Tag Archives: Henry Clay

DONALD TRUMP AND ANDREW JACKSON

[Since I am currently on leave, I am taking a temporary break from crafting new essays on faith and American history but re-posting past essays from time to time.  When I read that President Trump visited Andrew Jackson’s home before speaking at a rally last night in Nashville, I thought it made sense to re-post a piece I wrote last summer on our seventh president.  Although I am skeptical that Mr. Trump actually knows much about Jackson, he has described himself as “a fan” of our seventh president and has put a picture of him in the oval office.  I’ve taught on Jackson for nearly thirty years, and with all due respect to President Trump, I find little reason to admire his presidency.  You can read my summary assessment below.]

To the degree that history has remembered Andrew Jackson kindly, it has done so for two main reasons.  First, Jackson responded forcefully to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, when South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariff legislation and threatened disunion if Jackson insisted on enforcing the objectionable laws.  Second, Jackson seemingly embodied a new democratic ethos that exalted the nobility of the “common man” and the moral authority of the majority.  As a rude frontiersman elevated to the nation’s highest office, Jackson became the face of Jacksonian Democracy and the “symbol for an age.”

In truth, Jackson received too much credit in both respects.  Jackson’s “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”—a vigorous argument for federal supremacy and the perpetuity of the Union—was in fact ghost-written by Senator Edward Livingston of Louisiana.  What is more, Jackson’s approach to federal authority was far from consistent.  At the same time that he was threatening to hang “nullifiers” to the closest tree he could find, this champion of the Union was effectively inviting the state of Georgia to abrogate federal treaties with the Cherokee and encouraging them to defy the U. S. Supreme Court.  And when it comes to Jackson’s relation to the rise of American democracy, it is hard not to see that correlation as almost entirely coincidental.  Jackson’s political leadership was too personal, too impetuous, too erratic to credit him with a purposeful contribution to a more democratic public square.

Although the Whigs could be guilty of exaggerating Jackson’s political sins for partisan purposes, and they were not above duplicating them for partisan gain, their fundamental indictment of Jackson was pretty much on target.  Jackson too often functioned as a reckless, anti-intellectual populist.  His knowledge of, and respect for the Constitution was suspect.  And he had a knack for framing issues in a way that made the people feel aggrieved and willing to accord him more power so that he could protect them from the powerful.  Let me unpack this seemingly harsh assessment.

First, when I say that Jackson was reckless, I mean that he was motivated more by instinct, emotion, and personal feeling than by any systematic political philosophy or vision.  His temper was legendary, he chafed at restraint, and he always took disagreement personally.  He was involved in multiple duels.  He killed a man for insulting his wife.  He exceeded his authority as a military commander after the War of 1812, very nearly embroiling the United States in a war with Spain and prompting Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to recommend his removal.  Once in the White House, he very nearly brought his administration to a grinding halt because the wives of some of his cabinet members refused to socialize with the wife of his Secretary of War.

Jackson was also the first populist U. S. president.  A populist sees (or claims to see) the world as a struggle between the people—always clothed in robes of moral righteousness—and a powerful minority who would subvert the people’s welfare for their own selfish gain.  A populist politician routinely portrays himself as the hero of this drama, a noble champion charged with defending a helpless populace against the insidious forces that threaten them.

There was little in Jackson’s public life prior to 1824 to predict that he would become a populist.  Born in poverty, he parlayed influential connections and a knack for land speculation into a fortune that made him one of the largest land- and slave-owners in Tennessee.  During the War of 1812 he exploited a political appointment as general of the Tennessee state militia into a series of important military assignments, but he quickly built the reputation of a harsh disciplinarian not averse to putting deserters in front of a firing squad.

Then in 1824 the Tennessee General Assembly nominated Jackson as a candidate for president and support for his candidacy began to grow, particularly in what was then “the west.”  This growing support was not due to his political experience, of which he had very little, but rather a tribute to his military success in defeating Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and then the British army at the Battle of New Orleans.

Jackson took approximately 40 percent of both the popular and electoral vote in the four-man presidential election that followed, which is another way of saying that three-fifths of voters wanted someone else to be president.  It was then that Jackson discovered the moral authority of majority rule—or plurality rule, to be more precise—because when John Quincy Adams won the run-off in the House of Representatives, Jackson insisted that the system was rigged and that he had been robbed of the presidency.  In private letters, Jackson lashed out at Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a rival for the presidency who had actively worked against him in the run-off.  The Kentuckian Clay became the “Judas of the West,” a metaphor that could only hold if Jackson was analogous to Christ.

Publicly, Jackson lamented that the authority of the people had been disregarded and the wishes of the Founding Fathers had been trampled.  Ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Framers of the Constitution had feared unfettered majority rule, as well as the fact that the Constitution does not require that there be any direct popular involvement in the election of the president, Jackson pronounced that his defeat was unconstitutional.  The Constitution’s authors, he insisted without a scrap of evidence, would have condemned the election of John Quincy Adams as a violation of the people’s rights.

Jackson3In 1824 Jackson’s campaign managers had primarily portrayed their candidate as “General Jackson,” the hero of New Orleans who deserved their vote because of his patriotism and self-sacrifice.  In 1828 the campaign shifted to a full-throttled populism, denouncing the supposed “Corrupt Bargain” that had stolen the presidency from the people’s choice and handed it to John Quincy Adams.

Demonstrating the anti-intellectualism that so often accompanies populism, the Jackson campaign argued fantastically that Adams’s education and extensive political experience disqualified him from the nation’s highest office.  While Jackson had barely a year of formal schooling and minimal political experience, Adams, after graduating from Harvard, had served as a congressman, senator, ambassador, Secretary of State, and now president.  According to his political lieutenants, Jackson was the more qualified.

John Quincy Adams

Without openly discussing the size of Jackson’s hands, they portrayed their candidate as a man’s man and Adams as an effeminate intellectual.  Who do you want as president, they asked voters: “Jackson who can fight, or Adams who can write?”  And Adams’ extensive political experience was no more an advantage than his education, for political experience undermined, rather than enhanced, a candidate’s ability to serve the public.  Jackson would drive home the point in his first annual message after claiming the presidency on his second try. “There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties,” Jackson opined.

The solution was what Jackson called “rotation in office,” or what Americans in more recent times have known as term limits.  To prevent their corruption, make sure that American office holders are always novices.  Nothing would be lost in terms of effectiveness, Jackson assured the nation, because “the duties of all public officers are . . . so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.”  Who needs experience?

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

During the eight years that Jackson was in the White House, the episode that best exemplified Jackson’s populism was the so-called Bank War of 1832-1833.  In 1832 the supporters of the Second Bank of the United States—including the “Judas of the West” Henry Clay—had maneuvered a measure through Congress to extend the charter of the bank for another twenty years.  The descendant of an entity originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the bank had been chartered by Congress in 1816 in the hope that it would provide a circulating medium for the nation’s economy and bring greater stability and soundness to the country’s often turbulent financial sector.  The bank’s defenders were correct in saying that the bank was largely fulfilling these objectives.  The bank’s detractors were also surely right that this private agency wielded considerable power with minimal accountability.

Jackson, who knew almost nothing about how banks actually function, did know this: the bank’s strongest champions were among his most outspoken critics, and that made the effort to renew the charter a personal attack.  In the summer of 1832 he vetoed the measure on multiple grounds, two of which deserve special attention.  First, Jackson portrayed the struggle over the Bank in classic populist tones.  The proposal to extend the life of the Bank was nothing more than an effort of rich men to make themselves richer.  “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” Jackson lamented.  Fortunately, the victims of such injustice—“the humble members of society”—could look to him for protection.

To use current terminology, Jackson portrayed the Bank War as a scheme to use government to enrich the 1 percent at the expense of 99-percenters.  In actuality, among the chief opponents of the Bank of the United States were other bankers—financiers who resented the competition of the B.U.S. and expected their profits to rise if their rival could be eliminated.  There is little evidence that common folk were better off because of the demise of the Bank of the United States, and historians have long speculated that Jackson’s assault on the Bank may have contributed to a severe economic recession at the close of his second term.  That is debatable, but this much is not: when Jackson removed all federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, he divvied them up among state banks—Whigs called them “pet banks”—that were run by his political allies.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson’s righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

In addition to denouncing the bill to re-charter the Bank as an effort to make the rich richer, Jackson further justified his veto by condemning it as unconstitutional.  The problem here is that the Supreme Court had explicitly defended its constitutionality in the 1818 case McCullough v. Maryland.  The Court’s ruling was utterly irrelevant, Jackson announced in his veto message.  That is because “each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others. . . . The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both.”

Boiled down, to the degree that the Constitution placed any restrictions on his actions as president, Jackson alone would determine what they were.  The Constitution would mean what he said it meant.  With this comforting philosophy, Jackson would go on to veto more measures than his six predecessors combined.  Whatever else it meant, Jackson’s zeal for the public welfare meant an expansion of the power of the presidency.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

When the Treasury Department announced earlier this spring that it would be removing Jackson from the front of the twenty-dollar bill, I applauded, although I found much of the online exultation after the announcement off-putting.  Most of the voices raised in support of the decision emphasized Jackson’s support for two practices—slavery and Indian removal—supported or at least accepted by the vast majority of white Americans at the time.  While condemnation of these practices is the morally correct position for us to hold, it is also a morally cheap position, in that it demands absolutely nothing of us.  Who in 2016 would stand up to defend either practice?  What courage is required to denounce them?

What troubles me most about Jackson is not the ways in which he was a man of his time, but the ways in which he anticipated our day and age.  In his elevation to the presidency almost two hundred years ago, we see a foreshadowing of the emotional, frequently irrational politics of 2016.  And in Jackson, we see the combination of reckless, anti-intellectual, populist bravado that the current “presumptive nominee” of the Republican Party has so wonderfully perfected.  If Jackson’s presidency teaches us anything, however, it is that successful populist politicians don’t always bring more power to the people.  Sometimes they just amass more power for themselves.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

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(First other essays comparing Jackson and Trump, check out here and here.)

DID TED CRUZ SHOW “VIRTUE” IN WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S SPEECH?

One of the principal themes of Eric Metaxas’ latest book—If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty—is that America needs virtuous leaders if our freedom is to endure.  Having read and reviewed Metaxas’ book so recently, I found it impossible not to ruminate on his argument while listening to Ted Cruz’s stunning “non-endorsement” of Donald Trump at last night’s session of the Republican National Convention.  Cruz’s speech immediately went under the media microscope, in part because it was almost the first surprising thing to happen at a national party convention in the past half century, but also because almost every talking head who weighed in on the question last night agreed that what Cruz had done was politically “risky.”  Should Trump go on to win the presidency [involuntary shudder] or come close enough to victory that Cruz’s stance could be seen as responsible for his defeat, the consensus was that we’ll remember the Texas senator’s speech as the beginning of the end of his political career.

That caused my historian’s alarm to go off, because what we call “politically risky” might very well be what the Founding Fathers would have called “virtuous.”  Let’s remember what the Founders meant by the term.  When they argued that virtue was indispensable to the success of free institutions, they defined the concept differently than we might today.  Virtue, as they understood it, had almost nothing to do with sexual morality—something we’re likely to think of if we hear the word now—and everything to do with one’s willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the benefit of the common good.

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington's "Farewell Address"

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington’s “Farewell Address”

When the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create “a more perfect union,” their belief in the importance of virtue contributed to two other working hypotheses.  First, political factions were more likely to be fueled by self-interest than self-denial.  This is why George Washington denounced them in his Farewell Address, advising the American people to “avoid the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and reminding them that partisan spirit too often “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”  (What would he say about American politics in 2016?)

Second, the Founders understood that, in a free society in which the people could easily get caught up in self-destructive partisan passions, it was sometimes the duty of the virtuous statesman to defy the majority, even at the cost of popular condemnation.  And so when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton penned the Federalist essays after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned, they repeatedly noted that one of the strengths of the new Constitution would be the features that would keep the government accountable to the people while still shielding officeholders from undue popular pressure.  The indirect election of the Senate, for example, would enable that body to “refine and enlarge” public sentiments to arrive at official policies superior to what the people clamored for.  The convoluted election of the president would free the executive to stand against popular passions “when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” i.e., when what the people want would be bad for them.

In If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas seems to think that our cultural commitment to virtue held strong until about the time that the Beatles came to America, but the belief in virtue as the Founders understood it was almost extinct within a half century of Independence.  The best evidence for this comes from the crucial presidential election of 1824.

1824 Election MapThe 1824 election had played out pretty much the way that the framers of the Constitution had expected most elections to unfold. There had been a large number of serious candidates on the ballot in the general election: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, of Georgia; Kentuckian Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of Massachuetts; and Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee.  Predictably given such a large field of candidates, no individual had received a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that the outcome had to be determined by a run-off election among the top three finishers in the House of Representatives. (Clay, who finished fourth, was the odd man out.) Finally, in the run-off in the House the congressmen had cast their ballots without necessarily feeling constrained by the popular vote in their home states. Although many did so, overall they favored the second-place finisher, Adams, over the first-place finisher, Jackson. There was nothing unconstitutional about their doing so, and nothing necessarily insidious in their decision that Adams was the more qualified. (In terms of political experience, he unquestionably was.)

Key to the outcome of the run-off in the House was Henry Clay’s decision to endorse John Quincy Adams, despite the fact that his Kentucky constituents overwhelming favored Jackson once Clay himself had been eliminated from contention.  Clay justified his decision by appealing to the obligations of virtue as the Founders would have understood it.  In a letter intended for public circulation, Clay observed,

My position, in regard to the Presidential election, is highly critical, & such as to leave me no path on which I can move without censure; I have pursued, in regard to it, the rule which I always observe in the discharge of my public duty.  I have interrogated my conscience as to what I ought to do, & that faithful guide tells me that I ought to vote for Mr. Adams. . . . I am, & shall continue to be, assailed by all the abuse, which partisan zeal, malignity, & rivalry can invent.  I shall risk, without emotion, these effusions of malice, & remain unshaken in my purpose.  What is a public man worth, if he will not expose himself, on fit occasions, for the good of his country?

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

“I have interrogated my conscience,” Clay explained, and it tells me how to proceed.  I know that my decision will be unpopular, he went on in so many words, but that must not deter me.  The path of virtue practically ensures that the virtuous statesman will be viciously assailed, but sometimes that’s what the good of the country requires of him.  Jackson supporters replied—and here is what is supremely significant—that it is never virtuous to oppose the will of the people (a variation on the blasphemy that the voice of the people is the voice of God).  As the editor of the pro-Jackson Washington Gazette cried out in disbelief:

If the People thought Gen. Jackson worthy, is it for Henry Clay to pronounce him unworthy?  Is it for him to say to his fellow citizens, ‘You shall not have the man you wish, but the man I will’?  No.—Henry Clay himself has inflicted the deepest wound on the fundamental principle of our government.  He has insulted and struck down the majesty of the People.

If you’re familiar with the details of this watershed election, you know that the story doesn’t end here.  When John Quincy Adams subsequently named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson supporters immediately screamed that a “Corrupt Bargain” had been struck and Clay had sold his support in the run-off in exchange for a cabinet post.  Historians have never uncovered any evidence to prove that this actually happened, but the charge was politically useful, and the Jacksonians wielded it with a vengeance.  Four years later, the people had their way, and the nation’s first populist president—whose primary policy accomplishment would be the passage of the Indian Removal Act—was elevated to the presidency.

Was Henry Clay motivated by love of country or by political ambition?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that he still spoke in the language of the Founders, who assumed that the exercise of virtue might require defiance of the public and usually exacted a personal cost.  That view was already dying out by the 1820s.

Was Ted Cruz motivated by love of country or political ambition in last night’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump?  I don’t know.  It’s quite possible, as several op-ed writers were quick to insinuate, that he made a calculated decision about how best to advance his own political future.  I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but I’ll say this much: In refusing to fall in line behind his party and in delivering an address sure to elicit scorn and derision across the lecture hall, Cruz’s stance looks on the surface more virtuous than anything else I’ve noticed from the convention so far.

Your thoughts?

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

“KING DONALD THE FIRST”–PART TWO

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

constitution

In my last few posts I have been delving into a lesser-known speech from Abraham Lincoln’s early public career and asking whether Lincoln’s political commentary might provide a useful lens for viewing our own political world.  In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of 1838, Lincoln warned of the occasional appearance of men of genius and ambition who would so “thirst for distinction” that they would be willing to tear down America’s free institutions instead of build them up.  When such individuals arose, Lincoln predicted, the only protection against tyranny would be an electorate “united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent,” that is, guided more by reason than by emotion.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The Young Men’s Lyceum was not a political club, and it would have been poor form for Lincoln to have delivered an overtly partisan address to that assembly, but I strongly suspect that when Lincoln spoke of a would-be tyrant who might jeopardize the people’s liberty, the template in his mind’s eye was not some generic abstraction but the man who had vacated the White House less than a year before.  Lincoln was a Whig in every fiber of his being, and the Whig Party, which Lincoln had embraced from its inception, emerged on the political scene in the early 1830s first and foremost as an anti-Jackson coalition.  Whigs caricatured Jackson as “King Andrew the First,” denouncing him as a despot who, after pronouncing his zeal for the public welfare, had expanded the power of the presidency while trampling on the Constitution.

Ideally, the study of history can be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” to quote historian David Harlan, but if we are to understand what our conversation partners are saying to us, we always have to situate their pronouncements in the concrete historical context that gave rise to them.  When it comes to understanding Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, we’ll make much better sense of Lincoln’s warning if we refresh our memories of Jackson’s presidency.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833, a little more than four years before Lincoln's Lyceum Address. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833, a little more than four years before Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

To the degree that history has remembered Jackson kindly, it has done so for two main reasons.  First, Jackson responded forcefully to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, when South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariff legislation and threatened disunion if Jackson insisted on enforcing the objectionable laws.  Second, Jackson seemingly embodied a new democratic ethos that exalted the nobility of the “common man” and the moral authority of the majority.  As a rude frontiersman elevated to the nation’s highest office, Jackson became the face of Jacksonian Democracy and the “symbol for an age.”

In truth, Jackson received too much credit in both respects.  Jackson’s “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”—a vigorous argument for federal supremacy and the perpetuity of the Union—was in fact ghost-written by Senator Edward Livingston of Louisiana.  What is more, Jackson’s approach to federal authority was far from consistent.  At the same time that he was threatening to hang “nullifiers” to the closest tree he could find, this champion of the Union was effectively inviting the state of Georgia to abrogate federal treaties with the Cherokee and encouraging them to defy the U. S. Supreme Court.  And when it comes to Jackson’s relation to the rise of American democracy, it is hard not to see that correlation as almost entirely coincidental.  Jackson’s political leadership was too personal, too impetuous, too erratic to credit him with a purposeful contribution to a more democratic public square.

Although the Whigs could be guilty of exaggerating Jackson’s political sins for partisan purposes, and they were not above duplicating them for partisan gain, their fundamental indictment of Jackson was pretty much on target.  Jackson too often functioned as a reckless, anti-intellectual populist.  His knowledge of, and respect for the Constitution was suspect.  And he had a knack for framing issues in a way that made the people feel aggrieved and willing to accord him more power so that he could protect them from the powerful.  Let me unpack this seemingly harsh assessment.

First, when I say that Jackson was reckless, I mean that he was motivated more by instinct, emotion, and personal feeling than by any systematic political philosophy or vision.  His temper was legendary, he chafed at restraint, and he always took disagreement personally.  He was involved in multiple duels.  He killed a man for insulting his wife.  He exceeded his authority as a military commander after the War of 1812, very nearly embroiling the United States in a war with Spain and prompting Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to recommend his removal.  Once in the White House, he very nearly brought his administration to a grinding halt because the wives of some of his cabinet members refused to socialize with the wife of his Secretary of War.

Jackson was also the first populist U. S. president.  A populist sees (or claims to see) the world as a struggle between the people—always clothed in robes of moral righteousness—and a powerful minority who would subvert the people’s welfare for their own selfish gain.  A populist politician routinely portrays himself as the hero of this drama, a noble champion charged with defending a helpless populace against the insidious forces that threaten them.

There was little in Jackson’s public life prior to 1824 to predict that he would become a populist.  Born in poverty, he parlayed influential connections and a knack for land speculation into a fortune that made him one of the largest land- and slave-owners in Tennessee.  During the War of 1812 he exploited a political appointment as general of the Tennessee state militia into a series of important military assignments, but he quickly built the reputation of a harsh disciplinarian not averse to putting deserters in front of a firing squad.

Then in 1824 the Tennessee General Assembly nominated Jackson as a candidate for president and support for his candidacy began to grow, particularly in what was then “the west.”  This growing support was not due to his political experience, of which he had very little, but rather a tribute to his military success in defeating Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and then the British army at the Battle of New Orleans.

Jackson took approximately 40 percent of both the popular and electoral vote in the four-man presidential election that followed, which is another way of saying that three-fifths of voters wanted someone else to be president.  It was then that Jackson discovered the moral authority of majority rule—or plurality rule, to be more precise—because when John Quincy Adams won the run-off in the House of Representatives, Jackson insisted that the system was rigged and that he had been robbed of the presidency.  In private letters, Jackson lashed out at Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a rival for the presidency who had actively worked against him in the run-off.  The Kentuckian Clay became the “Judas of the West,” a metaphor that could only hold if Jackson was analogous to Christ.

Publicly, Jackson lamented that the authority of the people had been disregarded and the wishes of the Founding Fathers had been trampled.  Ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Framers of the Constitution had feared unfettered majority rule, as well as the fact that the Constitution does not require that there be any direct popular involvement in the election of the president, Jackson pronounced that his defeat was unconstitutional.  The Constitution’s authors, he insisted without a scrap of evidence, would have condemned the election of John Quincy Adams as a violation of the people’s rights.

Jackson3In 1824 Jackson’s campaign managers had primarily portrayed their candidate as “General Jackson,” the hero of New Orleans who deserved their vote because of his patriotism and self-sacrifice.  In 1828 the campaign shifted to a full-throttled populism, denouncing the supposed “Corrupt Bargain” that had stolen the presidency from the people’s choice and handed it to John Quincy Adams.

 

Demonstrating the anti-intellectualism that so often accompanies populism, the Jackson campaign argued fantastically that Adams’s education and extensive political experience disqualified him from the nation’s highest office.  While Jackson had barely a year of formal schooling and minimal political experience, Adams, after graduating from Harvard, had served as a congressman, senator, ambassador, Secretary of State, and now president.  According to his political lieutenants, Jackson was the more qualified.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Without openly discussing the size of Jackson’s hands, they portrayed their candidate as a man’s man and Adams as an effeminate intellectual.  Who do you want as president, they asked voters: “Jackson who can fight, or Adams who can write?”  And Adams’ extensive political experience was no more an advantage than his education, for political experience undermined, rather than enhanced, a candidate’s ability to serve the public.  Jackson would drive home the point in his first annual message after claiming the presidency on his second try. “There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties,” Jackson opined.

The solution was what Jackson called “rotation in office,” or what Americans in more recent times have known as term limits.  To prevent their corruption, make sure that American office holders are always novices.  Nothing would be lost in terms of effectiveness, Jackson assured the nation, because “the duties of all public officers are . . . so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.”  Who needs experience?

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

During the eight years that Jackson was in the White House, the episode that best exemplified Jackson’s populism was the so-called Bank War of 1832-1833.  In 1832 the supporters of the Second Bank of the United States—including the “Judas of the West” Henry Clay—had maneuvered a measure through Congress to extend the charter of the bank for another twenty years.  The descendant of an entity originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the bank had been chartered by Congress in 1816 in the hope that it would provide a circulating medium for the nation’s economy and bring greater stability and soundness to the country’s often turbulent financial sector.  The bank’s defenders were correct in saying that the bank was largely fulfilling these objectives.  The bank’s detractors were also surely right that this private agency wielded considerable power with minimal accountability.

Jackson, who knew almost nothing about how banks actually function, did know this: the bank’s strongest champions were among his most outspoken critics, and that made the effort to renew the charter a personal attack.  In the summer of 1832 he vetoed the measure on multiple grounds, two of which deserve special attention.  First, Jackson portrayed the struggle over the Bank in classic populist tones.  The proposal to extend the life of the Bank was nothing more than an effort of rich men to make themselves richer.  “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” Jackson lamented.  Fortunately, the victims of such injustice—“the humble members of society”—could look to him for protection.

To use current terminology, Jackson portrayed the Bank War as a scheme to use government to enrich the 1 percent at the expense of 99-percenters.  In actuality, among the chief opponents of the Bank of the United States were other bankers—financiers who resented the competition of the B.U.S. and expected their profits to rise if their rival could be eliminated.  There is little evidence that common folk were better off because of the demise of the Bank of the United States, and historians have long speculated that Jackson’s assault on the Bank may have contributed to a severe economic recession at the close of his second term.  That is debatable, but this much is not: when Jackson removed all federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, he divvied them up among state banks—Whigs called them “pet banks”—that were run by his political allies.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson's righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson’s righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

In addition to denouncing the bill to re-charter the Bank as an effort to make the rich richer, Jackson further justified his veto by condemning it as unconstitutional.  The problem here is that the Supreme Court had explicitly defended its constitutionality in the 1818 case McCullough v. Maryland.  The Court’s ruling was utterly irrelevant, Jackson announced in his veto message.  That is because “each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others. . . . The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both.”

Boiled down, to the degree that the Constitution placed any restrictions on his actions as president, Jackson alone would determine what they were.  The Constitution would mean what he said it meant.  With this comforting philosophy, Jackson would go on to veto more measures than his six predecessors combined.  Whatever else it meant, Jackson’s zeal for the public welfare meant an expansion of the power of the presidency.

When the Treasury Department announced earlier this spring that it would be removing Jackson from the front of the twenty-dollar bill, I applauded, although I found much of the online exultation after the announcement off-putting.  Most of the voices raised in support of the decision emphasized Jackson’s support for two practices—slavery and Indian removal—supported or at least accepted by the vast majority of white Americans at the time.  While condemnation of these practices is the morally correct position for us to hold, it is also a morally cheap position, in that it demands absolutely nothing of us.  Who in 2016 would stand up to defend either practice?  What courage is required to denounce them?

What troubles me most about Jackson is not the ways in which he was a man of his time, but the ways in which he anticipated our day and age.  In his elevation to the presidency almost two hundred years ago, we see a foreshadowing of the emotional, frequently irrational politics of 2016.  And in Jackson, we see the combination of reckless, anti-intellectual, populist bravado that the current “presumptive nominee” of the Republican Party has so wonderfully perfected.  If Jackson’s presidency teaches us anything, however, it is that successful populist politicians don’t always bring more power to the people.  Sometimes they just amass more power for themselves.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

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(First other essays comparing Jackson and Trump, check out here and here.)

“KING DONALD THE FIRST”—PART ONE

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

constitution

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?  I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.  It cannot be expected to come from abroad. . . . as a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

So spoke Abraham Lincoln 178 years ago.  His audience was the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.  The lyceum was a cross between a debating society and the Toastmasters’ Club, a forum for aspiring public figures in the community to practice their oratory.  It was Lincoln’s turn to speak on a January night in 1838, and the topic for his prepared remarks was “the perpetuation of our political institutions.”

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

Those institutions are impregnable, Lincoln told his audience, as long as the American people are unified, attached to their government, and guided by reason rather than emotion.  But if those qualities should gradually erode, the day might come when a man of genius and ambition would prey upon the people in the name of the people.  And the people, so disgusted with the government that they would foolishly “imagine that they have nothing to lose” by yielding to a powerful leader, would actually embrace the man they should fear most.

In my last post I confessed that I read Lincoln’s Lyceum Speech as an uncanny description of our own times.  Surely, the American people are not united.  They have less trust in government than in any time since the eve of the Civil War.  And as I read things, anyway, emotion—anger, resentment, fear, anxiety—has all but vanquished reason from the public square.  This is exactly the combination that Lincoln warned us about, and I think it perfectly explains the most frightening political development of my lifetime—the rise of Donald Trump.  As a lifelong Republican, I view Trump’s ascendancy within the Republican Party with shock and sadness.  As a historian, I see his rise as dripping with irony: 178 years later, the demagogue Lincoln warned about is now the leader of Lincoln’s party.  This is both travesty and tragedy.

What, specifically, did Lincoln expect the dark figure of genius and ambition to accomplish?   How might such a one ultimately end up by “pulling down” rather than building up the edifice of Americans’ free institutions?   He doesn’t say.  In the 1838 Lyceum Address, we are listening in as the young Lincoln, fresh from two terms in the Illinois state legislature, is practicing his public speaking before a sympathetic audience.  He speaks in generalities about figures who will stop at nothing to achieve distinction, about the prospect of Americans dying by suicide, These are evocative rhetorical flourishes, dark and alarming, but hardly a detailed argument.

To understand what Lincoln may have had in mind, one fruitful approach will be to go back and situate the Lyceum Address in its immediate historical context.  When Lincoln cautioned about the possibility that the public might lose its attachment to the government, he alluded explicitly to instances of mob violence that had occurred within the past year.  When he referred to an ambitious genius who might manipulate popular emotions, on the other hand, he gave no concrete examples.  Was such a figure simply an abstraction in his mind, a hypothetical, stereotypical figure employed as a rhetorical device?

Possibly.  Lincoln’s biographers generally agree that he did not read widely, but all agree that he was a huge fan of Shakespeare—often committing huge portions of his plays to memory—so perhaps Lincoln had in mind a Julius Caesar  or Richard III when he imagined an ambitious genius “thirsting for distinction.”

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

The vulnerability of a free people to the blandishments of a demagogue was also a standard axiom of classical political philosophy.  Alexander Hamilton was merely repeating conventional wisdom when he observed in Federalist I that “the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people” is often a prelude “to the introduction of despotism.”  As Hamilton cautioned, “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”  Perhaps Lincoln was simply recycling a  conventional axiom with no particular reference to recent or current events.  As I’ve already noted, there’s no way to know for sure.

But when we take that historical context of the Lyceum Address seriously, it seems more likely that Lincoln had a specific historical figure in mind.  Specifically, I would be stunned if, somewhere in the back of his mind, Lincoln was not thinking of the previous president, Andrew Jackson, as he was warning his audience of the danger to be feared.  Less than a year had passed since Jackson had left office, and his presence and impact was still palpable.

The evidence that Lincoln was likely thinking of Jackson is circumstantial but compelling.  In 1838 Lincoln was a Whig in every fiber of his being.  From his earliest foray into politics, he had been wholly devoted to the party.  He embraced its vision of government as a vehicle for promoting economic development, and he counted its leaders, Kentuckian Henry Clay especially, among his primary role models.  On more than one occasion, in fact, Lincoln would refer to the Whig leader as his “beau ideal of a statesman.”

But where did the Whig Party come from?  The answer is simple: it was conceived in strident opposition to Democrat Andrew Jackson.  The organization came into being in the early 1830s as a coalition bent on thwarting Jackson’s re-election.  Even the inchoate party’s choice of a name was a calculated slam at the Democratic president.  Incensed by what they viewed as Jackson’s abuse of his executive powers during his first term, they castigated Jackson as “King Andrew I” and took to calling themselves “Whigs.”

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833, a little more than four years before Lincoln's Lyceum Address. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833, a little more than four years before Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

In British politics, men of “whiggish” principles had championed Parliamentary supremacy over the divine right of kings.  During the run-up to the American Revolution, colonial critics of King George III had assumed the same label.  In calling themselves Whigs a half-century later, the party that Lincoln whole-heartedly embraced at its birth was simply announcing to the world that there was a tyrant in the White House and that they were out to depose him.

What is more, Lincoln’s hero Clay had famously spoken of Jackson in terms that foreshadowed Lincoln’s address to the Springfield Lyceum.  When the contentious presidential election of 1824 had ended in a run-off in the House of Representatives, Clay had used his position as Speaker of the House to lobby successfully for Jackson’s defeat. Identifying himself “as a friend of liberty, & to the permanence of our institutions,” Clay explained in a much-publicized letter that he could not support Jackson, fearing that a Jackson presidency would lead the country down “the fatal road which had conducted every other republic to ruin.”

If it was Andrew Jackson that Lincoln had in mind—and I admit this is only an educated guess—how might this help us in making sense of Lincoln’s warning?  More to the point, can a look back at Jackson’s presidency shed light on our own turbulent political context?

I think that it can, and in my next post I’ll tell you why.

Trump1

POPULIST POLITICS–THEN AND NOW

Last week was political primary week in Illinois, and that means that the stretch run to the general election this November is now officially underway. I’ve been at Wheaton College for nearly four years now, long enough to conclude that Illinois voters are more cynical than most I’ve encountered. I suppose you get that way when state governors regularly end up in jail and convicted felons are serious contenders for the Chicago board of aldermen. (Riddle: You’re sitting in a room with a former Illinois governor to your left and another former Illinois governor to your right. Where are you? Answer: Prison.)

Simultaneously ignoring and feeding such widespread cynicism, the day after the primary the Chicago Tribune repeatedly warned readers that the campaign for governor will be brutal. “The Brawl Is On” proclaimed the page-one headline (Chicago Tribune, March 19, 2014). “It’s going to be ugly,” an editorial agreed, quoting an unnamed senior Illinois politician. Not one, but two front-page “news” stories told voters what to expect. It will be a “particularly contentious,” “bruising fight,” short on serious reflection, long on “raw emotion,” and punctuated by a slew of “scorched-earth attacks.”

In a word, the style of the campaign promises to be vicious. The campaign’s substance—if it can be said to have any—will be populist. The word populist comes from a Latin root meaning “people.” When applied to politics, the word connotes a relentless emphasis on the people (always vaguely defined) and threats to their well being (whether real or invented). Populist politicians present themselves as one of “the people,” portray their opponents as out of touch with “the people,” and define political questions as a struggle between “the people” and the elites and “special interests” who would exploit them. In the months to come there will be countless charges and countercharges about concrete political issues, e.g., the state’s debt crisis, rising tax rates, the death penalty, and gay marriage, to name only a few. But one issue will both permeate and transcend all others: which candidate will be more responsive to “the people”? Or more simply, which candidate is more truly one of “us”?

Both gubernatorial candidates will lay claim to the title of the people’s champion, although not necessarily in the same way. As the Tribune observes, the campaign “will feature dueling brands of populism.” The Republican challenger’s “style of populism is the classic throw-the-bums-out.” The GOP nominee, a wealthy businessman named Bruce Rauner, is already denouncing the Democratic incumbent as a “career politician” held captive by special interests.  Chief among these are the powerful state employee unions, supposedly gorging on padded salaries and bloated pensions funded at taxpayer expense. The people of Illinois, so the Republican message goes, are the victims of an unholy alliance of “union leaders and establishment politicians.”

The Democratic populist response, according to the Tribune, will be to declare “class war.” The sitting governor, Democrat Pat Quinn, is already denouncing his wealthy challenger as “out of touch” with the working class, “the real everyday heroes of our state.” “I believe in everyday people,” Quinn noted in his victory speech after the polls closed. “I’m not a billionaire.” (The Rauner camp denies that their man is that wealthy, but the alliteration of the epithet “Billionaire Bruce” is too much for the Quinn campaign to pass up.)

The Tribune is almost certainly correct in its predictions. The campaign will be a street fight. And its primary message—its all pervasive message—will be populist. Because I am a historian, however, I think that historical perspective can help us in thinking about this present moment. There is nothing new about vicious, populist campaigns in American politics. Indeed, they appeared on the scene pretty much simultaneously with the rise of American democracy.  If anything, twenty-first-century elections are dignified and well-mannered in comparison with those of two centuries ago.

I am mindful of this because my class on U. S. History here at Wheaton has just finished an in-depth review of the presidential election of 1828. The 1828 election was an important transitional milestone in American political and cultural history. It is easy to overstate the case, but it is not too much of an exaggeration to describe politics prior to the 1820s as a gentlemen’s affair. By the culmination of that decade, however, the political world as we know it was coming into focus.

In colonial America, political campaigns—at least as we would define them today—did not exist, nor did formal political parties. On election day, eligible voters (i.e., white male landowners) would congregate at the county seat and learn which of the local gentry had agreed to “stand” for office. According to custom, the candidates would rarely speak on their own behalf. An individual who desired office was presumed to be power-hungry, and thus disqualified from the public trust. The absence of speeches was made up by a great deal of drinking, however, since custom dictated that the wealthy nominees “treat” the voters to large quantities of free alcohol.

When George Washington was a candidate for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, for example, his personal papers reveal that he supplied voters with 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and two gallons of “cider royal.” (This amounted to a total of 160 gallons for 391 registered voters, or about 1 1/2 quarts per voter.) A few years later, James Madison, the future father of the U. S. Constitution, also ran for the House of Burgesses but followed a different strategy. Madison was disturbed by “the corrupting influence of spirituous liquors.” He viewed the tradition of “treating” voters as “inconsistent with the purity of moral and republican principles.” The future U. S. president was committed to “a more chaste mode of conducting elections” and declined to treat voters. He was defeated.

Beyond the flowing alcohol, the most prominent feature of colonial elections was how deferential and personal they were. Voters took for granted that candidates would come from the social elite—the oldest and wealthiest families. And because there were no established political parties in colonial America—and no party platforms—almost the only “issues” in an election involved the character of the candidates involved.

To put it differently, colonial politics was largely a politics of reputation. According to the dominant political values of the day, the only non-negotiable prerequisite for public office was virtue—the willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the common good. And because it was assumed that the local elites who stood for office would frequently understand political issues more thoroughly than their neighbors (thanks to superior education and the leisure time necessary to stay well-informed), it was assumed that virtuous officeholders would sometimes have to contradict the wishes of their constituents.

This view of politics informed the earliest presidential elections after the ratification of the Constitution. If anything, they were more elitist than the colonial pattern described above. The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention made no explicit allowance for popular involvement in the election of the nation’s executive. The president was to be chosen by the vote of the Electoral College, and the implicit expectation was that the electors who composed this bizarre institution would be prominent statesmen appointed by the various state legislatures. The executive, in other words, would be identified by the vote of a comparative handful of prominent men. (Only sixty-nine electors cast ballots when George Washington became the first U. S. president in 1789.)

And so in 1796—after George Washington announced only two months before the election that he would not stand for a third term as president—the presidential “campaign” that ensued primarily involved prominent men writing private letters to other prominent men about the qualifications of the leading contenders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Four years later—when the same two statesmen again squared off—the same elitist air survived but had weakened. In addition to writing letters, interested statesmen were now more willing to write public pamphlets, and the country’s small but growing number of newspaper editors was beginning to weigh in as well. The times were changing.

Yet as late as 1824 the aristocratic tone of presidential elections largely survived. State laws had changed in the intervening quarter century, so that now most presidential electors were to be popularly elected rather than appointed by the state legislatures. Even so, scarcely a fourth of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots in 1824, and campaign managers for the various candidates still assumed that the “public opinion” that needed to be courted was the opinion of the wealthy and powerful. For their part, the rest of the electorate seemed not to care.

This changed in 1828. Describing the change is easy. The number of votes cast more than tripled, and all across the United States a much broader swath of adult white males paid attention to national politics than ever before. Why this occurred is a complicated question. There were several factors at play, but for our purposes, one factor is paramount: the outcome of the 1824 election and the way that one candidate and his supporters responded to it.

1824 Election MapThe 1824 election had actually played out pretty much the way that the framers of the Constitution had expected most elections to unfold. First of all, there had been a large number of serious candidates: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, of Georgia; Kentuckian Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of Massachuetts; and Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee. Second, as might be expected in the absence of well-defined political parties, all of the candidates had attracted more of a regional than a national following. Third, and predictably given such a large field of candidates, no individual had received a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that the outcome had to be determined by a run-off election among the top three finishers in the House of Representatives. (Clay, who finished fourth, was the odd man out.) Finally, in the run-off in the House the congressmen had cast their ballots without necessarily feeling constrained by the popular vote in their home states. Although many did so, overall they favored the second-place finisher, Adams, over the first-place finisher, Jackson. There was nothing unconstitutional about their doing so, and nothing necessarily insidious in their decision that Adams was the more qualified. (In terms of political experience, he unquestionably was.)

Andrew Jackson, in an 1824 portrait by artist Thomas Scully

Andrew Jackson, in an 1824 portrait by artist Thomas Scully

But neither Jackson nor his supporters ever accepted the validity of the outcome. Jackson had finished first in the popular vote (with about 43% of the total) and nothing else mattered. Days later their anger turned to outrage, when president-elect Adams named Henry Clay as his future secretary of state. Because Clay had cast his support to Adams on the eve of the run-off, Jackson and his supporters concluded that there had been a backroom deal, that Adams had bought off the Kentuckian with the promise of a plum post in his administration. Although no “smoking gun” ever proved the (probably false) allegation, the Jackson camp screamed “Corrupt Bargain!” and the charge stuck.

Although Adams and Clay were both supposedly parties to the dastardly deed, the Jacksonians reserved their greatest scorn for Clay, whom Jackson privately labeled “the Judas of the West.” Clay had justified his support of Adams by questioning Jackson’s fitness for the presidency. The Tennessean was a “military chieftain,” Clay had declared in a public letter, and history was full of military leaders who had begun as heroes and ended as tyrants. The House Speaker strongly implied that a Jackson presidency would end in the downfall of the republic, and his conscience would not allow him to stand idly by if it was within his power to prevent such a tragedy.

In this 1825 letter to a political ally, Jackson wrote of Clay: "The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver."

In this 1825 letter to a political ally, Jackson wrote of Clay: “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver.”

“Hypocrite!” cried Jackson supporters. “The selfish ambition of Henry Clay is visible in every line of his letter,” cried the pro-Jackson Washington Gazette. “It is but a thin disguise to a foul purpose.” Back in Nashville, a livid Jackson agreed, writing to a political ally that “demagogues” were bartering the interests of the people “for their own views, and personal aggrandizement.”

Henry Clay sat for this portrait shortly before Jackson denounced him as "The Judas of the West"

Henry Clay sat for this portrait shortly before Jackson denounced him as “The Judas of the West”

Clay’s greatest alleged crime was neither hypocrisy nor political ambition, however. His chief offense, thundered the editor of the Gazette, was that he had “insulted and struck down the majesty of the People”; he had “impugned their sovereignty”; he had “gambled away the[ir] rights.” Jackson concurred. “The will of the people has been thwarted,” he wrote to an ally in 1825. “The voice of the people has been disregarded.”

Four years later, Jackson would have the chance to vindicate both himself and the “majesty of the people.” He was again a candidate for president, this time in a head-to-head match-up against the incumbent Adams. The 1828 presidential contest would be one of the dirtiest campaigns in history. One historian of the election has written that it may have “splattered more filth in more different directions and upon more innocent people than any other in American history.” As with earlier presidential elections, it was a campaign of personalities. What was new in 1828 was how public the charges and countercharges would be.

Four years earlier, Henry Clay had hinted that Andrew Jackson could not be trusted. In 1828, his political rivals went much further. John Quincy Adams’ supporters condemned the general in no uncertain terms: Jackson was the son of a prostitute and a slave, they announced; he was an adulterer, and he was a murderer. The adultery charge was dredged up from more than three decades earlier, when Jackson had unwittingly married supposed divorcee Rachel Donelson on the Tennessee frontier before her divorce had been officially approved by the Kentucky state legislature. The murder charge referred disingenuously to executions that Jackson had ordered during his military career. The Adams camp highlighted the latter with an infamous broadside now remembered as the “Coffin Handbill,” a poster featuring some seventeen coffins in silhouette, one for each man the blackguard Jackson had supposedly cut down in cold blood over his lifetime.

Anti-Jackson "Coffin Handbill" from the Presidential Campaign of 1828

Anti-Jackson “Coffin Handbill” from the Presidential Campaign of 1828

The Jackson campaign counterattacked with admirable creativity. They led with the accusation that Adams had stolen the presidency four years earlier, a claim valued less for its truthfulness than for its effectiveness. Beyond that, their strategy was clearly to show that the incumbent president was an effete intellectual out of touch with the common man. Adams was a Harvard graduate who spoke multiple languages and boasted an extensive record of public service.  He had served as both congressman and senator from Massachusetts; as ambassador to the Netherlands, Prussia, and Russia; as Secretary of State; and now, of course, he occupied the White House.

John Quincy Adams' silk underwear disqualified him for the presidency, in the view of Jackson supporters.

John Quincy Adams’ silk underwear disqualified him for the presidency, in the view of Jackson supporters.

Jackson’s supporters turned these assets into aliabilities by denouncing Adams as a career politician, a child of privilege (son of President John Adams) who had never held a job that wasn’t handed to him. What was worse, his prolonged residence in European courts had corrupted his character and addicted him to debilitating luxury. As evidence of the latter, the Jacksonians cited Adams’ use of taxpayer money to buy a pool table and chess set for the White House, as well as his purported fondness for wearing silk “inexpressibles.” (How they knew what kind of underwear the president wore they never made clear.)

Jackson, in contrast, had been born into poverty in the southern Backcountry.  His father had died before he was born, and the subsequent death of his mother and brothers from smallpox left him an orphan as a young teenager.  He had almost no formal education and not too much regard for those who did.  (A notoriously abysmal speller, he is supposed to have said that he couldn’t trust a man who could only spell a word one way.)  What is more, Jackson had precious little political experience.  He had twice been elected to Congress, and both times he had left the capital in disgust in a matter of months.  When the Adams campaign ridiculed his lack of qualifications, however, the Jacksonians had the perfect, quintessentially populist retort: “Who would you rather have as president?”  they asked.  “Adams who can write . . . or Jackson who can fight?”

Fifty-six percent of voters chose the fighter.

We’ll discuss the implications of that decision next time.