Modern history

Redefining American Democracy

With the frontier moving ever westward and the panic of1819 shaking many Americans’ faith in traditional political and economic leaders, the nation was ripe for change. Working men, small farmers, and frontier settlers, who had long been locked out of the electoral system by property qualifications and eastern elites, demanded the right to vote. They also looked for a different kind of candidate to champion their cause. Frontier heroes like Andrew Jackson, with few ties to banks, business, and eastern power brokers, appealed to this new constituency. The resulting political movement widened voting rights in the United States and brought more diverse groups of men into the electorate. Yet the new democratic movement advanced the interests only of white men. During the 1820s, African Americans lost political and civil rights in most northern and western states. Indians, too, fared poorly under the new political regime. While some white women gained greater access to political activities as a result of the expanded voting rights of fathers and husbands, they did not achieve independent political rights. Finally, during the 1820s and 1830s, ongoing conflicts over slavery, tariffs, and the rights of Indian nations transformed party alignments as a wave of new voters entered the political fray.

Expanding Voting Rights

Between 1788 and 1820, the U.S. presidency was dominated by Virginia elites and after 1800 by Democratic-Republicans. With little serious political opposition at the national level, few people bothered to vote in presidential elections. Far more people engaged in partisan and popular political activities at the state and local level. Many towns held public celebrations on the Fourth of July and election days, and politicians of every stripe invited women to participate. Female participants often sewed symbols of their partisan loyalties on their clothes and joined in parades and feasts organized by men.

This popular political activity stimulated interest in presidential elections following the panic of 1819, when, as Scottish traveler James Flint noted, “the faith of the people was shaken.” Laboring men, who were especially vulnerable to economic downturns, demanded the right to vote as a means of forcing politicians to respond to their concerns.

In New York State, Martin Van Buren, a rising star in the Democratic-Republican Party, led the fight to eliminate property qualifications for voting. At the state constitutional convention of 1821, the committee on suffrage reflected his views, arguing that the only qualification for voting should be “the virtue and morality of the people.” By the word people, Van Buren and the committee meant white men, but even this limited demand aroused heated opposition. A year earlier, attorney Daniel Webster had been elected to the Massachusetts constitutional convention, where he argued vociferously that “political power naturally and necessarily goes into the hands which hold the property.”

Although many wealthy conservatives supported Webster’s views, he lost the debate, and both Massachusetts and New York instituted universal white male suffrage. By 1825 most states along the Atlantic seaboard had lowered or eliminated property qualifications on white male voters. Meanwhile states along the frontier that had joined the Union in the 1810s established universal white male suffrage from the beginning. And by 1824 three-quarters of the states (18 of 24) allowed voters, rather than state legislatures, to elect members of the electoral college.

Yet as white men gained political rights in the 1820s, democracy did not spread to other groups. Indian nations were considered sovereign entities, so Indians voted in their own nations, not in U.S. elections. Women were excluded from voting because of their perceived dependence on men. New Jersey had granted single or widowed propertyowning women the right to vote during the Revolution, but in 1807 the state legislature rescinded that right—along with suffrage for African American men—when small numbers of female and black voters proved they could make a difference in contested elections.

African American men faced challenges to their rights well beyond New Jersey. No southern legislature had ever granted blacks the right to vote, and in the 1820s northern states began to disfranchise African Americans. In many cases, expanded voting rights for white men went hand in hand with new restrictions on black men. In New York State, for example, the constitution of 1821, which eliminated property qualifications for white men, raised property qualifications for African American voters, disfranchising most African Americans in the state in the process.

When African American men protested their disfranchisement in northern states, some whites spoke out on their behalf. They claimed that denying rights to men who had in no way abused the privilege of voting set “an ominous and dangerous precedent.” In response, opponents of black suffrage offered explicitly racist justifications. Some worried that blacks might eventually secure seats in state legislatures, on juries, and in Congress. Some argued that black voting would lead to interracial socializing, even marriage. However, the growing population of free blacks in northern cities posed the greatest threat. Once again, white politicians feared that black voters might hold the balance of power in close elections, forcing white civic leaders to accede to their demands. Gradually, racist arguments won the day, and by 1840, 93 percent of free blacks in the North were excluded from voting.

Racial Restrictions and Antiblack Violence

Restrictions on voting followed other constraints on African American men and women. As early as 1790, Congress limited naturalization (the process of becoming a citizen) to white aliens, or immigrants. It also excluded blacks from enrolling in federal militias. In 1820 Congress authorized city officials in Washington, D.C., to adopt a separate legal code governing free blacks and slaves. This federal legislation encouraged states to add their own restrictions, including segregation of public schools, public transportation, and public accommodations like churches and theaters. Such laws were passed in the North as well as in the South. Some northern legislatures even denied African Americans the right to settle in their state.

In addition, blacks faced mob and state-sanctioned violence across the country. In 1822 officials in Charleston, South Carolina, accused Denmark Vesey of following the revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture’s lead and plotting a conspiracy to free the city’s slaves. One of 1,500 free blacks residing in the city, Vesey had helped to organize churches, mutual aid societies, and other black institutions. Whites viewed these efforts as a threat to the future of slavery because such accomplishments challenged assumptions about black inferiority. Vesey may have organized a plan to free slaves in the city, but it is also possible that white officials concocted the plot in order to terrorize free blacks and slaves in the area and to shore up the power of ruling white elites. Despite scant evidence, Vesey and 34 of his alleged co-conspirators were found guilty and hanged. Another 18 were exiled outside the United States. The African Methodist Episcopal church where they supposedly planned the insurrection was torn down.

Northern blacks also suffered from violent attacks by whites. Assaults on individual African Americans often went unrecorded, but race riots received greater attention. For example, in 1829 white residents of Cincinnati attacked black neighborhoods, and more than half of the city’s black residents fled. Many of them resettled in Ontario, Canada. They were soon joined by Philadelphia blacks who had been attacked by groups of white residents in 1832. Such attacks continued in northern cities throughout the 1830s.

Political Realignments

Restrictions on black political and civil rights converged with the decline of the Federalists in the North. Federalist majorities in New York State had approved the gradual abolition law of 1799. In 1821 New York Federalists advocated equal rights for black and white voters as long as property qualifications limited suffrage to respectable citizens. But Federalists were losing power by this time, and the concerns of African Americans were low on the Democratic-Republican agenda.

Struggles among Democratic-Republicans in the 1820s turned to a large extent on the same issue that had earlier divided them from Federalists: the limits of federal power. After nearly a quarter century in power, many Democratic-Republicans embraced a more expansive view of federal authority and a looser interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Yet others in the party argued forcefully for a return to Jeffersonian principles of limited federal power and a strict construction of the Constitution. At the same time, rising young politicians—like Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson—and newly enfranchised voters sought to seize control of the party from its longtime leaders.

The election of 1824 brought these conflicts to a head, splitting the Democratic- Republicans into rival factions that by 1828 had coalesced into two distinct entities: the Democrats and the National Republicans. Unable to agree on a single presidential candidate in 1824, the Democratic-Republican congressional caucus fractured into four camps backing separate candidates: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford. John C. Calhoun, Monroe’s secretary of war, eventually threw his support behind Jackson and sought the vice presidency.

As the race developed, Adams and Jackson emerged as the two strongest candidates. John Quincy Adams’s stature rested on his diplomatic achievements and the reputation of his father, former president John Adams. Like Clay, he favored internal improvements and protective tariffs that would bolster northern industry and commerce. Jackson, on the other hand, relied largely on his fame as a war hero and Indian fighter to inspire popular support. Like Crawford, he advocated limited federal power.

As a candidate who appealed to ordinary voters, Jackson held a decided edge. Jackson, outgoing and boisterous, claimed to support “good old Jeffersonian Democratic republican principles” and organized a campaign that took his case to the people. Emphasizing his humble origins, he appealed to small farmers and northern workers who hoped to emulate his success as a self-made man. Just as important, Jackson gained the support of Van Buren, who also wanted to expand the political clout of the “common [white] man” and limit the reach of a central government that was becoming too powerful.

The four presidential candidates created a truly competitive race. With more white men eligible to vote and more states allowing voters to choose members of the electoral college, turnout at the polls increased to more than a quarter of eligible voters. Jackson won the popular vote by carrying Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the Carolinas, and much of the West and led in the electoral college with 99 electors. But with no candidate gaining an absolute majority in the electoral college, the Constitution called for the House of Representatives to choose the president from the three leading contenders—Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. Clay, who came in fourth, asked his supporters to back Adams, ensuring his election. Once in office, President Adams appointed Clay his secretary of state. Jackson claimed that the two had engineered a “corrupt bargain” that denied the will of the people. Yet the decisions of Clay and Adams involved a logical alliance between two candidates who agreed on the need to increase federal investment in internal improvements, raise tariffs, and expand the powers of the BUS.

But when President Adams sought to implement his agenda, he ran into vigorous opposition in Congress led by Van Buren. Calhoun, who had been elected vice president, also opposed his policies. Van Buren argued against federal funding for internal improvements since New York State had financed the Erie Canal with its own monies. Calhoun, meanwhile, joined other southern politicians in opposing any expansion of federal power for fear it would then be used to restrict the spread of slavery.

The most serious battle in Congress, however, involved tariffs. The tariff of 1816 had excluded most cheap English cotton cloth from the United States, thereby allowing New England textile manufacturers to gain control of the domestic market. In 1824 the tariff was extended to more expensive cotton and woolen cloth and to iron goods. During the presidential campaign, Adams and Clay appealed to northern voters by advocating even higher duties on these items. When Adams introduced tariff legislation that extended duties to raw materials like wool, hemp, and molasses, he gained support from both Jackson and Van Buren, who considered these tariffs beneficial to farmers on the frontier. Despite the opposition of Vice President Calhoun and congressmen from older southern states, the tariff of 1828 was approved, raising duties on imports to an average of 62 percent.

The tariff of 1828, however, was Adams’s only notable legislative victory. His foreign policy was also stymied by a hostile Congress. Moreover, Jackson’s supporters gained a majority in the midterm elections of 1826, intensifying conflicts among Democratic-Republicans. Adams thus entered the 1828 election campaign with little to show in the way of domestic or foreign achievements, and Jackson and his supporters took full advantage of the president’s political vulnerability.

The Presidential Election of 1828

The election of 1828 tested the power of the two major factions in the Democratic- Republican Party. President Adams followed the traditional approach of “standing” for office. He told supporters, “If my country wants my services, she must ask for them.” Jackson and his supporters, who deeply distrusted established political leaders, chose instead to “run” for office. They took their case directly to the voters, introducing innovative techniques to create enthusiasm among the electorate.

Van Buren managed the first truly national political campaign in U.S. history, seeking to re-create the original Democratic-Republican coalition among farmers, northern artisans, and southern planters while adding a sizable constituency of frontier voters. He was aided in the effort by Calhoun, who again ran for vice president and supported the Tennessee war hero despite their disagreement over tariffs. Jackson’s supporters organized state party conventions to nominate him for president rather than relying on the congressional caucus. They established local Jackson committees in critical states such as Virginia and New York. They organized newspaper campaigns and developed a logo, the hickory leaf, based on the candidate’s nickname “Old Hickory.”

Jackson traveled the country to build loyalty to himself as well as to his party. His Tennessee background, rise to great wealth, and reputation as an Indian fighter ensured his popularity among southern and western voters. He also reassured southerners that he advocated “judicious” duties on imports, suggesting that he might try to lower the rates imposed in 1828. At the same time, his support of the tariff of 1828 and his military credentials created enthusiasm among northern working men and frontier farmers.

President Adams’s supporters demeaned the “dissolute” and “rowdy” men who poured out for Jackson rallies, and they also launched personal attacks on the candidate. Dragging politicians’ private lives into public view was nothing new, but opposition papers focused their venom this time on the candidate’s wife, Rachel. They questioned the timing of her divorce from her first husband and remarriage to Jackson, suggesting she was an adulterer and a bigamist. Rachel Jackson felt humiliated, but her husband refused to be intimidated by scandal.

Adams distanced himself from his own campaign. He sought to demonstrate his statesmanlike gentility by letting others speak for him. This strategy worked well when only men of wealth and property could vote. But with an enlarged electorate and an astonishing turnout of more than 50 percent of eligible voters, Adams’s approach failed and Jackson became president. Jackson won handily in the South and the West and carried most of the Middle Atlantic states as well as New York. Adams dominated only in New England (Figure 9.1).

The election of 1828 formalized a new party alignment. During the campaign, Jackson and his supporters referred to themselves as “the Democracy” and forged a new national Democratic Party. In response, Adams’s supporters called themselves National Republicans. The competition between Democrats and National Republicans heightened interest in national politics among ordinary voters and ensured that the innovative techniques introduced by Jackson would be widely adopted in future campaigns.


The Elections of 1824 and 1828 Andrew Jackson lost the 1824 election to John Quincy Adams when the decision was thrown into the House of Representatives. In 1828 Jackson launched the first popular campaign for president, mobilizing working-class white men who were newly enfranchised. Three times as many men—more than one million voters—cast ballots in 1828 than in 1824, ensuring Jackson's election as president.


• How and why did the composition of the electorate change in the 1820s?

• How did Jackson's 1828 campaign represent a significant departure from earlier patterns in American politics?

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