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The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case

The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case

by Lee Benson

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Jacksonian Democracy has become almost a commonplace in American history. But in this penetrating analysis of one state-its voting cycles, party makeup, and social, ethnic, and religious patterns-Lee Benson shows that the concept bears little or no relation to New York history during the Jacksonian period.

New York voters between 1816 and 1844 did not follow the


Jacksonian Democracy has become almost a commonplace in American history. But in this penetrating analysis of one state-its voting cycles, party makeup, and social, ethnic, and religious patterns-Lee Benson shows that the concept bears little or no relation to New York history during the Jacksonian period.

New York voters between 1816 and 1844 did not follow the traditional distinctions between Whigs and Democrats. Ethnic and religious ties were stronger social forces than income, occupation, and environment. Mr. Benson's examination suggests a new theory of American voting behavior and a reconsideration of other local studies during this period.

Originally published in 1961.

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The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy

New York as a Test Case

By Lee Benson


Copyright © 1961 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00572-0



After living a dozen years in New York," wrote Oliver Wolcott, a veteran of early nineteenth century political wars, "I don't pretend to comprehend their politics. It is a labyrinth of wheels within wheels, and it is understood only by the managers." Variations on this theme by skilled readers of political signs, as well as the actual course of events, suggest that the "managers" were almost equally baffled when they contemplated that "vast deep," that "most unfathomable of subjects, the politics of the State of New York."

Despite the complexity of its politics, New York is a good place to begin a systematic study of the concept of Jacksonian Democracy. As we shall see, after 1815 some of the nation's most significant political movements either originated or developed most fully in New York. Its decennial censuses from 1825 to 1875, and other printed sources (for example, almanacs, gazetteers, registers), supply much of the raw data needed to study political behavior systematically. New York then had the largest population of any state in the Union. In 1840, for example, it was only one of 30 states or territories, but generalizations about its politics represent generalizations about the politics of 17 per cent of the American white population.

Considerations other than size of population make New York a good state for testing generalizations about American history. Although it cannot be regarded as the United States in microcosm, New York can reasonably be regarded as the North (that is, free states) in microcosm. We find in New York, during the period covered by this book, an extraordinary range of social relationships, processes, and phenomena. It contained some of the oldest settled areas in the country and some just emerging from the frontier stage; it contained the largest, most dynamic city in the country, as well as sparsely settled communities which had remained relatively static for many decades. Except for slave plantations and coal mines, its economy included every form of economic activity significant in the United States. Moreover, its boundaries, stretching from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Lakes, encompassed almost every religious, ethnic, and social group to be found anywhere in the North; and they tended to live in distinct geographic areas, which helps us to identify their political behavior.

A. The Decade of Confusion, 1816-1826

The decade after 1816 stands out as a period of great confusion, even in a state where confusion is the political norm. Unfortunately, because we lack intensive, cumulative studies, we can now offer little more than impressionistic generalizations about New York politics during these years. I assume, however, that political parties were nonexistent — if we define political parties as competing organizations which are relatively stable and which "put forward candidates for office, advocate particular courses of governmental action, and, if their candidates win, create enough of a sense of joint responsibility among various officials to aid them in the fulfillment of a group responsibility for the direction of government."

Admittedly, this assumption contradicts the traditional view that the original Jeffersonian "Republican Party" continued to dominate politics in New York after the War of 1812, particularly after the Federalists gave up the organizational ghost in 1820. If the assumption is valid, those who claimed the name Republican held such different principles, sought such different objectives, and were grouped together so loosely in so many different and antagonistic factions that to think of them as constituting a political party is to confuse names with things. Some continuity existed in New York politics after 1816, of course, and some distinct patterns can be found. But I maintain that the literature assumes certain continuities and patterns whose existence has not been demonstrated. Intensive research may show that they were actually nonexistent.

1. Where Did the Federalists Go?

To my knowledge, no one has yet retraced the political paths followed by ex-Federalists after 1820. And yet the literature tends to assume a straight line of descent from Jefferson's Republican Party to Martin Van Buren's Republican faction to Andrew Jackson's "Democratic Party." I t also assumes that the overwhelming majority of Federalists aligned themselves with De Witt Clinton's Republican faction. Then, under the successive disguises of Clintonian Republicans, National Republicans, and Whigs, ex-Federalists continued their aristocratic battle against the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of "the people."

Unfortunately, this delightfully simple historical pattern of continuing struggle between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians breaks down at too many critical points. Even before 1819, when the Republican Party in New York formally split, the available evidence suggests that there were factions within factions, as well as "wheels within wheels." After the split, the Van Buren and Clinton factions worked equally hard to attract Federalists and to advertise their unshakeable devotion to the Republican Party and to Republican principles. Significantly, one influential group of Federalists opposed Clinton so fervently that they sounded a requiem for their party in 1820 and publicly proclaimed their "high-minded" resolution "to unite ourselves unequivocally, and without reserve to the great republican party of the state and union."

How many erstwhile Hamiltonian "aristocrats" followed the lead of their "high-minded" brethren into the Van Buren ranks and reentered the political lists, washed of ancient sins and marching under " Jeffersonian democratic" banners ? Lack of evidence prevents a firm answer to that question; but it cannot be said that the available evidence supports the view that party battles continued in New York between Jeffersonian "populists" and Hamiltonian "aristocrats" during the 1820's. Since Alexander Hamilton was dead, speculations as to what he would have done in those years can only be speculations. It is worth noting, however, that his sons headed the procession of "high-minded" Federalists into the Van Buren camp, and that their baggage train included the New York Evening Post, the newspaper Hamilton founded to advance the cause and doctrines of Federalism.

As the Evening Post eventually became an influential "radical" organ of the Van Buren Republicans, so James A. Hamilton became an influential figure in the Van Buren-Jackson alliance. In fact, Andrew Jackson found the son of Alexander Hamilton so impressive that knowledgeable observers believed him to have "the ears of Jackson more than any other individual" when his first Cabinet was formed in 1829. One Federalist sprig does not form a Republican branch, of course. But James A. Hamilton's example does suggest the present dangers of making firm statements about the political development of ex-Federalists and their physical or spiritual descendants. Numerous other individual examples can be cited; perhaps the most revealing is the conversion to the Jackson Party of James Fenimore Cooper, the antidemocratic, antileveling scion of a great Federalist landed magnate. And, according to the classic historian of early New York politics, "such eminent federalists as Chancellor Jones, Thomas J. Oakley, and many others, early declared in his [Jackson's] favor."

2. Political Liberalism in the 1821 Constitutional Convention

Closely examined, the major political developments of the early 1820's provide little support for the traditional historical account of continuing party battles between Jeffersonian "liberals" and Hamiltonian "conservatives." As a working definition, early nineteenth century political liberalism and political conservatism, respectively, are defined as belief in and disbelief in universal suffrage, popular election of government officials, and popular nomination of candidates by delegated party conventions "fresh from the people." Implementation of those beliefs is taken to signify the difference between eighteenth and early nineteenth century political liberalism. If we use those criteria, the historical record suggests that the Van Buren Republicans had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the politically liberal nineteenth century.

Ever since Dixon Ryan Fox published his pioneering study of the decline of aristocracy in New York politics, the Constitutional Convention of 1821 has been viewed as recording the final victory of political liberalism in the state. If we use the criteria suggested above, however, the date must be advanced from 1821 to 1826, when universal male suffrage was passed. When this is done, it becomes easier to estimate whether the Van Burenites' conversion to political liberalism owed more to expediency than to conviction.

In 1821, it is true, Van Buren led the dominant group which triumphed over the small band of diehards wedded to the eighteenth century concept of freehold suffrage. But those spokesmen for the ancien régime were anachronisms — echoes of the past who represented no influential body of opinion. The convention debates show that the real battle was fought not over extension of the suffrage but over universal male suffrage; in 1821 the champions of political liberalism lost that battle. And in the light of subsequent developments, it is worth noting that even those liberal "democrats" were outraged by the idea that free Negroes should continue to enjoy the same rights as free white men. On this issue, therefore, they joined the conservative majority led by Van Buren and supported its efforts to write a property restriction clause into the Constitution that limited suffrage to a small fraction of the Negro population.

Far from leading the liberal movement for political equality, Van Buren led the conservative opposition to universal suffrage and popular election of officials. He used his formidable talents to defend the "stake in society" theory of suffrage, that is, property owners, not people, should vote. As he repeatedly insisted, his proposals for suffrage extension simply granted to owners of "personal property" and to "householders" the right that freeholders already enjoyed. Addressing himself to the diehards opposed to suffrage extension, he stoutly denied any intention "of introducing into the most sacred sanctuary of the constitution, a mob or rabble, violent and disorganizing as were the Jacobins of France; and furious and visionary as the radicals of England are sometimes represented."

Having easily beaten down the spokesmen for the Right, Van Buren also succeeded in beating down the "radical" democrats of the Left who demanded universal suffrage. Whatever other gentlemen might think proper, he sarcastically observed, he would not go so far as to confer this "precious privilege" indiscriminately "upon every one, black or white, who would be kind enough to condescend to accept it." To check "the dangerous and alarming tendency" developing in the convention, he cited some of "the many evils which would flow from a wholly unrestricted suffrage." Chief among them would be the enlarged electorate in New York City, for "the character of the increased number of voters would be such as would render their elections rather a curse than a blessing." With universal suffrage in operation, the increased number of legislative seats proposed by the convention would not go to the "hardy sons" of western and northern New York, but "would be surrendered to the very worst population of the old counties and cities." Paying homage to the "stake in society" theory of representative government, Van Buren warned that once universal suffrage was enacted, "the door would have been entirely closed against retreat, whatever might be our after conviction, founded on experience, as to the evil tendency of this extended suffrage. The just equilibrium between the right of those who have, and those who have not, an interest in the government, could, when once surrendered, never be regained, except by the sword."

When the Convention of 1821 finally adjourned, the Van Buren faction could claim victory on all major fronts; universal suffrage had been defeated, some long overdue reforms in government organization had been achieved, and the governor had been given the power to appoint local justices of the peace. These officials exercised considerable influence in their constituencies and, according to a recent sympathetic biographer, Van Buren's "real object" in blocking their popular election was to bring the appointing power to Albany. Once lodged at Albany, that power would be placed "under the care of his organization." Confident that his faction would win the next election, Van Buren also believed that, by gaining control of the justices of peace, "the Bucktails [Van Buren Republicans] would secure an iron grip on the political life of the entire state, right down to the smallest hamlet." But, as Bobbie Burns has noted, things do not always work out according to plan.

3. Populistic Democracy Arrives and Conquers in the mid-1820's

The "Bucktails," emboldened perhaps by sweeping success at the polls in 1822, decided to resist the growing demands in New York for the popular election of president and for an end to nominations by congressional and legislative caucuses. The political explosion that followed further fragmented the Republican Party and thoroughly upset political alignments in New York.

Briefly stated, to guarantee their power to cast the state's votes for William H. Crawford in 1824, the Bucktails used control of the state senate to block passage of a law restoring the people's right to choose presidential electors. Moreover, to pay off old scores, they expelled DeWitt Clinton from the Canal Board — an expulsion legally arbitrary and politically inept. Seizing upon the current American antagonism to the European "Holy Alliance," "the anti-caucus, anti-Crawford, anti-Van Buren" factions promptly tagged their opponents with the nickname, "Albany Regency."

During the 1824 state and national campaigns, all possible changes were rung upon the Albany Regency theme, and a new era began. Anti-Regency politicians whipped up popular frenzy against the "Royal Cabinet," "the cabal," and "the junto," which had conspired against the "people's rights." From Montauk Point to the Niagara frontier, the "monstrous usurpation" of power by "King Caucus" was denounced and "People's Candidates" — headed by Clinton — were nominated to oppose the Regency at the first delegated party convention in New York history. "Huzza for the people !!!" was the battle cry against the "unholy Alliance," and men marching to the polls were urged to remember that "the present controversy is the PEOPLE against a purse proud overbearing ARISTOCRACY." Populistic democracy had arrived in New York.

Not only did populistic democracy arrive in 1824, but the "People's Party" and DeWitt Clinton conquered so decisively that political liberalism soon disappeared as a live issue in New York. Private convictions notwithstanding, all "practical politicians" thereafter loudly proclaimed devotion to "equal political rights for all." After the fall of the Regency in 1824, the shape of the future was plain — so plain, in fact, that politicians of all faiths felt compelled to adopt the same strategic doctrine, although their tactics continued to differ. They and their party represented "the people," their opponents represented the "aristocracy."

Political conservatism ended, not with a bang in 1824, but with a whimper in 1826. By then, the Van Burenites had publicly come to appreciate the virtues of populism. With their support, the constitutional amendments that Clinton recommended in 1824 were passed. In effect, those amendments established universal suffrage (except for Negroes), and subjected presidents, as well as justices of the peace, to popular election. Moreover, copying their opponents' tactics, the Van Burenites abandoned caucus nominations in favor of delegated political conventions "fresh from the people."

Although two distinct sets of candidates competed for popular support in 1826, two distinct parties had not yet developed. At any rate, I cannot discern significant principle or policy differences between the contending factions. Local issues and interests, personal loyalties and antagonisms, political alliances and animosities produced by the 1824 campaign, different attitudes toward the national administration of John Quincy Adams, maneuvers preparatory to the 1828 presidential campaign — all combined to produce factional rather than party politics. Perhaps the kaleidoscopic, factional character of New York politics in the mid-1820's is suggested by these observations: Van Buren was secretly trying to form an alliance with DeWitt Clinton, his longtime foe; although Clinton was all-out for General Jackson, most of Clinton's supporters apparently favored the Adams administration; Van Buren had definitely decided to oppose Adams, but remained publicly "non-committal" toward Jackson and other potential candidates.


Excerpted from The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy by Lee Benson. Copyright © 1961 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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