AP U.S. History Notes

Democracy and the “Common Man”

Election of 1824

As James Monroe’s second presidential term was coming to an end in 1824, a heated battle ensued to select his replacement. With the Federalist Party losing steam, all four presidential candidate front-runners were self-declared Republicans.

Three of the candidates were well-known because of their current political roles. William Crawford and John Quincy Adams were serving in Monroe’s administration as Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State, respectively. Speaker of the House Henry Clay also threw his hat in the ring. The fourth contender was General Andrew Jackson, a senator from Tennessee known for his success in defeating the British at New Orleans in 1815.

Jackson and Adams, who emerged as the front-runners, were a study in contradiction. Adams, a staunch nationalist and a typical New Englander, was reserved and aloof, while Jackson, the westerner and war hero, glad-handed his way to political popularity. Jackson avoided taking a firm position on most issues, preferring instead to be vague and not offend any voters.

Jackson’s plan to be everything to every voter worked. When the popular votes were counted, he carried 42 percent to Adams’ 31 percent. Clay and Crawford each took around 12 percent of the popular vote. However, the electoral system complicated what was an otherwise simple voting process.

At this time, states differed on how electoral votes were assigned. Some states assigned electoral votes to reflect the popular vote, while other states assigned electoral votes according to the votes of their legislature. When the electoral votes were counted in 1824, no one candidate held the required majority to be named president. Jackson had 99 electoral votes, Adams held 84, Crawford earned 41, and Clay garnered 37 electoral votes.

According to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, the decision now went to the House of Representatives, who would select a winner from the top three electoral vote-earners—in this case, Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. Although Clay could not be chosen as President, he held a great deal of power in the selection process through his role as Speaker of the House.

Secretary of Treasury William Crawford was not seriously considered in the selection process due to health problems that left him partially paralyzed and with limited sight. Again, the choice came down to Adams and Jackson.

Henry Clay was the polar opposite of John Quincy Adams—Adams a puritanical, moral man and Clay a hard-living gambler with an urge to duel—however, Clay did not feel the animosity toward him that he felt toward Jackson. Clay had championed his “American System,” which promoted tariffs to support American manufacturers, a national bank, and domestic improvements at the federal government’s expense, all in the name of country unity. Jackson did not support Clay’s American System, so Clay gave his endorsement to John Quincy Adams, who was selected as the sixth President of the United States.

Clay’s support did not go unrewarded. Days after Adams was selected as President, he chose Clay as his Secretary of State, a coveted position because frequently the individual in this role went on to be president. Clay’s appointment caused an uproar among Jackson’s supporters, who believed that Clay and Adams had conspired to get Adams into office—Clay scratching Adams’ back by giving him the presidential nod, and Adams returning the favor with a prime position in his cabinet. This tumult was labeled the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824.

Since Adams was such a moral man, it is unlikely that the accusations of corruptness were accurate. However, Jackson’s supporters took the idea and ran with it, using it to launch their campaign for Jackson as president in the 1828 election, even as Adams was taking office in 1824. The Jacksonians’ efforts to derail Adams’ presidency were the primary cause of Adams serving only one presidential term.

Election of 1828

As Andrew Jackson’s supporters worked to put him first in line for the 1828 election, the public began to learn more about him. Labeled “Old Hickory” by supporters who drew parallels between the war hero and a sturdy hickory tree, Jackson represented the New West as a land of hardiness and stamina.

A plantation and slave owner, Jackson’s political beliefs were not easily labeled as either federalist or antifederalist, although Jackson did support states’ rights and initiatives and did not believe in a supreme central government. This was a bone of contention between Jackson and Henry Clay, whose influence resulted in Jackson losing the 1824 presidential election. Jackson also strongly believed that government should be run “by the people,” with individuals accepting limited terms in office and then returning to the private sector to avoid the corruption that tended to follow career politicians.

During the early nineteenth century, a wave of suffrage efforts was sweeping the nation to guarantee voting rights for all white men, regardless of property ownership or taxes paid. Between 1812 and 1821, six new western states granted universal white manhood suffrage. During the same period, four eastern states significantly reduced land ownership voting requirements for white males.

As these efforts gained momentum and the constituency grew to include less wealthy voters, more emphasis was placed on the “common man.” Politicians, including Jackson, had to rethink their campaign strategies to maximize their appeal. Jackson had already earned respect as a war hero, and with his strategy to identify himself as a common man just like the people he would represent, he was able to garner the necessary votes to beat Adams and earn the presidency in 1828. As in the election of 1824, Jackson again beat Adams in the popular vote, but this time he gained 178 electoral votes to Adams’ 83. He accepted his office, the first president from the west, clothed in black in honor of his recently deceased wife, Rachel.

As Jackson took office, his theory of limiting staffers’ terms stirred both positive and negative emotions. His predecessor, John Quincy Adams, had resisted replacing the previous administration’s staff with his own as long as the staffers remained productive. However, this caused Adams to lose support of those who expected a political post in exchange for their efforts. Conversely, Jackson believed in appointing his own staff comprised of his supporters, which also allowed him to eliminate the Adams and Clay supporters from his administration. This system of political back-scratching came to be known as the Spoils System, and was present on a wide-scale at all levels of government.

The Spoils System had several negative consequences. Often, the individuals who were appointed were unskilled at best, and incapable at worst, of fulfilling the responsibilities of their posts. Furthermore, the Spoils System could be abused. Occasionally, corrupt individuals were placed in offices that they ultimately abused, stealing millions of dollars from the government. This system also created scandals as politically motivated supporters of one candidate worked hard to uncover—or in some cases, fabricate—offensive stories about the opposition. Although Jackson did not employ the Spoils System on the grand scale as some who followed him as chief executive, he certainly had a hand in developing its practice.

New Political Parties

The political revolution stirred up by Jackson’s alternative staffing methods also resulted in the shift from a one-party political system to a two-party system. Although both Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams called themselves Republicans in the 1824 election, it was apparent that their political beliefs were not aligned. Between 1824 and 1828, the supporters of each candidate polarized into two political parties—the National-Republicans, those who supported Adams and would later become known as the Whig Party, and the Democratic-Republicans, who worked to get Jackson elected and who would later shorten their name to the Democratic Party.

Along with new political parties came new attitudes. The suffrage movement brought power to the common man, and the common men responded by turning out in droves to vote.

Additionally, with the new attitudes reflecting the demise of aristocracy, the common man now expected politicians to cater to them. It was during this time that modern methods of politicking, including banners, parades, parties, and incentives began to be employed. Although not nearly on the national scale of later elections, this was the premier era of baby-kissing and hand-shaking as a means to election. In an effort to be more organized, nominating conventions were held to select candidates, and the caucus system was eliminated.

The Democratic Party was picking up steam with Jackson’s election in 1828. In accordance with the “common man” ideals, Democrats denounced Henry Clay’s “American System” and supported states’ rights. Democrats also defended the Spoils System as a necessary element of an efficient government.

The Whig Party, although out of power in the executive branch, was also further defining itself. Its roots were firmly entrenched in Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist ideals, including supporting a national bank and a strong central government that would finance improvements within United States borders. Northern industrialists and merchants flocked to the Whig Party because it emphasized protecting their industries through high tariffs. Both Northern and Southern opponents to Andrew Jackson were drawn to the Whig Party.

The Whig Party, which served as the backbone for the modern Republican Party, toyed with moral reform early on. It believed that a strong federal government could—and should—use its power to resolve society’s concerns. These social welfare efforts were, and continue to be, a strong barrier between political parties.

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How to cite this note (MLA)

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Democracy and the “Common Man”" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2017. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/democracy-and-the-common-man/>.
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