The United States in the 19th century saw major changes take hold on the political, social, industrial, and electoral level. In 1804, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution made a series of revisions to the Electoral College, including the individual elections of both a presidential candidate and a vice presidential candidate. For changes in political campaigning, the first major changes took hold in the year 1828. Up until that year, each individual state had their own specific laws determining who was allowed to vote. While these varied depending on the state, the underlying stipulation was that only white male citizens who owned a certain dollar value of property were eligible to vote. These laws were gradually phased out over the decades, culminating in 1828 where the overwhelming majority of them were eliminated. This resulted in the highest voter turnout in American history at the time, and effectively set the stage for the next two major political parties to compete for the presidency.
The two most prominent candidates in the 1828 election were Andrew Jackson of the Democratic Party, and Henry Clay of the Whig Party. Both Jackson and Clay’s campaigns saw a resurgence of negative political messaging. The unique strain of bitterness that defined both candidates’ campaigns dated back to the previous 1824 election. Andrew Jackson had won a plurality of the popular and electoral votes, but no single candidate had a definitive majority. As per the Constitution, a contingent election was held in the House of Representatives, where the winner of the election was identified as John Quincy Adams, the son of former president John Adams. A lingering sense of betrayal grew among Jackson’s supporters over the next four years, resurfacing in the 1828 election. These negative perceptions were reinforced by a massive wave of anti-Jacksonian political campaigning. Before his foray into politics, Jackson served in the United States Army as a commanding general. His most notable military action was his leadership of the American ground forces in the Battle of New Orleans, the culminating fight in the War of 1812. Based on Jackson’s reputation for having his forces engage in fierce direct fighting, one of the major talking points used against him were accusations that he was a violent man who brutalized his enemies – and sometimes even his own soldiers – in battle. These talking points were highlighted in the “Coffin Handbills,” printed leaflets that were handed out and put on display on public bulletin boards. These handbills prominently featured the criticisms of Jackson being a violent killer, among other rumors and accusations. One major accusation levied against Jackson in the handbills was that he cheated on his wife, a lie that Jackson held an intense personal hatred for, especially after his wife’s death. John Taliaferro – a congressman from Virginia – openly called Jackson a cannibal. He personally wrote in the handbills that Jackson would kill and devour the bodies of Native American warriors during the Creek War, speculating that he would likely commit the same acts of violence against rival politicians if he were to become president.
In retaliation for these criticisms and accusations, Jackson’s campaign accused John Quincy Adams of being a “pimp.” The accusation was derived from Adams working as an ambassador to the Russian Empire, where he hired a young woman to serve as his wife’s personal assistant. Exaggerating the real details of Adams’ work, Jackson’s campaign claimed that the young woman was given to Czar Alexander I by Adams as a gift. This heavily-exaggerated account – along with another accusation that Adams bought a billiards table for the White House using taxpayer money – drove Adams to anger, yet he refused to directly respond to the slander and libel. Meanwhile, Jackson’s campaign directly went out of its way to contact newspaper groups, giving them key guidelines and instructions of how to respond to anti-Jacksonian stories and arguments. Andrew Jackson ultimately won the 1828 election, his strongest base of support being among Americans in the southern and western states. The intensely bitter campaign was still felt months later during the inauguration, where Jackson refused to give a courtesy to the outgoing Adams, who in turn refused to attend the new president’s ceremony. While the controversies of the 1828 election remained topical for years, the most significant long-term effect of it was the increasing influence of not only newspapers on their own, but also the use of popular media to convey political and social thoughts, for both journalism and political maneuvering.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum