The mob in the White House: Jacksonian populism

Recall that I placed Andrew Jackson near the “populist” (as opposed to “elitist”) pole in the spectrum. Here, from Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of Jackson, is a little anecdote that shows how easily such populism veers into mob rule.

I) Background

The seventh president, six foot one but only 140 pounds — “gaunt but striking, with a formidable head of white hair, a nearly constant cough, a bullet lodged in his chest,” according to Meacham — was orphaned at 14 and never knew his father (rather, if not quite, like Hamilton,  Obama/McCainClinton/NewsomVillaraigosa and other presidents).

He also never had biological children of his own. In this respect, he was similar to George Washington. Both Jackson and Washington, in the popular mind, made good “fathers of the nation” because, childless, they regarded the people as their children.

But above all, Jackson was the first president to come from “the common people,” from what we would call the lower classes. The six presidents before him had all been members of an educated, classically trained elite. This contrast became Jackson’s salient feature. He would spend his two terms fighting against what he perceived as elites.

As Meacham puts it (emphasis mine):

Before Jackson, power tended toward the elites, whether political or financial. After Jackson, power was more diffuse, and government, for better and worse, was more attuned to the popular will….

The [debates among the Founders had] largely concerned how the new nation might most effectively check the popular will. Hence the Electoral College, the election of senators by state legislatures, and limited suffrage. The prevailing term for America’s governing philosophy was republicanism–an elegant Enlightenment-era system of balances and counterweights that tended to put decisive power in the hands of elites elected, at least in theory, by a country of landowning yeomen. The people, broadly defined, were not to be trusted with too much power. This creed, best articulated by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, lay at the heart of presidential politics in the first decades of the nineteenth century, years in which a small establishment in the capital essentially decided on its own who would have the chance to live in the White House.

Jackson had reason to regard this elitism as his personal enemy. In the election of 1824 he won the popular vote but was tied in the electoral college and lost in the House of Representatives. In his mind, the people had chosen him, but the elites had robbed him of the office. So in the next two rounds, which he won, he took his fight directly to the people, even going on the first presidential campaign tour.


The force driving Jackson after 1824: a belief in the primacy of the will of the people over the whim of the powerful, with himself as the chief interpreter and enactor of that will…. “the republic is safe, and its main pillars — virtue, religion and morality — will be fostered by a majority of the people”… Democracy was in; elitism was out.

(Notice his explicit mention of virtue as residing in the common people — that, ie the putative location of virtue, was what I attempted to trace across time in that diagram post.)

II) Inauguration Day

On the day in 1829 he was sworn in, Jackson (apparently without prior planning) opened the White House to “the people”. They gladly obliged by piling in. As one contemporary lady of letters described it:

no police officers placed on duty and the whole house [was] inundated by the rabble mob…. The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negroes, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping [replaced it] …. the carpets and furniture are ruined …. The armies of democracy were pitching their tents in Andrew Jackson’s White House. …

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who was at the White House that day, declared the “the reign of King Mob.”