The Age of True Democracy
In the course of human events, the amount of control and power given to the lay man has changed. The very people whose lives are dictated by such management once had no say in the way they were governed, or if they did have a say, it was symbolic and not indicative of real voice in the government.
However, beginning with the age of the Athenians, to the writing of the Magna Carta, to the advent of Republican Democracy through the House of Burgesses leading to the form of United States government set down by the U.S. Constitution, the common man was given more freedom to choose what he wants. The possibilities and choices were opened up to more than just the whims of a ruler or group of upper class, but rather the will and drive of the people. Something not seen since Greco – Roman times was being reintroduced on a large scale in the land called The New World, something the monarchs of Europe looked at in disbelief. Democracy with no strings attached managed the land of America, a land where one could truly have an involvement in ruling.
Or so one would think. While it is true that America advocated democracy since the very birth of the nation, the degree of rule by the people was not as high as one is lead to believe. Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence (considered by some to be the preeminent document on individual rights) was one of the most important people to shape the idea of democracy in America, as it was him and the fellow Founding Fathers who set down the ideas and rules for this political system. Himself a champion of the lay people, he extensively pushed for common rule in the era called Jeffersonian Democracy, yet he still had his limitations when giving the people power, as he shared the belief, albeit to a smaller degree, of the monarchs of Europe that the people did not know how to truly govern themselves. Jefferson’s definition of freedom was a “boisterous sea of liberty” (Kennedy 211), and the people still had a long way to go before they would be able to truly influence the government. It is one of his successors to the presidency, 20 years later, that truly set forth the command of the nation at the feet of the people, a man known as Andrew Jackson.
In this age of Jacksonian Democracy, society was finally given the large degree of authority truly envisioned in the land of freedom. However, Jefferson’s efforts at democracy were not a pretense or in vain, as his works were the foundations for the system put in place by Jackson. By analyzing both men’s upbringing and demeanor, and their implementation of the idea of democracy, one can see that Jacksonian Democracy is more than merely an evolution of Jeffersonian Democracy, but a radical new system that genuinely gives the people unprecedented power. Thomas Jefferson, although from a fine and high class background of Virginia, thought and presented him in a way that showed his humble nature and love for the people. During his time of presidency, he did many things to represent himself as one of the people, despite having such a gifted mind that even more than a century and a half later, John F. Kennedy openly acknowledged to a group of Nobel Prize winners that Jefferson’s brilliance alone outshined them, “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House” (Kennedy 217).
Rather than take a horse – drawn carriage to the Capital, he walked (Kennedy 216). He met foreign delegates in informal clothing (“Jeffersonian”), and even refused a warmer spot at the breakfast table during frigid weather (Cherny). He constantly set himself up as a believer of the common man, and one of them. One of his biggest contributions to the common man was the Louisiana Purchase, as now “the nation of farmers [could] spread westward” (“Jeffersonian”). However, the effect is similar to the situation of a well – educated man in a successfully environment moving to an under – developed area in order to help those in need.
While he may help the people and sympathize with them, he lacks true understanding of their needs and desires, as he has never been in a situation like theirs. No actions that Jefferson executed could truly distance him away from the fact that he was a Renaissance man, an intellectual from one of the richest areas in the east (Gigliotti, Personal). He had not built his fortune or toiled at the hard earth like the farmers he loved and advocated. How could he understand their desires for more freedom to choose what they want? His later successor Andrew Jackson was a different story. He grew up in the Carolinas, not with a gentle upbringing, but rather with the difficult nature of a childhood disrupted by the American Revolution.
As the only surviving member of his family after the war, he self – taught himself the skills he needed for life (“Jackson”). The spotty reading, writing, and street smart knowledge he picked up in his time after the Revolution propelled him to success in Tennessee as a lawyer, plantation owner, and eventual Congressman (“Jackson”). He understood the concept of building from the ground up and becoming successful, and not only that, he was a man that made it in the West, the new area of the Republic with not many rich, but rather many of the common people, resulting in a man that was both a fierce and uncompromising leader in the aspect of rights of the people. Jackson is like a poor man becoming rich and giving back to the poor. He alone knows their troubles and their mindset, as he has labored like them.
Given their difference in experiences in life, one can see why Jefferson implemented his idea of democracy with some restraint, while Jackson spread it all to the masses. Jefferson, being an intellectual, had studied the history of the world. He actively sought to avoid the problems that beset the Athenians and Romans, and therefore believed in only the educated common man ruling (Gigliotti, “Jacksonian”). During the making of the Constitution, despite not being personally present, he sent letters to the Constitutional Convention, influencing them to implement systems to limit popular power, like indirect election of senators and the Electoral College (Kennedy A35, A39). The most devastating curbing of democracy was the restriction of only white property owning men being allowed to vote, and this combined with the other ideals, set democracy forth at a much lower degree than dreamt of by people. Despite all of Jefferson’s actions to present himself as a common man, his other contradicting actions set the democracy back for some time.
When Jackson came into office in 1829, it was obvious to the rich, to the poor, to all, that the common man was now in office. For his inaugural speech, he invited everyone to join and watch him, rather than just the wealthy as was tradition with the other presidents. People from the farthest parts of the country poured into Washington D.C. to see their hero become president (“Jackson”). Jackson then insinuated many changes in the government, like the advent of the spoils system.
Since Jackson believed that “the farmers, mechanics, and laborers…have a right to complain of the injustice of their government” (Kennedy 256), he put those that supported him in his claim for presidency in positions of office, despite them being lay people with a lack of high education. This way, they could fix any issues they had in the government directly. So strong was Jackson’s presence and push for the rights of the people that even before he came into direct power as president, loyal Jacksonians in the legislative branch removed the restriction on property own as a requirement for suffrage.
This act immediately opened up much more of the public to intervening in the affairs of government, as more could now elect the president. This is shown in the voter turnout percentage for the 1824 election, which had the restriction and a 25% turnout, and the 1828 election, which did not have the restriction and had a 50% turnout (Gigliotti, “Jacksonian”). This shows a huge jump in number of voters influencing the government, and therefore, the giving of power to the people. When one ponders on these new freedoms, it is simple to see an evolution in democracy for the people of the U.S.
In many ways, the Jacksonian era “revised the Jeffersonian faith in America” (Schlesinger). However, when examined deeper, one can see how radically different the two implementations are, despite having the same basis and one being a successor to other. Jefferson advocated the people, and gave them distinct powers and authorities. However, he as limited by his upbringing, and Jackson picked up where Jefferson left off. He was the first president from the West, the first rags – to – riches successor to the all born – wealthy presidents (Kennedy 262). His influence jumpstarted true democracy in America as even the poorest of the poorest could vote for him, and then come to watch him become president.
He presented such a radical change from any precedent set by the standards of the world so far, that calling Jacksonian Democracy a meager extension of Jeffersonian Democracy becomes a shallow and inaccurate description. Both men, and both eras, have come to push forward the ideals of democracy by spreading their influence to America even up to present day, but it is Jacksonian Democracy that truly shifted the balance of power from the people led by a member of higher class to the people leading the people, the idea of self – rule that has come to define the United States of American throughout its existence, not just symbolically with Jefferson’s views, but in actuality with Jackson’s carrying out of the ideals of true freedom. Works Cited “Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829.” Image. Library of Congress. American History.
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