Why It Matters: Democracy in America

An illustration depicts Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829, with crowds surging into the White House to join the celebrations.

Figure 1. In President’s Levee, or All Creation going to the White House, Washington (1841), by Robert Cruikshank, the artist depicts Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829, with crowds surging into the White House to join the celebrations. Rowdy revelers destroyed many White House furnishings in their merriment. A new political era of democracy had begun, one characterized by the rule of the majority.

Why does democracy in America matter?

The most extraordinary political development in the years before the Civil War was the rise of American democracy. Whereas the founders envisioned the United States as a republic, not a democracy, and had placed safeguards such as the Electoral College in the 1787 Constitution to prevent simple majority rule, the early 1820s saw many Americans embracing majority rule and rejecting old forms of deference that were based on elite ideas of virtue, learning, and family lineage.

A new breed of politicians learned to harness the magic of the many by appealing to the resentments, fears, and passions of ordinary citizens to win elections. The charismatic Andrew Jackson gained a reputation as a fighter and defender of American expansion, emerging as the quintessential figure leading the rise of American democracy. In the image above, crowds flock to the White House to celebrate his inauguration as president. While earlier inaugurations had been reserved for Washington’s political elite, Jackson’s was an event for the people, so much so that the pushing throngs caused thousands of dollars of damage to White House property. Many now-familiar characteristics of modern American democracy, including the turbulent nature of majority rule, first appeared during the Age of Jackson.

For contemporary voters in the United States, as well as in other democracies, the balance of power between urban and rural regions, and between federal and local representatives, is a potent issue. Debates that frame this tension as one between “the everyday people” and the “elites” of Washington, D.C., or one’s state capitol, are often rooted in conflicts that came to the forefront during the Jacksonian era of expansive and increasingly energized democracy. The America of the early-to-mid nineteenth century confronted economic crises whose resolution seemed to benefit bankers and speculators at the expense of workers and smaller property holders, in much the same way that the Great Recession of 2008 established political and economic inequalities that candidates from both major parties have addressed in recent election cycles. As Jackson’s successful appeals demonstrated, a political platform that claims to elevate ordinary people and to hold accountable distant and entrenched officeholders resonates with many voters, particularly those who feel their own demographic and economic dominance slipping away. Whether leaders who gain power by tapping into this dynamic ultimately diminish democracy’s foundational ethos is a question that historians studying the Jacksonian era, as well as our own, continue to negotiate.