Martin Van Buren: The American Franchise

Martin Van Buren: The American Franchise

In the history of the evolving American franchise, the 1830s was a period filled with significant change that greatly impacted the nation's political party system and electoral processes. Most notably, the four-fold expansion in the electorate during the 1828 and 1832 presidential campaigns was equaled in the two elections in which Martin Van Buren was the presidential candidate. The election results from 1836 and 1840 showed a continued increase in both the number of voters and in the percentage of the eligible voters who actually voted, even though suffrage was still limited to white males.

Democratization of Politics

One of the major factors in this growth was the development of the new Whig Party. In 1836, the Whigs mobilized voters along regional lines. Although they did not defeat Van Buren, this anti-Democratic opposition increased its voting strength by 200,000 from the 1832 election. In 1840, the Whigs almost doubled their total in defeating Van Buren. Meanwhile, the Democrats continued to increase their power at the ballot box. Even in Van Buren's 1840 defeat, he received almost twice the number of votes that Jackson received in winning reelection in 1832!The huge increase in the electorate can be attributed to three developments. First, the institutional reforms of the Jacksonian period continued to take hold at the state and county levels. These changes made it easy for white males over the age of 21 (even if not citizens, residents, or property owners) to be eligible to cast ballots on election day. Second, the development of party organizations at the county level, controlled by local political bosses, meant that eligible men would be mobilized ("pulled" in party terminology) to the polls on election day by precinct workers. Third, the institutionalization of two-party competition between Whigs and Democrats gave workers in each party an incentive to get the maximum number of voters to the polls on election day. Indeed, these important developments marked America's entrance into a period of intense two-party competition for political office in most parts of the country. The electorate responded accordingly, with voting rates moving into the 60 to 75 percent range, where they would remain throughout most of the 19th century.

Status of African Americans and Slavery

This democratization of politics, in which "the common man" became increasingly involved in the American political system did not extend equally to all inhabitants of the country. For example, African-American freemen in the North continued to find their civil and political rights eroded or eliminated by state legislatures. Consequently, almost none of them were able to vote. In the South, of course, slaves remained without any legal rights, and had only the limited and ineffective protections of the "Slave Codes" designed to prevent their inhumane treatment. Indeed, during the 1830s, the "peculiar institution" became more entrenched in the deep South as labor-intensive cotton production became the foundation of the economy in states like Alabama and Mississippi.

Abolitionism continued to grow during the second half of the 1830s, with the American Antislavery Society claiming over 250,000 members by 1840. Abolitionists, however, still remained outside the American political and social mainstream. In 1837,, Reverend Elijah Parish Lovejoy, editor of the Alton Observer, began printing anti-slavery editorials in his newspaper in Illinois. A drunken "posse" of proslavery whites cornered him in his newspaper office, pumped five bullets into him, dumped his press into the Mississippi River, and set fire to the building. Abolitionists had their martyr to freedom of the press, and the movement gathered steam. But their continued marginalization—and the violent response they provoked among whites, as evidenced by the murder of Lovejoy—revealed the bleak prospects that abolitionists faced.

Immigration and Politics

The slumping economy did not discourage immigrants from coming to America. By the end of the Van Buren administration, 80,000 immigrants a year were entering the United States, the beginnings of a rush of newcomers that brought over four million people to U.S. shores between 1840 and 1860. (To put this figure in perspective, the 1840 census revealed that the country's total population was just over 17 million persons.) Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics (about 44 percent) and Germans (30 percent). They settled largely in the northeast and the midwest, often in major cities like New York or Boston, where the majority worked in low-paying, manual-labor jobs. A good number of the recent immigrants moved into skilled or semi-skilled jobs.

The recent arrivals were not always greeted with open arms. In New York City, for instance, immigrants clashed with Protestant workers of English, Scottish, or Dutch origin, who saw the newcomers as competitors for jobs, as adherents to an alien religious faith (Catholicism), and as inferior socially and culturally. Unsurprisingly, American nativism emerged as a potent force in politics in the late 1830s, becoming intertwined with the developing two-party system. Most of the immigrants joined the Democratic Party. Mobs of Democratic Irish (wielding "Irish confetti" or brickbats) fought mobs of Whigs for control of the streets and the polls in city elections.

The new immigrants also clashed with free blacks in the North. Both immigrants and free blacks competed for increasingly scarce jobs—and smaller wages—as the economic depression worsened. The racism espoused by immigrants was both virulent and instrumental; new immigrants were desperate to climb the American social, economic, and political ladder and they took great pains to demonstrate that they were superior to the free blacks who often lived in their neighborhoods and worked in similar jobs. It was little wonder, then, that immigrants proved some of the most determined opponents of abolitionism.

Social Movements

Americans became increasingly active in other social movements besides abolitionism during Van Buren's time in office. Reform-minded citizens, a number of whom had been swept up in the religious fervor surrounding the Second Great Awakening, began to take stands on issues such as temperance, free public education, penitentiaries, and women's rights. The reform impulse sprung largely from a desire to improve American society in the wake of the explosive and often disruptive growth of a market economy, of political democracy, of American cities, and of the numbers of immigrant newcomers.

A notable facet of mid-nineteenth century social movements was the prominent role played by women. Despite being denied access to traditional forms political participation—the vote—female activists formed organizations and became very public advocates of reform efforts. These social movements, however, met with mixed success. The movement for women's rights floundered even as women played a more prominent role in public discussions. Temperance advocates, likewise, ran into stiff opposition from newly arrived immigrants—for whom the consumption of alcohol served an important social and cultural function—as well as from their supporters in the Democratic Party. On the other hand, free public education became more common in the 1830s, especially in the North, because of the work of advocates like Horace Mann. The American penal system was altered to emphasize the possibility of reforming prisoners.

Native American Relocation

Van Buren's administration completed the removal of American Indian tribes. The Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and others in the old Northwest were moved west of the Mississippi; the Creeks were moved out of Alabama. Van Buren also ordered General Winfield Scott in 1838 to round up the Cherokee of Georgia—a tribe more "westernized" and "civilized" than their poor white neighbors—and force them to migrate along the Trail of Tears to the Indian Territories west of the Mississippi. Along the way, one-quarter of the tribe died of disease and deprivation. Similarly, the Seminoles in Florida were forced to relocate in the West; hostilities between the tribe and the federal government ended by 1842. By the close of Van Buren's term, all Eastern tribes had ended their resistance to white land grabbing, and had been resettled in ethnic enclaves (reservations) in the Wisconsin and Iowa territories, then west of the Mississippi and Arkansas, and west of the Red River on the Texas border. In time, they would be ousted from these lands, too.