We should not fool ourselves into thinking democracy was some benevolent aristocrat’s generous gift. Nor should we believe democracy was something average people heroically fought for and won. The truth is, ballots have never translated to real political power and influence—they never have. The near-universal patterns in these democratizing state legislatures and constitutional conventions were political pragmatism and opportunism.
Kohl, Lawrence. The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.
Meyers, Marvin. The Jacksonian Persuasion. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1957.
Pessen, Edward. Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics. Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press. 1969.
Music by Kai Engel
Anthony Comegna: The 1820s, 30s, and 40s were rough and tumble times. Life changed more quickly in those decades than ever before, and practically everyone, everywhere, felt it. For students of American history, this is the Jacksonian era, named for the president who supposedly rode a populist wave into the White House, transformed the United States from a republic into a national democracy, and invented the modern presidency. This was the era of expanding suffrage, the one time working people had a real shot. [00:00:30] This was when capitalism was real, real as the gold and silver that gave it life. A time when the United States was both recognizably laissez-faire and boldly individualist. These are the myths we have to counter, then, before we can find out what really happened in Jacksonian America.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org, I’m Anthony Comegna.
Kentucky was the first state to universalize suffrage, [00:01:00] or voting rights for all white males. It entered the union in 1792, and the state constitution did not set property requirements to vote. Over the next 64 years, every other state followed suit. Between New York’s constitution of 1821, and Virginia’s 10 years later, the great bulk of adult white men gained the right to vote. And by 1856, North Carolina was the last state still privileging land holder status, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking democracy was some benevolent [00:01:30] aristocrat’s generous gift from the legislature, nor should we believe democracy was something average people heroically fought for and won. The truth is, ballots have never translated to real political power in influence. The near universal patterns in these democratizing state legislatures and constitutional conventions were political pragmatism and opportunism.
In cases like Van Buren’s New York, factions that fought tirelessly against suffrage reform went on to become the [00:02:00] loudest and largest democrats. Van Buren led a group of Jeffersonian state level politicians called the Bucktails. They were a collection of the state’s leading men of business and law, practically indistinguishable from their archenemies, the followers of Governor DeWitt Clinton. The Van Burenites fought against suffrage reform in 1821, fearing that the additional voters would drown out their own influence at Albany. Take away the land holding requirement and you would throw open the government to the penniless Irish Catholics, swarming [00:02:30] into New York City’s harbor every year. The Upcountry Yeomanry, those good Amish Jeffersonian farmers, could never reclaim power over their country without a civil war, or so Van Buren claimed.
Speaker 2: Extracts from Carter and Stone’s reports of the proceedings and debates in the Convention of 1821, assembled for that purpose of amending the constitution of the State of New York. Extract from proceedings of Thursday, September 27, 1821.
[00:03:00] Right of suffrage. The question in order was, on the part of the section expressed in the words following:
“And also, every male citizen of the age of 21 years, who shall have been, for three years next preceding such election, an inhabitant of this state; and for the last year a resident in the town, county, or district, where he may offer his vote; and shall have been, within the last year, assessed to labor upon the public highways, and shall have performed the labor, or paid an equivalent therefore, according to law, shall be entitled [00:03:30] to vote in the town or ward where he actually resides and not elsewhere, for all officers that now are, or hereafter may be, elective by the people.”
Mr. Van Buren said, that as the vote he should now give on what was called the highway qualification, would be different from what it had been on a former occasion, he felt it a duty to make a brief explanation of the motives, which governed him. The qualifications reported by the first committee were of three kinds, viz: the payment of a money tax, the performance of a military [00:04:00] duty, and working on the highway. The two former had met with his decided approbation; to the latter he wished to add the additional qualification, that the elector should, if he paid no tax, performed no militia duty, but offered his vote on the sole ground that he had labored on the highways, also be a house-holder; and that was the only point in which he had dissented from the report of the committee. To effect this object, he supported a motion made by a gentleman from Dutchess, to strike out the highway qualification, with a view [00:04:30] of adding “house-holder.” That motion, after full discussion, had prevailed by a majority of 20. But what was the consequence?
The very next day, the same gentlemen who thought the highway tax too liberal a qualification, voted that every person of 21 years of age, having a certain term of residence, and excluding actual paupers, should be permitted to vote for any officer in the government, from the highest to the lowest. Far outvieing, in this particular, the other states in the union, and verging [00:05:00] from the extreme of restricted, to that of universal suffrage.
The Convention, sensible of the very great stride, which had been taken by the last vote, the next morning referred the whole matter to a select committee of 13, whose report was now under consideration. That committee, though composed of gentlemen, a large majority of whom had voted for the proposition for universal suffrage, had now recommended a middle course, viz—the payment of a money tax, or labor on the highway, excluding militia service, which had, however, been very properly [00:05:30] reinstated. The question then recurred; shall an attempt be again made to add that of house-holder, to the highway qualification, and run the hazard of the re-introduction of the proposition of the gentleman from Washington, abandoning all qualifications, and throwing open the ballot boxes to everybody—demolishing at one blow, the distinctive character of an elector, the proudest and most invaluable attribute of freemen?
Mr. Van Buren said, he had, on the motion of the gentleman from Columbia, this day hinted at the numerous objections, which [00:06:00] he had to the proposition, which the other day passed the Convention, in regard to the right of suffrage; objections, which he intended to make, had the committee reported in favor of that vote; and by which, when fully urged, he knew that he would be able to convince every member of this committee of the dangerous and alarming tendency of that precipitate and unexpected prostration of all qualifications. At this moment, he would only say, that among the many evils, which would flow from a wholly unrestricted suffrage, the following would be the most injurious, [00:06:30] viz.
First. It would give to the city of New York about 25,000 votes; whilst, under the liberal extension of the right on the choice of the delegates to this convention, she had but about 13 or 14,000. That the character of the increased number of votes would be such as would render their elections rather a curse than a blessing; which would drive from the polls all sober minded people; and such, he was happy to, and was the united opinion, or nearly so, of the delegation from that city.
Secondly. [00:07:00] It would not only be injurious to them, but that injury would work an equally great one to the western and northern parts of the state. It was the present consolation of our hardy sons of the west, that, for their toils and their sufferings in reducing the wilderness to cultivation, they were cheered by the conviction, not only that they would be secure in the enjoyment of their dear bought improvements, in consequence of their representation in the legislature, but that any increase of that representation gave them a still greater influence there. That [00:07:30] as far as it respected this state, their march, and the march of the empire kept pace. This arose from the circumstance of the representation of the state being founded on the number of electors; and because almost every man in the new country was an elector, under the existing and contemplated qualifications. Whilst in the old counties, and especially in cities, there were great numbers who would not be embraced by them.
So great was this effect, that the city of New York alone would, under the vote of any other day, have become entitled to additional voters, [00:08:00] over those who voted at the election of delegates, equal, or nearly so, to the whole number of votes of Ontario or Genesee. The direct consequence of which would be, that the additional representation of 14 members, which are next year to be distributed among the counties, would, instead of going principally to the west, be surrendered to the worst population of the old counties and cities.
And thirdly, the door would have been entirely closed against retreat, whatever might be ours after conviction, founded on experience, as [00:08:30] to the evil tendency of this extended suffrage.
The just equilibrium between the rights of those who have, and those who have no interest in the government, could, when once thus surrendered, never be regained, except by the sword. But, according to the present report, if experience should point out dangers, from the very extensive qualifications we were about to establish, the legislature might relieve against the evil, by curtailing the objects of taxation. By the establishment of turnpikes, the making of canals, and the general [00:09:00] improvements of the country, the highway tax would naturally be lessened, and might, if the legislature thought proper, be hereafter confined to property, instead of imposing it, as they now do, on adult male citizens. For 100 years at least, this would afford a sufficient protection against the evils, which were apprehended. He would, therefore, notwithstanding his desire to have the qualification of house-holder added to the electors of the third description remain unchanged, accept the report of the committee as it was, with the addition of [00:09:30] the military qualification, which he thought ought to be adopted, for the sake of principle, if for no other reason.
He thought the committee, constituted as they were, had done themselves great credit by their concession to the opinion of those from whom they differed, and he, for one, returned them his sincere thanks. Under all circumstances, he would be well satisfied with the right of suffrage, as it will now be established, and would give his zealous support, as well in his capacity of delegate, as that of citizen.
Anthony Comegna: [00:10:00] Fifteen, or so, years later, and President Van Buren’s enemies delighted in throwing his words from 1821 back at him. By the late 1830s, democracy was no longer an experiment, spreading through the states. It was now the widely accepted political culture. The generally agreed upon method of interpersonal conflict. State by state, politicians realized that whomever was the first and loudest champion for popular suffrage could count on popular votes once the new system was in place. [00:10:30] Losing factions and politicians on the outs could improve their position by welcoming a new faction of voters into the fray. By the 1830s, Jackson was the biggest winner in this new political game, and politicians flocked to his standards, twisted their principles to match whatever his were.
In his career as a state politician, Martin Van Buren was at least as brilliant a tactician as Jackson was on the battlefield. He realized that consensus and calm were not normal situations in his world. [00:11:00] Conflict ruled the day. Some conflicts were more deadly and serious than others, and some subjects were so explosive they were best left entirely unspoken. And if men like Van Buren could successfully channel all that restless energy into useful political reform, these new middling men of power would run the machinery of state without significant interference. And that’s exactly what they did. After New York expanded the suffrage, Van Buren immediately shifted to growing his Bucktails into a democratic [00:11:30] machine, linking Albany and New York City.
Van Buren marshaled the plain republicans in the countryside along with the working men of the city into a single coalition and gradually he vanquished opponents one after another. He rose to Governor of New York before becoming Jackson’s Secretary of State. Then Vice President during the second term. As he collected honors in offices, he mastered the process of doling them out in turn. More than any other person, more than the general himself, Martin Van Buren [00:12:00] created modern partisan democracy. For all their democratic rhetoric about the voice of the people being the voice of God and other nonsense like that, they Jacksonians who actually governed did so in the ruthless pursuit of individual self interest. And the grossest of political ambitions. They were single-minded and determined to advance themselves even if it cost them their principles.
Jacksonian leadership was every bit as aristocratic as their political enemies, the Whigs. And while historians [00:12:30] remember the Jacksonians as champions of the common people, they were anything but commoners. Their ranks included the wealthiest of planters, like Jackson, who personally held well over 100 slaves in bondage, chains, whip, and all. And the well off sons of tavern keepers, like Van Buren. What few true working people made the leap from the wrangled masses to the party bosses, proved the general rule. The democrats, too, were a class of ruling elites. They might offer to extend [00:13:00] their ranks from time to time, to a few upstarts from the countryside or the city slum, but they were always clear to note that legitimate rule must be stamped with approval from the people through their duly elected officials. These were the new men of politics, the pioneers of modern democracy, they fancied themselves masters of society and virtuous farmers at the same time. If born of middling origins, as many were, they had unusual and substantial talents. [00:13:30] The middling men of power were exceedingly clever, convincing speakers and writers, and unscrupulous political deal makers. Men like Duff Green and Amos Kendall, Isaac Hill and Samuel Ingham, became rich from their political connections.
There were wealthy merchants, bankers, corporate directors, and hot shot lawyers, layered thickly throughout Jackson’s democracy. And without a doubt, the heaviest influence of all, came from Jackson’s own class of elite planters, always obsessed with speculations in cotton and slaves. [00:14:00] Jackson’s was primarily a southern slave holder’s party, and though they courted the common man’s vote, like no politicians before, these were definitely not normal people with commoners perspectives. The Jacksonians were intensely smart, calculating, and reflective. No one was better than Van Buren, he threw elections, knowing a victory would poison and destroy his rival’s coalition. When his fortunetelling bore out, his Bucktails reaped the harvest of offices. He used [00:14:30] the state department in the Jackson Administration to advance his own path to the presidency, over Vice President Calhoun. He approached Clay in the election of 1824, with a really corrupt bargain, back Van Buren’s man Crawford for the top of the ticket and Clay can have the bottom.
The slippery and conniving Van Buren even hinted that Crawford’s health was so poor Clay would likely become president by default. No doubt, Clay was tempted. When you first allowed the idea that coercive states are necessary [00:15:00] features of human existence you hand yourself over to the masters of those states. The master class might be chosen by ballot, even with universal suffrage, and still not have to care a bit what you have to say about anything. Van Buren understood that the state itself was a myth, it’s really just a bunch of people doing stuff for their own personal reasons. And if the state is a powerful myth, democracy is positively supernatural. These were no heroes, [00:15:30] no matter how many national banks they killed. No matter how low they may have wanted the tariff. No matter how strict their constructions of constitution.
The Jacksonians shifted positions on almost everything over the course of their careers. And almost none of them were ever anything approaching Libertarian. Martin Van Buren chastised the public that they were apt to look to government for too much. But only because the more they demanded, the harder it was for one party boss to manage everything.