Harry Frankel

The Jackson Period in American History

(December 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol.7 No.12, December 1946, pp.365-368.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The Jackson period, extending roughly from the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 through his two terms and one of Martin Van Buren, his chief lieutenant, gave a different cast to American political life. In addition to reshaping the political methods and institutions of its own day, it has assumed especial significance in the liberal bourgeois tradition. In the annals of capitalist historians, the Jackson period has gone down as a revolutionary-democratic era of popular rule. The Bryan “revolt,” and the Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations referred especially to the Jacksonian past. Even certain renegades from Marxism (Corey) refer explicitly to Jacksonianism for proof of the fundamentally democratic character of American capitalism. Marxists interpret this period in American history in an entirely different manner.

The year 1800 in American national politics marked the triumph of the planting aristocracy under the leadership of Jefferson over its Northern merchant rival. Southern plantation economy was at that time based upon the slave cultivation of tobacco, rice and indigo, as the chief staples. The next half century saw a displacement of these crops by a new staple. It is well known that the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 provided the initial impetus to the increase of the cotton crop. The cultivation of upland, or short-fibered cotton had been limited by the difficulty of separating the fiber and seed. By overcoming this, the cotton gin freed cotton from its narrow confines in the seaboard area and started it on its career across the Appalachian range to the furthest reaches of suitable soil in faraway Texas. At the height of cotton cultivation, two-thirds of Southern slaves were engaged exclusively in its production. Between 1791 and 1860 the cotton crop multiplied a thousandfold. This enthronement of King Cotton made possible the most stupendous social reversion of modern times. For Southern cotton was raised on the basis of pre-capitalist, even pre-feudal relations: the system of chattel slavery.

For sixty years the Southern planters held national power. It is an abnormality for the slavocracy to dominate in an era of rising capitalism. But norms can serve only as guides for the understanding of history; they cannot be substituted for the more complex living social process. US history has shown that the rule of the slavocracy was no symbol of the absolute retrogression of human society as some in that day thought it to be. Rather it was a temporary retrograde motion produced by a transient conjuncture of circumstances which could not endure. History has likewise shown that Jacksonianism, which arose in the period of planter rule, did not overthrow that rule, but represented rather a transitory phenomenon. Jacksonianism continued slaveholder rule with modified techniques.

Andrew Jackson was a man of iron will who left a personal mark upon the history of the United States. He typified in almost every way the new rising western cotton planters. A Tennessee slaveholder of considerable wealth (his “Hermitage” was one of the finest mansions of the West), he was, in his early career during the first decades of the nineteenth century, the most important single human instrument of the planters in their westward expansion. His victories in the Indian Wars, and especially in the War of 1812 (where, at New Orleans, he “beat the men that beat Napoleon”), opened the Southwest to the plantation system.

His early political career disproves the contention of Jackson’s adulatory historians that he was a “democratic figure.” Even one of his most enthusiastic historian-adulators is forced to record that in local Tennessee politics Jackson was of the “landholding aristocracy,” and together with his class, “normally acted ... both against the financial aristocracy and the canebrake democracy.” (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson.)

Andrew Jackson became a link of special configuration in the chain of planter Presidents that began with Thomas Jefferson and ended forever with Jefferson Davis. The attitude of this group of Presidents towards slavery was progressively modified as cotton fixed the “peculiar institution” on the South. Thomas Jefferson was a passive opponent of slavery. Jackson takes his rightful place in the progression as an active defender of slavery, as the planters travelled the sixty-year road to Jefferson Davis. Where Jefferson was a planter of Old Virginia, and Davis a planter of Mississippi towards the further western reaches of the slave power, Jackson takes his accurate geographical place in the shifting center of plantation gravity as a Tennessee planter.

Marxists always approach the question of the class nature of a state by first determining the character of the economy upon which the political structure rests. In this scientific approach they differ from all varieties of vulgar thinkers for whom states are indeterminate formations, dominated now by “demagogues,” then by “the people,” and again by “dictators.” Nor can any pretended “exceptionalism” exempt the United States from this method. Despite special American conditions, the history of this country will yield its secrets only to the Marxist key.

American economy up to 1865 exhibited a dual structure. Hewing in one portion of the country to the classic capitalist line, it took on the atavistic shape of plantation economy based upon slavery in the other section. The cohabitation of these two systems was made partially and temporarily possible by the segregation of the systems each to its own geographical region. Political decentralization in the form of state governments provided both the bourgeoisie and the slaveholders a measure of local autonomy. Yet national policies of growing importance were decided by the class controlling the Federal government. By examining the decisions on these issues we discover which class was in control of the Federal government. Up until the Civil War, the important decisions were almost always in favor of the slaveholders. It is instructive in view of the Jackson myths to examine the stand of the Jacksonian party on each of these issues.

The National Bank: At the time of Jackson’s election, the Second Bank of the United States was in existence, chartered by the Jeffersonian Democrats to finance the War of 1812. The very chartering of such a bank demonstrates that the planter administrations had been pursuing a course of compromise with the capitalist class; for the first Bank had been destroyed by the Jefferson-led planters’ assault. The renewed apprehensions of the slaveholding class, and especially of its newer and more aggressive western sections led to a new attack upon the Bank. Many local state-banking interests participated in this onslaught. Jackson destroyed this centralized engine of bourgeois power.

Western Lands: The planters’ attitude to western lands was determined by its ever-growing greed for more cotton soil. The farmers also wanted the territories opened to their penetration. But in the planter attitude and the farmer attitude there was a difference – the difference being slavery. This difference was to tear them apart in the free-soil controversy of later years. During the Jackson period, they united against the bourgeoisie which was seeking to restrict land sales in order to restrict the planting power and to keep labor in the East. Jackson’s policy here again is most clearly revealed as the planter policy. He did everything within his power to enlarge the land area of the Union, aiming even at the annexation of Texas. Land was the capital of the planter. Jackson sought by every means to augment it, while destroying the capitalist Bank.

Robbery of Indian Lands

Indian Lands: Four Indian tribes in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi held ancestral lands aggregating over 33 million acres – almost the combined areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. No longer savages, they had developed modern agricultural forms and orderly governments. The story of these lands is described by the historian, William E. Dodd, in The Cotton Kingdom:

The planters of Georgia first, and later those of other states, who coveted these lands with a covetousness unimagined by the kingly exploiter of Naboth’s vineyard in ancient times, vowed that the Indian should not be allowed to develop settled, civilized communities. Since the planters were represented in Congress and the natives had recourse only to executive protection, the contest was most unequal, and when President Jackson gave the Indians over to the tender mercies of their enemies, there was no help for them. The planters had their way, and the Indian lands were rapidly converted into cotton plantations.

It is only necessary to add that when the bourgeoisie, through the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, tried to block the planters from the Indian lands, Jackson paid no heed, saying, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

Abolitionist Literature: The growing Northern movement for abolition of chattel slavery attempted to penetrate the South with its literature. The planters demanded that the mails be closed to the abolitionists. Here was a problem for Amos Kendall, Postmaster General, chief adviser to Jackson and intellectual leader of the Democratic Party. Kendall solved it with a happy “compromise”: Abolitionist literature could be mailed in the North, but need not be delivered in the South! Such “compromises” are always acceptable to the ruling class.

Internal Improvements: This was a contemporary term for canals, roadways and so forth to be constructed at Federal expense. The bourgeoisie saw in them a profitable transportation network necessary for trade and having the additional value of linking the bourgeoisie and western farmers in an economic bloc. With this in view that inimitable juggler, Henry Clay, made “internal improvements” part of his “American System” along with the manufacturers’ tariff. But the planters saw no reason why they should bear part of the burden for a program that was primarily of benefit to their rival. Jackson thereupon set his face against this scheme and used his veto power to check it. This is a most important fact in the analysis of the class base of Jacksonianism. For Jackson here showed that he was prepared to risk his western farmer base in order to carry out the slaveholder’s program.

Tariff: This was one of the most significant controversies of the Jackson period. The tariff, having a direct bearing on the economic welfare of the capitalist and planter classes, was the most hotly contested of all the issues. The tariff disputes originated at an earlier date, when the positions of the classes on the tariff were curiously inverted. The planters, hoping to lay the basis of a home market for their crop, inaugurated a protective policy with the tariff of 1816. They had been opposed by the chief sector of the bourgeoisie, the major interest of which was shipping, which required low tariff rates. The development of manufactures, fostered in part by the very tariff which it had opposed, caused the bourgeoisie to reverse its stand. It pressed through Congress the bills of 1824 and 1828, the latter with schedules so highly protective that it became known to the planter and farmer interests as the “tariff of abominations.” Coming to understand their true interests, the planters turned against a tariff which served as a tax upon them without providing any economic benefit. The remainder of the story is related in the previously quoted work of the most realistic historian of the South, William E. Dodd:

When, in 1828, the South and the West united to place Jackson in the President’s chair, it was definitely understood that the “tariff of abominations” was to be abolished, or greatly reduced. The exigencies of national politics caused Jackson to falter and delay. South Carolina allowed the new President four years to make up his mind. When he was still uncertain in 1832, the state proceeded to nullify the offensive national statute. The President then threatened war; South Carolina thereupon paused; but the outcome was the definite abandonment of the higher tariff policy in favor of the lower rates of the compromise tariff of 1833. Every South Carolinian thought that the planters had once again had their way; and South Carolinians were scattered all over the cotton states.

This was the famous “nullification” controversy, which is often cited to “prove” Jackson’s independence of the planters. This struggle, it is true, was responsible for much friction, and was partially responsible for the alienation of the Calhoun-led planters from the Jacksonians. But traced to its end it proves the slaveholder hegemony in the Democratic Party in Jackson’s day. For the Southern oligarchy was finally awarded the reduced tariff rates which it sought.

It has not been difficult to demonstrate the class base of Jacksonianism. It was the political arm of the slaveholders. This was its decisive character. Remaining to be accounted for are the specific configurations of the Jacksonian regime that distinguish it from earlier and later forms of planter rule. For the Democratic Party of Jackson’s day reflected an enormous popular ferment that existed at this time in American national politics. This period became a turning point in the development of the techniques of class rule in the United States.

A Period of Social Change

It must be remembered that the period 1800-1860 was a time of enormous social change, both in the North and South. Classes were becoming transformed, new sections arising within existing classes, the relationship of forces between classes was shifting, and an entirely new class, the modern proletariat, was being born. The Jacksonian regime represented a modification of the undisguised planter rule brought about by the interaction of four main classes: planters, capitalists, petty-bourgeoisie and the rising proletariat.

Let us first turn to the planters. The impact of cotton on the South caused profound changes. The great engine of change was the demand for land. The wasteful mode of cotton cultivation caused the rapid exhaustion of the soil. Charles A. Beard wrote that what the planters were chiefly marketing was the “pristine fertility” of the land. The plantation system plowed inexorably westward, turning up the land like an enormous and insatiable bulldozer. The five years following the War of 1812 saw a great westward movement known as “The Great Migration.” Several hundreds of thousands of people were shifted to the trans-Alleghany region, leading to the formation of two territories, the admission of three states, the merciless clearing of the Indians to beyond the Mississippi, and indirectly, the “purchase” of Florida. This movement, and the later “Jacksonian Migration,” brought into the cotton kingdom the states of Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Arkansas. If we compare the cotton production of this new western region with that of the older cotton states of the eastern seaboard, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, we get a graphic picture of the western shift of economic power:


Cotton Crop (in Million Lbs.)





















With the opening of the new Southwest, the old South on the Atlantic seaboard declined in wealth and importance. The rapid exhaustion of the soil led to the impoverishment of the planters. Historians have described with touching pathos how poverty and indebtedness descended upon Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, Calhoun, all planter-statesmen of the eastern region. Indeed, Old Virginia and her neighbors soon found that the slave was their most profitable product, and looked to the breeding and traffic of slaves for the rehabilitation of their region.

Between the older seaboard plantation aristocracy and the rising western planter class existed a strong antagonism. It expressed itself outwardly in an eastern aristocratic snobbery on the one hand, and a western levelling tendency on the other. In the beginning the dispute was between the western and eastern portions of the seaboard states. The solid aristocratic class of the older region feared to take the newer section into full partnership because of the lack of an organized ruling class in the western regions. The larger proportion of pioneer farmers and smaller planters in the west inspired in the old aristocracy fears for the safety of the slave system. Only as slavery took root in the western counties did the eastern slaveholders relax their grip on the state governments. Frederick J. Turner describes this in his Rise of the New West:

It was only as slavery spread into the uplands with the cultivation of cotton, that the lowlands began to concede and to permit an increased power in the legislatures to the sections most nearly assimilated to the seaboard type. South Carolina achieved this end in 1808 by the plan of giving to the seaboard the control of one house, while the interior held the other; but it is to be noted that this concession was not made until slavery had pushed so far up the river courses that the reapportionment preserved the control in the hands of slaveholding counties. A similar course was followed by Virginia.

The new western region was rapidly assimilated to slavery. By 1850 over half of the slaveowners were living in the trans-Alleghany region. Nor did this apply only to small slaveholders; for by this date more than half of the 1700 great planters (those holding from 100 to 1000 slaves) were in the new region. But the old antagonism between the two regions did not die out. On the contrary, new disputes, feeding upon the old mistrust, soon arose.

We must recall that the policy of the Jeffersonian party had been to take the reins of the national government and draw into cooperation with the planters, sections of the Northern capitalist class. So successful had been this policy that the bourgeois Federalist Party was virtually dissolved in the Jeffersonian party during the administrations of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and the second Adams. The eastern planters grew accustomed in this so-called “era of good feeling” to secure their rule by means of this alliance at the cost of some concessions to the New England merchant capitalists. However, the fundamental antagonism between the two systems could not forever be repressed. In the North an aggressive manufacturing bourgeoisie was supplanting the merchant class. Paralleling this was the rise of an aggressive cotton slavocracy in the Southwest. Here were the chief contenders in the coming irrepressible conflict.

Scorning the alliance with the old Federalists, unafraid of a pact with the anti-capitalist agrarian and urban petty-bourgeois radicals, the slaveholders of the Southwest burst angrily on the scene. They demanded the retraction of all important concessions to the capitalist class, a more energetic policy to secure western lands and the breakup of the old closed caste of office holders. Led by the planters of the Tennessee Valley, the first western cotton planting region, they demanded the elevation of their idol, Andrew Jackson, to the Presidency.

While these class shifts were taking place in the South, a far more fundamental process of change was taking place in the North. The development of manufactures was rapidly placing the industrial capitalist in the forefront in New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The old commercial and shipping interests were receding to second place. Hamilton’s prophetic vision of a manufacturing empire was beginning to assume shape.

This growing power of industrial capitalism was a threat to the planting class. The increasing vigor of the capitalists and their ever-increasing demands made it more difficult for the slaveholders to rule “in the old way.” Every day brought further proof to the Southern aristocracy, and especially to its militant western section, that the reliance of traditional Jeffersonian politicians upon compromising with the Northern capitalists must come to an end. Jefferson himself lived to see his system shaken. The slavery dispute in 1820 over the admission of Missouri startled him, as he said “like a fire bell in the night.”

Northern industrial development had yet another aspect. It is an historical axiom that the industrial capitalist brings with him his own grave digger. An American proletariat was growing with every advance of the factory system. With the growth of the working class came its organization into trade unions and its entry onto the political field. Workingmen’s parties and newspapers rapidly spread through New England, New York and Pennsylvania. The first trade union and political battles of the American workers occurred at this time.

One further class development in the first decades of the nineteenth century must claim our attention. The small farmer of the North was an economic prisoner as long as he remained bound between the Appalachian range and the Atlantic seaboard. His release in this period is a factor of prime importance in the relation of class forces. On the broad, fertile lands of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and the other new farming regions, the farmers grew into a national power.

Convergence of Three Classes

It is evident at once that the interests of three developing classes converged antagonistically from three sides upon the fourth. The planters, the small farmers and the proletariat, each for its own reasons, fought the rising bourgeois colossus. To the planters, industrial capitalism was a challenge for control of national economic policies. It endangered their whole system. For the farmers, capitalism was the eastern octopus which sucked from them the proceeds of their crops. They were constantly in debt to the Eastern capitalists, who furthermore sought to block them off from the ready acquisition of western lands. The proletariat confronted the bourgeoisie as the direct victim of its merciless exploitation.

The convergence of the three classes was a temporary alignment which was smashed by the struggles preceding the Civil War. The workers and farmers were soon to take their rightful place in the fight against the outmoded planter slavocracy, the chief foe of all social progress. Yet the movement of the Jacksonian period played an important role in American history. For it brought to the scene of national struggles the workers and farmers in their capacity of a mass electorate. Indeed the broadening of the suffrage was one of the most important political developments of the Jackson period. Sharp struggles by the growing worker and farmer masses, culminating in one state (Rhode Island) in armed rebellion, won the vote for the free male population.

These social and political changes wrought a fundamental change in the conditions of political life. The character of the ruling class political parties was modified to cope with the new conditions. The parties lost their previous candor and disguised themselves in order to gain the same class ends by different methods, in the face of the broadened and suspicious electorate.

While the aristocratic monopoly of politics was being smashed the aristocratic hold of state power was preserved. “Jacksonian Democracy” represented the beginnings of modern concealed class rule. The planters first learned the chief lesson of modern parliamentary “democracy” which the bourgeoisie was to learn and express so well years later: “Men can forego the husk of a title who possess the fat ears of power.”

The Jacksonian technique, while basically an enforced accommodation, naturally brought to the fore politicians of the modern, demagogic type. The rising western cotton section of the planting class, the spearhead of Jacksonianism, had been educated by the politics of their locality for their national role. In the western region, small farmers were more numerous, leveling tendencies stronger, and political life more turbulent than on the eastern seaboard. The initial coterie surrounding Jackson, William B. Lewis, John H. Eaton, Felix Grundy, William T. Barry and James K. Polk, are good examples of politicians who learned the fine art of speaking in the name of the many while ruling in the interest of the few.

The original home of this political art was in the Northern wing of the planters’ Democratic Party – an auxiliary in enemy territory. It fought the bourgeoisie through sections of the urban petty-bourgeois and proletarian masses, who were mobilized by means of democratic and even anti-capitalist slogans. The planting class, resting on unorganized, unrepresented, almost unmentioned slave labor, could afford to countenance reforms which struck against the Northern bourgeoisie. The ten-hour day for workers, extension of the vote to the proletariat, attacks upon the factory system and other such agitations, typical of the Jackson period, represented no direct economic threat to the planters. During the Jackson period the planters put on their best democratic garb ... in the North. But during that very same time, barbarous slave legislation multiplied on the statute books in the South. The concessions in the North were part of the slaveholder system of maintaining national power. John Randolph, the erratic phrasemaker of the planter bloc in Congress, gave clear expression to this strategy. “Northern gentlemen,” he taunted, “think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves!”

In order to govern the bourgeoisie “by their white slaves,” the planters from Jefferson’s day on, built a northern party machine of a type familiar to this day in the Democratic Party. Politicians of the modern type began to make their appearance. Aaron Burr had been Jefferson’s chief lieutenant on the Northern field. Martin Van Buren, operating through the Albany Regency and Tammany Hall, was Jackson’s man Friday. Each was awarded the Vice-Presidency. Van Buren exemplified the increasing importance of the Northern auxiliary when he succeeded Jackson to the Presidency.

The Jackson and Van Buren groupings, joined by a clamorous farmer element led by such men as Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Colonel Richard M. Johnson, formed a national grouping in the Democratic Party which conducted politics by carefully watching the movement of the popular masses. Their activity, well-adjusted to the new currents which the old time politicians could scarcely comprehend, much less navigate, raised behind them a sweeping national mass movement. Here the great achievement of Jacksonianism emerges. It inaugurated in national politics that pattern which has endured to the present: the rule of an exploiting class concealed behind the appeal to the common man.

The foregoing analysis, while simplified and schematic, indicates the essential elements of the Jackson period. Bourgeois historians like to see in Jacksonianism a basic transfer of power to the “people.” This is false, for while the period was one of unquestionable popular ferment, the hold of the slaveowners upon the state power was not broken. [1]



1. In our next article we will deal with the two chief liberal-bourgeois theories of Jacksonianism, and counterpose to them the Marxist conception.


Last updated on 19.7.2006