by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on September 23, 2016.
Every four years we endure the onslaught of presidential campaigns, and every four years we declare this one to be the worst ever. The candidates are the worst ever. Politics has never been so bad. The only people not convinced of this are historians – because we see the long view. As crazy as recent decades have been, previous ones have also been crazy. It might be best to stop reading or listening to any political commentary that purports to label this election as insanely unique unless it includes the modifier “in our lifetime.” Unless one of our modern candidates publicly accuses the other of cannibalism, they aren’t even coming close to our great-grandfather’s campaigns.
The campaign of 1824 was fierce, but relatively polite. There were four candidates running in the general election. John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford and Andrew Jackson – the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and Senator from Tennessee. Jackson won both the popular vote and the electoral count, but with no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. Jackson thought he had it in the bag. But after the fourth-place candidate Henry Clay was tossed off the ballot, he threw his support to Adams, who then rewarded Clay with the position of Secretary of State. Enraged, Jackson and his supporters, the Democratic-Republicans, called it the “corrupt bargain” and vowed to get even.
The Rockingham Gazette, widely read in Exeter, was simply glad the election was over. “Unless the spirit of controversy should subside, this four years’ war will hardly be closed, before another of equal duration and equal inveteracy, will begin.”
Jackson began his 1828 campaign shortly after Adams 1825 inauguration. Allying himself with Martin Van Buren of New York, he began shoring up his support in the north. Adams wasn’t particularly popular, so any mud-slinging that came his way tended to stick. He was accused of acting as a pimp to Tsar Alexander I during his time in Russia. His patrician values were played up to an electorate that was suspicious of the eastern merchant class. Jackson had tremendous appeal to the rural population. He was, after all, a war hero. His frequent duels and impetuous temperament were lambasted in the press by Adams supporters, but it was the publication by John Binns of Philadelphia of the famous ‘coffin handbills’ that would move the campaign to its lowest levels. The copy in the Exeter archives describes the execution of six militiamen during the Creek War. Whether their courts martial were legal or their executions humane, the document starkly describes how they were made to kneel on their coffins as the firing squad carried out the verdict. Jackson had signed the execution orders just after he’d been victorious at the Battle of New Orleans. “His crown of laurels had not yet withered, when blood, the life’s blood of his countrymen, of his fellow soldiers, flowed plentifully by his order,” read the text. “This case is horrible in all its aspects… It is revolting to every feeling of humanity and at war with every acknowledged principle of justice.”
Another of the coffin handbills, not in Exeter’s collections, goes on to relate other Jackson acts of cruelty, including the massacre of Natives in 1814: “these poor wretches were massacred in cold blood, without the least provocation.” After which, he “laid down composedly, and slept upon the field, surrounded by five hundred and seventy dead human carcasses!!!” When morning arrived, “Jackson began again to show his cannibal propensities, by ordering his Bowman to dress a dozen of these Indian bodies for his breakfast, which he devoured without leaving even a fragment.” Jackson was further accused of adultery and his wife of bigamy due to a slight legal kerfluffel forty years earlier. Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had thought herself divorced from her first abusive husband when she married Jackson. The oversight had been quickly corrected, but the mud-slinging accusation gave the impression of Jackson as a complete hick. In reality, he was the wealthiest man in Tennessee with extensive slaveholdings.
Negative campaigning is used, we hear, because it works. It didn’t work, however for John Quincy Adams. New Hampshire supported him, but most of the rest of the country still felt he’d stolen the election of 1824. In that earlier election, the Rockingham Gazette had lamented, “a foreigner, who has traced the progress of the controversy for the last year, through its interminable array of newspapers, hand-bills and pamphlets, could form no other conclusion, than that the people of these States had been seriously discussing the respective merits, and settling the comparative claims to office of gamblers, murderers, swindlers and hang-men.” Add pimps, cannibals and adulterers, and you may just have a perfect assessment of the election of 1828.
Picture: Exeter Historical Society's notorious "coffin handbill" from the archives. Anti-Jackson negative campaign ad from the election of 1828.