The Emergence Of Parties - Jacksonian Democracy
jackson whigs party currency specie democratic democrats buren land individual
As the nullification crisis waned, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun entered into an alliance of convenience. The force that united them was "King Andrew," whose effective extension of executive power seemed to them to threaten the proper balance of legislative and executive relations.
The Democratic Party. Under the shrewd management of Martin Van Buren, now Vice-President of the United States, a disciplined political organization emerged: the Democratic Party. It stood for liberty and equality, and championed the cause of every man. The Democratic message was as wide as the human imagination. It stood for the poor against the rich, attracting to its support the small farmer, the independent fisherman, the hired laborer, the Irish immigrant, and the modest Southern planter. Its denunciation of monopoly privilege attracted the state banker and commercial capitalist (as opposed to the industrial capitalist). By supporting free or nearly free homesteads and free schools, the Democrats attracted the Western farmer and the frontiersmen. Above all, the towering figure of Jackson, the disciple of republican virtue, served to unite about his standard all believers in the virtues of the agrarian republic. The party's most potent appeal lay in its promise of opportunity to all and privilege to none. The Jeffersonian ideal had been resurrected.
The Jacksonian Persuasion. In the Supreme Court, which had numerous changes in personnel, Chief Justice Taney and the six associate justices appointed by Jackson gave judicial support to democratic premises in their emphasis upon individual as opposed to monopoly property rights. In the Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge decision (1837) the Court struck a damaging blow against monopoly rights and extended the scope of individual enterprise. Jacksonian intellectuals like William Leggett, Robert Rantoul, Jr., George Henry Evans, and Theodore Sedgwick argued for complete equality. They opposed the corporation, arguing for total liability on the part of all stockholders; they denounced paper currency and supported specie currency; and they supported free trade and advocated a completely equalitarian society. Their philosophic bias was that of complete laissez-faire. The only rights that a workingman could claim from society were, according to Rantoul: "(1) The right to his faculties, and the products of their use; (2) the right to choose the terms on which he will employ his time; (3) the right to steady wages at the highest going rate; (4) the right to education; (5) the right to respect; (6) the right to advancement in life." But all these rights were individual, and had to be obtained and maintained through individual effort. Any external combination or effort to effect them was morally indefensible. To make the point emphatic, the definition of "a worthy hard workingman" was expanded to include such diverse personalities as the Philadelphia banker Stephen Girard, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, William Shakespeare, and Robert Fulton, among others.
The Whiggery. As Jackson provided the inspiration for the Democrats, so anti-Jackson sentiment spurred the organization of the Whig party after 1834. The Whigs owed their name to James Watson Webb, editor of the New York Courier and Enquirer, who sought to stigmatize the rule of "King Andrew" as an effort to restore the despotism of George III, and to dignify Jackson's opponents by implying that they drew their inspiration from that monarch's revolutionary opponents. The new party appealed to industrialists, to factory labor, to small-town businessmen, and to farmers who viewed their occupation as a business enterprise. In the South it appealed to the urban commercial classes, to those of unionist sentiments, and also to the Louisiana sugar planters who eagerly welcomed the benefits of tariffs. Disgruntled Democrats also joined the Whigs. Twenty-eight of the forty-one Democrats who had voted in Congress for rechartering of the Bank in 1832 were confirmed members of the Whiggery by 1836.
The Whig and Democratic Parties Contrasted. The new conservative party viewed with suspicion the Democratic Party's appeal to the degraded - the poor farmer, the tumultuous city folk, the underdogs of society - men to whom the Whigs felt they owed an example but not equality. The Democrats held that opportunity was an individual endeavor; the Whigs held that failure was an individual responsibility. Unlike the Democrats, they saw the immense possibilities for national economic development. Where Jackson's policies led inevitably to the accentuation of state rights, those of the Whigs fostered the growth of the federal authority. The Whigs' economic vision transcended that of the Jacksonians; its knowledge of the democratic tendencies of American society was inferior.
The Specie Circular of 1836. The attack upon privilege culminated with the issuance of the Specie Circular of 1836. It was the climax of Jackson's campaign against issuances of paper currency below twenty dollars; the circular's purpose was to "revive and perpetuate those habits of economy and simplicity which are so congenial to the character of republicans." To effectuate this purpose, only specie would be accepted for land purchases after July 11, 1836. Inflationary speculation in western lands immediately came to an end. Between 1834 and 1836, nearly 38,000,000 acres of land had been sold by the federal government. But most of the payments for this land were based on uncertain bank credits, often extended without adequate backing. With the disappearance of the regulatory activities of the Bank of the United States, currency had increased from $124 million to well over $200 million; loans had nearly tripled between 1832 and 1836; and land sales were part of a speculative bubble maintained only by the constant issuance of paper credit.
The End of Land Speculation. Jackson's purpose in issuing the Specie Circular had been to impress upon the public the obvious superiority of specie as currency; instead, he succeeded in pricking the bubble. Specie, attracted by large profits, moved westward, unbalancing the normal distribution of currency. It became increasingly apparent that sufficient specie did not exist to meet the needs of the economy throughout the United States. Not only Whigs but also Jacksonians expressed a growing awareness that some means of expanding the national currency would be required. A presidential pocket veto frustrated proposals to make currency of bank paper issued by banks that did not issue small notes. Since the average purchaser of land could not meet government specie requirements, he was driven by necessity to purchase from profit-hungry speculators.
Retirement of Federal Debt. The fiscal structure of the nation received a further jolt when the federal government finally retired the national debt in 1836. Money continued to pour into the Treasury with no one knowing how to dispense it once it had been received. The surplus approached $21 millions. Politicians of both parties realized that this treasure trove had immense possibilities in a presidential election year. Under pressure from the states Congress agreed, in June, 1836, to distribute all but $5 million to the states in proportion to their Congressional representation. The decision stimulated further the raging inflation. But the Jacksonians had gained renewed popularity as a result of the surplus distribution, at a time when Jackson was determined that Van Buren should succeed him.
The Election of 1836. Jackson's influence in the Democratic Party easily secured a unanimous nomination for Van Buren when the party met in Baltimore on May 20, 1835, despite the fact that Alabama, Tennessee, and Virginia viewed the nomination of the New Yorker with marked distaste. The Whigs had four candidates: William Henry Harrison, Hugh Lawson White, Daniel Webster, and Will P. Mangum. Since each candidate had strong backing in a particular section - Harrison in the Northwest, Webster in New England, White in the Southwest, and Mangum in South Carolina - the Whigs hoped to throw the election into the House of Representatives. The two major candidates, Harrison and Van Buren, disagreed on whether to distribute the proceeds of land sales. Van Buren opposed distribution as well as internal improvements at national expense. He stood against a restoration of the bank, while Harrison left the question unsettled. Van Buren also announced his support of a gold currency. But in the end the election proved to be a national referendum in which the major question was whether one approved or disapproved the actions of Andrew Jackson. The response was a modest triumph for the Old General's heir. Van Buren won, with 170 electoral votes to 124 for the combined opposition; but his popular majority was only 25,688 out of 1,505,290 votes cast. The Jacksonians retained control of the Senate, but in the House factionalism left effective control with conservative Democrats. Jackson departed for Tennessee, convinced that his policies had been vindicated. But he left an unexpected legacy: two reasonably well-defined political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs.