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How to Get Elected
The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
Bit by bit, however, time was sweeping away the notion that the American republic should be governed by an aristocracy of presumed merit, chosen from those already endowed with property and position. The wild expansion of the nation after 1815—the rush to the West, the coming of factories, the rise of towns and cities, the boom in cotton, wheat, and other crops, the pulsing growth of both internal and foreign trade —all these activities opened new doors and sharpened new hungers. Opportunity beckoned to countless new thousands who had now joined in “the pursuit of happiness.” They demanded land, credit, protection, a way to the market, and above all the abolition of any privileges, real or imagined, that gave the gentry an unfair head start in the race. Jn political terms, the war on “privilege” took the form of a demand for universal manhood suffrage, and by the iSao’s, at least in the northern states, that battle was largely won.
Once the electorate was broadened, common men demanded a change in the Presidency. Of the five chief magistrates who followed Washington, three (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) were Virginia landholders, and the other two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy) originated in the Massachusetts “establishment” of law and trade. All five were learned men, with diplomatic experience. By the iSao’s, various “out” groups, representing other classes and other sections, were insisting that the patrician pattern in the Chief Executive’s office be broken. Their candidate for the job was the war hero of 1815, Andrew Jackson. The victor of New Orleans was placed before the nation, first unsuccessfully in 1824 and with better luck four years later, as the man who embodied the will of a new and mysterious entity, “the people.”
There was some irony in this. Though Jackson had indeed been born of humble parents in the Carolina backwoods, he had become by 1820 a success in every way. He was owner of goodly lands and held many slaves on his Tennessee estate; he had also been a judge and a senator; and he had invested in various capitalistic enterprises around Nashville. He was selfmade, to be sure, but not noticeably more so than such rivals as Henry Clay or John C. Calhoun. Nor were his political backers the first to challenge the congressional caucus system of nomination by getting state legislatures to place the names of favorite sons before the voters. But somehow Jackson seemed more homespun than the rest. He spelled and pronounced Webster’s English like an unlettered squatter. Though endowed with natural courtesy, he was contemptuous of formal niceties. His solution to a diplomatic problem involving British traders in Florida in 1818 had been to execute two of them. He had “licked” both the redcoats and the redskins in 1814 and 1815. In his impetuosity, his resentment of any restraints on his urge to “get ahead,” his tactlessness and his courage- in all these he symbolized the American spirit for hundreds of thousands. He had what would today be called the right “image,” and his triumphant election in 1828 was in fact a democratic revolution, whatever reservations historians may later have had about so describing it.
It was a revolution whose full impact, however, was not felt for a dozen years. The old Federalist and feffersonian parties had practically disappeared in the twenties as the issues that created them gave way to new ones. In lhe thirties, new parties emerged—this time with deeper grass roots. The various aggregations of pro-Jackson men unabashedly took the name of “Democrats,” and the foes of “King Andrew” rallied under a banner labelled “Whig”—a term taken from eighteenth-century British and colonial politics and signifying opposition to royal pretensions. Neither name was precisely logical, but logic was rapidly deserting the electoral procedure. The Whigs had begun by calling themselves “National Republicans,” which made more sense, but as “National” alienated some states’ rights men, and “Republican” offended ex-Federalists, the coalition formally adopted the more dramatic and nebulous name in 1834.
In 1831 and 1832 the Democrats, the National Republicans, and a short-lived new party, the AntiMasons, had come up with another novelty. This was a national convention of delegates to nominate candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency. The caucus system was already giving way to nominations by state legislatures, or by mass meetings called specifically for President-making purposes in the several states. A national gathering was clearly an even more impressive testimonial to the breadth of a politician’s support. For the 1832 campaign the Anti-Masons chose a little-known Virginian, William Wirt; the National Republicans, Henry Clay; and the Democrats—predictably—Andrew Jackson. In 1836 the National Republicans-turned-Whigs chose to skip a convention, while the Democrats passed the mantle to Vice President Martin Van Buren. He was elected. In 1840 the Democrats renominated Van Buren, but the Whigs set the stage for spectacular developments in President-making when they chose William Henry Harrison as their standard-bearer.