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Jacksonian Democracy, Democrats and Whigs

Beginning with Jackson’s administration, the Democrats were opposed by the Whig Party. The Whigs were led by Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and others who called for an active national government and who had a nationalist answer to the growing problem of slavery.

The Whigs proposed what they called the American System. They wanted a high tariff that would protect Northeastern factories from European competition while it generated revenue for the national government. They proposed high prices for government land in the West—a policy that would slow westward movement and that also would increase federal revenue. They insisted that the Bank of the United States be maintained to stabilize currency and to discipline smaller banks. And they wanted to use the money that tariffs and the sale of lands would give the government to build and maintain roads and other internal improvements.

The result, they promised, would be a society with a national market under a government that fostered prosperity and order. At the same time, the national character of the Whig economy would discourage arguments among the three sections of the nation—the Northeast, the South, and the West. The Northeast would manufacture goods for the South and West. The South would supply cotton to Northeastern factories, and the West would provide food for both the South and the Northeast. The prosperity of each section would depend on friendly relations with the other two, and none of them would want to bring up the divisive question of slavery.

Andrew Jackson and his Democratic successors proposed to limit the role of government in the market revolution and in resolving the tensions among the sections. They wanted to abolish the Bank of the United States, set tariffs at low levels, sell government land at low rates, and leave the question of internal improvements to the states.

Democrats hoped to create a national government that never meddled in local affairs (one of the most important of those affairs being slavery), that played no favorites, and that kept taxes low. On the question of slavery and states’ rights, Jacksonians favored minimal central government within a permanent union. When South Carolina threatened the Union by attempting to nullify the protective tariff of 1828 (Southerners termed it the Tariff of Abominations because it penalized Southern states that exported cotton and imported Old World manufactured goods), Jackson threatened South Carolina with a federal invasion. At the same time, he let Southerners know that slavery was safe as long as a Democratic Party committed to states’ rights was in power. Even more than the Whigs, the Democrats were committed to avoiding any congressional debate that could possibly affect slavery.

In the 1830s and 1840s Democrats and Whigs built the most completely national two–party system that Americans have ever had—both parties relied on support from all sections of the country, and both were evenly matched in most states. Within that system, politicians knew that arguments between the North and South must be avoided. Such arguments would, first of all, split the Whig and Democratic parties in which politicians were making their careers. Second, and more dangerous, the breakdown of the national two–party system could realign the parties along North–South lines and focus national politics on the differences between the North and South. Political leaders feared that such a breakdown could lead ultimately to disunion and perhaps civil war. Most historians agree that the national party system’s eventual breakdown was a crucial cause of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

 

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