The Dawn of the Age of Jackson

Inauguration of Andrew Jackson. By: Robert Cruickshank.

Andrew Jackson, upon taking the White House, was bound to change the political landscape of America, and he did so quickly.

In Jackson’s inaugural address, one of his most notable commitments was “reforming” the federal government, which to him meant “the purging of federal offices.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 331 citing Presidential Messages, II, 438. Throughout the campaign, Jackson had promised rewards for his supporters and to dismiss his detractors. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 331.

Many in the public took Jackson’s solicitation quite literally, creating a “horde of office-seekers,” who “turned the inaugural reception into a near-riot, damaging White House furnishings until they were diverted outside onto the lawn.” Id. The Jackson administration would encourage and foster patronage, for better or worse.

This patronage would culminate in Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet,” his informal advisors, who assembled outside of the formal cabinet. See id. at 332. These advisors had no clearly delineated roles or duties, which further consolidated Jackson’s power and allowed him to “dominate his surroundings.” Id. quoting Richard Latner, “The Kitchen Cabinet and Andrew Jackson’s Advisory System,” JAH 65 (1978), 267-88.

That consolidation of power was furthered when Jackson “removed thirteen district attorneys, nine marshals, twenty-three registers and receivers, and twenty-five customs collectors, replacing them all with recess appointments.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 333. Jackson and his administration couched these removals as “reform,” and eliminating corruption in the American government. See id.

Corruption came to light with Jackson’s supporters. Samuel Swartwout, who was the collector of the port of New York, stole over a million dollars in 1839. Id. at 334 citing Shaw Livermore, The Twilight of Federalism (Princeton, 1962), 241; Leonard D. White, The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History (New York, 1954), 327-32. These developments had the effect of diminishing both “the competence and the prestige of public service.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 334.

Whether the age of Jackson brought a net positive result for America or not, the beginning of the age is best characterized by an introduction of populist policies that benefited his patrons and harmed nearly all others. Americans were witnessing a massive shift in government from the relatively clean, open administration of John Quincy Adams to Jackson’s web of patronage and “reform.” Ultimately, at the dawn of the age of Jackson, America’s government was not on an ideal path.

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