The Age of Jackson and the “Jacksonian Democracy” that it brought with it were markedly different from anything the nation had yet experienced. Unlike the early republic, which had been dominated by wealthy politicians, the Age of Jackson was a new age of the common man, a period of American cultural history that shunned wealth and aristocracy in favor of humble origins, log cabins, and frontier ruggedness.
During this period, more and more American men were granted the right to vote, as property ownership and literacy restrictions for voting were abolished in more and more places. As universal manhood suffrage became the norm, the lower and middle classes gained an outlet to express their political opinions.
Prior to his political career, Jackson had spent much of his life in the military, clearing the West of Native Americans. During the War of 1812, he had routed the Creek Nation (allied with Britain), and had spent subsequent years pursuing the Seminoles in Florida. As president, he continued to push native peoples off their lands to make room for white American farmers. In 1830, Jackson and congressional Democrats passed the Indian Removal Act to remove, by force, all Indians east of the Mississippi to “permanent” reservations in present-day Oklahoma and Nebraska.
The Indian Removal Act reversed many earlier policies that recognized Native American lands as foreign soil. Some tribes, such as the Cherokees, had expended great effort in attempt to integrate themselves with the new American society. They had created a tribal government based on separation of powers and checks and balances and had embraced agriculture and the market economy. In the 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia , the Supreme Court had ruled that the Cherokee had legal rights to their lands. Nonetheless, Jackson pursued his removal agenda mercilessly. Many of the relocated tribes were lumped together on one huge reservation, which made it difficult for them to preserve culture and tribal identity over the years.
Throughout the 1830s, the U.S. Army supervised the relocation of more than 100,000 members of the Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Sauk, and Fox tribes. Most of these Native Americans had to travel the roughly 1,000 miles on foot, sometimes in chains. Tens of thousands died on the journey, which was labeled the Trail of Tears.
Some tribes, however, resisted resettlement. Consequently, U.S. Army troops crushed the Sauks and Foxes in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Seminoles in the Second Seminole War of 1835–1842.
Jackson also battled the Bank of the United States, one of the cornerstones of the American economy, during his term. Chartered in 1816 and headed by Nicholas Biddle, the Bank held all federal gold and silver deposits and thus had significant control over credit and monetary policy.
Many politicians, such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, believed that the Bank provided the needed stability in the transition to a market economy. Jackson, however, hated it because it was a private institution and thus outside government control. To him and to many debt-ridden western farmers, the Bank represented the corrupt moneyed interests of wealthy fat-cat investors who cared only about their own money.
Clay, in a bid to gain political support for the upcoming election of 1832, pushed a bill through Congress to renew the Bank’s charter for another twenty years. He hoped that this move would put Jackson in a bind: if the president signed the bill, he would loose western votes, but if he vetoed it, he would lose the support of wealthier eastern voters.
Jackson initiated a Bank War, vetoing the bill and claiming that the Bank of the United States was unconstitutional. Overjoyed, Clay had Jackson’s veto message printed and distributed throughout the country. The move backfired, however, because westerners hailed the president as a savior of the common American.
The Bank became a central issue in the election of 1832. Democrats nominated Jackson for a second term, while Clay ran on the National Republican ticket. In addition, the Anti-Masonic Party, the first third party in a U.S. presidential election, ran a candidate. Jackson received a greater number of popular votes and trounced Clay with 219 to 49 votes in the Electoral College.
Endowed with what he believed to be a mandate, Jackson immediately dismantled the Bank of the United States by withholding all federal gold and silver deposits and redepositing them in smaller “wildcat banks,” many of which were unsound. The Bank withered away until its charter finally expired in 1836. Afraid that the Bank’s death would encourage investors to overspeculate in western lands, Jackson also issued the Specie Circular in 1836, which required all land to be purchased with hard currency.
Jackson’s destruction of the Bank sparked a heated debate within the leadership of the Democratic Party. Some, such as Clay and Webster, believed that Jackson had violated the Constitution in killing the Bank and introduced a motion to censure the president. Other politicians followed suit, and Clay and Webster quickly became the leaders of a new political faction. Calling themselves the Whigs (in reference to an British political party opposed to royal prerogatives), they stood against Jackson and in favor of progressive social reforms, better education, internal improvements, and limits on westward expansion. The Whigs embraced the transition to a market economy and thus won support from the wealthy manufacturers in the North as well as the cotton-growing plantation owners in the South.
By 1836, the Whigs had gained enough support to nominate several presidential candidates, hoping that one of them would be able to oust the Democrats. Because Jackson was too old to run for reelection in 1836, he threw his support behind his secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren wasn’t the most popular choice, but Democrats chose him anyway because of his ties to Jackson. Van Buren easily defeated the scattered and divided Whig candidates.
Jackson increased the power of the executive office more than any previous president. He repeatedly ignored the Supreme Court, challenged the Constitution when he dismantled the Bank of the United States, and changed the nature of the presidential veto. Jackson wielded executive power so forcefully that his National Republican and Whig enemies dubbed him “King Andrew I.”
Jackson’s veto of the Bank charter was especially revolutionary. Whereas previous presidents had vetoed bills that they believed to be unconstitutional, Jackson’s veto marked the first time that a president vetoed a bill because he personally disliked it. Jackson’s action reminded Americans that even though the Supreme Court had the power of judicial review, it had to rely on the compliance of the president to carry out its decisions.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s action imperiled the nation’s economy by causing the devastating Panic of 1837 and subsequent depression. His removal of federal funds from the Bank of the United States undermined the country’s credit and financial stability and prompted the wildcat banks to print their own paper money, which flooded the economy and spurred inflation. Because few poor farmers had any hard currency, they had no way to purchase land.
Van Buren’s presidency was blighted by the Panic of 1837 and the depression that followed. Prices fell, hundreds of banks shut down, and millions found themselves out of work or too poor to farm. Van Buren, believing that government dollars had collapsed many of the wildcat banks, had Congressional Democrats pass the Independent Treasury Bill to redeposit these dollars in a new, independent U.S. Treasury.
The Whigs rebounded with General William Henry Harrison in 1840. A former governor of Indiana Territory, Harrison had become a national star after his success against Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and against the British in the War of 1812. Although he came from a prominent Eastern family, Whigs played him as a log cabin–born, hard cider–drinking frontiersman.
Democrats rallied behind Van Buren half-heartedly, but his name had become so associated with the economic depression that he had little chance to win. Though Harrison won the popular vote by a slim margin, he received almost four times as many electoral votes as Van Buren.
The election of 1840 marked the beginning of the era when political loyalties in the United States were divided between the Democrats and the Whigs. The Whigs, however, were short-lived, and the country soon moved into a period in which the major opposing political forces were the Democrats and Republicans.
Whig leaders rejoiced when William Henry Harrison became president in 1840 because they expected to push forward the domestic programs that Henry Clay had begun under his American System years earlier. The celebration ended abruptly, however, when Harrison died of pneumonia after only a month in office. Relatively unknown Vice President John Tyler became the next president.
A former Democrat from Virginia, Tyler had become a Whig several years earlier only because he couldn’t stand Andrew Jackson’s autocratic leadership. However, Tyler was a political misfit and a Whig in name only; party leaders had selected him as Harrison’s running mate only because he could attract Southern votes.
No longer really a Democrat, but certainly not a true Whig, Tyler found himself between a rock and a hard place during his presidency. Like a Whig, he approved of an 1841 congressional bill that would dismantle Martin Van Buren’s independent treasury. After much negotiation, Tyler also approved of the higher Tariff of 1842 . Like a Democrat, though, he repeatedly and stubbornly refused to revive the Bank of the United States or to fund internal improvements. Whig leaders grew so irate with Tyler that they eventually expelled him from the party.