Andrew Jackson never went to college, and he's in good company — neither did Washington, Lincoln, or Truman. Although he wasn't as nice a guy as Washington or Lincoln, he did usher in the age of the common man. The emphasis here is on the word man, because Jacksonian democracy certainly didn't include women. Nor did it include blacks. But under Jackson, a majority of white men voted for president for the first time; previously, you had to own property to vote in many states.

Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet

Jackson was a self-made Western fighter with few sophisticated ideas but strong frontier convictions. He ignored his appointed cabinet officers and relied on the advice of a shifting group of buddies known as the Kitchen Cabinet. He had no problem appointing friends to government jobs in what was called the spoils system, as in "to the victor belong the spoils." According to Jackson, any man should be equal to doing any job. The Founding Fathers said they believed in equality, but those were just words — most of them, including Washington, were rich guys. Jackson made the little guys feel like they owned the government.

After the U.S. allowed greater voting participation under Jacksonian democracy, it started to have issues that, until then, had been swept under the parlor rug. These problems included the right of individual states to nullify or ignore federal laws, fights within the administration, and the future of an unpopular national bank.

Jackson's response to nullification

John Quincy Adams, the president before Jackson, did what he could to protect the American Indians, but the pressure from Jackson and his followers never let up. Plus, Adams had his hands full with a Civil War prequel led by his own vice president (John Calhoun), who protested tariffs (federal taxes on imports). Southerners called the 1828 tax the Tariff of Abominations because it made stuff that Southern planters bought from overseas more expensive. By beginning to challenge the right of the national government to make laws the South didn't like, Southerners came up with a political time bomb that would tick for 30 years until it blew up in the real Civil War of 1861.

According to the South, the federal government was a collection of independent states that had united under the catchy name "United States" to get a few things done. If states felt like disuniting over a certain issue, they could just sit that game out (or even leave the team if necessary). Nullification (1830) meant any state could just refuse to follow (as in nullify or declare null and void) any federal law with which it didn't agree. When states talked about nullification if they didn't get their way, famous Congressman Daniel Webster spoke against it, crying, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"

The nullification time bomb ticked on in a debate over selling cheap land to settlers in the west. Jackson supported cheap land. He was the first president from outside the original 13 colonies, the first tough-guy frontiersman with no ties to the polite, educated founders of the country.

Jackson was stuck with the same uncooperative vice president John Calhoun that his rival John Quincy Adams had endured (you can see why presidents now pick their own vice presidents). Calhoun quit over a new tariff bill and went home to South Carolina, where he got an Ordinance of Nullification passed, ordering federal customs officials in that state to stop following federal law.

Old General Jackson never blinked; he had Congress authorize a Force Bill to use the army to enforce the collection of taxes. Jackson talked loudly about hanging his former vice president. Having learned a few things in politics, he also offered some cuts in the tariff. South Carolina backed down, and both sides claimed victory.

Abolishing the Bank of the U.S.

Currently, the U.S. has a Treasury Department that works with independent banks, but when Jackson was president, there was an official Bank of the United States with financial power many in government did not like. Jackson hated the national bank because it was tight about loaning money that expansion-minded Americans needed. He abolished the bank and sold Western land to settlers on a low payment plan. When money and good land started to run out, Jackson changed the rules to cash-only. That move burst the real-estate bubble, and the country went into a recession that lasted for years beyond Jackson's presidency (and made voters think twice about tough-guy presidents).


Question: Which event best illustrates Andrew Jackson's idea of expanded democracy?

Answer: Jackson saw the Bank of the U.S. as a rip-off by rich guys (and he wasn't too far off). His abolition of the bank is an example of his view of expanded democracy.


Watch out for smart-aleck professor questions on Jackson. He marks a turning point in U.S. politics because he's the first president to come from a Western state (Tennessee looked Western back then), and he fought the American Indians, nullification, and the Bank of the United States. Because we teachers like to have our cynical little laughs in the teacher's lounge, we often try to fool you with a multiple-choice question that has Jackson as a founder of the country or in favor of one of the issues he fought. Don't fall for it.

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