The other day I visited Andrew Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, just outside Nashville.
It’s a handsome spread, but after I left I found myself thinking more about the presidential election of 1828, which was described in some detail in the associated historical displays.
Here’s a bit of a recap of the personalities and the race.
The incumbent president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of John Adams, our second president. The two of them, elites from Massachusetts, and a bunch of Virginia aristocrats had held the presidency since the founding of the republic. JQA was extremely well educated and had a distinguished career as an American diplomat in Europe. Before becoming president, he served eight years as secretary of state.
Andrew Jackson, born in the Carolinas, was a self-made man. At 13 he joined a Carolina militia in the American Revolution and then was captured and held prisoner. By war’s end, all his immediate family were dead. He got a law degree, moved to Tennessee as a prosecutor, bought land, served in public positions and became the general of the state militia. His national reputation was made in the 10-day Battle of New Orleans, when he led a force that outfoxed and defeated a much larger British naval and ground assault.
Jackson was nominated for the presidency in 1824 by the Tennessee legislature. There were four candidates that year; Jackson received the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, but not a majority. For the first and only time, the election was decided by a vote in the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, a Virginia candidate who loathed Jackson, threw his support behind Adams, who won. After the election, Adams made Clay his secretary of state.
Jackson supporters called the result a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson resigned his Senate seat, returned home to Nashville and began to campaign for 1828. His affronted supporters formed Hickory Clubs (Old Hickory was Jackson’s nickname) to promote his candidacy.
Adams spent his term in office pushing for transportation improvements and signing an 1828 bill known in the hinterlands as the Tariff of Abominations. The tariff benefitted New England and disadvantaged southern and western states. It inflamed America’s early battle over whether the federal government or state governments were primary.
This states’ rights view was held largely in the western and southern states, including by Thomas Jefferson, who shifted his support to Jackson before his death in 1826; this helped Jackson two years later.
Adams was a brilliant man but not a people person, and certainly not a charismatic leader. Americans were still finding their footing with the presidential election process, and Adams’ view seems to have been that campaigning for office was beneath his dignity. Given his scholarly character, it has been suggested that he ran in 1824 only because his parents, stern people both, expected him to do so.
Jackson was more motivated, and he almost certainly had a large chip on his shoulder. He entertained influential people in his Nashville home and wrote opinion pieces for newspapers across the country. His was the first populist campaign in the country, and he made a point of pledging himself to represent the “common folk.”
Each candidate was qualified, in his way, and their individual platforms, while different, reflected honest divisions of opinion within the country.
Newspapers of the day were house organs of political groups. Both candidates were accused of low behavior, and almost all the accusations were laughable.
–Adams was called a “pimp” for procuring a young American woman’s company to the czar during Adams’ tenure as ambassador to Russia. Absolutely false.
–Jackson’s mother was described as whore who married a mulatto man (with African as well as Caucasian blood) and had three children by him. Also false.
–Adams was accused of bringing gambling into the White House. The evidence included a chess set and a billiards table, the latter of which Adams bought with his own funds.
–Jackson was charged with personally killing six militia deserters in his term as general. Executing deserters was common in that period, but a cartoon of six black coffins laying the full blame at his feet was pretty harsh.
The most famous charge was that Jackson was an adulterer and his wife a bigamist. She had left an abusive marriage before they met, and they claimed that they believed her divorce was finalized before they married. Later, when the divorce was finalized and after Rachel Jackson’s first husband had remarried as well, they had another marriage ceremony. Divorce was controversial then, but by 1828 the Jacksons had been married for 37 years. Mrs. Jackson died just after the election, apparently of a heart attack for which Jackson blamed her accusers. He hated them and mourned her for the rest of his life.
With the Virginia support and that of the western states, Jackson won a decisive victory in 1828 and was re-elected in 1832.
As for his part, Adams returned to the House of Representatives, where he served for many years. To his credit, he spent the rest of his life agitating for the abolition of slavery.
The press of 1828 did not acquit itself well in the Jackson-Adams election. This year’s press coverage also has been a disappointing. More on that tomorrow.