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Expanding democracy


  • In the early nineteenth century, political participation rose as states extended voting rights to all adult white men.
  • During the 1820s, the Second Party system formed in the United States, pitting Jacksonian Democrats against Whigs.

A new kind of democracy

The founding generation of American statesmen was an exclusive class: with the exception of John Adams, every US president until 1824 was an elite slaveholder from Virginia. Born into wealth and raised to be masters of others, they saw themselves as belonging to a better class of people that was naturally suited to leadership. Many of them were alarmed by how eagerly ordinary Americans embraced the democratic spirit of the Revolution. They even sought to rein in the political influence of the masses when framing the US Constitution.
But the revolutionary ideals of equality and democracy had captured the imagination of the American people, who embraced the notion that political participation should be for everyone, not just property-owning elites. During the first half of the nineteenth century, barriers preventing white men from participating in politics fell across the United States. None of the new states entering the Union required white men to own property in order to vote, and by the Civil War all but one of the original thirteen states had eliminated property requirements. Voters, not state legislatures, began to choose presidential electors.
This expansion of the franchise has been dubbed Jacksonian Democracy, as the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 became symbolic of the new “politics of the common man.” The older generation of politicians looked on in horror when Jackson’s inauguration turned into a stampede, breaking china and furniture in the White House.
Print showing a crowd at the White House at Jackson's inauguration.
Robert Cruikshank, President's Levee, or all Creation going to the White House, 1841. Image credit: Library of Congress
The United States’ transformation into a republic where nearly all adult white men could vote was incredibly progressive for its time. The extent of American democracy and the enthusiasm with which Americans participated in elections amazed European observers. Nowhere else in the world could such a large proportion of the population exercise the franchise. And exercise it they did: in 1840, 79% of eligible voters turned out for the presidential election.
But as voting became less connected to wealth, it became more connected to race and sex. As states rewrote their constitutions to expand suffrage to all white men, some added in new restrictions preventing African Americans and women from voting. In the early 1800s, northern states that had permitted free black citizens to vote stripped them of that privilege, or added property requirements so high that they effectively barred African Americans from voting. The state legislature of New Jersey, which had permitted wealthy, unmarried women to vote since the Revolution, limited suffrage to men in 1807.
Politics rose to the level of a spectator sport in nineteenth-century America, with crowds in the tens of thousands attending debates, parades, and barbeques. During the 1820s, elements characteristic of the two-party system today began to emerge: national political parties with nominating conventions, partisan newspapers, political campaigns filled with “mudslinging” insults attacking opposing candidates.
Painting showing a large crowd at a county election.
George Caleb Bingham, The County Election, 1854. Image Credit: Reynolda House Museum of American Art

The rise of political parties: the Democrats and the Whigs

After the War of 1812, the Federalist Party died out on the national political stage, starting a period of single-party government under the Democratic-Republicans called The Era of Good Feelings. But by the mid-1820s those good feelings had soured. After the contested presidential election of 1824—in which the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams even though Andrew Jackson had carried more states—Jackson’s supporters organized a national campaign for the election of 1828. They formed the basis for what soon became known as the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party brought together smaller southern planters, urban workers, artisans, immigrants, and Catholics. Its members saw themselves as the honest workers and producers of the country and were suspicious of bankers, merchants, and other monied interests. They celebrated the rugged individual and opposed attempts to impose moral reforms (like temperance) through government means.
During Jackson’s presidency, his opponents formed into another new political party, the Whigs. Unlike Democrats, Whigs favored an active national government and promoted the “American System” to benefit American commerce: a national bank, a protective tariff, and internal improvements like canals and railroads. The party brought together merchants, bankers, prosperous farmers (including the wealthiest southern plantation owners), and Protestant reformers. Its members saw themselves as modernizers who believed in the power of government to improve society and morals.
These two parties formed the Second Party System in the United States, which lasted from about 1828 to 1854, when the issue of slavery broke apart the Whig Party.

What do you think?

Why do you think that states dropped voting requirements for white men in the Early Republic? Why did those same states add new restrictions on women and African American men?
How did the Second Party System (Democrats vs. Whigs) differ from the First Party System (Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans)?
In what ways was Jacksonian Democracy similar to democracy in the United States today? In what ways was it different?

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