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  • The Irony of the Democratic Style
  • Jennifer R. Mercieca (bio)

“The men who have preached these doctrines,” Noah Webster groused of Jacksonian democracy in 1837, “have never defined what they mean by the people, or what they mean by democracy, nor how the people are to govern themselves, and how democracy is to carry on the functions of government.”1 As Webster’s complaint attests, the rise of Jacksonian democracy in America was precipitated by three distinct ruptures in American political discourse: the word “democracy” began to have positive connotations for many Americans; more Americans began to describe their government as a democracy rather than as a republic; and finally, the word “democracy” itself was all but drained of its precise, technical meaning in popular usage.2 These shifts in American political discourse were not unrelated; indeed, one could argue that if it were not for this last shift—if the word “democracy” had continued to denote and connote “the government of all over all”—then the first and second shifts might not have occurred at all, and Webster would not have had cause to be so grumpy.

These three features likewise prefigure America’s democratic style—the rhetorical performance of its political theory. America’s democratic style is premised upon a positive disposition toward the word democracy, a mistaken belief that the United States is a democracy rather than a republic, and therefore, an ironic gap between its literal political theory and its figurative political performance. My hope in this short essay is to show how these three features work together and in so doing to make an argument for one aspect of the democratic style: its ironic relationship to its political theory. To do this I briefly examine a representative anecdote from Andrew Jackson’s use of the democratic style—a use that could easily be confused with the courtly or the republican styles, but is actually, I believe, a classic use of the democratic style as it is ironically performed in American political discourse. This examination of the use of the new democratic style in Jacksonian political culture rewards our critical attention because it provides an opportunity to analyze how Old Hickory was able to craft a “coherent repertoire of rhetorical conventions” and strategically deploy them “for political effect” by conflating the well-known differences between republicanism and democracy.3

According to Robert Hariman political styles “operate as a mixture of rhetorical designs, institutional customs, and philosophical arguments” specific to “historical periods and cultural locales.” Importantly for my discussion of the democratic style, these designs, customs, and arguments, while not “identical [End Page 441] with a political theory,” may bear “strong correspondences reflecting common origins or interests.”4 When attempting to assess America’s democratic political style, then, we would likewise expect that it would carry some resemblance to America’s democratic political theory. Or as Hariman might have argued, since the democratic political style is “the artistic expression” of America’s “political theory,” we should find evidence of American democratic theory in its performances.5

Yet, as Noah Webster observed in 1837, the rise of America’s democratic style was not supported by a coherent or systematic political theory. Indeed, American republican political theory had developed between 1764 and 1824 in opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.6 Quite simply, America’s first generation of political leaders had distrusted democracy as the rule of the worst. They viewed the government of all over all as tumultuous, short lived, and violent; neither property nor liberty, they feared, were secure under democracy.7 In short, prior to the rise of Jacksonianism, American political theory and political discourse were avowedly antidemocratic. The prodemocratic discourse that emerged between 1824 and 1839 therefore was markedly different from the previous elite and vernacular republican discourses of the founding generation, which makes it an excellent place to begin an analysis of the democratic style.8

When the votes were counted for the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson had won a majority of the popular vote, but not the Electoral College.9 The House gave the office to John Quincy Adams, who had a long and distinguished political career and who had served most...