The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson
By Mark R. Cheathem.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Paperback, 248 pages, $25.

Reviewed by John Bicknell

“I have been charmed to see that a presidential election now produces scarcely any agitation,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to his former Treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, in 1817. Safely removed from the vicissitudes of electoral politics, the third president expressed satisfaction that his Republican heirs embodied his ideal—one he didn’t always practice—of an executive office that stirred little interest among the general population. “On Mr. Madison’s election there was little, on Monroe’s all but none.”

After Monroe, however, things revved back up, and that is the subject of Mark R. Cheathem’s The Coming of Democracy. Cheathem, project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University and the author of two other books on the Jacksonian Era (with two more on the way), applies a microscope to presidential campaigning in the years from 1824 to 1840. These were years that saw the evolution of the form, from the backroom backbiting of the bitterly contested election of 1824 in which Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote, but the House chose John Quincy Adams as president, to the rollicking hard cider and log cabin campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840.

Jackson dominated the era in public, but it was Van Buren who bookended it, supporting the losing William H. Crawford in 1824, then switching his allegiance to Jackson and becoming the organizational force behind the emergence of the Democratic Party before being elected vice president and president, and finally losing to Harrison in 1840.

Many of the elements of modern campaigning that were developed in that sixteen-year period owe their existence to Van Buren’s creativity in fathering what became known as the Second Party System (the first, which pitted Federalists against Jeffersonian Republicans, died a quiet death at the national level after 1816).

The Coming of Democracy methodically lays out how that happened. Exploiting the revolutions in transportation and communications that accompanied the market revolution of the early nineteenth century, Van Buren and others at the state and national levels began employing an array of rarely used devices to get their messages out to voters.

This is not what Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founders had in mind.

The coming of democracy spelled the end of the era of what Michael J. Heale in The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, described as the “mute tribune,” the presidential candidate presented as the man above ambition. Some of that tradition grew out of the Founders’ fear of executive authority—beware the man who too obviously seeks power. By the 1820s, with the demise of the Federalists and the impending earthly exit of the founding generation, the fear of monarchy that had so animated politics in the early republic had receded somewhat, opening the door to a still reticent but more public display of ambition.

Cheathem’s study is literally a textbook example of how a succession of presidential candidates employed political culture to seize the opportunity to find the sweet spot between reticence and ambition. Where Heale focuses on the activities of the various presidential candidates, Cheathem zeroes in on the material culture of political campaigning—political cartoons, campaign biographies, music, and the intended-for-public-release correspondence between candidates and voters.

In doing so, Cheathem creates a complementary thesis to Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. If Wilentz is describing the grand march of democratization from a height of thirty thousand feet, Cheathem is explaining how that looked and worked on the ground.

Another useful comparison is to the two great historians of the Whig Party, which from the mid-1830s until the early 1850s competed with Van Buren’s Democrats for electoral supremacy, and usually came up short. Where Daniel Walker Howe focused on the philosophical underpinnings of Whig policy and explained the party in the context of the culture of the day, Michael F. Holt focused on the minute detail of local party organizations. Taken together, you get a complete picture of the Whig Party. Reading one without the other, you miss part of the picture. Just so with Wilentz and Cheathem.

But where Wilentz falls into the trap of trying to make every dodge and parry of the nineteenth century seem relevant to the twenty-first, Cheathem largely avoids this pitfall.

It’s easy to overstate the similarities between the birth pangs of presidential campaigning and the often farcical process we witness today, and it’s a mistake all too many historians seem eager to commit. Cheathem is careful not to, even while asserting that “the outline of formal politics in the early United States looks familiar to us today.” Still, he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the vast differences, either, pointing to such process and substantive differences as the lack of a single national election day, the relative weakness of the federal government compared to the states, the reluctance of presidents to exercise much executive authority, and the reality that “American citizens did not look at presidents as the answer to the nation’s problems in the same way that they do today.”

But culture outside of politics affects the way that campaigns are run and helps determine what is acceptable and not acceptable. Cheathem could have dwelt a bit more on the intersections of politics, religion, and the emerging market economy. These nominally non-political cultural differences—the debate over Texas and westward expansion in the 1844 campaign, for example—were often more significant in determining outcomes than the “outline of formal politics.”

The market revolution led to new technologies, which expanded the avenues open to exploration by campaigns. Each new iteration of technology changed the medium—from the printed word to the telegraph, and straight on through to radio, TV, and the Internet—but not the message. And through each iteration, the goal has remained the same: Reach the voters where they live. If no one writes letters anymore, and political cartoons are a relic of a bygone era of print, we still have memes that serve much the same purpose.

All of this, of course, was designed to get voters to the polls, and it worked magnificently. Turnout boomed between 1824 and 1840, a development worrisome to some elites. The boom coincided not just with changes in campaigning but in a wider liberalization of American culture, with an expansion of the franchise and the religious democratization of the Second Great Awakening. Turnout in the presidential election of 1840 reached 80 percent, a record that has never been broken. With all our technological advancement and expanded ease of voting, that fact leaves us with a challenge to American democracy with which we have yet to come to grips. 

John Bicknell is the author of America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation and Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856.