Putting It Together: Democracy in America

By the time of the 1840 presidential election, the United States had been transformed by a new political culture and a new type of candidate. Andrew Jackson’s outspoken anti-elitism and his claim to be both of and for the ordinary citizenry helped propel him to two terms in office, the second in an electoral college landslide. The president’s popularity made clear that older forms of deference, often based on entrenched family, economic, or regional power, were no longer decisive or unchallengeable. During the Jacksonian era, national political contests established a format that is familiar to contemporary voters, with grand party conventions, coordinated and policy-focused media campaigns, and copious amounts of mudslinging and personal defamation. The Second Party System further entrenched both the importance of party loyalty and the acceptability of the ethically questionable spoils system.

As the country’s political discourse expanded and became more contentious, so too did its territorial borders. Spanish Florida was annexed through the Adams-Onís Treaty, an agreement that only temporarily addressed the question of the United States’ western boundary, and that antagonized expansionists who believed that the Louisiana Purchase included all of Spanish Texas. Slavery’s status in the western territories remained a contentious issue, and reflected the fraught balance of power between states with economies dependent on slave labor and those with more developed industrial and commercial foundations. Claims to land ownership were also at the heart of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, which entailed the seizure of Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw lands in the Southeast and the forcible resettlement of these indigenous peoples to present-day Oklahoma, a dislocation that resulted in the tragedy known as the Trail of Tears.

Few American presidents have proved as controversial as Andrew Jackson, a leader whose broad popularity paradoxically gave legitimacy to some distinctly undemocratic policies and priorities. Watch the video below for an overview of Jackson’s legacy, as well as an assessment of his guilt or innocence regarding the Bank War and the goal of Indian Removal, among other episodes.