In the wake of the recent bitter election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many pundits are claiming that 2016 was the nastiest election in history.
However, a peek back at the presidential past shows that the elections of 1824 and 1828 between hateful rivals Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were unlike anything before or since.
John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts was typical of American presidents up to that point. He was wealthy, well-educated, a world traveler, and the son of our second president John Adams. By the time he was 15 years old, he had already worked as a translator in the court of Czarina Catherine the Great of Russia. In contrast, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee came from modest beginnings. A poor Southern orphan, he came to fame as a military hero in the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans. “Old Hickory”, as Jackson was nicknamed, was the choice of the common man.
The two men ran as part of a field of four Democratic Republicans in 1824. The Democratic Republicans in the 1820s were much like today’s Republicans, favoring limited government, individual liberty, and states’ rights. The election was a battle based on regional support. Andrew Jackson won 11 out of 24 states, earning 43% of the popular vote and 99 Electoral College votes. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams got 84 electoral votes, Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford won 41, and House Speaker Henry Clay had only 37.
Although Jackson had more popular and Electoral College votes than any other candidate and expected to be the new president, he did not have the majority of the vote, only a plurality. So the House of Representatives had to vote to decide the election. The House could only choose from among the top three candidates. So Henry Clay was taken out, leaving Jackson, Adams, and Crawford in the running.
That’s when the election took a surprise turn. Clay was still Speaker of the House and he had a personal dislike for Jackson. Clay was now no longer a candidate and able to influence the outcome of the election. After a tense month of negotiating, many of Clay’s supporters switched their support to his friend Adams. The representatives from Maryland, Illinois, and Louisiana, where Jackson had won the electoral vote, voted for Adams. Kentucky, where Adams had gotten no popular votes at all, also voted for Adams.
So although Andrew Jackson had won both the popular vote and the electoral vote, John Quincy Adams became our 6th president when he received the majority of votes from the House of Representatives. Once in office, Adams made Clay his Secretary of State.
As you can imagine, Jackson and his supporters were furious. Jackson accused Adams and Clay of making a “corrupt bargain.” He quit his senate seat and vowed to win the next election as a Washington outsider. To complicate matters, soon after the 1824 election, the Democratic Republican party officially split into the National Republicans led by Adams and Clay, and the Democratic Party led by Jackson. Throughout Adam’s presidency, he was opposed by Jackson’s supporters. When Jackson ran against Adams for a second time in 1828, the presidential race was a vicious, mud-slinging, slime fest.
During the 1828 campaign, Adams was accused of prostituting a young American woman to the Russian Czar while serving as Minister to Russia. His detractors suggested that his success as a diplomat was largely due to his acting as a pimp. (It is thought today that this story was only rumors started by Jackson supporters.) Adams was also accused of using public money to buy gambling devices for the White House. It turned out that these were a chess set and a pool table.
During his presidency, Adams had supported federal programs to improve national transportation infrastructure and protective tariffs to safeguard American industry. Democrats accused him of corruption and federal overreach. Southerners felt that the tariffs harmed them while propping up northern industry. Jackson’s supporters called Adams’ protective tariff on iron, hemp and flax the “Tariff of Abominations.”
As the campaign got increasingly nasty, Adams completely withdrew from any active participation, feeling that he was above such campaign filth. Jackson, however, became even more involved as he became increasingly offended, instructing his supporters how to respond to accusations from the Adams campaign.
Jackson’s colorful history was exploited by the Adams camp. He had a hot temper and had killed a man in a duel in 1806. During the War of 1812, then General Jackson, ordered the execution of six men accused of desertion. Adams supporters suggested that the sentence was unjust and that Jackson had murdered them. His declaration of martial law in New Orleans during the war also became a campaign issue because he did it after the war had officially ended.
One Adams camp newspaper even insulted Jackson’s mother claiming, “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!”
Adams supporters also viciously attacked Jackson’s wife, Rachel Jackson. She was accused of being an adulteress because she married Jackson before finalizing her divorce. When the Jacksons married in 1791, the couple believed that she was divorced, however the proceeding was not yet finalized, and he had to remarry her once the legal papers were complete. In the Adams campaign’s hands, this became a huge scandal. The Washington Daily National Journal claimed that Jackson had fought Rachel’s husband, chased him away, and stolen his wife. The Cincinnati Gazette, asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”
In the end, Jackson won the presidency with 56 percent of the popular vote and 178 electoral votes to Adams’ 83. But the stress of the campaign had been too much for Rachel Jackson. She sickened and died shortly after he won the election, just a few days before his inauguration. At her funeral, Jackson blamed his opponents’ bigamy accusations for her death. “May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them,” Jackson said. “I never can.”
On the day Jackson was inaugurated, he refused to make the traditional visit to the outgoing president. “Any man who would permit a public journal, under his control, to assault the reputation of a respectable female, much less the wife of his rival and competitor for first office in the world was not entitled to the respect of any honorable man.”
Adams did not attend the inauguration of his successor, one of only four presidents who chose not to attend their respective successor’s inauguration. Jackson’s public inauguration party turned into a mob scene, with thousands of well-wishers crowding into the White House. “Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses, and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe,” wrote Margaret Smith, a Washington socialite who attended the party.