Identity Politics in Jacksonian Ohio

The Future of American Politics

American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia or in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest.

 

Frederick Jackson Turner (1896)

 

The banks have been supported by the powerful array of mercantile wealth, by city and county lawyers largely in their pay, by the benighted and mercenary portion of the priesthood, by village doctors who love the shade of an awning better than the golden fields of the husbandman or workshop of the mechanic.

 

Samuel Medary (ca. 1840)

Identity politics, no matter who it includes or omits, whether it is wise strategy or brazen lobbying, is not unique to the 21st Century. To find its origin, the source of the virtues and shortcomings of America’s political system, historians and the curious should consider the pivotal contribution of the Second American Party System.

Identity politics during the Age of Jackson flowed from three developments: the expansion of the electorate, obligatory party discipline, and a conservative reaction to both. But those radical, new features of politics were themselves conservative responses that some believed essential to regain control of a society experiencing economic, social, political, and cultural atomization: unprecedented geographic expansion, urbanization, the spread of a factory system, immigration—changes that ushered in modern America. Politically, these transformations ended the controlling hand of the ‘Virginia Dynasty’ of presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) and collapsed the ‘Era of Good Feeling’ following the War of 1812. Identity politics replaced both with rise of the ‘Common Man.’ The country hasn’t been the same since.

Twenty-first century identity politics differs from the practices of the Jacksonian Era, of course, but those differences may be only skin deep. Minorities and women of the Jacksonian era were not part of the electorate. In the case of minorities, enfranchisement did not happen until 1865 (effectively after 1965) and for women, 1920. Nonetheless, the white male voters of Jackson’s day fractured into warring religious and ethnic rivalries.1 This leaves at least two questions addressed here: To what degree were those rivalries dominated class interests? And what did ‘identity politics’ have to do with Andrew Jackson?

Traditional accounts of the Jacksonian era have focused on the character of great leaders and the Bank of the United States. Generalizations abound: Andrew Jackson was the leading personality because he personified the aspirations of the common man, which is the traditional romantic explanation of Jacksonian Democracy. Deviations from this theme have occurred, but only in deciding the identity of the average man. Typically, Jacksonian Democrats were portrayed as poor; Whigs were rich. Democratic rhetoric and goals were radical attempts to elevate the body and spirit of man; Whigs were a conservative, moneyed class interested only in the protection of property.

Ironically, most histories of the ascendance of the common man pay scant attention to the electorate. Rather, historians have implied the motives guiding electoral behavior of the masses from individual data: personal letters and speeches of political leaders; newspaper editors and foreign observers. Instead of following the common man, historians typically ‘followed the politicians.’ Written from the top down, these accounts have left a sizeable vacuum. Who were the forgotten? How are we to know them?

 

Systematic analysis of voter choice in Ohio, Identity Politics responds to the challenge issued from New York by historian Lee Benson: Democratic and Whig voters in both states relied on religion, ethnicity, nativity, the prejudices of Northerners and Southerners, even the value of 'party' itself as the bases of voter behavior. This foundation, in turn, foreshadowed the future of American politics.

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© 2016 Stephen Fox

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