The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

October 12, 2012

An election benchmark

As we head into the final weeks of America’s every-four-year experiment in democratically electing a president, you can never go wrong in looking back over the years and pinpointing a spot you think changed how we perceive things in 2012.

While we are barraged at every turn by political ads on TV, by pundits and polls and spin doctors who try and craft and coddle our every political thought, this year’s campaign bears little resemblance to the election that turned everything on its head.

It was 1828, and no presidential campaign before or since can hold a candle to the mudslinging and vitriol of the battle between incumbent president John Quincy Adams and challenger and American war hero Andrew Jackson.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seem rank amateurs in today’s political arena, where funding and dollar signs reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars for the slickest and quickest 30-second spots on your TV screen.

Back in 1828, all you had was word of mouth or the occasional stump speech by a candidate’s supporters. In that day, presidential candidates didn’t sling the mud — they allowed their supporters and handlers to get down in the ooze and throw the worst kind of insults, to see which stuck on the wall of public opinion.

I set the stage several weeks ago, covering the 1824 presidential election’s “Corrupt Bargain,” in which Jackson received the most votes, yet lost the presidency when the decision was thrown into the House of Representatives — and second-place finisher Adams was declared victor.

While today’s presidential race has its main themes of the economy, jobs and world affairs, the race in 1828 had none of those niceties, even though both Adams and Jackson had strong differences on substantial issues of the day.

In 1828, the campaign turned on the basis of personalities and tactics that would make today’s most underhanded political hack blush.

While political parties were in their infancy in the 1824 election, they really took shape in 1828, as the seeds of the strong political parties we see in today’s political arena grew exponentially.

During the Adams administration, defenders of the status quo began calling themselves National Republicans, while their opponents used the moniker of Democratic-Republicans, later shortened by history to Democrats.

While these two parties loosely resemble today’s Republicans and Democrats, political affiliation still was in its infancy, and both parties moved and swayed about, adding and dropping followers and interest groups almost on a yearly basis.

Political opinion in this early era was forming and shaping itself, as democracy was still very much a work in progress for this young country.

But the two-party system we see predominating today really began with the election of 1828.

For opponents of Andrew Jackson, everything in his career became fodder for ridicule, and both sides used friendly newspapers for their attacks.

Old Hickory’s famous incendiary temper and life were targets, as were several duels — one ending when he killed a man in 1806.

Jackson was attacked for his 1815 order to have militia members executed for desertion.

Philadelphia printer John Binns published the notorious Coffin Handbill, a poster showing six black coffins which claimed the deserting militiamen ordered executed by Jackson had been murdered.

Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was attacked for previously having been married, and the question arose about her divorce never being official.

It became a major campaign issue, and Jackson was accused of bigamy.

Jackson, who felt justly wronged by his loss in the 1824 election, allowed his handlers to release both barrels of his campaign shotgun on President Adams.

After Adams’ distinguished diplomatic career, which included serving as American envoy to Russia, Jackson’s handlers spread the rumor Adams had procured an American girl for the sexual services of Russia’s tsar.

Adams was accused of being a pimp, and this explained his great diplomatic success.

Adams was even attacked for charging the government for a billiard table in the White House.

Again, handlers were the culprits.

Adams, who had been a member of at least five different political parties during his career, refused to get involved in the campaign tactics.

But Jackson eventually did, furious over the attacks on himself and his wife, and still smarting over the election of 1824.

His appeal to the common man, both North and South, easily propelled the hero of the Battle of New Orleans into the White House over Adams.

But it cost him his wife, when a crestfallen Rachel died of a heart attack before the inauguration.

Staying nasty until the bitter end, Jackson refused to pay the customary courtesy call on the outgoing president, and Adams reciprocated by refusing to attend the inauguration.

To this day, the election of 1828 stands as the benchmark for political mudslinging.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.

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