This is the second in a five-part series on lesser-known contentious presidential elections in American history.
If you thought today’s politics of attack ads, mud-slinging and character assassination are dreadful, you should’ve witnessed the election of 1828, the ugliest in America’s history.
It started four years earlier when a plethora of candidates eyed the White House, among them Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Gen. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. There were so many candidates that although Jackson won the popular vote, no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College, but Jackson and Adams finished in the top two.
The House of Representatives then had the responsibility to elect the president – with Clay presiding as speaker – and elected Adams president on the first ballot; Clay then became secretary of state in Adams’ administration.
Jackson and his supporters furiously complained of a "corrupt bargain" between the two to win the White House.
Adams suffered a miserable presidency, and conditions were ripe for a Jackson victory in round two. However, Adams, Clay and their supporters fought tooth and nail to keep Old Hickory from winning.
They thought of Jackson, the victor of New Orleans and conqueror of Florida, as a military tyrant, gambler and drunkard morally unfit for high office. Adams supporters called Jackson – a dueler and Indian fighter – a murderer in a pamphlet showing a row of coffins.
The Jacksonians fought back, attacking Adams as an elitist aristocrat who broke the Sabboth and gambled with a billiard table he bought for the White House. Anti-Adams propaganda even charged he provided a young virgin for the czar of Russia during his tenure as a diplomat.
Both candidates’ wives were attacked, too. The Adams camp discovered Jackson had courted his wife, Rachel, before her divorce in a previous marriage was finalized; such an act usually constituted sin in the morals of the day. Adams’ wife, Louisa, was born in England and was scorned as "foreign" and apathetic about Americans and American politics.
In the words of one historian, the election of 1828 boiled down to: do you want to vote for someone whose wife is a whore or do you want to vote for someone who pimped for the czar of Russia?
On policy matters, Jacksonians sneered at large-scale public works projects like canals, roads and bridges as precarious big government. And new tariffs – a very divisive North-South economic issue – were also debated.
Jackson crushed Adams on Election Day, winning 56 percent of the vote and 68 percent of the Electoral College. Unfortunately, the victory was short lived. Jackson’s wife died a month after the election, and his anger over the campaign attacks on Rachel lingered for years.
Despite losing re-election, Adams would win a seat in the House of Representatives – the only former president to do so – where he became an outspoken abolitionist.
Although Jackson’s presidency was marred by controversy and mismanagement, he is remembered as one of America’s most revered presidents; indeed, he’s the only president with an era name for him – the Age of Jackson.
Mike Fox is a copy editor with the Bristol Herald Courier. He may be reached at email@example.com