Antebellum Period
Antebellum Period
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Politics in Antebellum Period

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Politics

Partisan Politics

The successful presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson in 1828 began the "Jacksonian" period of populist politics and participatory democracy for white men. Previously, white male Americans often had to pass certain property qualifications in order to vote because many believed that only property ownership gave a person an interest in the nation that meant he could be trusted to vote responsibly. But these qualifications were low hurdles; many people owned property, and a greater proportion of the population voted in the American colonies than anywhere else in the world during the eighteenth century. These qualifications were lowered still further after the American Revolution, and the democratization process continued until all property and taxpaying qualifications were abolished every state but South Carolina and Delaware by the time of Jackson's election to office.

With these developments, political strategists cultivated a candidate's popular appeal on the basis of his reputation for courage, bravery, and masculinity. This formula was amply demonstrated by Jackson's military history in fighting the Creek Indians and then as the hero of the battle of New Orleans against the British in 1815. Democrats hosted mass rallies, parades, and barbecues to stir up popular support and enthusiasm for Jackson, and to encourage voters to identify with their party. Women couldn't vote, but still often became involved with these events because their cooking and sewing assistance was often required, and because the spectacular nature of the scenes created excitement even among non-voters. Jackson and subsequent presidential hopefuls in the antebellum era tended to avoid making clear statements of their positions on the important political issues of the day, from the national banking system to the tariff. They usually made vague and broad promises to cleanse the government of corruption and privilege, and while they did not usually specify how they planned to do so, their good intentions were usually enough to win over the electorate.

White men became actively involved in politics as a central component of their sexual, national, and even class identity. Though Jackson was a prosperous slaveowner by the time he ran for office, he portrayed himself as a man of the people and derided his opponent, John Quincy Adams, as an intellectual and an elitist. After Jackson lost his first bid for the presidency to Adams in 1824, the national voter turnout skyrocketed from 26.9% to 57.6% of those eligible to cast a ballot in 1828. Some of this was due to the progress in universal male suffrage during the period, but most of it was a popular response in favor of Jackson and in an outcry against the very narrow election of Adams four years earlier, which Jacksonians termed "the corrupt bargain." (Since no candidate received an electoral majority in 1824, the decision was to be determined by a congressional vote. Democrats speculated that the "bargain" resulted from underhanded maneuvering in Congress, where Whig representative Henry Clay forced his supporters to vote for Adams, who had promised Clay a cabinet post. No evidence materialized to support this conspiracy theory, except the fact that Clay did lobby his supporters against Jackson and did receive a cabinet post after Adams was elected.) That didn't seem to matter to Jackson's supporters, who believed that 1824 had been an undemocratic election; in 1828, Jackson received 56% of the vote, the highest percentage of popular support for any president elected in the nineteenth century. Jackson had begun the process whereby successful and propertied candidates had to appeal to a mass electorate and fashion themselves as "men of the people" in order to win elections. No fundamental redistribution of wealth followed his or any subsequent elections; these candidates presumed to relate to the voters whilst representing the sort of heroism or success that was supposed to be possible for any man in America. Candidates in this new political era quickly learned that they could succeed by touting their military backgrounds or by appealing to popular sentiments and prejudices.

Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too

Democrats had dominated American politics since the election of Jackson in 1828, but their opponents in the Whig party finally caught up with them in 1840. Many historians describe this election as the birth of modern party politics. The 1840 campaign, and almost every one that followed for several generations, involved gaudy displays of partisan loyalty on both sides. Political strategists mounted an impressive public relations onslaught, seeking to portray their respective candidates as simple men of humble origins, embodying the "log-cabin mystique" of the simple man born in humble circumstances who rises to greatness, thus living out the American dream. The parties aimed to recruit new members and to retain the ones they already had. In an echo of the Jackson campaign twelve years earlier, Whigs touted the military achievements of William Henry Harrison (nicknamed "Tippecanoe" after the battle he won against Shawnee Indians in 1811) and his running mate, John Tyler. Whigs promoted Harrison as a man of the people and lambasted his Democratic opponent, President Martin Van Buren, as an aristocrat (much as the Democrats had done to John Quincy Adams). Whigs hosted torchlight parades, commissioned popular songs ("Tippecanoe and Tyler, too"), and produced an array of cartoons and paraphernalia to support their slate and ridicule their opponents.

Immigration and Partisan Politics

Such campaigns were not a complete victory of show over substance; the Whigs did fashion themselves as the party of law and order. They tended to appeal to Americans who were nervous about the religion, illiteracy, poverty, and "papism" (Catholicism) of the new immigrants. This was because they feared that all of these characteristics would undermine American liberty and democracy and create a class of voters who could be bought or who would follow the Pope above their own elected leaders. Many also believed that the Irish composed an inferior race to the Anglo-Saxon, and political cartoons of the day equated the Irish with blacks as a sign of their inferior nature. The Irish immigrants themselves did tend to be poor and uneducated when they first arrived in the midst of the potato famine. They were overwhelmingly Catholic and voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Religion, Class, and Partisan Politics

Many Quakers, Congregationalists, evangelical Protestants, and Presbyterians were Whigs. They supported temperance, whereas their urban working class and immigrant counterparts tended to engage in a drinking culture that the Democrats employed to their advantage on election day. Whigs also sought laws to provide for a strict observance of the Sabbath, government initiative in economic development, and support of public education. Their party also benefited from popular discontent over a worsening financial depression during the campaign.

The Significance of 1840

Even if most of their members were from the middle and upper classes, the Whigs discovered that they could win elections by employing popular rhetoric and masculine, patriotic imagery that appealed to the mass electorate. After they successfully elected Harrison by a narrow margin, he delivered a long inauguration speech on a cold day, caught pneumonia, and died after a month in office. Yet the true significance of the 1840 election was its legacy for the political process in America. Four out of five eligible voters cast a ballot in the election; 80.2% in all, the third-highest voter turnout in American history (the highest being the Hayes-Tilden election that determined the end of Reconstruction in 1876, and the second-highest being Lincoln's election in 1860, which led to secession and the Civil War).

Politics became a central aspect of life for most white American males. Their partisan loyalty could often provide them with valuable contacts and lucrative jobs such as postmaster or tax collector. They gained friendships and camaraderie, not to mention entertainment, at political meetings and events. They expressed their patriotism and exercised their rights as citizens by participating in the electoral process, and they felt powerful, influential, and manly as a result.

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