People often think that the American political arena today is nastier and more irrational than it has ever been. This is not true. Once the Founding Fathers left the picture, practically all our elections have always been dirty, irrational, full of blatant lies, and in general batshit crazy.
I’ve previously talked about the 2004 election which used gay marriage as a wedge issue to re-elect an unpopular President leading an unpopular war, and the 1968 election where we had a pro-segregation racist win a bunch of states in the Deep South and Bobby Kennedy got fatally shot on the night he won the California primary. Today I’m gonna go waaaaay back and talk about the insane in the membrane tactics of the 1828 election.
This particular election is often noted in history as the first dirty campaign. Most of the previous 10 elections were pretty straightforward and involved mythical Founding Father heroes: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc. The exception was the 1824 election when John Q. Adams, son of our 2nd President John Adams, won against Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party. The 1824 election by itself was batshit crazy because although Jackson got more electoral votes, NEITHER candidate actually won the necessary number of electoral votes. So the decision of who would be President went to the House of Representatives (this is how the rules are laid out in the 12th amendment), and they picked John Q. Adams. The main reason this happened was that Henry Clay, who came in fourth place in that election, was Speaker of the House and he hated Jackson so he formed a coalition to make sure Adams would win even though Jackson had the higher electoral number.
Henry Clay became Adams’ Secretary of State shortly after.
Let me stop for a second to really drive this point home: Jackson WON the popular vote 43% to 30%. He had 15 MORE Electoral Votes. And the House picked Adams.
This dirty dealing came to be known as the “Corrupt Bargain” by Jackson supporters, and the brutal campaign for 1828 practically began before Adams even took office.
But in 1828, we had an EPIC rematch.
But first, let me tell you a little about Andrew Jackson because…woooo, child. He was a character. Jackson was a warrior, to the bone. He was a courier in the Revolutionary War at age thirteen. When he was taken prisoner by the Redcoats, a British officer demanded that young Mr. Jackson polish his boots. I imagine that Andrew, in the language of the time, said something along the lines of “kiss my pale white ass” (maybe a bit of revisionist history here but let’s go with it). The officer slashed young Andrew across the face, and he wore that scar proudly for the rest of his life.
As an adult, Jackson was a famed general and politician. But many people thought that Jackson was, quite frankly, an asshole. He had a famous temper and was quick to draw a gun. In 1806 he KILLED a man in a duel for insulting his wife and accusing him of cheating on a horse race. Dude was straight up gangsta.
But that’s also why a lot of politicians didn’t like him. Thus, his odd “loss” in the 1824 election even though he won by every reasonable metric. Even back then, “likeability” mattered.
But Jackson would not be stopped. He ran with a vengeance in 1828 against the then incumbent Adams. But Adams supporters bet that since Jackson was skilled but famously unpleasant, they could pretty much say anything about him and get away with it. So they did.
First, they attacked his wife.
See, waaaaay back in like 1789, Jackson met the love of his life, Rachel Donelson Robards. There was only one problem: Rachel was already married. She was separated from her husband Lewis due to what she claimed was essentially domestic abuse. Rachel ran off to live with her mother, and by the time Lewis found her she was dating Andrew. Lewis applied for divorce in 1790, claiming that Rachel had committed adultery with Andrew. Andrew and Rachel ran off and got married in 1791.
There was only one problem: due to some weird lazy ass paperwork filing, the divorce wasn’t finalized until 1793. So, under the law, Andrew Jackson was married to another man’s wife.
Andrew and Rachel found out about this and re-said their vows in 1794, and that was the end of the story for THREE GODDAMN DECADES until the 1828 election when Jackson’s political opponents decided to dredge this shit up. They labeled Jackson’s poor wife as an adulteress and a bigamist.
That alone would have been dirty as hell. But the Adams camp didn’t stop there. They next went after Jackson’s long-dead mother.
This is an actual, verbatim, quote from a pro-Adams newspaper, the Cincinnati Gazette:
“General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!”
Yes, exclamation points and caps and everything. That is not a Facebook post. That is not a YouTube comment. That is not a tweet. That is not from InfoWars or Breitbart. That is an actual quote from a publication printed almost 200 years ago.
A newspaper called Andrew Jackson’s dead mother a whore.
Of course, Jackson and his supporters fought back with their own claims. Some of them said that President John Q. Adams had lived in sin with his wife before they got married, and that she was born out of wedlock. It was bad, man. Really bad.
Long story made slightly shorter: Jackson won in 1828. And this time it was a landslide. But the cost was high. His wife Rachel died just weeks after the election. The doctors said it was a heart attack, but Jackson blamed Adams and his crew for putting her through a nightmare. When Jackson arrived in Washington, D.C. to claim his new position, he refused to meet outgoing President Adams. Adams had left town anyway, which was probably a good thing because Jackson probably would have shot him had he seen him.
So, before you think an election has gotten crazy and out of hand, ask yourself this: has anyone accused anyone’s mother of being a whore?
Side-note: I’m sending a treatment to Lin-Manuel Miranda for an Andrew Jackson play because Hamilton ain’t got nothin’ on this.