“I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as Europe.” (Thomas Jefferson)
The conquest of independence for the American colonies, although it was a great step forward, did not mark the final victory of democracy in America. Power was in the hands of a wealthy oligarchy:
“The most serious problem inherited from the Revolution was its failure to carry out its declaration of the equality of all men. We have pointed out that half-consciously the leaders of the Revolutionary period confined the application of equality to those men whom they recognized as parties to the social contract and members of the political community. Even among them equality was never rigorously asserted. Property qualifications for voting and unequal representation of sections in the state legislature gave distinct advantages to the wealthier men and the wealthier areas. Literacy tests as the years passed were substituted for property tests as a more defensible means for disfranchising the poor, but with almost the same effect. Those inequalities have persisted to the present day, operating now primarily to give white men an advantage over Negroes, and rural areas an advantage over urban areas at the ballot.” (Dan Lacy, The Meaning of the American Revolution, pp. 282-3.)
The ideal of many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, was that of a democratic republic of small farmers. “Those who labor in the earth”, he wrote, “are the chosen people of God.” To further this aim, in 1804 Jefferson purchased the vast territory of Louisiana from France for the immense sum (for those days) of 15 million dollars (double the total Federal budget) – the biggest land deal in history. By the stroke of a pen, Jefferson removed Britain, France, Russia and Spain from a massive swath of North America, and provided a huge area of land for the expansion of the population.
As usual, the losers were the Native Americans who were deprived of their ancestral lands and pushed to the West. Although he was an advanced democrat in many ways, Thomas Jefferson was incapable of thinking of them as human beings with the same rights as the European settlers. There was no place in his agrarian scheme for the First Americans whose lands were expropriated.
“The backward [tribes] will yield,” he wrote in 1812, “and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forests, into the Stony [Rocky] Mountains.” (Quoted in P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., p. 137.)
However, Jefferson’s dream of a free agrarian republic was already obsolete before he died. The development of capitalism in America, made possible by the Revolution, signified the rapid growth of industry in the North and East that brought in its wake a growing gap between rich and poor, workers and capitalists. The dream of an agrarian paradise became the nightmare of industrial capitalism. As far as democracy was concerned, it was fine in theory but in practice was little more than a fig-leaf to disguise the rule of a wealthy elite:
“The government in Washington had grown, through successive administrations, into a pleasant little oligarchy. A handful of men ran everything, and when they departed from the scene they chose their successors in the manner of one who writes a last will and testament. Jefferson chose Madison and Madison chose Monroe.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 361.)
The rich and powerful vied with each other to get their hands on the pork barrel of political power, just as they do today. The only important business in Washington was office-holding and related matters, just as it is today. No wonder Jefferson remarked shortly before his death: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
In a Few Hands
A Whig journalist in the early years of the 19th century wrote:
“Ours is a country, where men start from an humble origin, and from small beginnings rise gradually in the world, as the reward of merit and industry, and where they can attain to the most elevated positions, or acquire a large amount of wealth, according to the pursuits they elect for themselves.” (Quoted in P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., p. 155.)
So much for the self-satisfied rhetoric of the American dream. The reality, however, was very different. Not only were the Native Americans, black slaves and women excluded from this dream, but also the growing number of property-less industrial workers laboring in the sweat-shops of the cities of the northeast.
The conquest of formal democracy and the proclamation of the Rights of Man did not prevent the concentration of economic and political power into a few hands. The position of the working class did not improve but worsened, as shown by the following Appeal to the Working People of Manayuk to the Public, published in Pennsylvanian, August 28, 1833:
“We are obliged by our employers to labor at this season of the year, from 5 o’clock in the morning until sunset, being fourteen hours and a half, with an intermission of half an hour for breakfast, and an hour for dinner, leaving thirteen hours of hard labor, at an unhealthy employment, where we never feel a refreshing breeze to cool us, overheated and suffocated as we are, and where we never behold the sun but through a window, and an atmosphere thick with the dust and small particles of cotton, which we are constantly inhaling to the destruction of our health, our appetite and strength.
“Often we feel ourselves so weak as to be scarcely able to perform our work, on account of the over-strained time we are obliged to labor through the long and sultry days of summer, in the impure and unwholesome air of the factories, and the little rest we receive during the night not being sufficient to recruit our exhausted physical energies, we return to our labor in the morning, as weary as when we left it; but nevertheless work we must, worn down and debilitated as we are, or our families would soon be in a starving condition, for our wages are barely sufficient to supply us with the necessaries of life. We cannot provide against sickness or difficulties of any kind, by laying by a single dollar, for our present wants consume the little we receive and when we are confined to a bed of sickness any length of time, we are plunged into the deepest distress, which often terminates in total ruin, poverty, and pauperism.
“Our expenses are perhaps greater than most other working people, because it requires the wages of all the family who are able to work (save only one small girl to take care of the house and provide meals) to furnish absolute wants, consequently the females have no time either to make their own dresses or those of the children, but have of course to apply to trades for every article that is wanted.” (J. Kuczynski, A Short History of Labour Conditions under Industrial Capitalism, vol.2, p. 25.)
The condition of women workers was underlined in a report by the National Trades’ Union Convention in September, 1834:
“Mr. Douglass observed that in the single village of Lowell, there were about 4,000 females of various ages, now dragging out a life of slavery and wretchedness. It is enough to make one’s heart ache, said he, to behold these degraded females, as they pass out of the factory – to mark their wan countenances – their woe-stricken appearance. These establishments are the present abode of wretchedness, disease and misery; and are inevitably calculated to perpetuate them – if not to destroy liberty itself.”
Another report states:
“It has been shown that the number of females employed in opposition to male labor, throughout the United States, exceeds 140,000 who labor on an average from 14 to 15 hours per day, without that pure air and wholesome exercise which are necessary to health, and confinement with the consequent excess of toil, which checks the growth of the body, destroying in effect the natural powers of mind, and not infrequently distorting the limbs.”
Even more ghastly was the position of children:
“If children must be doomed to those deadly prisons,” said the New Haven delegates to the above mentioned convention, “let the law at least protect them against excessive toil and shed a few rays of light upon their darkened intellect. Workingmen! Bitter must be that bread which your little children earn in pain and tears, toiling by day, sleeping by night, sinking under oppression, consumption and decrepitude, into an early grave, knowing no life but this, and knowing of this only misery.”
The class struggle has accompanied the American Republic ever since it was born. In 1778, when the ink was scarcely dry on the Declaration of Independence, journeymen printers of New York City combined to demand an increase in wages. The first strike of wage earners took place in Philadelphia as early as 1786 when the printers fought for a weekly minimum wage. The first general strike, that is, the first strike of a considerable number of workers in a large number of trades in one big strike movement, took place in 1827, again in Philadelphia. In this period, many trade unions were formed and there were numerous strikes.
The bosses ferociously resisted the right of workers to organize in unions and go out on strike. In 1806 members of the Philadelphia Journeymen Cordwainers were tried for criminal conspiracy after a strike for higher wages. The charges were (1) combination to raise wages and (2) combination to injure others. Bankrupted as a result, the union disbanded. This was not an isolated case. Wherever possible the employers brought in scab labor to break strikes and appealed to the courts to declare trade unions illegal. Far from trade union organization being recognized as a democratic right, the unions were dragged through the courts and prosecuted for “conspiracy in restraint of trade” – a phrase copied from English common law. For decades, strikes, boycotts and other forms of working class struggle were subject to legal action on the grounds of “conspiracy”.
Andrew Jackson was a self-made frontiersman from Tennessee. The son of a poor family from the West, one of his biographers says of him:
“He became imbued with the doctrine that […] the banker is vastly overpaid for his services in expediting commerce, and that for bankers in Philadelphia and New York to have the power of life and death over business enterprises in Tennessee is criminal injustice.”
There was growing discontent among the property-less masses, small farmers, frontier settlers and religious minorities. Although Jackson was an outsider to politics, he got a surprisingly large popular vote when he ran for President in 1824. The W.A.S.P. elite was alarmed. The ruling class in the U.S.A. has, contrary to the well-known mythology, never been fond of democracy. One of them, James Kent of New York voiced the real feelings of the rich and powerful concerning democracy:
“It is not to be disguised that our governments are becoming downright democracies. The principle of universal suffrage, which is now running a triumphant career from Maine to Louisiana, is an awful power, which, like gunpowder, or the steam engine, or the press itself, may be rendered mighty in mischief as well as in blessings.”
In the election of 1828 Jackson swept the board. Overnight the flood tide of democratic protest had swept away the old Massachusetts and Virginia dynasties. Jackson (“Old Hickory”) became the first west-of-the-mountains President. On his inauguration day he allowed the people of Washington – “from the highest and most polished,” reported a disgusted Justice Story, “to the most vulgar and gross in the nation” – to enter the White House and consume ice cream and cake, lemon and punch. This turned into a riot and was dubbed “the reign of King Mob” by Judge Story. For the conservatives the American people have always been “King Mob” – people to be feared, not trusted.
Andrew Jackson claimed to represent the interests of the small man, the farmer and the unsettled West. In reality, the Jacksonian Democrats inaugurated an alliance between the southern slavocracy and northern, urban political machines. In this era, the Democrats were characterized by the lack of a clear program, aims and perspectives. The only common denominator of Jackson’s party was Jackson himself. And he was always better at saying what he was against than what he was in favor of. Nevertheless, the masses looked upon Jackson as their man in the White House – the People’s Champion.
That is, of course, unless you were Native American. An energetic advocate of westward expansion (later termed “manifest destiny”), Jackson, like his predecessors, looked down on the peoples who originally lived in those lands. He was an active proponent of their removal – more often than not by brute force. His signing into law of the “Indian Removal Act” legalized the wholesale killing, enslavement, and land theft that had begun with the arrival of the first Europeans. The infamous episode of the “Trail of Tears”, during which the Cherokee were herded from Georgia to Oklahoma was a direct result.
Jackson had no clearly defined political program, but he spoke for millions when he denounced the most obvious symptoms of capitalist robbery and exploitation: paper money, chartered corporations and banks. The Jacksonian Democrats condemned the moneyed aristocracy that had robbed the people of their birthright. This was the period of intense struggles over issues like tariffs and the United States Bank. The masses hated the Bank, which had received a charter for twenty years in 1816. Jackson himself shared the common view of all bankers as a bunch of parasites and slick swindlers. During the panic and ensuing depression of 1819 and 1820, the Bank had deflated the currency, denied credit to merchants and local banks and rapaciously levied on assets in cases where loans were in default. In other words, it acted as banks always act. As W.E. Woodward put it:
“It was an inveterate foe of everybody who owed it money unless the debtor was a member of Congress or the editor of a newspaper. […] Its funds were intelligently mobilized; its drafts were readily honoured in all commercial centres, and in Europe; its notes never fell below their par value; it provided a stable currency. But it was in the hands of men who carried it on as a private enterprise, a magnified pawnbroker’s shop endowed with extraordinary privileges. In spirit it was antisocial and greedy.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 398.)
The fact that an outsider from the West could overthrow the old political dynasties, the cliques of landowners who had been in power ever since the Revolution was in itself of tremendous symptomatic importance. The Jacksonian period was a period of tremendous ferment and unrest that came from the unresolved contradictions that lay within the foundations of American society:
“It was like a chemical mixture which has never composed itself, but wherein its biting acids continually fume and struggle. The social chemistry of America was in a state of extreme tension.” (Ibid., p. 393.)
Jackson’s confrontation with the United States Bank led to what is known as the Bank War. It expressed the conflict between rich and poor, the oligarchy and democracy, but also the contradiction between the northern free states and the slave-holding states of the South, as opposition to the Bank ultimately reflected a reactionary rejection by the southern slave-owners of the progressive development of capitalism in the young United States. Following his re-election in 1832, Jackson abolished the Bank. This was a utopian attempt to fight against tendencies that were irresistible. Capitalism, market forces and banks were firmly entrenched. But the Bank War showed that The Revolution had left many unpaid bills. These now demanded to be paid.
The contradiction between North and South expressed itself again as a struggle over tariffs. This in turn led to an attempt at secession by the state of South Carolina after the adoption of the Tariff Act of 1828. A pragmatic populist, Jackson had to back down on the tariff question, which he supported, but denounced the secessionist leaders and appealed to the people of South Carolina to repudiate their leadership. “Their object is disunion,” he thundered. “Disunion by armed force is treason.” Here already were the first rumblings of the Civil War.