The Jacksonian era was egalitarian to a certain extent. From a white male’s point of view equality had been achieved. Almost all white men could vote and three-quarters of the electorate did. Many felt they did have the same opportunity to achieve as the rest of the white male population. However, “the same democrats who demanded political equality for themselves denied social equality and political rights to blacks, Indians and women.”1 If one was not a white male then one did not receive the same respect or the same opportunity to succeed. From this point of view the Jacksonian era was not at all egalitarian. Andrew Jackson believed in equal opportunities, particularly for white men. The Jacksonian era has even been dubbed “the age of the common man”2. The politics and legislation he passed or vetoed mostly shows that Jackson did want an egalitarian society for men. The people also showed egalitarian influences in their actions, however, this was not always the case.
Richard Latner observes that Andrew Jackson “displayed a keen sensitivity to the corrosive effects of special privilege, monopoly, and excessive government power.”3 This implies that Jackson did desire an egalitarian society and sought to abolish “special privilege, monopoly and excessive government power”. Indeed he did undertake a certain degree of laissez-faire control. He also vetoed the Maysville Road Bill in 1830 on the grounds that it was special privilege to a local society and not the whole of the States. This shows that Jackson actively sought to gain an egalitarian society for the United States. Jackson also vetoed the bank re-charter bill in 1832, arguing that it “demonstrated many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought to make them richer by act of Congress.”
4 The Bank of the United States (BUS) controversy is a hugely significant factor in showing that Jackson sought an egalitarian society. He viewed the bank as a monopoly and wanted to remove all government deposits and share them to state banks. To some extent he achieved this as by 1833, twenty-three state banks had benefited from government deposits.5 However, the BUS’s constraints on other banks were also removed which had a disastrous effect on the economy. By 1837 the total debt was $170 million.6 Even though this meant that debt soared, Jackson did not go back on his decision, which shows how determined he was to achieve his ideological egalitarian society.
He was constantly trying to make things more equal and in 1832, Jackson passed a law that said imprisonment should not occur for those who had debt due to “misfortune and poverty”.7 This again backs up Latner’s argument that Jackson sought an egalitarian society. Harry Watson argues that “state leaders who expanded the right to vote in the 1810s and 1820s also moved to increase the number of elective branches of government, to bring courts more closely under democratic control, and to equalize representation in the legislatures”8 showing that Jackson’s government also sought egalitarianism.
Perhaps the most important factor that showed Jackson’s government to be egalitarian was the steps taken to increase the electorate. Alexis de Toqueville, a contemporary visitor to the United States, said: “No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.”9 This implies that America was more egalitarian than the rest of the world at the time. To a contemporary outsider the United States was probably the epitome of an equal society.
Indeed, Toqueville remarked on the “checks” on American government that no other received. The reason for this was the amount of people that were voting. In 1802 Maryland gave the vote to all white males with a land requirement. South Carolina followed suit in 1812.10 Then, not long after, states began to drop the land requirement and by 1830 only six states had this condition. This meant that four times as many people voted in the 1828 election than in the 1824 election.11 This shows that Andrew Jackson did achieve a certain degree of egalitarianism in America.
Although this contention is plausible, there are alternative arguments that perhaps get closer to the truth. For example, Watson goes on to say “it is clear that the same reformers who extended the suffrage and other rights to all white men began to close the opportunities for blacks and women left open by previous generations of lawmakers.”12 Some laws before the Jacksonian era simply said “all men” with a land requirement, so free black men who did have this land requirement could vote. Similarly with women, the fact that one had to be male wasn’t always specified in some states, so they could vote. However, with the new legislation that increased the amount of white male suffrage, these loopholes were closed and blacks and women found themselves without the same opportunity.
This shows that Watson’s argument that “the United States was not a strictly egalitarian society”13 is much more plausible than the theory that Jackson constantly sought for every American to be equal. Jackson even said: “distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, or education, or wealth cannot be produced by human institutions.”14 This shows that, in private, Jackson himself did not believe egalitarianism could ever be achieved. Richard McCormick also argues this, saying, “Distributive decisions may have been what the people wanted but the details of such policies perpetually fuelled conflict.
For one thing there was never enough of the choicest resources and privileges to go around.”15 This shows that egalitarianism simply could not be achieved, despite efforts. Indeed the more popular view among historians is that “the United States was not a strictly egalitarian society in the antebellum period; foreign observers invariably noted that blacks had no equal social standing in white society; neither did women or Indians.”16 Jackson’s Indian policy definitely shows him not to be the supreme egalitarian he appeared to the American people.
Although Jackson believes that removing the tribes was “just and humane… [as in the west they would be] free from the influence of white men, and undisturbed by the local authority of the states,”17 surely removing them was really due to the US wishing to gain more land and go further West. This shows that not only did Jackson not believe in egalitarianism, some of his actions did not even show that he was trying to get egalitarianism beyond white males. It is this reason that Jacksonian democracy was only egalitarian to a certain extent.
Bayard Taylor, a foreign visitor to the states said: “The practical equality of all members of the community, whatever might be the wealth, intelligence, or profession of each, was never before more thoroughly demonstrated.”18 This implies that society was egalitarian and the people and their actions exemplified this. To a certain extent they did demonstrate egalitarianism. This is shown particularly at the political barbecues that were held during the Jacksonian era. Dupre argues that at these barbecues “for a brief moment…the poor lorded over the rich, and women enjoyed a measure of power usually reserved for men… [and they were to] bring every member of the human family, of every rank and degree, upon one broad level of equality.”19 Even slaves were allowed to take part at these barbecues despite not having the vote.
This implies that Americans were egalitarian as they accepted and respected each other at these barbecues, despite gender or race. Stanley B Parsons argues that religion was very important to society as a whole though differences between immigrants and native born voters was not.20 He implies that race didn’t matter to the people as long as they had a strong sense of Christian belief. This certainly implies a certain degree of egalitarianism in some parts of the United States at least. Alan Dawley also argues that America was an egalitarian society and says, “The inequalities of the patriarchal household gave way to the new equalities of industrial capitalism.”21 This implies that during the Jacksonian era the situation grew much more egalitarian and society was more equal.
However, these arguments are flawed and extremely unconvincing. Most historians believe that the industrial revolution during the Jacksonian era made things much more unequal. As Watson argues “some inequality was generated by the simple fact that older men had accumulated more property than youths, but economic change itself had generated new sources of wealth that were not shared equally by all Americans.”22 This is a much more plausible argument as the decades after 1815 “produced entrepreneurs”.23 This is evident from the factory owners and their distant relationships with the workers, which diminished with the industrial revolution.
This is exemplified in Lynn, Massachusetts where workers organized unions and expressed the “equality of all producers and the right of each person to live in comfort and dignity”.24 Although contemporary observers thought that the industrial change meant society was more equal, on a closer look it is evident that society was becoming less so as the structure was becoming more capitalist. This shows that Jacksonian democracy wasn’t as egalitarian as it perhaps seems on the surface.
This is also apparent when considering the black people of the United States. Although at barbecues it appears they were treated equally, the rest of the time they were pelted with stones when in public.25 Roger B Taney, the nation’s attorney general, epitomised the white view of blacks when he said they were “a separate and degraded people” and there was even anti-black rioting in Philadelphia in 1834.26 The actions of American people show that Jacksonian America was hardly egalitarian at all when it came to anyone other than white males. Blacks and Indians in particular were treated appalling by the same white men who campaigned to get the vote and a greater democracy. This therefore implies that the people themselves, although appeared to have wanted equality, did not wish to demonstrate it themselves.
On the surface the Jacksonian era appears to be egalitarian. By the end of it, the electorate had increased hugely and America was probably one of the most democratic countries in the world. Andrew Jackson himself appeared to be very egalitarian and was the first president not to come from a prominent colonial family,27 which shows he was more likely to believe in and enforce equality anyway. However, on a closer look, it is evident that the former argument his severely flawed, and to call Jacksonian America ‘egalitarian’ is an exaggeration. It was more democratic than most other countries, but it was only egalitarian if one was white and male. It is evident that Jackson himself had doubts about whether complete equality could ever exist, and he certainly did not want it to be achieved for Indians. As Watson rightly says, “In the ‘Age of Egalitarianism’ all white men would be equal, at least in theory, but no one else would be the equal of a white man.”28
* Tindall and Shi, America: A Narrative History (USA 2004)
* Richard L McCormick, The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era (New York 1986)
* Arthur M Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson (New York 1945)
* Harry L Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (Canada 1990)
* Richard B Latner, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson: White House Politics 1829-1837 (USA 1979)
* Richard L McCormick, The Party Period and Public Policy: An Exploratory Hypothesis (The Journal of American History 1979)
* David A Johnson, Vigilance and the Law: The Moral Authority of Popular Justice in the Far West (American Quarterly 33 1981)
* Daniel Dupre, Barbecues and Pledges: Electioneering and the Rise of Democratic Politics in Antebellum America (Journal of Southern History 60 1994)
1 Tindall and Shi America: A Narrative History (USA 2004) pg 326
2 Tindall and Shi America: A Narrative History pg 317
3 Richard B Latner The Presidency of Andrew Jackson: White House Politics 1829-1837 (USA 1979) pg 86
4 Andrew Jackson cited in Tindall and Shi America: A Narrative History pg 332
5 Tindall and Shi America: A Narrative History pg 334
6 Tindall and Shi America: A Narrative History pg 334
7 Arthur M Schlesinger The Age of Jackson (New York 1945) pg 136
8 Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (Canada 1990) pg 50
9 Alexis de Toqueville cited in Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America pg 32
10 Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America pg 50
11 Tindall & Shi America: A Narrative History pg 315
12 Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America pg 52
13 Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America pg 33
14 Tindall & Shi America: A Narrative History pg 317
15 Richard L McCormick The Party Period and Public Policy: An Exploratory Hypothesis (The Journal of American History 1979) pg 8
16 Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America pg 33
17 Richard B Latner The Presidency of Andrew Jackson: White House Politics 1829-1837 pg 90
18 Bayard Taylor cited David A Johnson Vigilance and the Law: The Moral Authority of Popular Justice in the Far West (American Quarterly 33 1981) pg 562
19 Daniel Dupre Barbecues and Pledges: Electioneering and the Rise of Democratic Politics in Antebellum America (Journal of Southern History 60 1994) pg 490
20 Stanley B Parsons cited Richard L McCormick The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era (New York 1986) pg 93
21 Alan Dawley cited Richard L McCormick The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era pg 99
22 Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America pg 33
23 Richard L McCormick The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era pg 101
24 Richard L McCormick The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era pg 99
25 Tindall & Shi America: A Narrative History pg 327
26 Tindall & Shi America: A Narrative History pg 327
27 Tindall & Shi America: A Narrative History pg 314
28 Harry L Watson Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America pg 53