February 28, 2024

Nastiest Campaign in United States History?

The election of 1828 erupted into an ugly, contentious election, surpassing the Adams-Jefferson campaign of 1800.

John Quincy Adams’s first presidential term was coming to an end, so it was time to spring into reelection mode, right?

No. The campaign for the election of 1828 began the day after Adams’s triumph in 1824 and Andrew Jackson’s resounding accusations that a “corrupt bargain” had stolen the victory from his hands. The four years of the Adams presidency was a battle over JQ attempting to overcome the fact that he was a president who had won neither the popular vote nor the electoral vote — until it was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay had “worked” magic. The public perception, fueled by Jackson’s vocal contest of the results, was that the speaker of the House (Clay) had persuaded the Kentucky delegates and others to throw their votes to Adams and, in return, he had been named secretary of state.

Truth or coincidence? It didn’t really matter because, for many voters, especially those committed to Jackson, the perception was reality.

What increased the contentious political atmosphere was that several powerful voices took up the Jackson cause — among them, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Senator Martin Van Buren of New York, and Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Notice the geographic regions each represented; these were not just Southerners who had taken sides with a national military hero who was a Southerner. Regardless of their motivation, their voices challenged Adams’s legitimacy and helped set the stage for the next presidential election.

The election of 1828 erupted into the ugliest, most contentious election in the nation’s short history, surpassing the Adams-Jefferson campaign of 1800. The Adams-Jackson campaign would be shocking to current voters, and we’ve seen some ugly campaign ads and heard even more slanderous speeches.

There was lots of mud-slinging and plenty of disgusting accusations on both sides, but the Adams campaign did not hold back. It created a verbal and visual caricature of Jackson that identified him as a blood-thirsty, backwoods frontiersman who had lived “in sin” with his “harlot” wife for years before she obtained a divorce from her husband. He was a man governed by a horrible temper and had been involved in numerous duels, each depicted as a “crime.” Some said he could not read and write, while others charged him as a “godless heathen.” Not nice.

Jackson’s supporters touted his rise from poverty to national prominence — the “log cabin to White House” story — and reminded voters of his storied military career, beginning as a young boy who refused to clean the boots of a British officer. The scar across Jackson’s cheek was a testimony to his strength of character and devotion to freedom.

Most hurtful to Jackson were the remarks about his beloved Rachel, the daughter of a storied Patriot and cofounder of Fort Nashborough (Nashville), Colonel John Donelson. Rachel had divorced her first husband, accused of drunkenness, inappropriate actions, and unkindness. The process of divorce was difficult during the early days on the western frontier, and while the divorce had been granted, Lewis Robards had failed to file the papers with the legal authorities. The delay, uncovered by the Adams campaign and used to discredit the former hero of the Battle of New Orleans and his wife, angered Jackson and broke Rachel’s fragile health.

When the campaign ended and the votes were counted, Jackson had won with 56% of the popular vote and an electoral count of 178 to 83. Not only had he carried the South and West, but he had won the vote in New York and Pennsylvania. Adams had been soundly defeated by the first president elected from beyond the Appalachians and the oldest man to rise to the position. The presidential monopoly of the two oldest of the 13 colonies (Virginia and Massachusetts) had been destroyed.

But Jackson had little time to celebrate his victory. Rachel’s health worsened, and she died on December 22, 1828. Jackson, descending into a grief that his friends feared would mean his death too, swore revenge on those who had “hounded Rachel” and taken her from him.

For the next eight years, General Andrew Jackson, hero of the “common man” and founder of the Democratic Party, would challenge the assumptions of the elite and step up to every fight that came his way.

The old warrior was ready…

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