Andrew Jackson 1767-1845 A brief biography

The United States in the Jackson Era
1820 - 1845

The Jackson Era, running from around 1820 to 1845, was a time of rampant growth and regional diversification. World views and ways of living changed as quickly as in the 20th century. Transportation was revolutionized and the foundation of a manufacturing economy was laid.

Diversification: A Brief Summary of the Changing Northeast

The economies of New England, and the upper middle states were, before this period, dominated by overseas shipping and agriculture. Now they were moving towards manufacturing, and "empire building" at home. E.g. by creating a water highway, the Erie Canal, from the ocean to the great lakes and thence deep into the Northwest, New York made itself the trading hub of a huge expanse of territory, and was dubbed the "Empire State".

There was also, in the North, a marked shift in the structure of society. The original New Englanders were already different from the southern colonists. Religion was supremely important, and the New England religion urged all to study the Bible and other religious writings. This placed high value on learning.

In the Jacksonian North, the old patriarchal society, in which family name and a mystique of power and "honor" played a large role, was yielding to more "objective" realities, like money and manufacturing assets.

Diversification: Old Ways in the South

In the South, the complex interdependence of Northern (especially urban) life, mediated by figures in an accounting book, was scarcely comprehended.

The South largely kept up an ancient form of society; one divided into the self-sufficient "gentlemen", or "men of means", and the mass of dependents. It was supposed to be visibly obvious what one was. It was not something hidden, like a bank ledger, or for that matter, hidden craftiness.

To be a "gentleman", one had to maintain a certain self-evident dignity, including the public perception that one cannot be insulted without immediate, personal retribution. One never appealed to the civil authorities in such matters. If the offender was a "lesser being", one put him in his place with a caning or cow hiding. With regard to a fellow lordly personage, one appealed to the God of Battles; i.e. initiated a duel - usually with pistols. In neither case does one admit a higher mediator than oneself except God, when the offender is a peer.

The man whose "place" is to do the bidding of others is "put in his place" by the disrespect of others. It was part of the breaking of a slave to make him submit to insults, and even disrespect himself through clownishness.

Thus old ways - older than the middle ages - were kept alive in the South, like the willingness to to risk ones life in a duel rather than tolerate an insult. The anonymous masses (though not the slaves of course) were sometimes permitted recourse through chiarivari - a kind of carnival of abuse against someone who has fallen drastically in the eyes of the community, or lynch law. There was in this a primitive tendency to gleeful cruelty.

In the South, dueling remained common, amazingly common among Southern congressmen for instance, up to the civil war. Also in 1856 a Southern congressman, Preston Brooks, gave Senator Charles Sumner a very severe caning after Sumner made a speech which Brooks took to be highly offensive to his elderly uncle, a Senator. The known unwillingness of most Northerners to indulge in dueling lead to contempt and a feeling of superiority on the part of many Southerners, such as Brooks, who by caning Brooks made the symbolic statement that he was an inferior being. Northerners in their turn had a different sort of contempt for these seemingly uncivilized, unchristian Southerners.

The South was also coming to perceive themselves as "colonized", or virtually enslaved by the North, as when Robert Y. Hayne in 1830 said "we stand towards the United States in the relation of Ireland to England".

Why did the South lag behind in technology, so as to become the producers of raw materials for the North? As concentrations of capitol developed in the South, why did this not contribute, as much as in the North, to the development of manufacturing, banking, and transportation networks?

The labor pool of the South was largely trapped in fixed roles. There was virtually no such thing as a literate working class. Literacy endangered the master's ascendancy over the slave. In the North, because of better general education and social mobility, whenever technology created a new occupation for which there was a demand, persons capable of filling the role selected themselves and did what it took to prepare themselves for the new role.

In the South, the well educated man too often could not admit that the wage laborer was a man like himself, only born by chance in humbler circumstances. He was too committed to economic differences being a reflection of the kind of person one was. Virtually the only respectable role was the self-sufficient farmer.

Too often, the self-respecting poor man scraped out a living on a farm rather than work "like a nigger", as they were apt to describe it, for another man. The younger son, who got trained to the genteel professions of law and medicine would often abandon this career of working for others if he ever acquired enough money to become a planter. And the slave, of course had no mobility at all.

Successful lawyers, especially those who became prominent in politics, and high military officers were perhaps the exceptions to the rule that plantation life was the one goal of a successful life. But these men too, like Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, often hedged their bets by setting up moderate sized plantations with names like the Hermitage and Ashland.

If the poor Southerner was to rise in society, to become a "gentleman", with such a view of the world, his main route was by going West, where the land was cheap and fertile, and the "old families" were absent or less dominant, at least.

Diversification: Southerners Move West

And so Southerners did go West at first in far greater numbers than did Northerners; populating Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, and later, like Lincoln's family moving from Kentucky to Indiana and Illinois, or from Tennessee to states like Alabama and Louisiana, or even, like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, from Tennessee into the part of Mexico that became Texas.

Settlement in the midwest (the far West back then) began from the South, rivers being the only decent "highways", and the Mississippi, with its outlet in New Orleans being the river of rivers.

This migration of Southerners led to one of the first major crises of the Union, when Missouri, which extends nearly as far north as does Illinois, applied to become a new slave state, reversing somewhat the tendency towards the disappearance of slavery in the North. This lead, in 1820, to the fiercest fight yet seen in Congress, and threats of Southern succession when Northerners attempted to block Missouri's statehood.

The conflict was tenuously resolved in the Missouri Compromise, which extended westward the Mason-Dixon line above which slavery was supposed not to be admitted - with the exception of Missouri, and at the same time split off Maine as a new state, to help preserve the balance of slave and non slave states.

Note: Slavery was slower to disappear in the North than one might think. Sojourner Truth was one of the last slaves to be freed in New York state - in 1828. She had to fight a legal battle with the aid of the Quakers, to rescue her six year old son who was illegally sold South. New York was basically in the Northern block in 1820 though. It had few slaves, and a law to eliminate slavery by 1827 (or 1828?) was passed in 1817.

Until the spread of railroads, the West was far better connected to the South than to the North. A primary way of getting farm produce to market, flatboats which could only float down river, could mostly only take bulky goods south, especially to the great mouth of the Mississippi. There farm produce and was sold and the boats were broken down for lumber.

Diversification: The North Builds Ties to the West

Over time, northerly routes to the West, and trade routes tying the Northeast to the West opened up, and outstripped the Southerly routes. There was the Cumberland road, cutting from the settled part of Maryland to the frontier outpost of Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia) on the Ohio, whence travelers could steam or float down the Ohio as far as Indiana. The Erie Canal opened the way from New York city to the Great Lakes, and helped make Chicago a great city with largely Northern sensibilities. Finally the railroads created a dense network across the country -- densest in the North.

The Northern reaches of the Mississippi form the boundary between Missouri and Illinois. This, and the explosive growth of the Great Lakes port city of Chicago would in time make Illinois a microcosm of America, with two favorite sons battling for the presidency in 1860.

The Changing Politics of the Country

In politics, the old Federalist Party was dead. They had been strongest in New England, where they had resisted the U.S. entry into the War of 1812. The New England economy, based on international trade, had been devastated by the war.

A number of states, such as New York, abolished property requirements for voting by 1824, and the disintegration of the Federalist party, once the bulwark of wealth and gentility (and property requirements for voting), helps explain this in New York, and perhaps elsewhere. This partially, but only partially, accounts for a near quadrupling of counted voters for the presidency between 1824 and 1828. The 1828 election was portrayed by Democrats as a vindication of the peoples right to chose their president, and they pioneered new ways of fanning the fires of political enthusiasm, and of turning out the vote. The anti- Jacksonians also waged a vigorous contest, and must have come out in huge numbers, to try to turn back "King Mob".

The Election of 1824: Jackson and the "Corrupt Bargain"

In 1824 there was essentially one large but weak political party, but four major candidates for the presidency, based largely on personal followings. This lead to no candidate getting a majority, though Jackson got a large plurality and ought to have won in a runoff. But the House of Representatives, as directed by the Constitution, selected John Quincy Adams.

The Election of 1828: Jackson and the New Democratic Party

In 1828 the Democratic party, the first really cohesive party to emerge from the rubble of the old party system was lead by Andrew Jackson with the war cry of "Corrupt Bargain" -- based on the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay's arm twisting to make Adams president, and his subsequent appointment as Secretary of State (which till then was regarded as the main stepping stone to the presidency).

Jackson, of course, won, and his very dynamic, aggressive, and controversial presidency spurred the development of the second party, the Whigs. Their name, echoing British history, designated them as anti monarchical, in opposition to the man they called King Andrew the First.

Aftermath of 1828: The Whig Party

The Whigs, at first, had little in common but violent opposition to Jackson. Later, they became more coherent but became, in the process, decidedly the less popular party. Jackson retained his strong hold on the American psyche, and his name was synonymous with the Democratic party until at least the Civil War. The Whigs gained only two presidencies, and did so by heading the ticket with figurehead military heroes, who did little or nothing to promote their agenda. Both died early in office and were succeeded by Vice Presidents who might as well have been Democrats.

Religious Revivalism Fills a Vacuum in the West

The period saw great shifts in the US's religious and moralistic tendencies. Starting around the turn of the century, the Methodist church took much of the country, especially the Southwest, by storm. It had a highly organized structure and a system of circuit riders who preached where there was no church (meaning: most of the West). This and its strong leadership enthusiasm, and orientation towards making new converts, positioned the Methodist church to rush into the vacuum of religious institutions (or any institutions) in the West. Their willingness to allow poorly educated men to preach also helped make explosive growth in the West possible. (See Peter Cartwright's autobiography, and also contrast remarks below on the Congregationalists and Presbyterians).

Religious revivals -- camp meetings where thousands of rural people met and basked in religion for days -- sometimes transformed whole communities from general drunkenness to a more sober, more community based way of life. Often ministers of many denominations preached at once, in various tents throughout the camp.

More on the Changing Northeast: The Starting Point

In New England, the Puritans migrations were not only the first settlements, but nearly the whole basis of the population -- until the mid nineteenth century flood of Irish and other European immigrants.

The Presbyterian and Congregational churches of the Northeast, partially merged into one body, were founded in this tradition. They set the highest standard for an educated clergy, founding Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as institutions of religious education. They promoted a literate population in general.

Basically, they had abandoned the idea of a highly structured church hierarchy, on the Roman or Anglican model; instead they believed in the individual discovery of the Truth, and of the right of the congregation to have the minister they wanted -- something denied to them in the 1620s in England. The fact that the people did not all discover the same truth lead, however, to resort to authoritarian ways, and/or to a cooling of religious ardor.

The religious revivals that were sweeping the country - particularly the camp meetings, involved highly wrought emotional sermons running for days. The resulting conversion experiences often were accompanied violent shaking or falling down in a swoon.

Early Methodists and other "enthusiastic" denominations were more than satisfied with such goings on. But the "Sons of the Pilgrims" largely saw reason and learning as the path to God. They revered their highly learned clergymen as necessary guides to the understanding of God and salvation.

So the Northeastern Presbyterian/Congregational clergy at first resisted emotionality as a means of conversion (frontier Scotch-Irish Presbyterians were another matter).

These churches also originally held to the Calvinist doctrine of election and predestination. Taken together they implied that God saw where all things were tending, and had determined at the beginning who would be saved and who would not. All humans were innately depraved, but God, through grace selects some for salvation. Based on this idea, it was considered a presumption on God's prerogatives to try to "take heaven by storm" as the wildly preaching evangelists seemed to be doing.

The Changing Northeast: Coolheaded Unitarians and Ardent Revivalists

Two factors began to change this.

First, the support of the old New England churches was threatened from within and without. In Massachusetts, and especially around Boston, many Congregationalist churches, with no real organizational changes, changed their doctrine to that of Unitarianism. Early in the century, Harvard, the onetime Puritan bastion, came under Unitarian leadership. It also gained a strong voice in William Ellery Channing, and began to publish many periodicals which wage verbal wars on "Old School" Presbyterians and the later revivalists.

At the same time the old Northeastern churches were threatened "from without" by the aggressive proselytizing of the new denominations, such as the Methodists, already mentioned.

The other factor was that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and of the pre chosen "elect" began to be questioned by important people within the "Presbygational" leadership. These included Timothy Dwight, the dynamic President of Yale, Nathaniel Taylor and Lyman Beecher, Congregational minister in Boston, who was waging war against Unitarianism and other deviations from the old orthodoxy.

Then there was a young Presbyterian minister named Charles Grandison Finney, who began leading fiery revivals throughout Western New York State, at first offending men like Beecher with his unreasonable, emotional style of preaching, his singling out and preaching at individual members of the congregation, and calling for immediate conversion.

Finney's methods, to the old elite, smacked of taking on God's prerogative of admitting, or not admitting, a soul to the elect. It was telling people they could be saved by their own efforts, and that the revival minister could save the souls of whole communities.