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Jacksonian Democracy, Transforming Democracy

mobbing, Popular participation, party platforms, political participation, political rights

After 1815 Americans transformed the republic of the Founding Fathers into a democracy. State after state revoked property qualifications for voting and holding office—thus transforming Jefferson’s republic of property holders into Andrew Jackson’s mass democracy. Democracy, however, was not for everyone. While states extended political rights to all white men, they often withdrew or limited such rights for blacks. As part of the same trend, the state of New Jersey took the vote away from propertied women, who formerly had possessed that right. Thus the democratization of citizenship applied exclusively to white men. In the mid–19th century, these men went to the polls in record numbers. The election of 1828 attracted 1.2 million voters; that number jumped to 1.5 million in 1836 and to 2.4 million in 1840. Turnout of eligible voters by 1840 was well over 60 percent—higher than it had ever been, and much higher than it is now.

At the same time, however, popular political activity other than voting declined. Judging by available evidence, state and national governments received fewer petitions than in the past, and they paid less attention to the ones they received. In the 1830s, when Congress received hundreds of antislavery petitions, it simply refused to read them. Petitioning, parading, and mobbing (each of which included Americans who were not white males) had all been crucial to the American Revolutionary movement, and they had continued to play important roles in Jeffersonian America. By the 1830s and 1840s, spontaneous parades and mob actions played smaller roles in political life, and more-respectable citizens viewed such activities as disorderly and criminal. Popular participation in politics was more and more limited to voting.

Furthermore, voting was organized not by the voice of the citizenry, but by a national two–party system staffed by disciplined professionals. These professionals included candidates, appointed office holders, newspaper editors, and local leaders who organized voters, wrote party platforms, and developed party ideologies in ways that only partially and indirectly reflected popular wishes. Thus political participation was democratized by the 1830s. But democracy included only white men, and even they were transformed from citizens to spectators.

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