to vote there since 1776, as well as all free blacks. New York acted similarly in 1821 when its legislature extended the franchise to almost all white men, but simultaneously created high property requirements for free blacks. As a result, only 68 of the 13,000 free African Americans in New York City could vote in 1825. When Pennsylvania likewise denied free blacks the right to vote in the late 1830s, a state legislator explained that, “The people of this state are for continuing this commonwealth, what it has always been, a political community of white persons.” While he was correct about the prevailing racist sentiment among white voters, free blacks with property had not been excluded from the franchise by the earlier Revolutionary state constitution.
Tragically, the democratization of American politics to include nearly universal white manhood suffrage also intensified discrimination by race and gender. The idea of total democracy remained too radical for full implementation.
Primary Source: Painting
“The County Election,” completed in 1854 by George Caleb Bingham captures the free-for-all mood of American politics and the full range of citizens come to vote (except, women and minorities).
THE CORRUPT BARGAIN
The 1824 presidential election marked the final collapse of the Republican-Federalist political framework. For the first time no candidate ran as a Federalist, while five significant candidates competed as Democratic-Republicans. The official candidate of the Democratic-Republicans to replace Monroe was William H. Crawford, the secretary of the treasury. A caucus of Democratic-Republicans in Congress had selected him, but this backing by party insiders turned out to be a liability as other candidates called for a more open process for selecting candidates.
The outcome of the very close election surprised political leaders. The winner in the all-important Electoral College was Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, with ninety-nine votes. He was followed by John Quincy Adams, the son of the second president and Monroe’s secretary of state, who secured eighty-four votes. Meanwhile Crawford trailed well behind with just forty-one votes. Although Jackson seemed to have won a narrow victory, receiving 43% of the popular vote versus just 30% for Adams. Because nobody had received a majority of votes in the electoral college however, the Constitution stated that the House of Representatives had to choose between the top two candidates.
Henry Clay, the speaker of the House of Representatives, now held a decisive position. As a presidential candidate himself in 1824, he finished fourth in the electoral college, Clay had led some of the strongest attacks against Jackson. Rather than see the nation’s top office go to a man he detested, the Kentuckian Clay forged an Ohio Valley and New England coalition that secured the White House for John Quincy Adams. Using his influence as Speaker of the House, he convinced his supporters to cast their votes for Adams. In return, Adams named Clay as his secretary of state, a position that had been the stepping-stone to the presidency for the previous four executives.
This arrangement, however, hardly proved beneficial for either Adams or Clay. Denounced immediately as a corrupt bargain by supporters of Jackson, the antagonistic presidential race of 1828 began practically before Adams even took office. To Jacksonians the Adams-Clay alliance symbolized a corrupt system where elite insiders pursued their own interests without heeding the will of the people.
The Jacksonians, of course, overstated their case. After all, Jackson fell far short of a majority in the general vote in 1824. Nevertheless, when the Adams administration continued to favor a strong federal role in economic development, Jacksonians denounced their political enemies as using government favors to reward their friends and economic elites. By contrast, Jackson presented himself as a champion of the common man and by doing so furthered the democratization of American politics.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS
Like his father who was also a one-term president, John Quincy Adams was an intelligent statesman whose strong commitment to certain principles proved to be liabilities as president. For instance, Adams favored a bold economic role for the national government that was far ahead of public opinion. Like the Democratic-Republicans who preceded him in the Era of Good Feelings, Adams supported a federal role in economic development through the American System that was chiefly associated with Henry Clay. Adams’ vision of federal leadership was especially creative and included proposals for a publicly-funded national university and government investment in scientific research and exploration.
Few of Adams’ ideas were put into action. He hurt his own case by publicly expressing old republican concerns about the potential dangers of democracy. When politicians in Congress refused to act decisively for fear of displeasing the voters, Adams chided them that they seemed to “proclaim to the world that we are palsied by the will of our constituents.”
Although he astutely identified a problem faced by leaders in a democracy, to many Americans he seemed to call into question a central tenet of the new nation. In many respects, Adams was a man from the earlier political era. For example, he steadfastly refused to campaign for his own re-election because he felt that political office should be a matter of service and not a popularity contest. Although his ideals were surely honorable, when he said that, “if the country wants my services, she must ask for them,” he came across as an elitist who disdained contact with ordinary people rather than as a noble statesmen like the presidents of his father’s generation.
John Quincy Adams’ public dedication to unpopular principles helped assure his defeat in the presidential election of 1828. They also led him to take on causes that today seem impressive. For example, Adams overturned a treaty signed by the Creek Nation in 1825 that ceded its remaining land to the state of Georgia because he believed that it had been fraudulently obtained through coercive methods. Georgia’s governor was outraged, but Adams believed that the matter clearly fell under federal jurisdiction. Although Adams’ support of the Creeks did not prevent their removal to the West, he lost political backing from Americans who widely believed that Whites deserved access to all Native lands.
Adams continued this course of following principle rather than popularity when he later served as a member House of Representatives, the only former president ever to hold elected office after leaving the presidency. Although not a radical opponent of slavery himself, he was an early leader against congressional rules that prevented anti-slavery petitions from being presented to Congress. He also successfully defended enslaved Africans before the Supreme Court in the celebrated Amistad case.
Primary Source: Drawing
Kimbo, one of the slaves on the Amistad. The slaves killed their Spanish captors at sea, but unable to pilot the ship, they eventually ran aground in New York. They were declared free by the United States Supreme Court in the case United States v. Amistad. John Quincy Adams argued the case on behalf of the slaves.
The presidential election of 1828 brought a great victory for Andrew Jackson. Not only did he get almost 70% of the votes cast in the electoral college, popular participation in the election soared to an unheard of 60%. This more than doubled the turnout in 1824. Jackson clearly headed a sweeping political movement. His central message remained largely the same from the previous election, but had grown in intensity. Jackson warned that the nation had been corrupted by “special privilege,” characterized especially by the policies of the Second Bank of the United States. The proper road to reform, according to Jackson, lay in an absolute acceptance of majority rule as expressed through the democratic process. Beyond these general principles, however, Jackson’s campaign was notably vague about specific policies. Instead, it stressed Jackson’s life story as a man who had risen from modest origins to become a successful Tennessee planter. Jackson’s claim to distinction lay in a military career that included service as a young man in the Revolutionary War, several anti-Indian campaigns, and, of course, his crowning moment in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812.
Jackson’s election marked a new direction in American politics. He was the first Westerner elected president, indeed, the first president from a state other than Virginia or Massachusetts. He boldly proclaimed himself to be the “Champion of the Common Man” and believed that their interests were ignored by the aggressive national economic plans of Clay and Adams. More than this, however, when Martin Van Buren followed Jackson as president, it indicated that the Jacksonian movement had long-term significance that would outlast his own charismatic leadership.
Van Buren, perhaps even more than Jackson, helped to create the new Democratic Party that centered upon three chief qualities closely linked to Jacksonian Democracy. First, it declared itself the party of ordinary farmers and workers. Second, it opposed the special privileges of economic elites. Third, to offer affordable western land to ordinary white Americans, Native Americans needed to be forced further westward.
The Whig Party soon formed to challenge the Democrats with a different policy platform and vision for the nation. Whigs favored active government support for economic improvement as the best route to sustained prosperity. Thus, the Whig vs. Democrat political contest was in large part a disagreement about the early Industrial Revolution. Whigs defended economic development’s broad benefits, while Democrats stressed the new forms of dependence that it created. The fiercely partisan campaigns waged between these parties lasted into the 1850s and are known as the Second Party System, a modern framework of political competition that reached ordinary voters as never before, with both sides organizing tirelessly to carry their message directly to the American people.
A new era of American politics began with Jackson’s election in 1828, but it also completed a grand social experiment begun by the American Revolution. Although the Founding Fathers would have been astounded by the new shape of the nation during Jackson’s presidency, just as Jackson himself had served in the American Revolution, its values helped form his sense of the world.
The ideals of the Revolution had, of course, been altered by the new conditions of the early 1800s and would continue to be reworked over time. Economic, religious, and geographic changes had all reshaped the nation in fundamental ways and pointed toward still greater opportunities and pitfalls in the future. Nevertheless, Jacksonian Democracy represented a provocative blending of the best and worst qualities of American society. On one hand it was an authentic democratic movement that contained a principled egalitarian thrust, but this powerful social critique was always cast for the benefit of white men. This tragic mix of egalitarianism, masculine privilege, and racial prejudice remains a central quality of American life and to explore their relationship in the past may help suggest ways of overcoming their haunting limitations in the future. Hundreds of bearded, buckskin-clad frontiersmen trashed the White House while celebrating the election of one of their own to the Presidency.
Jackson’s inauguration in 1828 serves as a symbolic representation of this shift. Jackson rode to the White House followed by a swarm of well-wishers who were invited in. Muddy hob-nailed boots trod over new carpets, glassware and crockery were smashed, and chaos generally reigned. After a time, Jackson ordered the punch bowls moved outside to the White House lawn, and the crowd followed. Naturally, Jackson’s critics were quick to point to the party as the beginning of the “reign of King Mob.”
The common man always held a special place in America. Thomas Jefferson had celebrated the yeoman farmer as the ideal American, but it was Andrew Jackson, who rose to the top of the American political power system with the support of the everyday American.
Growth, expansion and social change rapidly followed the end of the War of 1812. Many an enterprising American pushed westward. In the new western states, there was a greater level of equality among the masses than in the former English colonies. Land was readily available. Frontier life required hard work. There was little tolerance for aristocrats afraid to get their hands dirty.
In the campaign of 1828, Jackson triumphed over the aristocratic, reclusive and unpopular incumbent President John Quincy Adams. The first six presidents had all been from the same mold: wealthy, educated, and from the East. This oligarchy of wealthy, educated men from the East was broken by Jackson, a self-made man who declared education an unnecessary requirement for political leadership. Indeed, Jackson launched the era when politicians would desperately try to show how poor they had been in an effort to win the trust of the common man.
It is easy to look back and celebrate Jackson as the man who made this change happen. On the other hand, it might just as well be that the shift away from rule by a few educated elites toward democracy had been in progress and Jackson simply came along at the right time to take up the mantle of the common man’s champion.
What do you think? Why isn’t America an oligarchy?
BIG IDEA: After the War of 1812, democracy changed in America. Instead of the realm of the elite and educated, all White men could vote and when Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828 the old ways had clearly been swept aside in favor of the common man.
After the War of 1812, that nation experienced a short period in which there was only one viable national political party. Called the Era of Good Feeling, it lasted only one decade before the old Democratic-Republican Party split into the Democratic and Whig Parties.
It was at this same time that democracy expanded in the United States so that all White men could vote, regardless of wealth or property ownership. This was partially a result of the fact that many more people lived in cities and worked in factories. For them, owning land and farming was not a reality. Jefferson’s dream of a nation of yeomen farmers died.
The election of 1828 featured John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. After a close vote in which no one won a majority, backroom wrangling led Clay to tell his supporters to vote for Adams, who won the presidency. Jackson’s supporters called it the Corrupt Bargain and four years later he roared back and won election outright.
Jackson ushered in the first Democratic administration. His supporters included farmers and workers. He championed the common man. The Whigs were the party of the Eastern elites, the wealthy, and favored small government over Jackson’s expansive use of power.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
James Monroe: Fifth president during a time after the War of 1812 called the Era of Good Feelings.
Martin Van Buren: New York politician who founded the Democratic Party and later became the eighth president. He was nicknamed the “Little Magician” due to his political talents.
Democratic Party: Political party founded by Martin Van Buren in the 1820s. Andrew Jackson was the first president to serve from this party.
Andrew Jackson: Seventh president. Hero of the Battle of New Orleans. First democratic president and champion of the common man.
John Quincy Adams: Sixth president and son of John Adams.
Whig Party: Political party formed in the early 1800s to counter Andrew Jackson and the Democrats. They were led by Henry Clay and fought for Clay’s American System.
Republicanism: Political idea of the late 1700s that emphasized the stability of the nation above participation. The Founding Fathers held this belief and wrote the Constitution in order to limit the power of the people, rather than extend democracy to all.
Party Platform: The set of priorities and beliefs promoted by a political party.
Universal White Manhood Suffrage: All White men can vote. This was established in the early 1800s.
Jacksonian Democracy: A movement to expand political participation to the common man and to promote the issues of everyday Americans ahead of the concerns of the financial class.
Era of Good Feelings: Time period after the War of 1812 in which James Monroe served as president. So called because there was only one functioning political party.
Corrupt Bargain: Agreement in the 1828 election in which Henry Clay asked his supporters in the House of Representatives to vote for John Quincy Adams in exchange for the position as Secretary of State. Andrew Jackson and his supporters believed the presidency had been stolen from them because they had received the plurality, although not majority, of votes.
Amistad Case: 1841 Supreme Court case in which a group of slaves who had mutinied while being transported to America won their freedom. Former president John Quincy Adams argued their case.