If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Jacksonian Democracy - spoils system, Bank War, and Trail of Tears

Andrew Jackson, the first modern-day Democrat, reshaped American politics. He championed the common white man, introduced the spoils system, and expanded the Executive Branch's power. His presidency marked the start of the modern American political system. Despite his populist image, his policies led to the Trail of Tears and the Panic of 1837.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Professor] So we've been talking about Jacksonian democracy, and when we last left off, Andrew Jackson had defeated John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828, largely by claiming that Quincy Adams had won the previous election through a corrupt bargain. So Jackson played upon the sympathies of the public by claiming that he was the common man or the representation of the common man. He took advantage of the growing number of white male voters who could participate in elections. And particularly the growing numbers of frontier settlers, who not only wanted to vote for the first president to be born in the west, also supported Jackson because he was known for his anti-Native American sentiment and his promise to remove Native Americans from lands that whites wanted to settle east of the Mississippi. So in the first video in this series, I mentioned that most scholars point to this moment of Jackson's election in 1828 as the beginning of modern democracy. So let's investigate some of those claims a little bit further. So what was it about Jackson's election and presidency that began the modern American political system? Well, for one thing Jackson was the very first democratic president, as in the first president to be a modern-day democrat. And this is the same democratic party that we still have today. And Jackson really mobilized this sentiment of the party of the common man. And in his idea that meant the common white man, that he was not one of these eastern elites, banking elites, who made their fortunes by nickel-and-diming other people. He was a backwoods frontiersman, a war hero, someone who had pulled himself up by his bootstrap. So he was, I guess, one of the earliest self-made men. And it was clear from the get-go that the age of Jackson was going to be a completely different kind of political culture than had existed previously because at his inauguration he had a giant inaugural celebration, he opened up the White House to anybody. The rabble came in and they trashed the place, and the older aristocratic class of Washington politicians thought that this was more or less the end of the republic as they knew it. This was going to be the era of mob rule. But, you know, the wheels didn't come off democracy. And one thing that Jackson really did was he rewarded his supporters. He rewarded the people who had voted Democrat, who saw themselves as part of the Democratic Party with government positions. And this is called the spoils system, along the lines of to the victor, go the spoils. So to reward the democratic machine that had put him in office, he kicked out earlier office-holders and rewarded the Democrats with offices. That was very common in this time period for people to be, who are known as office seekers, to kinda hang out in Washington, D.C. trying to get the president to appoint you postmaster of some random place so that you could draw a government salary. Now, earlier presidents would have thought something like rewarding an office seeker quite vulgar. John Quincy Adams, for example, refused to replace anyone who was actually doing a good job in their government post with someone who was one of his supporters. So you can debate whether or not this is actually a good thing, to kick out people who are good at their job in favor of people who have supported you during the campaign. But what it does is it keeps people in the party. So it makes sure that even if the party loses, they know that they have put in their labor for the Democratic Party and later for the Whig and Republican Party. And so they're going to keep working to put their candidate in office so that they can reap some rewards. So this is one way in which Jackson kind of solidifies party politics so that you stop just being a Jackson partisan, a Jefferson partisan, someone who follows a political candidate. And remember that earlier political candidates kind of stood as men of virtue, right? Now, the virtue is shifting from the men themselves to the party that they represent. And this party system was cemented by 1832 when Jackson was reelected, when they held a national nominating convention, it sounds very familiar to us today, and put out an official party platform. So what else did Jackson do that was really influential? Ironically, for someone billing himself as a man of the people, Jackson worked really hard to expand the power of the Executive Branch. So he wanted the presidency to be as powerful, if not more powerful, than the Judicial Branch or the Legislative Branch of the United States, more powerful than the Supreme Court or Congress. And there were two major instances where he shows his interest in becoming the most powerful part of the American government. One of these was and what's known as the Bank War when Jackson attempted to kill the bank of the United States, and he succeeded, because he thought that the national bank was corrupt, that it benefited the elite, that it deserved more oversight from the federal government, some of which was true. And when congress tried to recharter the national bank, he vetoed the charter. Basically saying that he felt that his vote was more important than the vote of Congress. And for this, a group of people who started to coalesce around their hatred for Jackson started calling him King Andrew the First because Jackson used the power of the veto all the time, because he was trying to, in some ways, reduce the power of the federal government, which was one of the key tenants of the Democratic Party, but at the same time kind of increase his own power because he used his veto in many cases to further his own agenda. And as much as the national bank was not a great institution, it did help to keep the United States' economy more or less humming along. And once Jackson killed it, there was a major economic depression called the Panic of 1837, which we can lay pretty much squarely at Jackson's feet. We can see this political cartoon here has him trampling on the constitution as he pushes his own agenda forward. And it's through their hatred of Jackson that a new group comes together, the Whig Party, which will provide the second half of the two-party system that comes to the fore in this time period. So this is Andrew Jackson arguing that the president has more power than Congress. There's the second example of Andrew Jackson trying to argue that he had more power than the Supreme Court, which comes comes in the Trail of Tears. So Andrew Jackson represented the interests of white settlers who really saw Native Americans as no more than an obstacle to their continuous push westward, the availability of land, which they saw really as the cornerstone of American prosperity. And I can't do justice to the entire Trail of Tears here. We have an article about that and there'll be more to come in the future. But suffice it to say that the American Indians, who were living in Georgia particularly and who were known as the Five Civilized Tribes because they had adopted many of the ways of the Europeans including Christianity and in some cases slavery, the Supreme Court ruled that they were entitled to be treated as a sovereign nation. So when Georgia is trying to remove Native Americans from their lands in Georgia, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, rules in their favor. And Andrew Jackson was quoted as saying, "John Marshall has made his decision. "Now let him enforce it." So even though the Supreme Court defended the status of the Native Americans living in Georgia east of the Mississippi in general, Andrew Jackson and the state of Georgia went ahead with forcing the Five Civilized Tribes to move westward to Oklahoma during which at least 3,000 people died. So Andrew Jackson serves a second term and finishes out his presidency in 1836. He considered running for a third term, decided against it. Instead, his crony Martin Van Buren, who's basically Andrew Jackson Jr., serves as president for one term. But due to the Panic of 1837, Martin Van Buren, like poor Herbert Hoover later, is forced to deal with an economic depression. And you know that people are never happy with the incumbent president when there's an economic decline. So in the election of 1840, the Whigs, the opposition party to Andrew Jackson, run William Henry Harrison as their candidate. And he is mostly famous for being a fellow who died in office after only 40 days. But what's interesting about William Henry Harrison's campaign is that the Whigs have learned their lesson about the political climate of the Jacksonian age. They marketed William Henry Harrison as having been born in a log cabin, a war hero, he was a man of the people, just a common guy who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Now, none of this was true. William Henry Harrison was from Virginia, he was from a very wealthy family, he had been college educated. He was no more rough and tumble than John Quincy Adams had been. But the Whigs had learned a valuable lesson about what American political culture was like in the age of mass democracy. And from this point forward, it's clear that Americans don't like their politicians too highfalutin and woe betide any candidate who wasn't born in a log cabin, the modern American political system had begun.