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The Rough and Tumble World of 19th-Century Politics

Author: Stephen L. Cox

Political parties. George Washington thought they lacked civility and led to intrigue and divisiveness. Thomas Jefferson believed that voters could be divided into two "natural" parties: those who feared and distrusted the ordinary people and those who identified themselves with the people. Yet, even with these broad distinctions the Sage of Monticello thought "the greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions and make them one people.19th Century Politics" Indeed, the founding fathers never anticipated the rise of political parties, but no sooner had George Washington taken his first oath of office than individuals in his administration began to polarize around two groups: those who supported the Administration, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams (known in time as Federalists) and those who took issue with the Washington Administration, especially over Alexander Hamilton's financial program. These included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr and James Monroe (eventually known as Democratic-Republicans). John Adams was the only Federalist elected president and by the second decade of the century the party died, while the Democratic-Republicans elected a number of presidents until parties began to reformulate in the 1820s and 1830s.

By the time voters re-elected Andrew Jackson president in 1832, political parties were well on their way to mobilizing the electorate and, by William Henry Harrison's election in 1840, the United States boasted two distinct parties: the Democrats and the Whigs. And, by 1840, if participants complained about the negative spirit of party, few turned their noses up at electioneering, stump speaking and ranting editorials in "newspapers" (most were organs of one party or the other, hardly the voice of independent news gathering). In fact, Washington's and Jefferson's concerns notwithstanding, antebellum political elections were raucous, boisterous affairs that bordered on the scandalous and outrageous.

Andrew Jackson first entered presidential politics in 1824. In that year there were three other candidates for president: Henry Clay of Kentucky, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts (and the son of second president John Adams), and William Crawford of Georgia. Since none of the four candidates received a majority of electoral votes, the decision was left for the House of Representatives to decide--the House of Representatives of which Henry Clay served as Speaker. Because Clay could not muster enough votes, he decided to throw his considerable support behind John Quincy Adams because both shared a vision of a strong, active national government that sought an economic system that promoted industry, internal improvements and Soon after Adams was declared the winner, he appointed Henry Clay as Secretary of State, an office viewed by many as a stepping stone to the presidency.

Andrew Jackson and his supporters were furious at this "duplicity." A "corrupt bargain," they charged, was hatched between Adams and Clay: votes in exchange for a higher office. The will of the people, they charged, had been subverted by self-serving politicians. Campaigning for the 1828 presidential election began even before the hapless Adams could take the oath of office. The "corrupt bargain" charge would dog him until he was eventually defeated by Jackson in 1828.

Jackson's chief supporters included Martin Van Buren of New York and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Calhoun's support for Old Hickory is especially noteworthy and serves to illustrate just how far George Washington's world had receded into the past: the South Carolinian was John Quincy Adams's vice president! Others in every state rallied around Jackson, writing letters of support and organizing newspapers that promoted the General. Those around him began to call themselves "Democrats", while the Adams supporters referred to themselves as "National Republicans." Eventually, by the mid-1830s, the latter group took the name of "Whigs."

More than one historian has described the election of 1828 as one of the nastiest in the history of the republic. Mudslinging and innuendo were practically raised to an art form. Newspapers and zealous campaigners in both camps accused the candidates of immoral conduct. Some in Adams' s camp--although not Adams himself--focused on Rachel Jackson's first marriage and divorce. Although rare, divorce did occur in the early 1800s, but due to a technicality, Jackson married Rachel before the courts could declare her legally divorced. As a result, the two went through a second ceremony a few years after their first. Whatever the case, the Adams press raised the charge that the two were "adulterers" and, hence, Jackson was unfit for the presidency. In addition, the Adams campaign charged Jackson with a sordid list of crimes, including murder, treason, drunkenness, theft and cockfighting.

Jackson men, for their part, charged that while Adams was serving as a U.S. minister to Russia, he supplied young women to a lust-crazed Czar. Furthermore, Adams was portrayed as an aristocratic, aloof New Englander who distanced himself from the very people he supposedly represented. The Democrats accused him of spending public money on lavish furniture, including a billiard table for his home. One earnest Jacksonian newspaper even claimed Mrs. Adams was born out of wedlock. Like his supporters, Jackson was a "common man;" Adams was a pro-British "aristocrat."

If the founding fathers were spinning in their graves, few participants thoughtfully considered the nature and direction of American political life. In fact, it seemed quite natural that upon Jackson's electoral victory people streamed into Washington D.C. to hear his inaugural address, and even visit the General at the White House. A mix of well-dressed, fashionable people and "the most vulgar and gross in the nation" stormed the White House grounds and, as Jackson prepared to meet them informally, surged into the White House spilling buckets of wine and punch on the carpets, climbing on chairs and banging into stylish furniture. To escape the throng, the newly elected president climbed out of a window and walked to his rented quarters elsewhere in the city.

Polite society may have been offended--if not a little frightened--but it was clear from that point on, that politics would take on a new meaning. Parties became organized, as national, state, and local committees developed and as newspapers championed not only the party in every state but specific office seekers as well. Jackson, the first president not hailing from Virginia or Massachusetts, was portrayed as a symbol of the common man, the military hero, the protector of the people. In 1836 Martin Van Buren of New York, long Jackson's ally and, since 1832, his vice president, was seen as Old Hickory's logical successor. But what of the Whigs? While they worked hard to defeat Jackson in 1832 and Van Buren in 1836, they never warmed to the electioneering--the songs, the noisy parades, the bombastic speeches--that the Democrats so ably orchestrated. Only when they realized that these activities proved successful did the Whigs launch their own special style of campaigning in 1840. As a result, William Henry Harrison, like the Democrat Jackson, was portrayed as a man of the people, born in a log cabin (he wasn't), raised on hard cider (an exaggeration), fought--and defeated--Indians on the Indiana frontier. Van Buren, on the other hand, was denounced as a corset-wearing, perfume-smelling dandy who "ate with golden spoons from silver plates." The tactic worked. Harrison, the "Cincinnatus of the West", won handily.

From that point on, for good or ill, Americans discovered that to win office and formulate policy based on thoughtful reflection or urgency one had to first participate in the noisy, sometimes unpleasant world of politics. Most realists understood early that "statesmen" were dead "politicians."