In 1800, only 10 percent of Americans lived west of the Appalachians. By 1824, however, 30 percent of Americans had moved west in search of fertile new land to farm. In 1800, there were only two states west of the Appalachians (Kentucky and Tennessee); by 1820, there were eight. This westward movement was the pivotal change that broadened democracy in the United States.
Participation By a Few
Prior to this migration westward, the center of power in the country lay along the eastern seaboard, particularly in the Northeast. Presidents and state governors were elected by electors chosen by state legislatures, and the men who made up these legislatures held property. Poor, non-property holding whites, African-Americans, and women were denied the right to vote, so that while America was nominally a democracy, there were large blocs of voters who were unable to participate.
The movement of settlers west did not immediately change this voter status, but gradually Americans west of the Appalachians voted democratic ideals into the constitutions as Ohio, Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, and Alabama became states. Up until 1824, presidential nominees were picked by caucuses of influential congressmen who got together to decide who might best represent their party. But this system was unsatisfactory to the thousands of new voters from west of the Appalachians who wanted their voices to be heard and who had been enfranchised when property requirements were removed as a prerequisite for suffrage.
The First Popular Vote
The 1824 presidential election, fought mainly between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, became the first election in American history where the winning candidate was not picked by a caucus and in which the majority of states chose their candidate by popular vote (of the 24 states at the time, only six left the choice up to state legislatures). John Quincy Adams won in a contested election thrown into the House of Representatives, but in 1828, Jackson came back to claim the prize of the presidency in an election that represented the triumph of the western states over the eastern ones: Jackson, who lived in Nashville, became the first president-elect from west of the Appalachians.
Opening The Democratic Process
Jackson was the great populist leader, and his Democratic-Republican followers were the forerunners of today’s Democrats. After 1828, other changes occurred that opened America’s democratic process. In 1831, the first national party conventions were held, which would became a fractious staple of American political life. And in the election of 1876, 81.8 percent of the voting age population actually turned out to vote, the highest percentage in American history. Within three-quarters of a century, democracy had broadened to include the great majority of the eligible electorate, who became avid participants in their political process. However, women still could not vote and blacks in Southern states often voted only with great difficulty.
- Connor Prairie: Western Migration
- Mississippi History Now: The Great Migration to the Mississippi Territory
- U.S. History: Politics and the New Nation: A White Man’s Democracy
- American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond: Westward Expansion and Regional Differences
- Miller Center.org: Presidents: John Quincy Adams: The Campaign and Election of 1824
- Miller Center.org: Presidents: Andrew Jackson: The Campaign and Election of 1824 & 1828
- The American Presidency Project: Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images