Paul Johnson: The Dirtiest Election Ever Was ...

Roundup: Historians' Take

Paul Johnson, in the WSJ (Oct. 20, 2004):

The two most significant elections in American history were in 1789 and 1793, when George Washington was elected, then re-elected as president. They were significant because he, by character and experience, was the ideal man to launch the new republic as its First Magistrate.

Everyone knew this, including Washington himself, though he accepted with "a heart filled with distress, the ten thousand embarrassments, perplexities and troubles to which I must again be exposed in the evening of life already unduly consumed in public cares" (but he was only 57). Neither election was a contest. Members of the electoral college were chosen by the states on the assumption they would vote for Washington, and that he would accept. The candidate spent even less than he did in 1758 getting himself elected a Virginian burgess, when he forked out £40 for 35 gallons of wine, 47 gallons of beer, two gallons of cider, half a pint of brandy and three barrels of rum punch.

Early elections (of Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe) were usually sedate if far from unanimous affairs. John Quincy Adams's election in 1824 was a landmark because it accelerated the move toward choosing electors by popular vote. Out of 356,038 votes cast, Andrew Jackson emerged the clear leader with 153,544, Adams being 40,000 votes behind. Jackson also had the most electoral college votes, 99 to 84, with 78 for other candidates. But under the 12th Amendment, if no candidate got a majority of the college, the election went to the House, which picked the winner from the top three, voting by state. This put the choice effectively into the hands of Henry Clay, the all-powerful Speaker, who gave it to Adams, on the secret condition Adams made him secretary of state. Jackson denounced the election as "a corrupt bargain," and there was a growing feeling that future presidents must be chosen by the voters. Hence the re-run in 1828, in which Jackson again stood against Adams, was also of great significance since it was the first popular one in U.S. history.

It inaugurated the habit of long campaigns, since Tennessee nominated Jackson for president as early as Spring 1825, more than three years before the vote. The 1828 election saw the first "leak" and the first campaign posters. As Jackson was known as Old Hickory by his troops -- it was "the hardest wood in creation" -- Old Hickory clubs were formed all over the county, Hickory Trees were planted in towns, and Hickory Poles erected in villages. (Campaign badges and waistcoats had already been introduced in 1824.)

Adams's supporters retaliated by the campaign poster known as the Coffin Handbill, listing 18 murders Jackson was supposed to have committed. Those who claim the current election is the dirtiest know little about 1828. An English visitor, shown a school in New England (where Adams was paramount), put questions to the class, including "Who killed Abel?" A child promptly replied "General Jackson, Ma'am." An Adams pamphlet accused Jackson of "trafficking in human flesh," another accused his wife of being a bigamist and adulterer. After seeing it, she took to her bed and died shortly after the election. To his dying day Jackson believed his political enemies had murdered her. On his side, pamphlets accused Adams of fornication, procuring American virgins for the Tsar while serving as ambassador in Russia, and being an alcoholic and sabbath-breaker. A White House inventory listing a billiard-table and a chess-set led to the accusation that Adams had introduced "gambling furniture." (His most curious presidential habit, of taking a daily swim in the Potomac stark naked, went unnoticed.)

Jackson won the popular vote in this first razzmatazz election, 647,276 to 508,064, and the College by a clear majority. His inauguration was followed by a saturnalia in which thousands of his supporters invaded the White House and engaged in a drinking spree. The Spoils System (a new term) was inaugurated by the ejection of Adams's men from public offices, a process called The Massacre of the Innocents....


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