Daniel K. Williams

“The Meaning of Jacksonianism: A Historiographical Survey”

December 2000

 

      “I never saw anything like it before,” Daniel Webster said of Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829.  “Persons have come 500 miles to see Genl Jackson; & they really seem to think that the Country is rescued from some dreadful danger.”[1]  Jackson’s ideology clearly resonated with the American populace in an unprecedented manner, yet historians are still struggling to explain why so many voters enthusiastically supported “Old Hickory.”  What was the basis for Jacksonianism?  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued that Jacksonian ideology represented the interests of the working classes.[2]  Others, such as Marvin Meyers, Lawrence Frederick Kohl, and Harry L. Watson, challenged Schlesinger’s thesis, and said that Jacksonianism was not a class-based ideology, but was instead a libertarian ethos based on fear of a declining republican order.[3]  Charles Sellers said that Jacksonianism was a reaction to the market revolution.[4]  Some “new political” historians have suggested that there may not have been a single coherent Jacksonian ideology, and that Jacksonians became Democrats for ethnocultural, rather than political or economic, reasons.[5]  This paper will examine the major historiographical trends of recent scholarship on Jacksonianism.  What was the meaning behind the widespread support that Jackson acquired?  Why did people become Jacksonians?

      Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson, which appeared in 1945, defined the issues of the debate over Jacksonianism for the next half century.  Schlesinger argued that Jacksonianism was a class-based ideology of workers who opposed bankers and speculators.  “The Jacksonians believed that there was a deep-rooted conflict in society between the ‘producing’ and ‘non-producing’ classes – the farmers and laborers, on the one hand, and the business community on the other,” Schlesinger wrote.  “If they wished to preserve their liberty, the producing classes would have to unite against the movement ‘to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful.’”[6] 

      Schlesinger interpreted Jackson’s political program as an attempt to implement laws that would benefit the northeastern working classes.  He argued that Jackson opposed the Bank of the United States because he wanted to protect workers from the irresponsible speculation of non-producers.  “The war against the Bank thus enlisted the enthusiastic support of two basically antagonistic groups: on the one hand, debtor interests of the West and local banking interests of the East; on the other, Eastern workingmen and champions of the radical Jeffersonian tradition,” he wrote.[7]

      Schlesinger cited several sources to show that many Jacksonians believed that society contained two diametrically opposing classes.  George Bancroft, a Jacksonian Democrat, said that “the feud between the capitalist and the laborer, the house of Have and the house of Want, is as old as social union, and can never be entirely quieted.”[8]  Orestes Brownson, Amos Kendall, and other Jacksonians made similar statements.[9]  Schlesinger correctly noted that many Jacksonians believed that the interests of producers were irreconcilable with the goals of non-producers.  Did this belief translate into class-based politics?  Schlesinger claimed that it did, but his arguments were often flawed.

      Schlesinger never defined his proposed bifurcation between “working classes” and “non-producers,” just as the Jacksonians did not clarify their terms.  Schlesinger assumed that when the Jacksonians spoke of the need of government to “protect” the “mechanic and laborer” or the “humble members of society,” Jackson and his supporters were defending a monolithic class of workers against a united body of speculators and bankers.[10]  This was not the case.  Sean Wilentz has shown that the working classes of New York City were divided between masters and journeymen, between conservative craftsmen and radical workers, between male and female laborers, and between skilled and unskilled workers.[11]  Strikes, political dissension, and unionization manifested the tension between various members of the class of “producers” that the Jacksonians wanted to protect.  Many Jacksonian ideologues ignored these distinctions and allied themselves with skilled craftsmen while claiming to protect the common worker.  The “working classes” that Schlesinger claimed were loyal Jacksonians were usually master artisans rather than unskilled laborers.[12]

      Schlesinger’s theory failed to explain the voting returns of the 1828 and 1832 presidential elections.  Schlesinger argued that Jacksonianism represented the interests of northeastern workers even at the expense of other regions of the country. Jackson’s hard money policy and his veto of the Maysville Road were unpopular with westerners, and his vehement opposition to nullification alienated Calhoun and other radical southerners.[13]  Thus, one should understand Jackson’s legislative policy as a northeastern working-class agenda, according to Schlesinger.[14]  If that were the case, one would expect to find that Jackson’s most loyal support came from New England and the mid-Atlantic.  In fact, the Northeast opposed Jackson more strongly than any other region.  In 1824, 84% of New Englanders voted against Jackson.  Seventy percent did so in 1828.  In 1832, at the height of the Bank War, 54% of New England residents voted against Jackson.  New England produced a higher percentage of non-Jacksonians than any other region of the country.  Even the mid-Atlantic region, which included the working-class cities of New York and Philadelphia, only gave Jackson 54% of the vote in 1832, while the Southeast supported the president with 83% of the vote, and the Southwest gave him 91%.[15]  Most of the voters in the Northeast were farmers rather than artisans, so it may well be true that northeastern workers voted for Jackson in overwhelming numbers, even while New England farmers opposed him.  Even if this were the case, one would have to admit that Jackson’s main support came from other regions of the country.  If Jackson had really alienated the South and West in his bid for northern workers’ support, he would have lost the election of 1832.  Schlesinger’s argument did not fit the election data. 

      Analyses of election returns have shown that both the Democrats and the Whigs consistently appealed to members of all socioeconomic classes.  If all workers and farmers had voted for the Democrats, and all bankers and non-producers had voted for the National Republicans or the Whigs, the Democrats would have won every election; there were not enough non-producers to sustain a political party.[16]  Schlesinger grudgingly conceded this point when he admitted that many workers voted for William Henry Harrison in 1840, but he claimed that these workers were swept up in a Whig miasma of campaign songs and empty rhetoric, and had no sympathy for the Whig party’s real agenda.[17]  Schlesinger claimed that the Whigs only won when they co-opted the Democrats’ ideology as a subterfuge for their conservatism.[18]  This position underestimates the Whigs’ ideological legitimacy, and it also sidesteps the challenge that the voting data presents to a class-based view of Jacksonian politics.  If both parties consistently appealed to the working classes, one cannot say that the Jacksonians were the sole representatives of lower-class interests.

      Schlesinger gave minimal attention to Jackson’s own socioeconomic background.  Jackson was a wealthy slave owner, and many of his colleagues were political sophisticates.[19]  Sean Wilentz pointed out that throughout the U.S., aristocrats and professional politicians managed the Democratic party machinery.[20]  It is conceivable that these elites were sympathetic to the working classes, but the fact that nearly all political operatives were members of the middle or upper classes should make one hesitate to assert that these Jacksonians consistently promoted working-class interests.

      Schlesinger’s class-based theory of Jacksonian politics ignored the issues of the presidential campaign of 1828.  Jackson’s supporters avoided policy debates during the campaign, and instead railed against the “corrupt bargain” of 1824 and the elitism of President Adams.[21]  Although one could characterize this platform as anti-elitist, one could not call it “working-class,” since this rhetoric did not offer any programs that would have been of greater interest to workers than to southern planters or northern entrepreneurs.  By locating the origins of Jacksonianism in the working-class policies of Jackson’s presidency, Schlesinger failed to explain why Jackson won a landslide victory in 1828 without the support of northeastern workers, who were often opposed to the Democratic party.  During Jackson’s first year as president, workers in New York City and Philadelphia organized Workingmen’s Parties that were separate from the political organizations that had supported Jackson.[22]  Wilentz has shown that workers joined these parties partly because they felt alienated by Jacksonian policies that had done nothing to help them.[23]  “To some of these voters – especially to nominally Jacksonian journeymen and small masters with their own complaints - Tammany and the new men in Washington began to look no better than the corrupt aristocrats of the old administration,” Wilentz wrote.[24]  Although many northeastern workers may have given up hope in the Workingmen’s Party by 1832, a majority of New England residents continued to vote against the president.[25]  Thus, northern working-class support for Jackson was slow to develop and insufficient even after it evolved.  It could not have constituted Jackson’s key base of support, as Schlesinger argued.

      Because Schlesinger believed that the Jacksonians consistently advocated policies that benefited the working classes, he neglected to focus on cases in which the Democratic party ignored workers’ demands.  The Workingmen’s party advocated an activist government approach that would foster education for the lower classes.  Because the Jacksonians gave education little attention, Schlesinger argued that this cause must not have been an integral component of workers’ true needs.  He wrote:

Most conservatives were actually as much in favor of education as the laboring classes. . . . The main Workingmen’s issues thus hardly touched the economic grounds of their dilemma.  The Jacksonian movement brought the decisive reminder that this dilemma was a problem, not of clericalism or of education, but of wealth.  Politicians and middle-class intellectuals, enlightened by Jeffersonian insights into the economic basis of democracy, began to bring the working classes nearer the actual causes of their discontent.[26]

 

Schlesinger thus claimed that the Democratic party elite in Washington understood the needs of New York City workers better than local working-class politicians such as Thomas Skidmore and George Henry Evans did.  It may seem surprising that 31% of New York City residents mistook their true class interests and the real causes of their economic malaise when they voted for the Workingmen’s party in 1829,[27] but in order to sustain his theory, Schlesinger had to argue that Jackson alone held the real remedy for working-class problems.

      Schlesinger downplayed the Jacksonian positions that may have seemed less likely to benefit workers.  The Jacksonians rooted much of their ideology in the notion of the fundamental importance of property rights, but Schlesinger minimized the Jacksonian commitment to property in his attempt to make the party seem relevant to the needs of propertyless workers.  “Jacksonians now tended to exalt human rights as a counterweight to property rights,” Schlesinger wrote.[28]  Similarly, Schlesinger minimized the importance of small government as a Jacksonian tenet; he claimed that the belief in limited government was simply a “Jeffersonian myth” that ran counter to some of the Jacksonians’ greater goals.[29]  To support his theories, Schlesinger relied on the writings of Orestes Brownson, an extremely radical Jacksonian who did not necessarily represent the mainstream beliefs of the Democratic party.[30]  Other historians who have looked at different Jacksonian sources have discovered that the Jacksonians were committed to a small government and strong property rights.  Theodore Sedgwick, a Jacksonian from New England, linked morality to possession of property, as did both Jackson and Van Buren.[31]  Most Jacksonians would likewise have balked at Schlesinger’s characterization of limited government as a “Jeffersonian myth,” since they thought that a limited government was necessary in order to preserve individual liberties and prevent corruption.  “In relation to the American citizen, the whole object of government is negative,” the Jacksonian Robert Rantoul said.  “It is to remove, and keep out of his way all obstacles to his natural freedom of action.”[32]  Most Jacksonians did not think that government should play the activist role that some proponents of the Workingmen’s party demanded.      

      Schlesinger ignored issues of Jackson’s legislative program that had little to do with eastern working-class interests.  He did not discuss the Indian Removal Act, and he gave only limited attention to the Maysville Road veto, nullification, and slavery.  In contrast, he devoted several chapters to a lengthy analysis of the “Bank War” and Jackson’s hard-money policy, since these issues had an impact on northeastern workers.  The title of Schlesinger’s work (The Age of Jackson) suggested a balanced treatment of Jacksonian ideology, but Schlesinger instead presented a very limited picture of Jackson’s political agenda, since he focused his study on northeastern working-class Jacksonians.  Schlesinger’s theories have not withstood the test of voter analysis, since Jackson received most of his support from other areas of the country and from various social classes.  His theory of Jacksonian ideology was too narrow to explain the varieties of Jacksonianism.  Fifteen years after Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson appeared, Marvin Meyers offered a theory that was much more all-encompassing in his Jacksonian Persuasion. 

      Meyers argued that Jacksonianism was rooted not in class-based politics, but rather in a yearning for traditional republican virtues. According to Meyers, Jacksonians had a fear of the changing social order, and they longed to restore the values of Jefferson’s agrarian republic.  Meyers said that the fears of the Jacksonians stemmed from new economic realities, and therefore the class-based rhetoric that Schlesinger often accepted at face value was not a sign of a new proletarian consciousness, but rather a reaction against the supposed “immorality” of bankers, speculators, and others who symbolized the new era of investment and commerce.[33]  Jackson’s “Bank War,” Schlesinger’s choice example of Jacksonian class-based politics, was in reality not an attempt to help the working class, but rather a fight against a new “economic reality.”[34]  What united Jacksonians was not a class consciousness, since, as Meyers pointed out, many Jacksonians were members of the elite, but rather a common sense of morality based on traditional values of honest labor and thrift.  “All Jacksonians seem to be moralizers who, in their political capacity, have much to say of proximate good and evil in a practical setting,” Meyers wrote.[35] 

      Meyers’ interpretation had much to commend it.  It explained why several former Federalists joined the Democratic party.  Schlesinger’s theory could not account for this phenomenon, since he viewed the Whig party as a new conservative party of revised Federalism, and the Democratic party as a radical champion of the working classes.[36]  Meyers showed that some conservative Federalists became Democrats because the Democratic party supported the republicanism and the traditional morality that had initially attracted these conservatives to the Federalist party.[37]  Meyers’ interpretation of Jacksonianism as a “persuasion” rather than a class-based ethos also explained why many elites voted for Jackson and why many common laborers and farmers voted for Clay and the Whigs.[38]  Meyers’ emphasis of Jacksonianism as a moralistic mentality also explained why many people rallied to Jackson’s cause even before they knew the issues that he supported.  Even if people were unsure about Jackson’s views on economic matters in the election of 1828, they knew that Jackson had pledged to fight the degenerate aristocratic regime that had agreed to the “corrupt bargain” of 1824.  Because their principle tie to Jacksonian ideology was moralistic rather than economic, these early Jacksonians were happy to vote for Andrew Jackson.  Meyers’ interpretation of Jacksonian ideology explained why Andrew Jackson appealed to a broad spectrum of the American populace.

      Yet perhaps Meyers’ interpretation of Jacksonianism was too broad.  Using his definition of Jacksonianism, which characterized the ideology as a yearning for old republican morality, almost every American of the antebellum period would be considered a Jacksonian.  Why were William Henry Harrison and his supporters members of the Whig party?  According to Meyers, they should have been Jacksonian Democrats, since Harrison’s slogan of “log cabins and hard cider” symbolized a longing for the virtues of the early republic.  His campaign ideology stressed a fear of moral corruption, which Meyers would have considered a classic Jacksonian appeal.  By emphasizing a broad consensus that included every conceivable brand of Jacksonianism, from the laissez-faire economic theories of William Leggett to the Puritanical morality of Robert Rantoul, Meyers left little room for any opposing ideology.  What type of person would not have been a Jacksonian?  What differentiated Robert Rantoul from a Whig?  Meyers did not say.

      Meyers’ historical methodology was better suited to provoking questions than to providing conclusive answers.  He based his theories not on election returns and voting statistics, nor on newspaper articles and speeches of the time.  Rather, he selected a very limited number of Jacksonians, and examined their lives and ideological leanings in detail.  This approach was intriguing, but it left many questions unanswered.  His selection of Jacksonians largely determined his theories.  What if instead of selecting James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Sedgwick, and Robert Rantoul, Meyers had studied George Bancroft, Orestes Brownson, and Amos Kendall?  Would he have adopted an economic or class-based interpretation of Jacksonianism rather than a morally based ideological view?  Meyers did portray William Leggett, and he devoted a chapter to Jackson’s struggle against the Bank, so he certainly did not ignore the economic dimension of the Democratic party.  Still, his emphasis on New England moral conservatives may have influenced his view of the Jacksonian “persuasion.”  Had Meyers chosen to portray some of the working-class radicals and early socialists that Schlesinger discussed, his views of Jacksonianism might have been slightly different.

      Lawrence Frederick Kohl adopted a view of the Jacksonians that was similar to Meyers’ interpretation, but he corrected some of the deficiencies of Meyers’ work by comparing and contrasting the Democrats with the Whigs in The Politics of Individualism.  Because Kohl studied both political parties, he was able to explain what differentiated a Jacksonian from a National Republican or a Whig, which was something that Meyers did not attempt to do.  By explaining what Jacksonians were not, as well as what they were, Kohl enlarged our understanding of the essence of Jacksonianism.  He argued that both Democrats and Whigs reacted to a new ethic of individualism that developed in the early nineteenth century.  Whigs were comfortable with the new impersonal social relations of the antebellum period, and they sought to foster economic process using the new impersonal social mechanisms at their disposal.  Democrats, on the other hand, never reconciled themselves to the new culture of impersonality and individualism, and they harbored suspicions against anyone who seemed to thrive in the modernistic culture.  They lashed out at impersonal institutions, such as large government bureaucracies, banks, and corporations, since they believed that these agencies were threatening their freedom.  Kohl viewed the fundamental difference between Jacksonians and Whigs not as a class-based conflict or a disagreement over the effect of economic policies, but rather as a difference in psychological needs.[39]  Kohl accepted Meyers’ idea that Jacksonianism was an ideological “persuasion” rather than a class-based economic program, but he expanded on Meyers’ interpretation in order to give a psychological and sociological basis for the Jacksonians’ moral views.

      Kohl’s explanation adequately accounted for most of Jackson’s political policies.  He explained the “Bank War,” the quest for limited government, and the support of a strong Union as policies of fear.  Jackson feared the power of elite institutions, he was afraid that a strong government would crush individual liberties, and he was concerned that the dissolution of the Union would lead to the loss of personal freedoms.[40]  Although Kohl did not provide an analysis of voting returns in presidential or state elections, his theories explained why voters of all social classes supported Jackson.

      Kohl analyzed a much broader range of Jacksonian publications than Meyers did.  Because Meyers’ work focused on a few select individuals, it could not offer a systematic analysis of the full range of Jacksonian newspapers or campaign speeches.  Kohl attempted to root his theories in the ideas of a great variety of Jacksonian newspaper writers, politicians, and ideologues.  He may have sacrificed some of Meyers’ in-depth analysis in order to do this, but he gave his theories a greater statistical legitimacy by basing them on a broader variety of sources.  Despite Kohl’s efforts to substantiate his position, his theories remain very difficult to prove or disprove.  How can one determine whether a politician’s rhetoric or a voter’s ballot choice was rooted in an innate psychological need or a response to a changing social milieu?  It was easy for Schlesinger’s critics to tabulate voting returns and decide that his class-based theories did not match the data of upper-class Jacksonian leadership or lower-class Whig votes.  It would be much more difficult for Kohl’s critics to prove that Jacksonians’ psyches played no role in their political decisions.  Kohl’s theories suffer from an even greater deficiency, though.  He did not provide his readers with any explanation of the roots of the modern “ethic of individualism” that he proposed.  Why did the individualistic ethos begin in the early nineteenth century?  In what regions was this ethic most prevalent?  Kohl did not say.  Because he did not root his theories in a historical causative mechanism, it remains impossible to predict what types of people would have reacted negatively to a new individualistic culture and why they would have turned against it.

      Harry L. Watson offered a historical explanation for the cultural developments that Kohl described.  Like Meyers and Kohl, he thought that Jacksonianism was rooted in an ideological, not a class-based, ethos, but he attributed this ideology to the economic conditions of the era.  Watson thought that the Jacksonians derived their political views from their reactions to the early-nineteenth-century market revolution, which affected every facet of their economic relationships.  “Americans met the challenges of the Market Revolution with apprehension and enthusiasm, but almost never with indifference,” Watson wrote.[41]  While Whigs welcomed the new economic era, Jacksonians feared that the new market economy would impinge upon their liberty.  Jacksonian Democrats thought that the internal improvements that Clay promoted could lead to monopolistic corporate privilege, an intrusive government, and the loss of individual rights.  Watson linked these fears to traditional republican suspicions of “power,” a term that he used to describe all institutions that potentially threatened personal liberties.[42]  Jacksonianism, in Watson’s view, was simply Jeffersonian republicanism adapted to the changing realities of the market revolution.  Americans who had feared Hamilton’s national bank became even more concerned about the large institutions and economic networks that the market revolution created.[43] 

      Watson linked all of Jackson’s policies to his fear of the potential loss of liberty in a new market economy.  “When he first took office, Jackson’s inclination was to halt federal efforts to promote further economic change in the United States,” Watson wrote.  “Jackson felt that the advance of commerce, banking, and industry tended to undermine the independence, virtue, and equality that made a republic possible. . . As his first term proceeded, Jackson’s initial views had hardened and took the form of specific policies.”[44]  Jackson appealed to the interests of small producers, because he thought that they were defenders of liberty in an era when too many Americans were trying to earn money by speculation instead of manual labor.[45]  Jackson favored Indian removal, because it preserved the traditional frontier values of the white farmers who would move onto the Cherokee’s land.[46]  He opposed nullification, because he saw attacks on the Union as attacks on liberty and republican institutions.[47]  In the ultimate example of an anti-market policy, Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road bill and attacked the legitimacy of the Bank of the U.S.  Jackson hoped that the terminus of the Bank’s charter would lead to an age when Americans would achieve prosperity through hard work, not through credit and land speculation.[48]  Watson recognized that Jacksonians sometimes expressed their anti-market sentiments in the rhetoric of class conflict, but he attributed these phrases to their antipathy toward the market revolution rather than to their desire to ally the working classes against the wealthy.  Their hatred was not directed against the rich per se, but rather against the “great moneyed corporations” and monopolistic privilege.[49]

      Watson’s analysis offered a way to explain most of the voting patterns of the Jacksonian era.  Schlesinger’s theory of class-based political division could not account for the election results of 1828, but Watson’s analysis explained why Americans who feared the growth of government corruption would vote for Jackson solely on the basis of his opposition to the “corrupt bargain” of 1824, regardless of his unclear position on economic issues.[50]  Because Watson, like Meyers and Kohl, believed that Jacksonianism was based on an ideological construct rather than an economic policy, he could explain why Americans of all social classes and regions voted for Jackson.  Watson’s view of the market revolution suggested a source of the “persuasion” that both Meyers and Kohl had postulated.  His theory lacked a sophisticated analysis of the relationship between the market revolution and Jacksonian support, but that was perhaps too much to expect of Watson’s short book.  It remained for another historian to analyze the connection between Jacksonianism and Americans’ reactions to the market economy in more detail. 

      Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution, which went to press only shortly after Watson finished his book, argued that the Jacksonian revolution was a reaction against America’s burgeoning market economy.  The growth of American exports, manufacturing, industrialism, consumerism, banking, and transportation networks forced Americans of the 1820s to become involved in the national market in a way that they had not been a generation earlier.  Some people easily adjusted to the new market economy and profited from the new prosperity, but other Americans, especially those who were artisans or yeomen farmers, felt that the new economic mechanisms threatened their values.[51]  Sellers linked religious movements, trade unions, and nearly every major cultural development of the antebellum period to Americans’ reaction to the market economy.[52]  The market affected political ideology, as well.  Americans who feared the market’s new influence looked to Jackson as a hero who could save them from the evils of the new economic networks.  “The hero of New Orleans came to symbolize American farmers’ claims to republican preeminence, not only against the barbarism of Indians and uncultivated wilderness, but even more against the menacing economic and cultural pretensions of the North Atlantic market world,” Sellers wrote.[53]  Jacksonian politics offered a way for those who were uncomfortable with the new market revolution to express their discontent.

      Sellers’s theory expanded on Watson’s views of a libertarian Jacksonian ideology, and it united parts of Schlesinger’s analysis with the interpretations of Meyers and Kohl.  Sellers provided the historical basis for the cultural ideological framework that Meyers and Kohl had postulated.  Sellers’s interpretation of Jacksonianism as a response to economic conditions explained why Schlesinger had discovered a lot of class-based rhetoric in the writings of Jacksonian politicians.  Sellers went beyond Schlesinger, and offered an explanation of why Jacksonianism united yeomen farmers, whom Schlesinger’s analysis largely ignored, with northeastern workers.  Both of these groups felt alienated by the market economy, so both of them were attracted to the party of Jackson.[54]  Like Watson, Sellers found that Jackson’s antipathy toward the market explained most of the president’s legislative policies.  Sellers’s theory retained most of the virtues of Watson’s analysis, but it also offered a more sophisticated link between the market economy and every facet of Jacksonian culture.

      In fact, Sellers’ analysis may have been too sweeping.  Sellers divided antebellum Americans strictly into two competing ideological camps.  Those who opposed the market revolution were antinomians who lived on subsistence farms or in the lower-class sections of manufacturing towns.  They were members of New Light religious groups, they believed in traditional values of thrift and manual labor, and they voted for Jackson and the Democrats.[55]  Those who accepted the market revolution were arminians who joined more liberal churches or participated in Moderate Light revival movements.  They too believed in thrift and hard work, but they thought that these values were compatible with expansionistic economic programs, capitalism, and the consumer culture of the era.  They tended to vote for Clay and the Whigs.[56]  Naturally, any strict division of Americans into only two sharply defined social classes is fraught with problems.  Sellers surely did not expect his dichotomy to hold true in every case, so he cannot be faulted for occasional exceptions to his theory.  Did his theory even hold true in the aggregate, however?  Was there a large group of antebellum Americans who remained suspicious of the market?  Some historians have doubted that there was.  William E. Gienapp pointed out that most early-nineteenth-century Americans were in favor of capitalism.[57]  Herbert Hovenkamp said that Sellers was wrong to characterize evangelical movements as anti-capitalist, and Gienapp concurred, saying that Sellers’ treatment of religion was “so one-sided as to be little more than a caricature.”[58]  Cathy D. Matson said that most Americans were optimistic about the market economy and favored the new economic institutions associated with it.[59]  If Sellers was wrong about Americans’ hostility to the market, his analysis of Jacksonianism also falls, since Sellers based almost all of his theories on the idea that a majority, or at least a substantial minority, of Americans feared the new institutions of the market economy.  If Hovenkamp, Gienapp, and Matson were right in their analysis of Americans’ widespread acceptance of capitalism, how can one explain the basis for Jacksonian ideology?

      Detailed studies of regional voting patterns may be able to provide the answers to questions about the meaning of Jacksonianism.  Lee Benson was one of the first historians to offer such a study.  Sixteen years after Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson appeared, Benson used a statistical analysis of New York voting returns to critique the progressives’ class-based theory of Jacksonian ideology.  He discovered that, contrary to Schlesinger’s theories, the lower classes often voted for the Whigs, while some elites voted Democratic.[60]  Dismissing Schlesinger’s thesis as a flawed model, Benson proposed instead an ethnocultural interpretation of Jacksonian voting patterns.  Catholic immigrants, he argued, almost always voted Democratic, because the Whigs repeatedly denounced Catholicism and advocated a system of governmental moral control.  The Jacksonian Democrats did not mix religion with politics, so Catholic voters usually cast their vote for the party that did not condemn their practices.[61]  Protestant immigrants usually voted for the Whigs, primarily because they hated the Irish Catholic Democrats.[62]  African-Americans voted for the Whigs as a bloc, while Yankees split their tickets between Democrats and Whigs, depending on their religious beliefs and their feelings about Masonic organizations.[63]  Benson thus argued that New Yorkers showed little concern for the national issues of the Democratic party platform.  If a “persuasion” determined their vote, it was a persuasion based not on class or on reactions to the market, but on ethnicity and religion. 

      Several practitioners of the “new political history” admired Benson’s theories, but others denounced his methodology and his conclusions.[64]  His statistical analysis was flawed, some argued, and his theories inaccurate.  Benson’s critics claimed that his data could not prove a separation between culture and social class; the two may have been connected.[65]  Daniel Feller said that Benson’s case for an ethnocultural interpretation was so shaky that accepting it without further scrutiny required a “leap of faith.”[66] 

      Benson’s greatest mistake may have been to assume that his data proved more than it did.  Voting returns could only show which voters supported a particular party; they could not indicate why voters preferred one candidate over another.  Yet Benson thought that his data could explain this phenomenon, and he went even further by claiming that his theories of New York voting behavior applied to an even greater region.  Benson said that he hoped that his theories could “contribute to a general theory of American voting behavior.”[67]  Even though he admitted that New York could not “be regarded as the United States in microcosm,” he thought that it could “reasonably be regarded as the North (that is, the free states) in microcosm.”[68]

      Benson pressed his theories too far by attempting to apply them to large regions outside of New York, but if his study is viewed as a reasonable interpretation of a particular region’s response to Jacksonianism, it can contribute to our knowledge of Jacksonian ideology.  Because the antebellum period was an era of state politics, regional newspapers, and local issues, the focus of many historians on national policies and nationwide “persuasions” or ideologies may be misguided.  Perhaps the next definitive book on the Jacksonian era will not attempt to produce a grand national narrative, but will instead compile the results of a variety of regional studies.  Since Benson’s book appeared, several historians, including Ronald P. Formisano and William G. Shade, have researched the voting patterns of specific states.[69]  A compilation of these studies could begin to address the meaning of Jacksonianism.  Was Jacksonianism a response to the market revolt?  Was it an ideological persuasion unrelated to social class?  Regional studies that thoroughly analyze the socioeconomic and ethnocultural backgrounds of Democratic and Whig voters, and that also offer a comprehensive analysis of local newspaper articles and political rhetoric, may provide an answer.

      This analysis of regional voting patterns from states throughout the country will probably show that some voters supported Jackson because they feared the effects of the new market economy, while many other Americans voted for the Democrats for reasons unrelated to economic malaise.  The study may corroborate Michael Holt’s thesis that Jackson’s original supporters included “men who feared that speculation, elitism, and corruption were perverting Old Republican values of simplicity, democracy, and equal opportunity.”[70]  Yet Holt pointed out that these men could not win an election without the support of other voters.  They therefore organized regional campaigns that emphasized issues that resonated with voters of a particular locale.  Many southerners voted for Jackson because they viewed him as a pro-slavery candidate.  Catholic immigrants became Jacksonians because they were concerned about the Whigs’ strong Protestant tone.  Masons voted for Jackson because the Antimasons opposed him.[71]  Thus, Holt argued that there was no single coherent Jacksonian ideology; Americans of different “persuasions” voted for Jackson for reasons that may have been entirely local. 

      A future study will have to examine regional evidence to determine if Holt’s theory is justified.  If it is, the next study of Jacksonianism will be very different from many previous analyses.  Even though Schlesinger, Meyers, Kohl, Watson, and Sellers disagreed about the meaning of Jacksonianism, they all argued that the Democrats were united by a common ideology.  The next study will have to question that assumption, and ask whether the meaning of Jacksonianism was locally, rather than nationally, determined. 

 

 


Notes



[1] Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990), 96.

[2] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945), 306, 312.

[3] Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960), 13; Lawrence Frederick Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 6; Watson, 12-13.

[4] Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 313-314.

[5] Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 321-327.

[6] Schlesinger, 306.

[7] Schlesinger, 79.

[8] Schlesinger, 163.

[9] Schlesinger, 299, 306.

[10] Schlesinger, 119, 121.

[11] Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 248-251.

[12] Joseph Dorfman, “The Jackson Wage-Earner Thesis,” The American Historical Review, 1949: 305.

[13] Schlesinger, 96, 206.

[14] Schlesinger, 209.

[15] Sellers, 349.

[16] Meyers, 8.

[17] Schlesinger, 304.

[18] Schlesinger, 279.

[19] Michael Vorenberg, Lecture, History 173 class, Brown University, 11 September 2000.

[20] Wilentz, 7.

[21] Watson, 95.

[22] Wilentz, 172-216.

[23] Wilentz, 174-175.

[24] Wilentz, 175.

[25] Sellers, 349.

[26] Schlesinger, 142-143.

[27] Wilentz, 408.

[28] Schlesinger, 312.

[29] Schlesinger, 517.

[30] Schlesinger, 312.

[31] Meyers, 167, 179.

[32] Meyers, 223-224.

[33] Meyers, 13, 21-23, 97.

[34] Meyers, 120.

[35] Meyers, 207-208.

[36] Schlesinger, 267-271.

[37] Meyers, 13, 206-208.

[38] Meyers, 8.

[39] Kohl, 6, 13-18.

[40] Kohl, 23, 28, 134.

[41] Watson, 40.

[42] Watson, 44-46.

[43] Watson, 45-49.

[44] Watson, 133.

[45] Watson, 133.

[46] Watson, 112.

[47] Watson, 117, 129.

[48] Watson, 161.

[49] Watson, 167.

[50] Watson, 91.

[51] Sellers, 153, 156.

[52] Sellers, 25, 157.

[53] Sellers, 179.

[54] Sellers, 123, 156.

[55] Sellers, 205, 285, 331.

[56] Sellers, 202-203, 229-231, 363.

[57] William E. Gienapp, “Ahistorical History,” Journal of Policy History, 1994: 278.

[58] Gienapp, 277; Herbert Hovenkamp, “Comment on Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution and William Gienapp’s ‘The Myth of Class in Jacksonian America,’” Journal of Policy History, 1994: 276.

[59] Cathy D. Matson, “Capitalizing Hope: Economic Thought and the Early National Economy,” Journal of the Early Republic, 1996: 284.

[60] Benson, 148.

[61] Benson, 187, 321-322.

[62] Benson, 324.

[63] Benson, 166, 177.

[64] Daniel Feller, “Lee Benson and The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy,” Reviews in American History 20, no. 4 (Dec. 1992): 591.

[65] Feller, 597.

[66] Feller, 598.

[67] Benson, 277.

[68] Benson, 3.

[69] E.g., Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827-1861 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971); and William G. Shade, Democratizing the Old Dominion: Virginia and the Second Party System, 1824-1861 (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1996).

[70] Michael F. Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 38.

[71] Holt, 42-43.