Antebellum America as an Egalitarian Society
It is generally believed that, following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the American Revolution and the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1789, the United States was forged as a free-market capitalist democracy that offered equality of opportunity to all its citizens. And it is true that the United States was founded on the principles of individual freedom and democratic ideals. But an analysis of the political and economic forces driving antebellum America, defined as the period from 1776 to 1861 when the Civil War began, tells a different story. This paper will argue that the true story of antebellum America is not one of an immediately egalitarian society but rather one of a transition from a politically elitist society dominated by the power of inherited wealth to an emerging capitalist democracy that still had not realized its full potential either at the start or the end of the War Between the States.
Generally, the political dominance of the Revolutionary generation is generally believed to have declined following the disputed presidential election of 1824 between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Although Adams won the 1824 showdown, political, social and economic forces that would pass the torch to a generation of Americans who either experienced the Revolution as children or were born in the first years of independence were already in motion. In essence, the elitist republic of the Revolutionary generation was about to be supplanted by the "Jacksonian democracy," in which ordinary (white male) Americans would garner political and economic power despite the protests of the fading social and political Revolutionary elites ("Ambiguous Democracy" 2000).
Political hegemony by Jacksonian democrats followed what could be considered the most significant market revolution in the history of the United States. Recently, social historians have begun to ...