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The Jackson Era

The Jackson Era

 Table of Contents

Politics in The Jackson Era

The Broken Election of 1824

Andrew Jackson believed John Quincy Adams stole the presidential election in 1824. Jackson received far more popular votes than Adams (152,901 versus 114,023), and also more votes in the Electoral College (99 versus 84).4 But because neither Jackson nor Adams, nor any of the other three candidates (John C. Calhoun, William Crawford, Henry Clay) received a majority of the Electoral College votes (131 were needed to win), the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. There, Henry Clay used his considerable influence as Speaker of the House to secure Adams's election—and Adams then rewarded Clay by naming him Secretary of State.

Jackson was furious. He and his supporters ignored the fact that Clay and Adams shared many of the same political objectives and thus had many legitimate reasons to cooperate. All they saw was a crooked election, a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay that denied the political will of the people. And in certain ways they were correct. The election of 1824 revealed a broken political process—perhaps not corrupt, but certainly broken and in need of repair.

The final vote in the House was only the final chapter in a bizarre presidential election that began with the Republican Party's nominating caucus in February 1824. Congressional nominating caucuses were the method used to select presidential candidates in 1824. There were no primaries, no national conventions—instead congressional party members gathered in caucus to choose the party's candidate.

The system had made some sense a decade earlier, when there were two viable national parties. But by 1824, the old Federalist Party was dead—killed off by its disastrously unpopular opposition to the War of 1812. The Federalists' demise left the Republican Party virtually uncontested at the national level, which meant that its congressional caucus—this meeting of a couple hundred members of Congress—for all intents and purposes picked the next president.

Andrew Jackson was among the most strident critics of the caucus method of selecting candidates. And even more so after the February caucus of 1824. Only about one-fourth of the congressional Republicans even attended the caucus—and the candidate they selected, William Crawford, had recently suffered a debilitating stroke. What could be more absurd, and more undemocratic, than a tiny number of people, not even a majority within the Congress, selecting a man who could barely speak to run virtually uncontested for the presidency?

By this point, the Republican Party and the party nomination process was in complete disarray. While a fragment of traditionalists rallied around Crawford, other factions and other candidates secured their own competing nominations through other processes. The Tennessee state legislature nominated Andrew Jackson; the Kentucky legislature nominated Henry Clay. A group of New England Republicans met in Boston to nominate John Quincy Adams. John C. Calhoun simply nominated himself. With five Republicans now in the field, the stage was set for the chaotic election of 1824 and the "corrupt bargain" that brought it to an end.

Jackson's Democratizing Ambitions

Jackson's disgust with Adams's "theft" of the election of 1824 was then part of a broader anger over the degradation of America's political processes. When he resigned his Senate seat to begin preparing for an 1828 presidential bid, Jackson did so with the intent of restoring the voice of the people to the election process. And indeed, his election that year can be read as a triumph of democratic politics. More than 1.1 million men voted in 1828—800,000 more than in the election just four years earlier. And during and after the election, Jackson pledged that he would open up the political system through a series of Constitutional amendments to increase the direct political power of the electorate. He proposed the elimination of the Electoral College and the direct popular election of the president. He suggested that all federal judges, including members of the Supreme Court, should be popularly elected. And he recommended that United States Senators should be chosen by the people through direct election—rather than selected by their state legislatures, as called for by the Constitution until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. Jackson also argued that America's government would be more democratic and less subject to elite manipulation if the president was limited to a single term in office. And he similarly suggested that all appointed federal office-holders should be rotated out of their positions regularly. He worried that the current system was creating a class of entrenched government office-holders—a group of bureaucratic parasites that exercised an inappropriate influence on government operations.

There is no denying Andrew Jackson's democratic commitment to increase the power of the people—that is, of course, if we limit our definition of "the people" to white adult men. But even on Jackson's more limited terms, democracy was only imperfectly advanced during his campaign for office and his election as president. While he reached out to common people in ways no other candidate ever had, his actual electoral success was secured less through a rousing call to the people than through the formation of a new political party with a new understanding of politics. Jackson did transform the political process, and he did make it more democratic. But he also advanced the darker side of democratic politics—shallow political discourse, vicious partisan attacks, and an understanding of government not as a forum for the identification of the public good but instead as an arena for the pursuit of local and personal interests.

Building the Democratic Party

Andrew Jackson was not the only major figure disturbed by the state of national politics after the election of 1824. Martin Van Buren, a United States Senator from New York, was also disappointed by the election. He had supported William Crawford, who had finished a distant third to Jackson and Adams. But Van Buren saw an opportunity in all of the political craziness of the election—an opportunity to rebuild a branch of the Republican Party and recapture the presidency from Adams and his New England supporters. The key would be to re-forge the old New York-Virginia alliance that had served Republicans as far back as Thomas Jefferson. This would not be easy. The interests of the mid-Atlantic states (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey) were far different than those of the southern states. But Van Buren was a political genius—his nickname was "Little Magician"—and he believed that the war hero Andrew Jackson was the perfect candidate around which to build this alliance.

Van Buren's first step was to convince critical southern leaders to support the candidacy of Jackson—especially the southern presidential candidates from the last election. As a former supporter of William Crawford, Van Buren had little trouble luring other Crawford supporters into the scheme. Convincing John C. Calhoun that he should play second fiddle to Jackson in the next election was more difficult. But Calhoun was a political realist; recognizing the tremendous popularity of Jackson, he agreed to become a supporter instead of a rival.

While Van Buren built a coalition of Jackson supporters from his bases in New York and Washington, D.C., Jackson himself, with the support of his first lieutenant, John Eaton, built an organization in Nashville. Reaching out directly to the people, they formed grassroots political organizations and named them "Hickory Clubs" after General Jackson, whose reputation as a tough disciplinarian had earned him the nickname "Old Hickory." They held rallies and barbeques and, most importantly, they coordinated the efforts of a string of pro-Jackson papers throughout the South.

By 1828, Jackson and Van Buren had built an organization that stretched from New York to Georgia. With headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Nashville, this new Democratic Party coordinated a blistering attack against Adams's administration and a corresponding celebration of the heroics and political vision of Andrew Jackson. To complete the coalition, Senator Van Buren and his ally in the House of Representatives, Silas Wright, crafted a piece of tariff legislation aimed at pulling voters from middle states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky into their camp.

This was no easy task. Tariffs—taxes on imported goods that raise the price of imports and consequently encourage Americans to consume homemade or home-grown goods—were highly controversial. Southerners opposed tariffs since their agricultural economies forced a reliance on imported manufactured goods, which became more expensive with higher tariffs. But large numbers of producers in the middle part of the country wanted tariff protection for their goods—flax, hemp, distilled liquor, iron, and molasses, all of which could benefit from decreased international competition. In navigating this dicey issue, Van Buren believed that if he and his fellow Jackson supporters promoted a tariff bill that benefited the interests of middle-state voters, they could win their support. But Van Buren also calculated, shrewdly, that southerners would not bolt from the coalition even if they lost out on tariffs, since they would be unwilling to vote for a New Englander like Adams. This was probably true, although the question barely had to be tested after Adams himself decided to sign the bill into law, despite its clauses unfavorable to New England producers—and as a result, Adams rather than Jackson or Van Buren received the bulk of southerners' venom over the new measure.

By November of 1828, all of the pieces of the Jackson coalition—the new Democratic Party—were in place. And the real campaign began.

Character, Sex, and Violence: The Issues of 1828

John Quincy Adams was an easy target for this Jackson coalition. The Harvard-educated son of a president, he was easily cast as a child of privilege. Growing up, he had accompanied his father on his diplomatic missions and played with the children of European monarchs and aristocrats. He received his first diplomatic appointment at the age of twenty—and by the time he ran for the presidency, he had spent almost his entire life on the government payroll. It was charged, moreover, that his years in Europe had left him with suspiciously "European" moral standards. It was rumored that he and his wife had engaged in premarital sex and, more outrageously, that he had pimped out his chamber maid to the lascivious czar of Russia.

These portraits of Adams as a morally lax pseudo-aristocrat, a European blueblood in American clothing, were completed by Democratic attacks on his recent political performance. His "theft" of the 1824 election, they argued, was only what should be expected from a man contemptuous of the people's will. Adams had all but admitted this contempt, they added, in his first message to Congress. Calling for congressional support for his ambitious program of roads and canals, a national university and a national observatory, he had urged the congressmen not to be intimidated by public opposition, not to be "palsied by the will of our constituents."5 The gaffe cemented Jacksonians' portrait of Adams as a would-be aristocrat, an elitist who had no respect for the common man or his political views—a man who would turn America's republican capital into a European court. The process had already begun, Democrats argued, as proven by Adams's installation of a billiard table and chess set in the White House.

John Quincy Adams was no political purist; he tried to respond to these attacks in kind. His supporters spread rumors that Jackson's mother was a whore, and that the candidate was a mulatto. But the most damaging and aggressive attacks focused on Jackson's marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards. She had been married once before—to Lewis Robards—but after he abandoned her and she heard that he had divorced her, she married Andrew Jackson in 1794. But two years later, the couple learned that Robards had never finalized the divorce. This meant that Jackson had married a married woman, technically making Rachel a bigamist and Jackson an adulterer.

When the couple discovered these unpleasant facts, they quickly remarried—but that did not stop Adams's supporters from having a field day with the old story. The attacks in the Adams press were ruthless. Moreover, they played to a broader theme within the campaign that Andrew Jackson was a reckless scofflaw—disrespectful of civilized convention, too arrogant and wild to abide by the laws of republican society. The fact that he had fought in, by some accounts, thirteen duels was offered as evidence of his hot-tempered and bloodthirsty instincts. And Adams partisans sought to turn the military record that had launched Jackson's public career back against him; in particular, they argued that his execution of several American militiamen charged with desertion and insubordination during the Creek War of 1813-14 proved intemperate and un-presidential character.

It was a vicious campaign on both sides. But Jackson's supporters were better at no-holds-barred politics—and Adams proved temperamentally ill-suited for the role that the campaign demanded. While Jackson was comfortable drumming up votes in parades and barbeques, Adams was lost and inept in these settings. He could not hide his contempt for these concessions to politics, which he believed were beneath his dignity and the dignity of his office. When the Bunker Hill Monument was completed in 1825, a stirring reminder of America's revolutionary heroics (in his own state no less), Adams refused to attend the ceremony. And when he was coaxed into making an appearance at other public events, he merely affirmed the perception that he was out of touch with common people. At the groundbreaking for a Pennsylvania canal, the president struggled pathetically to unearth a single spade-full of earth. Wielding the shovel like it was some sort of exotic and unknown implement, he was able to turn over a small pile of dirt only after several attempts and the removal of his sweat-drenched coat. At a later political dinner, Adams did agree, reluctantly, to deliver the toast that was a central feature of this sort of public event. But his pedantic toast, filled with literary allusions and quotes from the French infidel Voltaireleft half the crowd confused and the other half offended.6

The election results were consequently predictable. Jackson's nationwide margin of victory was more than 135,000 votes. But the Electoral College landslide was even more revealing; Jackson won every state south of the Potomac and west of New Jersey. Jackson's democratic message, bolstered by his portrayal of Adams as an effete and elitist New Englander, proved effective. So too did his state-by-state party organization. Small-town Hickory Clubs staged parades and barbeques while local pro-Jackson newspapers printed attack pieces on Adams and paeans to the hero of New Orleans. But behind these successful local operations stood a national organization, headquartered in Nashville and Washington, that coordinated the message and the methods of these local committees.

The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

The election of 1828 contains much that is familiar. The mudslinging, the emphasis on character and scandal, the limited discussion of issues, the sophisticated political organizations, even the appearance of blue states and red states—a dramatic cleavage between the northeast and the rest of the country—all resonate with contemporary political campaigns.

There was also something cynically modern about the self-interested priorities that tied Jackson's supporters together. Hemp farmers in Kentucky and liquor distillers in Pennsylvania united behind Jackson not because they shared an ideological vision, but because they had a common interest in securing governmental support for their specific economic needs. The supporters of Crawford and Calhoun—not least Calhoun himself—joined the coalition less because they wanted to advance a political vision than because they wanted to advance their own political futures.

But despite all that is familiar within the election of 1828, what seems different is that the animosities engendered by the campaign never healed. Contemporary politics is striking in its ability to preserve at least a façade of good grace. Despite the name-calling and record-distorting that occur during the campaign, the candidates manage to shake hands at the end. They may run vicious ads distorting an opponent's military or political record, they may question one another's character and judgment, but on election night the loser congratulates the winner, and the bitter foes pledge to work together in bipartisan fashion in the future.

In other words, we have found a formula for reconciling political viciousness with civility—a certain prescription for containing the worst of the political enmity to the arena of the campaign. But this had not been developed by 1828. When that nasty campaign was over, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams never spoke again. Adams refused to attend his successor's inauguration, joining his father as the only presidents to do so in American history. Instead he returned immediately to Massachusetts, unable to contain his contempt for the new president. Meanwhile, Jackson let it be known that he blamed Adams for the death of his wife Rachel; the many scurrilous attacks upon her had led to a heart attack just weeks after the election.

Nor did the animosity heal over time. Adams boycotted Harvard's commencement ceremonies in 1833 because Jackson was to receive an honorary degree. Nor he did not beg off from attending discretely—he let it be known that the college had disgraced itself by awarding a degree to a "barbarian and a savage who could scarcely spell his name."7

On his part, Jackson circulated stories that Adams had missed an opportunity to acquire Texas in 1819. The Spanish were ready to cede the territory to the United States, Jackson suggested, but Adams had bungled the negotiations. The attacks on Adams's diplomatic achievements sent the former president into fits. According to witnesses, Jackson only laughed at the news—the "old lying scamp" deserved to be "stricken down by a paralytic stroke."8

Adams got the last word, if only because he lived longer. When Jackson died in 1845, Adams took a moment to reflect on his old political foe; after all, the two men were by this time elder statesmen, distinguished former occupants of the nation's highest office. But Adams's feelings were unchanged; Jackson was still nothing more to him than a "murderer and adulterer."9

So while the new political methods and style of Andrew Jackson's Democrats left much to the modern era, they left at least one critical piece to be worked out in the future. It would be a while before we learned how to be civil in our political incivility.

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