Andrew Jackson's Presidency

Start Free Trial

Why is the 1830s considered the age of democracy?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In a limited sense, the United States had become steadily more democratic throughout the early nineteenth century. American citizens turned out to vote in very large numbers, took an avid interest in political affairs, and participated in quasi-political events like parades, riots, and public commemorations. But in many states, voting...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In a limited sense, the United States had become steadily more democratic throughout the early nineteenth century. American citizens turned out to vote in very large numbers, took an avid interest in political affairs, and participated in quasi-political events like parades, riots, and public commemorations. But in many states, voting was limited to people who owned property, and with the advancing Market Revolution, property ownership, and therefore enfranchisement, were tenuous.

In the 1830s, the electorate began to expand. Several states held constitutional conventions that dropped most property qualifications for voting and took measures to create equal representation in state legislatures. By the 1840s, almost all white men could vote in most states.

With this change in the electorate came a democratization of American political culture. Politicians had to appeal to ordinary American males, and so they presented themselves in that light. Andrew Jackson, who was styled as "Old Hickory," was an especially visible example of this trend. Americans also participated in organizations dedicated to political change, like the various reform movements that swept the nation during this period. These men and women, especially abolitionists, espoused an expansive view of democracy, though many also feared the electoral power of the immigrants, mostly Irish and German, who flooded Northern cities during the period.

This democratization of American society and politics was highly gendered and racialized. Of course, enslaved men could not vote, and several female reformers began to advocate suffrage for women, universally denied during this period.

Almost all states, North and South, took steps to bar African Americans from voting. In North Carolina, for example, the 1835 constitutional convention that expanded (though not completely) voting rights for white men explicitly stripped the right to vote from the state's thousands of free black men, who had previously been qualified to vote. Other states, including New York, took similar steps. Moreover, part of Andrew Jackson's appeal to whites was the hard line he took against Native Americans, which included Indian removal. Southern slaveholding elites deliberately appealed, with varying success, to poor whites to maintain the existing class structure. In a very real sense, then, white political equality, and antebellum democracy itself, was built upon the oppression of others.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Andrew Jackson, who was president from 1829 to 1837, is given credit for so-called Jacksonian Democracy. Democracy did grow before and during his presidency, but it was only for white men. Women, Indians, and slaves did not benefit. His presidency was a time of significant change, however. For example, he was the first president to ride a train.

Jackson certainly believed he was a champion of democracy, and this belief stemmed from his humble background. He was the seventh president and the poorest up to that time. He was orphaned at a young age. Jackson overcame his circumstances to succeed as a lawyer, planter, politician, and general. He thrived on the frontier, so Americans in the West naturally supported him. After he had won the presidential election of 1828, there was a rowdy presidential inauguration. It was so raucous that Jackson spent his first night as president in a nearby tavern.

Jackson's first attempt to become president was unsuccessful, and the experience fueled his desire to be a "democratic" president. In the 1824 presidential election, Jackson won both the popular and electoral votes, but he did not have a majority. The House of Representatives then decided the election by choosing John Quincy Adams. Jackson and his supporters called the outcome a "corrupt bargain" because the popular will had been thwarted.

By the 1830s, more white men were active in politics. State offices that had been filled through appointment became elective positions. Property requirements for voting were reduced, so more white men could vote. These changes, however, were not engineered by Jackson.

Aristocratic Americans disliked Jackson and saw him as a threat to their high positions in America's society and economy. Nicholas Biddle was one of these aristocrats. Biddle came from an affluent and well-connected family and he was the manager of the Bank of the US, and that bank was a target of Jackson's wrath during his presidency.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The 1830s is considered by some historians, and often described in textbooks, as the "Age of Democracy" due to the rise of the "common man" in the political process. The 1830s is thought to have been the beginning of an era in which politics and political positions were accessible to the most common of men. Specifically, the presidency of Andrew Jackson gave rise to the "common man" political era, due to his political rhetoric about supporting regular folks.

However, and this is an enormous consideration to make when thinking about this phrase, Andrew Jackson was responsible for enacting the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that directly led to the deaths of thousands of indigenous peoples (mainly Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw people) within the borders of the United States. Jackson also owned over 150 enslaved black people at his Hermitage Plantation in Tennessee. In fact, before Jackson became president, he placed an ad in the paper posting a reward for the capture of an enslaved black person who bravely escaped from his plantation. Not only did Jackson offer a reward for the capture of this human being, but he also offered an additional reward if the capturer brutally tortured, by means of whipping, the escaped enslaved person ($10 for every one hundred lashings).

It is said that history is written by the victors. When the era of the "common man" is taught, it is often taught through a lens that neglects to truly critically analyze how many people suffered immense atrocities during this supposed age of democracy. One may argue that slavery and genocide were simply a product of the times, but there were so many people in that time period who bravely fought against these evils and had the moral compass to understand the wrongs that were being committed. The Abolitionist Movement was strong and ever-growing in the 1830s, and perhaps, was the only true representation of a real attempt at an age of democracy for all people.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The 1830s are considered the age of democracy because this was the culmination of America's first move towards more democracy.  This was the age of Andrew Jackson, who was America's first "common man" president.  This was also a time when the right to vote had recently been extended to all white men, regardless of whether they owned any property.  Because of these things, the United States was coming to be much more democratic than it had been in the times when only richer men could vote and all the presidents were from aristocratic families.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team