The election of 1828 was significant as it heralded a profound change with the election of a man widely viewed as a champion of the common people. But that year's campaigning was also noteworthy for the intense personal attacks widely employed by the supporters of both candidates.
The incumbent John Quincy Adams and the challenger Andrew Jackson, could not have been more different. And perhaps the one thing they had in common was that they both had long careers of public service, one diplomatic and one military.
By the time the votes were cast, both men would have wild stories circulated about their pasts, with lurid charges of murder, adultery, and procuring of women being plastered across the pages of partisan newspapers.
Background to the Election of 1828
The two opponents in the election of 1828 had faced each other before, in the election of 1824, a peculiar affair which became known as “The Corrupt Bargain.” The 1824 race had to be decided in the House of Representatives, and it was widely believed that Speaker of the House Henry Clay had used his considerable influence to give the victory to John Quincy Adams.
Jackson's furious campaign against Adams essentially resumed as soon as Adams took office in 1825, as "Old Hickory" and his supporters worked diligently to line up support around the country. While Jackson’s natural power base was in the south and among rural voters, he managed to align himself with the New York political power broker Martin Van Buren. With Van Buren’s guidance, Jackson was able to appeal to working people in the north.
The 1828 Campaign Was Shaped By Party Conflict
In 1827 supporters in both the Adams and Jackson camps began concerted efforts to undermine the character of the opponent. Even though the two candidates had strong differences on substantial issues, the resulting campaign turned out to be based on personalities and tactics which were outrageously underhanded.
The 1824 election had not been marked with strong party affiliations. But during the Adams administration the defenders of the status quo began calling themselves "National Republicans." Their opponents began calling themselves "Democratic Republicans," which was soon shortened to Democrats.
The 1828 election was thus a return to a two-party system, and was the precursor of the familiar two-party system we know today. The Democratic loyalists of Jackson were organized by New York's Martin Van Buren, who was known for his sharp political skills.
Careers of Candidates Became Fodder for Attacks
For those who detested Andrew Jackson, there was a goldmine of material, as Jackson was famed for his incendiary temper and had led a life filled with violence and controversy. He had taken part in several duels, killing a man in a notorious one in 1806. When commanding troops in 1815, he had ordered the execution of militia members accused of desertion. Even Jackson’s marriage became fodder for campaign attacks.
Those opposed to John Quincy Adams mocked him as an elitist. The refinement and intelligence of Adams were turned against him. And he was even derided as a “Yankee,” at a time when that connoted shopkeepers reputed to take advantage of consumers.
Coffin Handbills and Adultery Rumors
Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a national hero was based on his military career, as he had been the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the final action of the War of 1812. His military glory was turned against him when a Philadelphia printer named John Binns published the notorious “coffin handbill,” a poster showing six black coffins and claiming the militiamen Jackson had ordered executed had essentially been murdered.
Jackson's wife Rachel had been married to another man before Jackson, and a question arose about when her first husband had divorced her and when she began living with Jackson. The explanation was that Jackson and his wife believed she had been divorced when they first married, but there was (and still is) some legitimate doubt about the timing.
Jackson’s marriage on the frontier nearly 40 years earlier became a major issue in the 1828 campaign. He was accused of adultery and vilified for running off with another man’s wife. And his wife was accused of bigamy.
Attacks on John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, the son of founding father and second president John Adams, began his career in public service by working as the secretary to the American envoy to Russia when he was still a teenager. He had an illustrious career as a diplomat, which formed the basis for his later career in politics.
The supporters of Andrew Jackson began spreading a rumor that Adams, while serving as American ambassador to Russia, had procured an American girl for the sexual services of the Russian czar. The attack was no doubt baseless, but the Jacksonians delighted in it, even calling Adams a “pimp” and claiming that procuring women explained his great success as a diplomat.
Adams was also attacked for having a billiard table in the White House and allegedly charging the government for it. It was true that Adams played billiards in the White House, but he paid for the table with his own funds.
Adams Recoiled, Jackson Participated
As these scurrilous charges appeared in the pages of partisan newspapers, John Quincy Adams reacted by refusing to get involved with the campaign tactics. He was so offended by what was happening that he even refused to write in the pages of his diary from August 1828 until after the election.
Jackson, on the other hand, was so furious about the attacks on himself and his wife that he got more involved. He wrote to newspaper editors giving them guidelines on how attacks should be countered and how their own attacks should proceed.
Jackson Won the Election of 1828
Jackson's appeal to the "common folk" served him well and he handily won the popular vote and the electoral vote. It came at a price, however. His wife Rachel suffered a heart attack and died before the inauguration, and Jackson always blamed his political enemies for her death.
When Jackson arrived in Washington for his inauguration he refused to pay the customary courtesy call on the outgoing president. And John Quincy Adams reciprocated by refusing to attend the inauguration of Jackson. Indeed, the bitterness of the election of 1828 resonated for years.