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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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The New Democracy Enters the Arena

The spirit of the new order soon had a pronounced effect on the machinery of government and the practice of politics. The enfranchised electors were not long in demanding for themselves a larger share in administration.

The Spoils System and Rotation in Office.—First of all they wanted office for themselves, regardless of their fitness. They therefore extended the system of rewarding party workers with government positions—a system early established in several states, notably New York and Pennsylvania. Closely connected with it was the practice of fixing short terms for officers and making frequent changes in personnel. “Long continuance in office,” explained a champion of this idea in Pennsylvania in 1837, “unfits a man for the discharge of its duties, by rendering him arbitrary and aristocratic, and tends to beget, first life office, and then hereditary office, which leads to the destruction of free government.” The solution offered was the historic doctrine of “rotation in office.” At the same time the principle of popular election was extended to an increasing number of officials who had once been appointed either by the governor or the legislature. Even geologists, veterinarians, surveyors, and other technical officers were declared elective on the theory that their appointment “smacked of monarchy.”

Popular Election of Presidential Electors.—In a short time the spirit of democracy, while playing havoc with the old order in state government, made its way upward into the federal system. The framers of the Constitution, bewildered by many proposals and unable to agree on any single plan, had committed the choice of presidential electors to the discretion of the state legislatures. The legislatures, in turn, greedy of power, early adopted the practice of choosing the electors themselves; but they did not enjoy it long undisturbed. Democracy, thundering at their doors, demanded that they surrender the privilege to the people. Reluctantly they yielded, sometimes granting popular election and then withdrawing it. The drift was inevitable, and the climax came with the advent of Jacksonian democracy. In 1824, Vermont, New York, Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana, though some had experimented with popular election, still left the choice of electors with the legislature. Eight years later South Carolina alone held to the old practice. Popular election had become the final word. The fanciful idea of an electoral college of “good and wise men,” selected without passion or partisanship by state legislatures acting as deliberative bodies, was exploded for all time; the election of the nation’s chief magistrate was committed to the tempestuous methods of democracy.

The Nominating Convention.—As the suffrage was widened and the popular choice of presidential electors extended, there arose a violent protest against the methods used by the political parties in nominating candidates. After the retirement of Washington, both the Republicans and the Federalists found it necessary to agree upon their favorites before the election, and they adopted a colonial device—the pre-election caucus. The Federalist members of Congress held a conference and selected their candidate, and the Republicans followed the example. In a short time the practice of nominating by a “congressional caucus” became a recognized institution. The election still remained with the people; but the power of picking candidates for their approval passed into the hands of a small body of Senators and Representatives.

A reaction against this was unavoidable. To friends of “the plain people,” like Andrew Jackson, it was intolerable, all the more so because the caucus never favored him with the nomination. More conservative men also found grave objections to it. They pointed out that, whereas the Constitution intended the President to be an independent officer, he had now fallen under the control of a caucus of congressmen. The supremacy of the legislative branch had been obtained by an extra-legal political device. To such objections were added practical considerations. In 1824, when personal rivalry had taken the place of party conflicts, the congressional caucus selected as the candidate, William H. Crawford, of Georgia, a man of distinction but no great popularity, passing by such an obvious hero as General Jackson. The followers of the General were enraged and demanded nothing short of the death of “King Caucus.” Their clamor was effective. Under their attacks, the caucus came to an ignominious end.

In place of it there arose in 1831 a new device, the national nominating convention, composed of delegates elected by party voters for the sole purpose of nominating candidates. Senators and Representatives were still prominent in the party councils, but they were swamped by hundreds of delegates “fresh from the people,” as Jackson was wont to say. In fact, each convention was made up mainly of office holders and office seekers, and the new institution was soon denounced as vigorously as King Caucus had been, particularly by statesmen who failed to obtain a nomination. Still it grew in strength and by 1840 was firmly established.

The End of the Old Generation.—In the election of 1824, the representatives of the “aristocracy” made their last successful stand. Until then the leadership by men of “wealth and talents” had been undisputed. There had been five Presidents—Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—all Eastern men brought up in prosperous families with the advantages of culture which come from leisure and the possession of life’s refinements. None of them had ever been compelled to work with his hands for a livelihood. Four of them had been slaveholders. Jefferson was a philosopher, learned in natural science, a master of foreign languages, a gentleman of dignity and grace of manner, notwithstanding his studied simplicity. Madison, it was said, was armed “with all the culture of his century.” Monroe was a graduate of William and Mary, a gentleman of the old school. Jefferson and his three successors called themselves Republicans and professed a genuine faith in the people but they were not “of the people” themselves; they were not sons of the soil or the workshop. They were all men of “the grand old order of society” who gave finish and style even to popular government.

Monroe was the last of the Presidents belonging to the heroic epoch of the Revolution. He had served in the war for independence, in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and in official capacity after the adoption of the Constitution. In short, he was of the age that had wrought American independence and set the government afloat. With his passing, leadership went to a new generation; but his successor, John Quincy Adams, formed a bridge between the old and the new in that he combined a high degree of culture with democratic sympathies. Washington had died in 1799, preceded but a few months by Patrick Henry and followed in four years by Samuel Adams. Hamilton had been killed in a duel with Burr in 1804. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were yet alive in 1824 but they were soon to pass from the scene, reconciled at last, full of years and honors. Madison was in dignified retirement, destined to live long enough to protest against the doctrine of nullification proclaimed by South Carolina before death carried him away at the ripe old age of eighty-five.

The Election of John Quincy Adams (1824).—The campaign of 1824 marked the end of the “era of good feeling” inaugurated by the collapse of the Federalist party after the election of 1816. There were four leading candidates, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and W.H. Crawford. The result of the election was a division of the electoral votes into four parts and no one received a majority. Under the Constitution, therefore, the selection of President passed to the House of Representatives. Clay, who stood at the bottom of the poll, threw his weight to Adams and assured his triumph, much to the chagrin of Jackson’s friends. They thought, with a certain justification, that inasmuch as the hero of New Orleans had received the largest electoral vote, the House was morally bound to accept the popular judgment and make him President. Jackson shook hands cordially with Adams on the day of the inauguration, but never forgave him for being elected.

While Adams called himself a Republican in politics and often spoke of “the rule of the people,” he was regarded by Jackson’s followers as “an aristocrat.” He was not a son of the soil. Neither was he acquainted at first hand with the labor of farmers and mechanics. He had been educated at Harvard and in Europe. Like his illustrious father, John Adams, he was a stern and reserved man, little given to seeking popularity. Moreover, he was from the East and the frontiersmen of the West regarded him as a man “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” Jackson’s supporters especially disliked him because they thought their hero entitled to the presidency. Their anger was deepened when Adams appointed Clay to the office of Secretary of State; and they set up a cry that there had been a “deal” by which Clay had helped to elect Adams to get office for himself.

Though Adams conducted his administration with great dignity and in a fine spirit of public service, he was unable to overcome the opposition which he encountered on his election to office or to win popularity in the West and South. On the contrary, by advocating government assistance in building roads and canals and public grants in aid of education, arts, and sciences, he ran counter to the current which had set in against appropriations of federal funds for internal improvements. By signing the Tariff Bill of 1828, soon known as the “Tariff of Abominations,” he made new enemies without adding to his friends in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio where he sorely needed them. Handicapped by the false charge that he had been a party to a “corrupt bargain” with Clay to secure his first election; attacked for his advocacy of a high protective tariff; charged with favoring an “aristocracy of office-holders” in Washington on account of his refusal to discharge government clerks by the wholesale, Adams was retired from the White House after he had served four years.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson

The Triumph of Jackson in 1828.—Probably no candidate for the presidency ever had such passionate popular support as Andrew Jackson had in 1828. He was truly a man of the people. Born of poor parents in the upland region of South Carolina, schooled in poverty and adversity, without the advantages of education or the refinements of cultivated leisure, he seemed the embodiment of the spirit of the new American democracy. Early in his youth he had gone into the frontier of Tennessee where he soon won a name as a fearless and intrepid Indian fighter. On the march and in camp, he endeared himself to his men by sharing their hardships, sleeping on the ground with them, and eating parched corn when nothing better could be found for the privates. From local prominence he sprang into national fame by his exploit at the battle of New Orleans. His reputation as a military hero was enhanced by the feeling that he had been a martyr to political treachery in 1824. The farmers of the West and South claimed him as their own. The mechanics of the Eastern cities, newly enfranchised, also looked upon him as their friend. Though his views on the tariff, internal improvements, and other issues before the country were either vague or unknown, he was readily elected President.

The returns of the electoral vote in 1828 revealed the sources of Jackson’s power. In New England, he received but one ballot, from Maine; he had a majority of the electors in New York and all of them in Pennsylvania; and he carried every state south of Maryland and beyond the Appalachians. Adams did not get a single electoral vote in the South and West. The prophecy of the Hartford convention had been fulfilled.

When Jackson took the oath of office on March 4, 1829, the government of the United States entered into a new era. Until this time the inauguration of a President—even that of Jefferson, the apostle of simplicity—had brought no rude shock to the course of affairs at the capital. Hitherto the installation of a President meant that an old-fashioned gentleman, accompanied by a few servants, had driven to the White House in his own coach, taken the oath with quiet dignity, appointed a few new men to the higher posts, continued in office the long list of regular civil employees, and begun his administration with respectable decorum. Jackson changed all this. When he was inaugurated, men and women journeyed hundreds of miles to witness the ceremony. Great throngs pressed into the White House, “upset the bowls of punch, broke the glasses, and stood with their muddy boots on the satin-covered chairs to see the people’s President.” If Jefferson’s inauguration was, as he called it, the “great revolution,” Jackson’s inauguration was a cataclysm.

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