the imaginative conservative logo

When Andrew Jackson died in 1845, he had still not aligned himself officially with the Democratic party, still believing himself a natural and cultivated republican. Was he, then, an Old Republican?…

Despite being associated with the “Democratic Party,” then and now, it is unclear whether Andrew Jackson offered much thought about the Democratic Party or whether he even considered it, or any party, a good thing for the country. When Jackson did speak or write on the issue of parties prior to 1830, he had nothing but contempt for them. Real republicans, he had argued frequently, decided matters by principle and circumstance, not party. Even during the 1828 election, some parties calling themselves “Democrats” opposed Jackson, while others that supported him went under a variety of names, such as the “People’s Ticket.”[1] Jackson’s closest allies felt the same. In 1830, Davy Crockett wrote, “To General Jackson I am a firm and undeviating friend. I have fought under his command—and am proud to own that he has been my commander. I have loved him, and in the sincerity of my heart I say that I still love him.” However, the frontiersman and hero of the Alamo continued, “to be compelled to love every one who, for purposes of self-aggrandizement, pretends to rally around the ‘Jackson Standard,’ is what I never can submit to.”[2]

From the extant documents, the Democratic Party seems to have been the brainchild of three men: Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, and Thomas Hart Benton.[3] Van Buren, of course, would become one of the greatest Jacksonians of his age, and Thomas Hart Benton, who had once almost killed Jackson, also became a close ally. Calhoun, however, went his own direction, using Jackson when he could but discarding and fighting him later. The three men took advantage of the chaos created by “the corrupt bargain”—the alleged deal between Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824 that handed Adams the presidency—to tear down the “no-party system” of George Washington and James Monroe and to build the first modern party.

Each brought something unique and critical to the party. Van Buren brought Machiavellian political acumen as well as money from New York bankers and financiers. Less manipulative than Van Buren, but possessing the frontiersman mystique and aura, combined with purpose and intelligence, Benton brought the votes of frontier farmers, ever procreating and ever expanding to the West. Always brilliant but never trustworthy, Calhoun brought, at least in theory, the support of the only southerners that really mattered: the plantation owners. Together, the three believed they could use Jackson—who they were convinced was not altogether brilliant—as a symbol and rallying point for the new party. Still, it was not until around 1835, as Van Buren prepared for the 1836 election, that something resembling the modern Democratic party come into being, organized at every level of the republic and united in a relatively common cause.[4] Jackson himself avoided the term “Democrat” referring to himself as a “republican,” and to anyone who opposed him and his allies as the “opposition.”

Of Jackson’s allies in the 1820s, however, probably none was stranger than John Randolph of Roanoke—not a Democrat by any means, but a radical individualist and libertarian. One of his best biographers, Russell Kirk, wrote of Randolph in 1951:

Of Randolph’s alternating ferocity and compassion, his duels, his beautiful letters, his entrancing extemporaneous eloquence, his fits of madness, his sardonic wit, his outbursts of prophecy and visions of devils, his brandy and his opium, his passionate Christianity, his lonely plantation life, his quixotic opposition to the great political and economic powers of the day—everyone who reads American history knows something.[5]

In the 1820s, Randolph led a group of men who considered themselves “Old Republicans,” thinkers who were “more Jefferson than Jefferson” himself. Their number included John Taylor of Caroline, Thomas McKean, and Nathaniel Macon. Strict constitutionalists, they had begun to break with Jefferson when he purchased Louisiana from the French. The Old Republicans did not believe that the president was authorized by the Constitution to make such purchases. Classically educated and especially taken with an idealized vision of the Roman republic, they held firmly to several beliefs: that natural law was higher than positive law; that God intended man, at his best, to farm; that God desired each man (and woman) to embrace his or her distinctive and eccentric selves; that imperialism was abhorrent; and that democracy inevitably destroyed republics. In his many speeches on the House and Senate floors, Randolph generally referred to those who advocated stronger government as “maggots”—crawling, unformed insects who, ignorantly or not, placed their own will above the will of God and His laws of nature, and he attacked democracy in the strongest terms as nothing more than the rule of the mob:

I would not live under King Numbers. I would not be his steward, nor make him my taskmaster. I would obey the principle of self-preservation, a principle we find even in the brute creation, in flying from this mischief.[6]

Jackson found himself quite taken with these men and many, if not all, of their ideas when serving his few years in the U.S. Senate. The Old Republicans—known to their enemies as “Tertium Quids”—liked Jackson as well. Understandably, he was not one of them, being too western and not at their level of academic intelligence (as they saw him), but he was an ally, nonetheless, a man who distrusted centralized political authority as much as they did.

Most importantly, though, they despised Henry Clay for his radical nationalism. After the “corrupt bargain” that brought Clay the office of the Secretary of State, Randolph spent 1826 and 1827 lambasting him whenever possible. The two men had even dueled in 1824, though neither hurt the other. Not content merely to attack Clay and his ideas, though, Randolph spoke of Jackson in glowing, if not messianic, terms. Jackson, he declared time and time again on the Senate floor, was the only possible man to reclaim and purify the fallen American republic. Always one for mythical and classical illusions—which some might label purple or fulsome—Randolph compared the greatness of Jackson, past, present, and future, with the “Great Father of Rivers,” the Mississippi. Undaunted by man, the river would flow, connecting all, including the past with the future. Like the Mississippi, Jackson “would roll its mighty volume on thro time yet to come.”[7] Randolph’s speech lasted close to six hours, and the official government publishers of all Congressional debates, allies of Clay, refused to print the speech. Despite recording those allied with Clay, word for word, the entry for May 3, 1825, states: “Mr. RANDOLPH rose and moved the indefinite postponement of the bill, and then delivered a speech of nearly six hours.”[8] One newspaper, the Hagerstown Torchlight, did provide some fascinating details, though. After mocking Clay “without, however, expressly naming him,” Randolph claimed that a man possessed a higher duty to manhood than to American law. Should a sheriff ever attempt to enforce a law not countenanced by Nature, he claimed

that he had a fine double-barrel gun at home, which, he said, was at the service of any sheriff who might dare to come to his neighborhood, to execute any of the provisions of that law; or any agent of the government who might venture to set foot upon his lands, for the purpose of laying out roads and canals—He did not care whether constitutional or not—it mattered not what the Supreme Court said—thank God he could pull a trigger.[9]

Such was Jackson’s most vocal supporter in the U.S. Senate. Even after Randolph left the Senate in 1827, he continued to support Jackson. “What I have most at heart of all attainable objects is the election of General Jackson,” he wrote to the Richmond Enquirer in early 1828.[10] In turn, Jackson admired Randolph immensely, and, in early 1830, he appointed him ambassador to Russia.

As Vice President and, therefore, president of the Senate, John C. Calhoun never restrained Randolph regarding either the time his orations took or the threatened violence therein.[11] Because of Calhoun’s inaction, Jackson continued, mistakenly, to see the South Carolinian as an upstanding man and a profound ally.

When Andrew Jackson died in 1845, he had still not aligned himself officially with the Democratic party, still believing himself a natural and cultivated republican. Was he, then, an Old Republican? Well, in all matters except for being a Unionist, he was.

Author’s Note: This essay is Part I in a series of “director’s cut” pieces from the forthcoming Regnery book, In Defense of Andrew Jackson, available September 10, 2018, but available for pre-order now.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] On a local Democratic Party opposing Jackson, see Adams Sentinel (January 30, 1828). On the names of parties supporting Jackson, see, for example, Wilmington American Watchman (February 15, 1828). By 1830, no permanent name existed. See, for example, “The Federal Jacksonians,” Hagerstown Mail (April 9, 1830).

[2] David Crockett to C.D. McLean, March 5, 1830, in Washington National Intelligencer (April 22, 1830).

[3] Glyndon G. Van Deusen offered a nice synopsis of the first decade of the Democratic Party’s existence in his The Jacksonian Era, 1828-1848 (New York: Harper & Row, 1959). As he argued, the party did not take shape until the middle of Jackson’s second administration.

[4] Donald B. Cole, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 213-214, 245-254.

[5] Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, 15.

[6] Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, 14.

[7] John Henry Eaton to Andrew Jackson, March 5, 1826, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 6: 169-170.

[8] “On Debates in Congress,” May 3, 1825, Gales and Seaton’s Register, 671.

[9] “Congress,” Hagerstown Torchlight (May 11, 1826).

[10] “John Randolph,” quoted in Adams Sentinel (April 30, 1828).

[11] John C. Calhoun to Andrew Jackson, July 18, 1826, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 6: 187.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. I’m putting in a request for this book at my local library system. This fact gives me the opportunity to suggest articles on this site dealing with the deterioration of the country’s public libraries, because I don’t have much hope for my success here.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: