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Sunday, August 04, 2013

1828 - IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

I'll bet that most contemporary pundits logically assumed the campaign of 1828 was decided on December 4th of 1827, when President John Quincy Adams sent his written State of the Union to Congress. Adams was able to report a budget surplus - about $5 million, constituting a direct repudiation of the Jackson image of Adams as a tariff and spend elitist. And as Adams pointed out, most of the public debt still scheduled to be paid off was not due to big government expenditure for the national road or the construction of canals in Indiana, but “more than three fifths...are for lands within the State of Alabama.” This was the last sad remnant of the “Yazoo Land Fraud” the first great land fraud in America, which had repeatedly enriched the ruling elite in New England and the South, at the expense of average voters and business owners in the west, who the national road was built to serve.
That the election was not decided logically, is usually attributed to one man in particular, the “Little Magician”, “The Careful Dutchman”, “the Red Fox of Kinderhook,” and The Great Manager”, Martin Van Buren (above). His father had been a tavern keeper in the Hudson River village of Kinderhook, New York, and was successful enough to own six slaves. But the driving force in Van Buren's life was his ambitious mother, Francis. It was Francis who took him out of school at fourteen, and apprenticed him to a local attorney. Eventually that led to his training under a powerful City lawyer and ally to the supremely ambitious Aaron Burr, Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. Van Buren passed the bar in 1803, and immediately became immersed in state politics.
It was Van Buren who created “The Buck-tails”, the political machine that controlled New York state politics, and later became known as The “Albany Regency”. Van Buren was smart and always courteous to your face, always proceeded “with an air of evasiveness” was always circumspect to a fault and famous for his skill at being all things to all men. As the election year of 1828 approached, a contemporary historian from neighboring Massachusetts, Jabez Delano Hammond, dispatched a warning to Van Buren. He wrote, “The Southern Atlantic States never have and never will support a northern candidate for the Presidency... .I have neither faith nor hope that either you or I shall live to see another President from north of the Potomac.” Of course, Van Buren had figured that out four years earlier.
In 1824 Senator Van Buren had supported William Crawford from Georgia for President. Then in December of 1826, he formalized an agreement for Vice President John C. Calhoun to be Jackson's Vice President as well. Van Buren himself easily won re-election that February of 1827. And then in the spring he made a trip to Calhoun's home state of South Carolina. On April 23 he wrote from the state capital of Columbia, “When I left Washington it was my intention to have been back by this time: but the extreme hospitality of the Southerners has rendered it impossible.” What Van Buren found so hospitable was the willingness of southern politicians to believe Jackson would repeal any increase in tariffs passed to embarrass President John Quincy Adams. And Van Buren had similar success in convincing the New York, New England and western politicians that the new higher tariffs would remain unchanged.
After a side trip to Crawford's plantation in northwest Georgia, to collect his endorsement of Jackson, Senator Van Buren return to the capital. By now Van Buren was convinced that “we can...not only succeed in electing (Jackson) but our success when achieved will be worth something”. This something was a coalition of the best political activist in New York and across the south, which would gain victory by protecting, in the words of a modern historian, “not only (Jefferson) ideology but also Southern guardianship of slavery.” The Jefferson ideology of “small government” suited the power structure in New York, because “small government” could not interfere with "big business". In short, New York provided the money, and through the 3/5ths provision of the constitution, the Southern slaves would provide the votes. That was the real corrupt bargain of the decade.
In Washington, Van Buren now joined with Tennessee Senator John Henry Eaton, Tennessee Congressman Sam Houston and Vice President Calhoun to form a committee of correspondence. Popular since the revolution, such groups produced a web of letters to influential men around the nation, usually local newspaper editors. And at the center would be The United States Telegraph, a newspaper started by Eaton in Washington D.C., edited by the independently minded Kentuckian, Duff Green, and dedicated to unflinching support of Andrew Jackson for President.
From the committee now streamed letters urging the formation of “Huzza Boys” and “Old Hickory Groups”, who would parade “to the nearest spot of bare dirt to plant a hickory tree, then repair to the nearest watering hole to consume great quantities of something other than water.” In Manhattan there was an elaborate dinner on January 3, to remind the public of Jackson's victory at New Orleans. Across the country there were barbecues and rallies. Hickory poles were erected in town squares, and smaller ones were tied to church steeples, even on the prows of boats. Hickory brooms were appropriated to “sweep out” the corruption in Washington – a theme that would be revisited a few million times over the next 250 years, with varying degrees of success.
The Jackson campaign of 1828 has been called “little short of brilliant”, and Van Buren traditionally gets most of the credit for it. He was at the center, but he was not the source. The Little Magician waved his hand but every participant had their own reasons for working magic for Jackson. And the image of Jackson created by the campaign was succinctly expressed in the Albany, N.Y., Argust – he was a hero and an “Honest, Unassuming Farmer of Tennessee”.
In reality, Jackson's “farm” covered more than 600 acres, and required 95 human beings (above) held in bondage to work it. Over two decades at least ten men of those human beings risked escaping Jackson's Hermitage. One of them, a man named Gilbert, who was recaptured, refused to suffer a whipping as punishment, and was beaten to death. And one of Jackson's nephew's reported in 1815 that the female slaves had been brought “to order by Hickory Oil”, a euphemism for whipping. Jackson himself wrote that his wife's personal servant of 30 years, a woman known only as Betty, was “capable of being a good and valuable servant, but...she must be ruled with the cowhide.” Few of the northern and western farmers who voted for the gallant and courageous Jackson would have recognized him as the man who encouraged a woman under his protection to be whipped with a leather strap.
By 1828 Jackson (above) was 61 years old and frail. He had built a reputation as duelist, in part because he had always been too frail and thin to have been much of a fist fighter or a wrestler, like Lincoln. Jackson  suffered from chronic headaches, and now carried two musket balls in his body. One was ensconced in his abdomen, causing him periodic agony and bringing on bouts of the “national hotel disease” –AKA, dysentery. The second had lodged in his lung and periodically produced an exhausting, hacking, bloody cough. In short, he was not the man he himself or Van Buren,  projected him to be – far from an original political situation. And frustratingly, the public was buying the false image of Jackson, while also buying every outrageous, idiotic lie the Pro-Jackson press invented about President John Quincy Adams.
I have already discussed the charged that Adams (above) had “pimped” for the Russian Czar. Adams brought a chess set and a deck of cards into the White House, and the Jackson press charged he had used public funds to bring gambling into the sacred White House. They questioned Adams' faith, charging that he traveled on Sunday, and had “premarital relations” with his wife. And they pointed out John Quincy had not taken the oath of office with his hand a bible, but rather on a book of Constitutional Law, thus invalidating his presidency. In fact the Article Two, Section One, Clause Eight of the Constitution details the oath, but says nothing about using a bible, does not specify the oath must be verbal, nor does it say anything about a public ceremony.
Meanwhile everything the Adam's side threw at Jackson went nowhere, or even turned against them. The Adams press mocked Jackson for his inability to spell and his lack of a formal education. Jackson responded, “Any man who can only think of one way to spell a word is a damn fool”, and the public joined the laughter. In frustration, the Adams forces, decided to denounce Andrew Jackson's mother.
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