I mentioned earlier in these essays on the election of 1828 that it was the first million dollar campaign for President in American history, and the first campaign in which the jackass was used as the symbol of the Democratic Party (above, “Jackass Jackson”). But thanks to the elimination of many limits on male suffrage, it was also the first time the public (or half of it) became an active participant in the selection of their chief executive. Voter turn out in 1824 had been about 357,000. In 1828 it would nearly triple, to over one million (being still fewer than 6 in 10 eligible voters). And this growth spurt was adroitly exploited by Jackson's campaign manager, Martin Van Buren. Eight years hence, in 1836, when Van Buren ran for President himself, it would be “The Red Fox of Kinderhook” who would popularized the use of “OK” in English (“Old Kinderhook”). So it should come as no surprise Van Buren also played a part in naming the mass of average voters he manipulated in 1828.
Many historians have noted the way Van Buren created the impression of inevitability of Jackson’s election, using newspapers, parades and rallies. He also insisted on the universal repetition of the word “reform”,in speeches, handbills and even campaign songs - without specifying what it meant. In this “morality play” Jackson (above) was of course the hero. He was just an average Joe, like the average voter, with a few holes in his education, and a little quick to get angry with the mendacity of government bureaucrats. And the villain of this performance was equally obvious - John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy (above) defined himself to his long suffering wife, “I am certainly not intentionally repulsive in my manners and deportment.” But intentional or not he was a stuck up prig, more proficient in the stilted world of 18th century diplomacy, than speaking in public in his own high shrill voice. The nicest thing you could say about John Q. was that he meant well. But even in a world without mass media, in the generation before even photography, the public recognized his reserve, even in his reprinted speeches, and in the language friends and enemies used to describe him. Ralph Waldo Emerson said Adams took his tea with “sulfuric acid”. Van Buren did not invent Adam's acidic image, but he did build on it. In personal correspondence Jackson derisively called his opponent “Johnny Q”. And Van Buren ensured that Jackson's supporters copied him, through broad sheets, hand bills, newspapers and “stump speeches” for the three long years of the campaign.
So it was in the election of 1828 that the average voter received his moniker – John Q. Public. The snide inside joke about one snobbish politician became, by familiarity, by repetition and loss of context, the name for a mass of persons. By using the phrase the speaker or writer acknowledges with a smirk that there is really no such thing as an average person, even while referring to them. John Q. Public came into existence with John Q. Adams, but out lived him by almost two hundred years. Only when broadcasting (newspapers and books) morphed into narrow-casting (Internet), did the inside joke finally fade away.
I wish the campaign of 1828 had ended as melodramatically as the 2012 campaign, with Karl Rove's meltdown on FOX News - “I think this is premature.” Instead, the campaign described by Niles Weekly newspaper as the “the most rude and ruthless political contest that ever took place in the United States”, dripped to a close like a leaking facet, in a string of 24 separate drips. Of the 12 million Americans in 1828, there were 4 million John Q. Publics who were qualified to vote, meaning they were exclusively male, almost exclusively white, almost entirely Protestant and still largely property owners. It seemed that most Americans, the most powerful in particular, just didn't trust John Q. Public to govern.
The system left behind by the founding fathers in 1789 was designed to function in a narrow homogeneous environment. When Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787, that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing...” he was speaking of the 1,200 farmers in central Massachusetts who took part in Shay's Rebellion. But that stunted uprising was not about over turning the social order. It was male Protestant property owners protesting high taxes, just as their fathers had. That was the kind of rebellion Jefferson had in mind. And for all the talk about the revolutionizing effect of the frontier in America, in 1828 the population center was still south of the Mason/Dixon line, and well within 200 miles of the Atlantic ocean. The social structure of America was shifting, but slowly.
Ten states in 1828 allowed universal white male suffrage, eight states limited voting to tax payers, and five still imposed a property qualification. In several states Adams supporters tried to require voters to display an ability to read. But Jackson supporters were able to nullify that restriction by adding the stipulation that if your grandfather could read, then you would be accepted as qualified. This accepted the vote of uneducated whites while blocking otherwise qualified free born African Americans. And thus was born the idea of a current conditions being “grandfathered in” under new regulations. The outrider remained little Delaware, which still denied the vote to the poor, the middle class, Catholics and Jews. Even the concept of “the popular vote” was new in 1828 – the phrase had first been used by Representative George McDuffie from South Carolina just two years earlier. And the secret ballot was unheard of, as yet. Like minded voters often marched to the polls en mass, where they publicly declared their choice (above). And that led to some very unpleasant situations.
A visitor to a Tennessee village on the evening of November 14th, 1828, the last day for voting, found it largely deserted. The male residents, it seemed, were out hunting two of their neighbors, who had spoiled the town's Jackson unanimity by casting two lone ballots for John Quincy Adams. “As the day wore on, the whiskey flowed...and the result was a universal chase after the two voters, with a view to tarring and feathering them. They fled to the woods, however, and were not taken.” In New England, the same intimidation was seen against those who dared to vote for Jackson
The end of the campaign began on Friday October 31st with voting in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Then on November 3rd Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, and Virginia cast their ballots. On November 4th through November 14th, ,voters in Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont had their say. New Jersey voters cast their ballots on November 4th and 5th . And on November 19th it was the turn of Rhode Island, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maryland. In Delaware, where John Q. Public had almost no voice at all, the campaign was so hushed, respectful and dignified that many failed to even noticed there was an election.
But none of these voters were casting ballots for President or Vice President. In 14 states the voters chose electors state wide, whose names and loyalties to either Jackson or Adams were listed on the ballot. In New York, each congressional district's voters separately picked the electors, and then the electors elected two additional electors. But in Delaware and South Carolina, the legislators chose the electors, providing an additional layer of authority between John Q. Public and the vital choice of a new executive. Then on December 3rd , 1828, the electors gathered in their various state capitals to directly cast their votes for President and Vice President. It was too convoluted to be called a democracy, but a sort of hybrid, democracy lite. In any case, the results were finally reported to Washington, D.C. on February 11th, 1829. That night a cheerful mob sauntered into the unguarded White House to examine the furnishings, and had to be lulled back outside with free punch.
It was a good election for John Quincy Adams. He won two more states than he had in 1824. But the electorate had more than doubled, and Johnny Q's support had not. The result was that once again John Q. Adams lost the popular vote, as he had done in 1824. But this time he lost in a land slide, winning just 44% of the popular vote (500,000) to Andrew Jackson's 56% (642,000 votes) - a 12 point margin. In the electoral college it was even more decisive - 278 for Jackson, to 83 for Adams. And regionally the results were telling. Jackson won every state south of the Mason/Dixon Line, and the frontier bordering the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers. Johnny Q won every northern state, except Pennsylvania, which gave Jackson over 100,000 votes, and Van Buren's New York. The nation had taken the first step on the road that led to Fort Sumter, in April of 1861.
Secretary of State Henry Clay, whose deal making in 1825 had fueled the political debacle, grew increasingly despondent as the disaster approached. He could not even work up an anger when Adams (above) refused an invitation to speak at the opening of the first section of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, saying he considered such politicking undignified. "Adams", wrote Clay, "would rather be right than be President." It was a choice ambitious American politicians would have to make every four years for the next two hundred years. And the cost of deciding to pay that price would be painfully apparent to winner Andrew Jackson, just before Christmas of 1828.