Jacksonian democracy is a term historians use to refer to the period in American history from roughly the late 1820s until the 1850s. Jacksonian democracy originated with the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the creation of the democratic party and was characterized by an expansion of voting rights and by American territorial expansion westward. While the expansion of suffrage was a positive development, westward expansion had significant negative effects, particularly on Native Americans.
In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson received the most votes but failed to achieve a majority in the electoral college, sending the decision to the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams, who had come in second, promised the cabinet post of secretary of state to Henry Clay, the speaker of the house, in exchange for a favorable vote, a deal now known as the corrupt bargain. In response, Jackson, along with Martin Van Buren, founded the Democratic Party. He won the next election in 1828, launching a new era in American politics.
An expansion of voting rights was a major policy of the Democratic Party, which stemmed from Jackson's bitterness over the corrupt bargain of 1824. Jackson felt that he had been more popular than Adams and that his losing the election reflected a failure in American democracy to reflect the people's will. As president, Jackson helped expand suffrage to include all white men, not just those with property, a major reform that brought the country closer to its democratic principles.
A second major principle of Jacksonian democracy was westward expansion. President James K. Polk, a Democrat and a prominent supporter of Jackson's policies, was elected in 1844, and in just one term significantly expanded U.S. territory. Under his leadership, the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, signed a treaty with Britain to split the Oregon territory in 1846 and fought a war with Mexico in 1846 to claim California and the Southwest. In 1849 gold was discovered in California and settlement of the West grew significantly, pointing to the genius of Polk's aggressively expansionist policies.
Yet not all the features of Jacksonian democracy were positive. In his drive for westward expansion, Jackson encouraged the removal and relocation of Native American tribes who stood in the way of American expansion, the most prominent example being the Cherokee who in 1836 were forced to relocate from the South to Oklahoma in an incident known today as the Trail of Tears. Polk's expansionist policies had similarly negative impacts on Native Americans.
- Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images