I don't think 1828 was even close to being the dirtiest political campaign in American history. It was filled with lies and insults and half truths and smears, and things which written or said in any other context would have produced a number of libel suits. But then politics has always produced despicable public behavior. The 1828 election was, however, significant for other reasons. It was the first presidential election when the majority of American voters actually had a voice in the outcome And it was the first time the Democrats boasted of having a jackass as the symbol of their party, the first "million dollar" campaign, the first time an American political party cut a deal to sell its soul for victory, the first time the voters had a choice between investing in themselves or protecting the wealthy, and last but not least, it was one of, if not the, longest campaign in American history, starting four years earlier with the infamous “Corrupt Bargain” which was, in fact, just politics as it was supposed to be practiced.
See, in 1824 Henry Clay (above) of Kentucky, wanted to be President. He was already Speaker of the House, and he had considerable political support along the frontier, which then constituted the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. But Henry knew that was not enough support, for two reasons.
In the first place the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (above) of Massachusetts, also wanted to be President, and he had the support of the two previous Presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, both of whom had been Secretary of State like Adams, before becoming President themselves. That is what you call a Presidential precedent. And secondly, Clay shared his regional power base with Senator, war hero and political superstar Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee. Still, Clay wanted to be President.
Senator Andrew Jackson (above) did win the most popular votes in 1824 - 151,000. Now, out of a population of about 10 million that should not have been enough to be President, but from an electorate limited to the largest property owners in America (about 366,000 actual voters), it gave Jackson almost half of all votes cast. Almost. However the hero of New Orleans won only 99 electoral votes, thirty-two short of the number required. Adams was next, with 88 electoral votes. Clay had won only 37 electors, putting him behind even Judge William H. Crawford of Georgia, who had suffered a debilitating stroke during the campaign, but who still won 41 electoral votes. For the second time in the nation's history, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives. And did I mention that Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House?
Now, the Constitution allowed the House to consider only the three candidates receiving the most votes - in the electoral college. You might think that rule left fourth place Henry Clay out of luck, but politics is not about the rules – its about making the rules work for you. And it was obvious to everybody that a political deal was going to be required to settle this. That was the point of having an inconclusive election decided by the professional politicians. Clay saw to it that in January the Kentucky legislature ordered their 12 congressmen, originally required to vote for him for President, (above, sewing Jackson's mouth shut), but to instead vote for Adams for President. And once he became President in February of 1825, Adams named Henry Clay his Secretary of State - and thus presumably next in line to be President. That's not corrupt, children, that's politics.
On receiving the news of Adam's victory however, Jackson bellowed, “Was there ever a witness of such a bare faced corruption in any country before?!” The logical answer was, yes, of course, millions of times. And I repeat, it was not corrupt – it was just politics. But Jackson was thin skinned and convinced that any contest which he did not win must be corrupt - sort of like Donald Trump. Jackson had been christened “Old Hickory” by the militia who served under him in 1812 because of his harsh discipline (above) and because once he made a decision he stubbornly refused to reconsider it, even after he learned it had been a mistake. And he was now convinced he had been cheated. He was confirmed in this opinion by Martin Van Buren, leader of the “Albany Regency” - the elite who ran New York State politics.
“Old Kinderhook” (he was from that upstate village) had tried to deliver his state to Crawford in 1824. But Van Buren (above) failed for various reasons – his overconfidence being the biggest one, but there was also Crawford's stroke, and a political “paltroon” named Stephen van Rensslaer who switched his vote to Adams at the last second. But now Van Buren could blame the infamous “corrupt bargain”, which luckily would also justify Van Buren now switching his allegiance to Jackson.
He was joined by the editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky newspaper “The Argus of Western America”, Amos Kendall (above). This scarecrow with a brain had been a long time supporter of Henry Clay. But in April of 1825 a barbecue was held to honor the four Kentucky congressmen who defied party orders and insisted on voting for Jackson. They had not stopped Adams from taking the oath, but the soiree to celebrate their defiance was so well attended and enthusiastic, it convinced Kendall that Jackson was going to be the next President. The editorial slant of the Argus immediately switched sides to support Jackson.
That spring of 1826, Van Buren would make a tour through the Carolinas and Georgia to organize support for Jackson. Again, the response was so positive that even Judge Crawford, still recovering from his stroke, endorsed the hero of New Orleans for the election over three years away. At every stop, Van Buren created “Huzza Boys”, who would plant stands of Hickory trees, and hand out sticks of Hickory wood at pro-Jackson rallies. The trees did not grow well in New England's rocky soil, but its wood was popular for use as wheel spokes and ax handles, because it would break before it bent. As one biographer has noted, the public thought of Jackson as disciplined, brave, uneducated but clever, which closely matched the self image of most Americans living on the frontier.
But myth, public and personal, was always part of Jackson's persona. In truth Jackson, although born in poverty, had clawed his way to wealth. He was largely self educated, but was now the polished owner of a 1,000 acre plantation worked by 90 human slaves. He was a very rich man. He built his political career attacking the Bank of the United States – forerunner to the Federal Reserve System – but he also owned stock in its Nashville branch. Still, the personality which drove him to attain his station in life, did not seem best suited for a successful career in politics. A longtime friend once warned the General's new personal secretary, “to make it a point not to mingle or associate with anyone who the General believed, was either personally or politically unfriendly to him, although he may have unfounded jealousies against individuals on that subject.” In other words, never question Jackson's reason for hating anyone..
Still, despite the 13 duels he fought, Jackson engaged in none which did not benefit his reputation. The only man he is known to have actually killed in a duel, Charles Dickenson, had to call Jackson a coward, a poltroon and a worthless scoundrel in the pages of a New Orleans newspaper, before Jackson issued the challenge. In fairness, once the shooting started, Jackson's attitude was always, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.” In fact Dickenson shot Jackson in the chest. Old Hickory would suffer from that bullet for the rest of his life, but at the time he ignored the wound, and a misfire, and methodically reloaded and then shot Dickenson dead.
And Jackson now had another unexpected ally, the political wild card John Caldwell Calhoun (above), who had plotted his own strange path to the White House. Once the rock jawed gambler realized his own state of South Carolina was not going to support his run for the top job, he became the only man in 1824 to have actively campaigned for the office of Vice President. It proved to be a smart move, for while the top job was mired in political machinations, Calhoun was easily elected. But his goal from the day he took the oath for that secondary office was to knock down Henry Clay, to make room for himself at the top. Calhoun called the “corrupt bargain” made by his one time friend Clay, “the most dangerous stab, which the liberty of this country has ever received.” It was an interesting observation, overlooking the Alien and Sedition Acts of a decade earlier, and signed by John Quincy’s father. But then most successful politicians have short memories.
To the supporters of John Quincy Adams this was all outrageous. Their man had not even taken the oath of office before his enemies were moving to ensure he would be, as other politicians 200 years later would insist, “a one term President”. It was vulgar, unpatriotic, and beneath contempt. And politics as usual. You can almost share their frustration though, even when they began to refer to Jackson as “Andrew Jackass”, and an Adams newspaper published the cartoon (above) "The Modern Balaan and his Ass", showing Jackson on a stubborn donkey and Van Buren dutifully following behind, saying, "I shall follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor".
But the reality was that it wasn't personal, except to Old Hickory of course. A number of powerful politicians simply saw greater advantage in working against John Quincy, than in working with him. And if the bargain to assemble a governing coalition for Adams was not corrupt, neither was the rebellion raised to overthrow him. The founding fathers were no strangers to the murky, disgusting side to politics. And having experienced the evils of royalty and elitism, they were willing to embrace even the dark side of public elections.