January 22, 2009
Most folks think that the 2008 election was unusually long, but those of us who study American political history know that it was nothing compared to the 1828 grudge-match election between incumbent John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson had won the popular vote in 1824, but not the Electoral College, which threw the election into the hands of the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House Henry Clay used his political capital to swing the presidency over to John Quincy Adams despite the fact that his home state of Kentucky was the only state in the Union to instruct its Representatives how to vote and it specifically asked Clay to vote for Jackson. But, Clay was the "Judas of the West" who had betrayed the will of the people in exchange for the office of Secretary of State. Jackson's home state of Tennessee re-nominated him for president almost as soon as JQA was inaugurated and Jackson spent the next four years attacking Clay and Adams, building a nationwide coalition of voters (with help from Martin Van Buren), and defending himself from the dirty smear campaign organized by Clay.
Jackson's organization paid off: this time he swept the Electoral College 178 to 83. Jackson was able to achieve his victory by taking advantage of the recent changes in suffrage laws and organizing the new (white, male) voters into Democratic partisans. While only 365,833 citizens had cast their vote in 1824, Jackson's campaign efforts lead 1,148,018 citizens to cast their vote in 1828. It's largely because of the dramatic increase in voter turnout that we often think of the election of 1828 as ushering in a new "era of the common man." Yet, while today we celebrate the rise of Jacksonian Democracy, the increase in political participation filled some members of the traditional elite with dread in 1828.
“My opinion is," wrote Daniel Webster as Jackson and his supporters made their way to Washington D.C. for his March 4, 1829 inauguration, "that when he comes he will bring a breeze with him. Which way it will blow, I cannot tell. My fear is stronger than my hope." When Webster saw the deluge of hungry supporters who crammed into Washington and--if we can believe the accounts of the traditional Washington elite--nearly destroyed the White House, then he knew that his worst fears had materialized and Jackson had brought the mob with him to govern.
What's all this got to do with President Obama's inauguration on Tuesday? Obviously the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party of Barack Obama are not the same. Indeed, if Jackson had had his way, then there would have never been anything like a Barack Obama in American politics at all. Yet, there are the obvious parallels about the contentious election, the long and bitter campaign, and the dramatic increase in voter turnout. The democratic masses certainly deluged Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to witness history and take their place next to their hero's side, but I was thinking of something else: partisanship.
Of note in Obama's campaign, transition, and the first few hours in office is his professed desire to end politics as usual, to end partisanship, to end blind decision making based solely upon ideology and to take good ideas from wherever they might come. In other words, one way to think about what Barack Obama has been up to for the last two years is to say that he was trying to reverse the partisanship introduced into American politics by Andrew Jackson. Jackson used partisanship to rally the common man to support his candidacy while Obama used anti-partisanship to do the same thing. The results were the same: in both instances the nation rallied to support their hero and rushed to Washington to take part in the Inauguration.
In both instances the people viewed the triumph of the party as their own personal triumph.
President Jackson did little to empower the people, nor did the nation become a democracy with the rise of Jacksonian democracy. Andrew Jackson enabled partisanship, not democracy. Therefore, Barack Obama's election might have finally reversed Andrew Jackson's: Obama may have turned Americans from partisans back to citizens. We will have to wait and see whether or not President Obama encourages active citizenship, I for one, am hopeful that the Age of Jackson is finally over.