…to the fact that unlimited freedom of association for political ends is, of all forms of liberty, the last that a nation can sustain. While it may not actually lead it into anarchy, it does constantly bring it to the verge thereof. But this form of freedom, howsoever dangerous, does provide guarantees in one direction; in countries where associations are free, secret societies are unknown. There are factions in America, but not conspirators.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville, 1830s
Following the War of 1812 the voting franchise expanded to include most white men, not just wealthy property owners. Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency in 1828 as a result in this seachange in voting rights. That Jackson was “a man of the people” was left in no doubt following the raucous inauguration day festivities. Washington socialite, Margaret Bayard Smith described the harrowing event.
“Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe,—those who got in could not get out by the door again. . . At one time the President, who had retreated and retreated until he was pressed against the wall, could only be secured by a number of gentlemen forming round him and making a kind of barrier of their own bodies. . . It was then that the windows were thrown open, and the torrent found an outlet, which otherwise might have proved fatal.”
Jackson was a figure of great contradictions. The self-styled “champion of the poor” was, in fact, a wealthy, slave-owning cotton planter. The prime benefactor of popular democracy denied the right to vote to women, American Indians, and African-Americans. The self-proclaimed defender of the Constitution challenged the authority of the Supreme Court. Yet, whatever its shortcomings, the Jackson presidency was ground-breaking. Whether “Old Hickory’s executive style, inspired and inflamed by fierce personal loyalties or hatreds, helped or hurt his efforts to achieve the goals of his political philosophy, remains a question of great debate.
Democracy in America is the second of four programatic themes in the new standards-based video series Growth of a Nation. It spans the period 1814–1838 and covers the rise of nationalism following the War of 1812; sectional conflict related to Missouri’s admission to the union; the expansion of popular democracy during the era; and the presidential administrations of James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. Special attention is paid to Jackson’s groundbreaking presidency.
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