Apropos of nothing--or perhaps just because a curious boredom has set in listening to pundits speculate how Hillary is going to revive her campaign, or what Obama's "change" truly means, or just how John McCain will unite both wings of his party--here is the story of one of my favorite elections in Ameican history.
1828 really begins with Andrew Jackson’s anger.
Jackson—the six-foot tall ex-frontiersman hero of New Orleans, the man who as a boy of thirteen in the Revolutionary War received a saber slash across the head for refusing to shine the boots of a British officer, and who then survived smallpox and the deaths of his mother and two brothers and grew up to defeat not only the British in 1814, but also the Creeks, Seminoles and Spanish—well, Jackson was not a guy you wanted to make mad.
And John Quincy Adams had crossed him, big time—or so Jackson thought. So convinced was Jackson that Adams had entered into a “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay to win the Presidency that Jackson’s Tennessee delegation nominated him for President in 1825, and Jackson resigned his Senate seat and went at it.
Most serious historians today feel that Adams did not bargain with Clay for the Presidency in 1824—but this was of little good to Adams at the time. Even before Jackson began running, the portents weren’t really wonderful. On his Inauguration Day, Adams had to compete for attention with a traveling circus that had come into town, not an easy thing in America in the early 1800s. Then he and his wife Louisa discovered that the Monroes had left the White House in a shambles—the furniture was so battered, the place such a horrible mess, that Louisa actually invited members of the public in to take a look, lest she be blamed.
Adams didn’t help his own case any. In his first annual state of the state message (in those days, delivered as a letter to the Congress, rather than given as a speech) Adams focused not on foreign affairs or the future of westward expansion, but…on establishing a National Observatory, a series of astronomical outposts that would be “the lighthouses of the sky,” as he put it. In this Adams was ahead of his time—in the same message, he also lobbied for a regulated system of weights and measures—but it would be akin to a modern president giving an hour long State of the Union address passionately advocating the adoption of the metric system.
Things got little better as the John Quincy Adams administration continued—the whole of it, according even to a sympathetic biographer of Adams “was a hapless failure and best forgotten, save for the personal anguish it cost him.” With cries of “Corruption and Bargain” ringing from Jackson allies in the West (who now included Adams’s own vice-president, John C. Calhoun), Adams was on the defensive at every turn. No wonder he began to feel he was surrounded by “conspirators,” that he was being tried by a “secret inquisition.” He was. A spiteful opposition in Congress thwarted him at every turn, foreign and domestic.
Finally, the Popular Vote
The era of America’s popularly elected presidents was now at hand. In the burgeoning, westward-looking new democracy, the old caucus system was dead and voting by the people had arisen. All but two states now picked presidential electors by popular vote. With the easing of restrictions on voting rights (owning land was no longer a prerequisite, although being white and a man was) more and more people went to the polls.
Presidential elections were about to become spectator sport, bear-baiting fest, gladiatorial contest and blood-letting all thrown into one.
Two Political Parties Again
Predictably, the Republican Party now split into two factions. One, which supported John Quincy Adams and his vice-presidential pick, Treasury Secretary Richard Rush, called itself the National Republicans. They were the party of the old line Republicans, the wealthy merchant classes, and the landed aristocracy.
Andrew Jackson and his running mate, John C. Calhoun, were backed by the western small farmers and the eastern laboring men. At first they called themselves the “Friends of Andrew Jackson,” then Democratic-Republicans and, finally, Democrats. This group would form the core of the future Democratic Party.
National-Republican: John Quincy Adams
It was possible that John Adams—now 61 years old—was running for President just for the sheer, stubborn pride of it, because the previous years had been no picnic. At one point, he was stalked by the first Presidential would-be assassin, a crazed doctor who (in a day when any citizen could, and did, just walk into the White House to see the President) talked openly about killing Adams. (Adams actually met with him and gave him a stern talking-to.) It’s no wonder that historians now speculate that Adams was clinically depressed going into the 1828 campaign.
Democrat-Republican: Andrew Jackson
The General—also 61—was probably at the peak of his powers. Driven both by his sense that the White House had been stolen from him in 1824 and by his deep, sincere, life-long desire to wrest power from the privileged and place it in the hands of the people, he envisioned himself as a president for the common man, leading with his beloved wife Rachel by his side.
Only one part of this dream would come true.
Well, with one party claiming to defend the nation against “howling Democracy” and the other battling “a lordly, purse-proud aristocracy” is it any wonder things soon got very, very malicious?
The campaign got underway after both candidates were nominated in September of 1827 (since each party still operated without national nominating conventions, both Jackson and Adams were put forward in a series of special state nominating conventions and mass meetings.)
Jackson had the immediate edge because, well ahead of his time, he had understood the need for party organizations in each state (“You must avail yourself of the physical force of an organized body of men,” he told supporters). Soon there were “Friends of Jackson” in all parts of the country, members of state legislatures, running newspapers, pushing for the Old Hickory, The Hero of New Orleans. These “Hurra Boys” wrote political songs, printed up pamphlets, and held barbecues and rallies for Jackson.
John Quincy Adams called the Jackson men “skunks of party slander,” but they attacked him with a will, and very effectively. “His habits and principles are not congenial with…the notions of a democratic people,” one Jackson supporter wrote. Others whispered about Adams’s “foreign wife” (Louisa was English.) When the President bought a billiard table and set of ivory chessmen for the White House he was accused of purchasing a “gaming table and gambling furniture.” Adams was called a monarchist and anti-religious, because he traveled on the Sabbath. And he was of course smeared by his association and friendship with Secretary of State Henry Clay, who supposedly owed his position to the “corrupt bargain.” (Clay was not a statesman, snarled The New Hampshire Patriot, but “a shyster, pettifogging in a bastard suit before a country squire [Adams].”)
Adams supporters finally got organized and returned fire with a vengeance. Jackson, they said, had aided Aaron Burr when the latter conspired against the union in 1806, and had invaded Florida and nearly started an international incident. In fact, he had the personality of a dictator. Not only that, he couldn’t spell (supposedly, he spelled “Europe” “Urope”).
The Republicans also published an extremely nasty but delightfully entitled little pamphlet Reminiscences; or, an Extract from the Catalogue of General Jackson’s Youthful Indiscretions between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty. It enumerated all of Jackson’s purported fights, duels, brawls, and shoot-outs. It also said he was an adulterer, a gambler, a cockfighter, a slave trader, a drunkard, a thief and a liar. Also, his wife was really fat (Rachel did have a bit of a weight problem).
There was very little serious examination of the issues, such as rural America’s desperately needed public works projects or tariff protection for New England manufacturers. Jackson was known for being evasive about what he really thought about anything – a fact which he tried to turn into a virtue: “My real friends want no information from me on the subject of internal improvements and manufacturies….Was I know to come forward and reiterate my public opinions on these subjects I would be charged with electioneering.”
Adams’s position was well-known—he was pro-tariff, pro-public works—but his voice was lost in the din of battle.
The Winner: Andrew Jackson
Balloting took place on different days in different states, from September to November, 1828. America’s first popular vote turned out Jackson, 647,276, Adams 508,074. The campaign had been so bitter that neither candidate made the customary post-election courtesy calls on the other (and John Quincy Adams became the second American president, after his father, John Adams, who did not attend the inauguration of his successor.)
After Jackson took the oath of office in March, the streets of Washington were filled with massive crowds of common people who had come from hundreds of miles away to view this historic day. Jackson supporters famously surged into the White House, wiped their feet on delicate rugs, broke antique chairs and ate and drank everything in sight. Thousands of dollars worth of glass and china were broken, fights ensued, and women feared for their virtue. In the end, the exhausted Jackson slipped out the back door to a local inn to get some sleep.
John Q. Adams, Pimp
As always when people really want to get dirty, they go below the belt. In this case, they claimed with utter seriousness but high absurdity that the prudish Adams, when minister to the Russian court of Czar Alexander I, had offered his wife Lousia’s maid to the Czar as a concubine. That there was a kernel of innocent truth here—Adams had quite literally introduced the young woman to the Czar—made the lie easier to swallow, and Adams was now “the Pimp.”
Andrew Jackson, Bigamist.
The Republicans really upped the ante here. Jackson’s wife Rachel had first been married to the abusive and pathologically jealous Lewis Robards, who had finally left her to get a divorce. She and Jackson, then a young lawyer, fell in love and got married in 1791, under the impression that Rachel was already divorced. She wasn’t, since Robards had delayed getting the divorce decree. As soon as he did, the two remarried.
Rachel—whom Jackson loved deeply—was now subjected to the most vicious slanders. Republicans said that she was a “whore” and a “dirty, black wench” given to “open and notorious lewdness.” “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest office of this free and Christian land,” wrote The Cincinnati Gazette. Slanders of this kind were repeated ad infinitum.
The hope was apparently that Jackson might loose his cool and challenge someone to a duel—perhaps even kill one of his tormentors. But what happened was that Rachel, who was overweight and had some health problems, took these attacks quite literally to heart. In December 1828, after Jackson had won the election, she died of a heart attack. Jackson grieved profoundly—and was as wrathful as an Old Testament prophet. At her funeral he intoned: “In the presence of this dear saint I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.”
Most Vicious Broadside
Perhaps the nastiest political attack on Jackson was the infamous Coffin Handbill, a widely-circulated anti Jackson handbill displaying six coffins under the headline: “Some account of some of the Bloody Deeds of General Jackson.” It went on to tell the story of the six militiamen whose order of execution Jackson approved during the War of 1812. The men were the leaders of a mutiny of 200 militiamen who thought their terms of service were up. The army disagreed. All the men were court-martialed, but, except for these six ringleaders, they were merely fined. Jackson signed the execution papers and at the time there was little fuss made about it. Now, however, the coffin handbill held him out to be bloodthirsty and merciless: “Sure he will spare! Sure JACKSON yet/Will all reprieve but one – /O hark! Those shrieks! That cry of death!/The deadly deed is done!”
Most Comprehensive Why You Shouldn’t Vote for Him Statement:
This, from an anti-Jackson pamphlet, pretty much covers it all:
“You know that he is no jurist, no politician; that he is destitute of historical, political, or statistical knowledge; that he is unacquainted with the orthography, concord, and government of his language; you know that he is a man of no labor, no patience, no investigation; in short just that his whole recommendation is animal fierceness and organic energy. He is wholly unqualified by education, habit, and temper for the station of the President.”