Andrew Jackson's Presidency

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To what extent did the Jacksonian Period (1824-1836) live up to its reputation as the era of the "common man"?

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Politically, the so-called "Jacksonian Era" lives up to its billing as the era of the "common man" in a couple of ways. The first is that many states expanded the right to vote in the years before and during the 1830s. This led to an electorate increasingly composed of small...

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landholders, laborers, and the urban working class. Accordingly, politicians had to appeal to these new voters, and one way they did this was by billing themselves "men of the people" and their opponents as the opposite. Andrew Jackson, for example, though a wealthy planter and lawyer by the 1820s, became "Old Hickory"; Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison later depicted his opponent Martin Van Buren as an effete dandy. Jackson and Van Buren both pursued policies that directly appealed to "ordinary" Americans, including Indian removal and the so-called "Bank War." In this sense, this really was an era of the "common man."

At the same time, there are some caveats needed. The first is that the "common man" was white. The democracy that emerged from this period was to a large extent predicated on the exclusion of African Americans and Native Americans from the political order. In terms of economic development, the Market Revolution led to major changes in the lives of ordinary Americans, some of which stripped them of their economic independence. Small shopkeepers gave way to factory labor, small farmers suffered through the economic ups and downs of the era (particularly the Panic of 1837), and the cotton economy tended to concentrate wealth in the South, in the hands of large slaveholders. The religious revivalism of the era has been seen by some scholars as a reaction to the economic anxieties that characterized life for many working class and rural peoples.

The reform movements of the period also had a problematic relationship with the so-called "common man" as imagined during the nineteenth century. The promoters of the temperance movement in particular tended to be middle class and elites who hoped to regulate the behavior of ordinary Americans.

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The Jacksonian era was an era of the common man in the sense that Jackson rewarded many who supported him in the election through the patronage system. While his detractors called this system hypocritical, since Jackson complained about the "corrupt bargain" that led to his losing the White House in 1824, Jackson's supporters called it the "spoils system." This ushered in an era of supporters coming to the White House and appealing directly to the President for a political position.

The era was also one for the common man in that many states lowered their property requirements for voting. Since this new community could now vote, campaign managers sought to make their candidates appear as folksy as possible. Jackson was portrayed as a tough Westerner. While this was true to an extent, Jackson also owned a nice mansion in Nashville and was a prominent slave owner. Jackson appealed to his Western constituents by not renewing the charter of the Bank of the United States. He saw it as a tool of Eastern money interests. Jackson also opened land in the southeastern United States through the Indian Removal Act.  

The era was known for its reform movements as well. The movement to end slavery started to gain momentum during this era as William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator newspaper became popular in abolitionist circles. There were also movements for prison reform and temperance.  

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The Jacksonian Era was the era of the common man if the term "man" applies only to white men. The right to vote did expand among white men, but women, African Americans, and other non-white people did not have the right to vote. Therefore, while Jackson was propelled into office partly by the votes of white men who did not own property (as the franchise was eventually extended to these types of voters in many states), others, such as women, slaves, and African Americans, did not take part in the formal political process. Many white men had access to greater economic opportunities, particularly by expanding westward, but women (at least independently of men) and slaves did not have access to these same opportunities. 

Some reform movements that arose during this time period attempted to end slavery generally through eventual abolition or stopping the spread of slavery. In addition, some people advocated the return of slaves to Africa. However, these reform movements, while ardent at times, would take some time to reach the fever pitch of the years right before the Civil War. Slavery remained in effect, curtailing the rights of many common men and women.

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The Jacksonian period had long been touted as the “Era of the Common Man” due to the economic and political changes that occurred during the presidency the era’s namesake, Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson himself was considered a “common man” due to the circumstances of his birth and his frontier upbringing. Because of his simple roots, he resonated with poor farmers and western settlers, two groups who began to gain more and more political power thanks to changes in state voting laws in the 1820’s. For the first time, land ownership wasn’t a requirement for voting in many states, and as a result Jackson won the presidency in 1828.

Jackson had a style of politics all his own which helped to solidify him as the “common man’s president” He fired many federal employees who he deemed to be corrupt or incompetent and instead hired people from his own party, many of whom were commoners like himself. Also, he opened the doors of the White House to anyone who wanted to stop by going so far as to set a giant block of cheese in the foyer where people could come and snack with him whenever they pleased.  

Beyond the white house, he quickly enacted several reforms, which endeared him to his allies and made him the bane of his political enemies. His most famous reform was his destruction of the Bank of the United States. Jackson felt that a government bank was corrupt and favored only the very wealthy city dwellers that were lucky enough to live next to one of its branches. Jackson decided to wreck the bank and spread the money out into state banks that ensured more equal access to the funds. The ensuing battle sent the country into depression, but Jackson’s supporters lauded his efforts on their behalf.

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