Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the Seminole War, lost the presidency to John Quincy Adams in 1824 in the “corrupt bargain.” In a five-way race, Jackson won the popular vote—meaning he won the most votes from the people. He did not, however, win a majority in the Electoral College, who really pick the President.
According to the Constitution, if a candidate must win the majority of the Electoral College votes to be President. When none does, the top three vote getters go to House of Representatives in a run-off election and they choose the winner. Before the House voted, William Crawford had a stroke and dropped out of the race. It became a two-man race between Adams and Jackson. With the votes that were originally for Clay and Crawford up in the air, Clay persuaded the House to give the Presidency to Adams over Jackson.
For this, Clay was appointed Adams’ Secretary of State. Jackson and his followers accused Adams of “stealing” the presidency in a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson and his followers campaigned against Adams for the four years he was in office. It was one of the reasons why Adam’s presidency was so miserable. As a result, Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 by a landslide.
Jackson saw himself as a representative of the common man (even though he was really a rich slave owner) and claimed he was bringing government back to the people. He believed that the American government was controlled by the countries elites—educated, wealthy people who were out of touch of what common people wanted or needed. He sought to change this dynamic.
One way he did so was by using the “spoils system.” While patronage—the act of giving of political jobs to political allies—had existed long before Jackson it became official policy under Jackson. Jackson fired an unprecedented number of federal employees, giving the jobs to people who supported his campaign in the Election of 1928. Jacksonian Democrats defended the practice by claiming that the practice was better for the people because it removed career civil servants who did more for the elites than for the people. They claimed the spoils system allowed more “common people” to be involved with government and made the government more democratic. Opponents—and new party was emerging to replace the Federalists, called the Whig Party—claimed the practice was corrupt.
Under Jackson, suffrage—or the right to vote—was expanded to include more Americans. Before him, voters were property-owning white males. The vote was extended to non-property owning white males, making the politics more democratic and breaking the elites’ control of government.
Jackson’s beliefs about fighting the elite were a motivation behind another major event of the Jacksonian Era when he destroyed the National Bank of the United States. Motivated by his hatred of Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, sponsor of the Bill and his opponent in his upcoming re-election campaign, Jackson vetoed the bill set to re-charter the National Bank (as set up by Hamilton). Jackson felt the National Bank was set up to benefit a small group of wealthy investors.
He ordered his Secretary of Treasury to begin depositing the government’s money into other banks. When the Secretary refused, he fired him and got another to do it. Without receiving federal deposits, the National Bank of the United States became just another bank. It went out of business a few years later. The instability caused by killing the National Bank would later lead to severe economic crises in the following presidents’ terms despite Jackson’s claims to be doing it for the common man.
Jackson and the Democrats were strong believers in Manifest Destiny, which put them in conflict with Native American tribes, who the United States government treated as if they were foreign countries. Jackson—who had made his name fighting Native Americans in Florida—and his administration was openly hostile towards Native Americans. Like most Americans, he saw the Native Americans as being in the way of westward expansion. Jackson believed that Native Americans had to assimilate—meaning give up their culture and incorporate themselves into white culture—and live under American law.
The state of Georgia (which was a larger area, encompassing other states like Arkansas) had made treaties with Native American tribes living within the state’s boundaries. The state legislature began passing laws preparing to move the Native Americans out of the state to the frontier.
The Cherokee tried to fight removal by suing the state of Georgia, claiming the state laws were in violation of the Constitution. The first case was the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and it went directly in front of United States Supreme Court (because the Cherokee believed, based on precedent, that they were like a foreign nation suing a state). When the Marshall Court—the era of the Supreme Court when John Marshall was the Chief Justice—heard the case, they said that they could not rule on it because the Cherokee weren’t really a foreign nation, but a “dependent nation” living inside the United States. A new lawsuit could be filed to deal with the issues of the case, but because of this procedural issue, the Court couldn’t do anything.
The Cherokee had to change strategy. They filed a new suit, challenging a different part of the Georgia laws. One part of those statutes made it illegal for American citizens to live among the Native Americans without a license. Georgia didn’t want activists helping the Native American tribes resist resettlement and didn’t grant these licenses. Several white missionaries were arrested and convicted on violating this law. One was Samuel Worcester.
Worcester v. Georgia was the resulting Supreme Court case challenging the Georgia laws. Worcester’s defense was that the law was unconstitutional because the state of Georgia could not pass laws that governed over Native America land, which they argued was sovereign territory.
The Supreme Court–under Chief Justice John Marshall–agreed. In keeping with the Marshall Court’s other ruling asserting the supremacy of the federal government, the Court said only the federal government could negotiate with Native American tribes. Therefore, all treaties or laws the state of Georgia made regarding Native American lands were unconstitutional and null and void.
In response, the Democrats in Congress passed a federal law, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and Jackson signed it. It empowered the executive branch to negotiate with Native Americans tribes to gain control of their lands and relocate them to places further west. The Removal Act culminated in the Trail of Tears, when the Cherokee were forced to march 800 miles to resettle to the west. Along the way, a quarter of the Native Americans died. The Act set a precedent for the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, who kept getting moved out of the way white settlers.
Despite Jackson and the Democrats belief in states’ rights, an issue during Jackson’s presidency called the Nullification Crisis emerged. Congress passed tariffs—or taxes on imported goods—in 1816, 1824, and 1828 to try to combat the flood of inexpensive goods being imported from England in order to protect American manufacturers in New England. The Vice-President, John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, called the latest one the “Tariff of Abomination” because it hurt Southern states the most (and benefited Northern states). Calhoun devised Nullification Theory, which said that state governments had the right to nullify—or reject—federal laws they thought were unconstitutional.
South Carolina attempted to put Calhoun’s theory into practice in 1832 by declaring the 1828 tariff null and void. When challenged on it, the state threatened to secede (this is the second major threat of secession in U. S. history). Jackson, normally a strong proponent of states’ rights, was furious and threatened to enforced the tariff by invading South Carolina (and also threatened to execute Calhoun), again asserting the power of the federal government.
Jackson caused the formation of a new political party, called the Whigs. Opponents of Jackson formed the Whig Party. The Whigs fought against Jackson’s expansion of power of the Presidency, insisting that Congress should be more powerful than the President. The Whigs were an important party in the period between Jackson and the Civil War, but it eventually fell apart over the issue of slavery. They were later replaced by the Republican Party.
Jackson, despite fashioning himself as the heir to Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party, expanded the power of the President more than any other before him. The period after him would not be dominated by the Jacksonian Democrats, but by the opposition party his policies created, the Whigs. That party and their beliefs in the supremacy of Congress over the President, would lead to a series of weaker presidents as the country moved closer and closer to Civil War.