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The Culture Shock of Presidential Backcountry Politics

The Culture Shock of Presidential Backcountry Politics
AI visualization of a 14-year-old, orphaned Andrew Jackson gambling away his inheritance from his paternal grandfather, who had died in Scotland.

This week's video looks at some early episodes of Andrew Jackson's life in the Carolina and Tennesee backcountry and how they reflected his Scotch-Irish ancestry and forecast his future as a general and as the first president elected from the frontier.

Fast-forwarding to the election of 1828 and his presidency, let's look at another excerpt from David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, which we also dipped into in this post on Cavalier "sex ways" in early Virginia and this one on backcountry violence and honor culture. Here, Fischer explores how Jackson formed a new coalition of American cultures to oust New Englander John Quincy Adams from the White House:

The presidency of John Quincy Adams attained few of its own goals, but it had an unintended consequence of high importance in American history. Once again, the New England spirit of ordered freedom was brought to Washingtonby a moralistic President who favored an active role for the national government in economics, education and morality. These measures were strongly supported in New England. But Americans from three regions deeply disliked the policies of the Yankee President, and detested his political style. In the elections of 1828, John Quincy Adams won every electoral vote except one in his native region of New England. He also ran well in boundary states which had voted Federalist in the early republic.
But Adams was deeply unpopular in other regions. Once again, Pennsylvania, the coastal south and the highland south joined together against New England in a new coalition which governed the nation for twelve years, from 1829 to 1841. Its structure was similar to the Jeffersonian coalition; voting patterns in 1828 and 1832 were much the same as in 1804 and 1808. But its style was very different. Its leader was not a Virginia planter but a back-country border captain, Andrew Jackson. The values of Jacksonian democracy varied broadly from one cultural region to another, but the dominant purposes of Andrew Jackson himself owed much to the folkways of his ancestors. ...
Jackson's goals for the government of an "extensive republic" were the preservation of honor abroad and the protection of liberty at home. By liberty, he had in mind the natural freedom of the backcountry – minimal government, maximal automomy for each individual and no "unwarrantable interference" by the people of one region in the customs of any other.
The Jacksonian coalition was built upon principles which most Americans accepted, but many voters were deeply troubled by the behavior of Andrew Jackson himself – a political style characterized by intensely personal leadership, charismatic appeals to his followers, demands for extreme personal loyalty, and a violent antipathy against all who disagreed with him. This style of leadership had long been rooted in the political folkways of the backcountry, but it was alien to other American cultures. In some ways that seemed merely absurd to others – as in the Peggy Eaton affair (1831), when a petty quarrel among Cabinet wives grew into a test of personal loyalty which became a matter of the highest moment to a border chieftain. To the astonishment of Americans from other regions, the discharge of a Cabinet, and political feuds that continued for many years.
If the Peggy Eaton affair amused Jackson's critics, other events genuinely alarmed them. In the Nullification crisis, Jackson's proclamations and force bill challenged southern ideas of hegemonic liberty. In his battle with Nicholas Biddle and the "Monster Bank," and the removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, the President badly frightened the elite of Philadelphia. His refusal to respect a ruling of the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia and his trampling of Indian rights outraged moral opinion in New England.
During Andrew Jackson's presidency, voting returns were mainly regional in nature. Patterns of partisan allegiance to the Jacksonian Democratic Republicans and anti-Jacksonian National Republicans in 1828 and 1832 were very similar to those in the early republic. Jackson was deeply distrusted in greater New England and in the Delaware Valley. He was generally supported in central and western Pennsylvania, in the Mississippi Valley, the coastal south and the highland south. These regional patterns were so strong that in 1828 Jackson carried the electoral votes of every southern and western state, and lost virtually all of New England. Quakers, Mennonites and Moravians were strenuously hostile to him. Most large denominations – Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Baptist – divided on regional lines.
Regional culture was the primary determinant of party allegiance in this period. the backcountry rallied to the idea of natural freedom under the banners of Jackson's Democratic Republican party. Greater New England supported the idea of ordered liberty and the National Republicans. The coastal south held to its idea of hegemonic liberty. Other regions and ethnic groups aligned themselves with one group or another, according to their customs and beliefs. In the election of 1832, the pattern was a little different as a consequence of the defection from the Democratic party of South Carolina and Kentucky, caused by feuds between Jackson and his rival border chieftains Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Otherwise, the Jacksonian coalition continued to dominate the republic from 1824 to 1840, against the minority opposition of greater New England.

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