October 24, 2008
Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Jason Karpf
As the upcoming election winds to a conclusion, the media fervor reaches unprecedented heights as everyone from bloggers to journalists to the local Starbucks barista adds a voice to the clamor.
As always, there is a vast range of criticism flung at the candidates, their campaigns, and even the electoral system itself. However, the dirty business of politics is not a modern phenomenon concocted from broadcasts or YouTube, but has roots far back as 1828, in the presidential rematch between Andrew Jackson and incumbent John Quincy Adams. Their cacophony of sloganeering, mudslinging and media manipulation established the modern presidential campaign and party system.
Staged events, the bigger the better. Sloganeering and songs. Partisan attacks. Media spin. Scandal mongering and mudslinging. A candidate shouts, “I’m the outsider! I represent change!”
This is an inventory of “politics as usual,” the traditional face-off between our two parties, currently manifested in the presidential election of 2008. Many object to the process’ negativity and partisanship, considering it a de-evolution of our democracy, a departure from the ideals of our early leaders. But our oft-maligned election ritual is not a modern phenomenon. “Politics as usual” originates with the rise of one of our most storied chief executives: Andrew Jackson and his rematch against John Quincy Adams in the bitter, brutal election of 1828. The general whose toughness earned him the nickname “Old Hickory” knew he needed an overwhelming force against the “elitists” who had denied him the White House in 1824. The result: the modern presidential campaign and party system.
Jackson’s march to defeat
Andrew Jackson became synonymous with “hero” well before his presidential pursuits. Born in 1767, young Jackson was a courier during the American Revolution—a POW, smallpox survivor and orphan by age 14. Jackson served his post-war home of Tennessee as a House and Senate member, superior court judge, and militia commander, gaining national fame when he crushed a British invasion force in the Battle of New Orleans at the conclusion of the War of 1812.
After he led American troops in the First Seminole War and acted as military governor of Florida, the Tennessee legislature simultaneously nominated Jackson for president and reappointed him to the U.S. Senate. He ran against three other candidates in 1824: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of former president, John Adams; Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford; and Speaker of the House Henry Clay.
In an outcome with overtones of the 2000 race, Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, but with no candidate receiving a majority of the Electoral College, the election was given over to the House of Representatives per the 12th Amendment. Having garnered the lowest elector total, Clay was out of the final running but determined the victor by throwing his support to Adams. President-Elect Adams then named Clay as Secretary of State.
Jackson and his supporters accused Adams and Clay of striking a “corrupt bargain.” Reminiscent of today’s perpetual campaign season, the Jacksonians soon began their counterattack. As Jackson biographer Andrew Burstein observes, “From here on, a more combative and better-managed presidential campaign would be the norm.”
The personalities behind the campaigns
Presidential campaigns are extensions of the candidates’ personalities — the bravado of Theodore Roosevelt, the vision of John Kennedy, the optimism of Ronald Reagan. As Jackson and Adams headed toward their 1828 rematch, their new campaigns reflected the men themselves. Jackson was pugnacious and emotional as seen from his tumultuous boyhood to his fabled commands in Louisiana and Florida. Adams was the opposite, as biographer Paul C. Nagel reveals through the sixth president’s self-description: “a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners,” easily depicted as “a gloomy misanthrope.”
Jackson’s anger and determination suffused his 1828 run. The presidency was meant to be his, and with it the mission to return power to the people. His campaign was loud, righteous, and exciting. In contrast, Adams’ presidential aspirations arose reluctantly and dwindled from his first campaign to his second. While Secretary of State prior to the 1824 contest, he initially disavowed any designs on the White House. Nagel describes his vain hope of being “chosen” as president without having to claim the office through active campaigning.
An incumbent Adams was even less engaged as Decision 1828 approached. Nagel tells of Adams distancing himself from his supporters’ attacks on Jackson and finding it humiliating to ask for votes. Despite their fear and loathing of Jackson — his taint of the wilderness, his lack of formal education, his temper, his distrust of central government — Adams and his people failed to translate their political rationale into a potent campaign.
Resurrection of the two-party system
To win in 1828, Jackson had to mobilize support across a sprawling United States. The two-party system had been defunct in 1824’s presidential politics. With the demise of the Federalists, Jackson and his three opponents had all run as Democratic-Republicans. His next campaign would resurrect the two-party system, a repudiation of the Founders’ anti-party sentiments. Professor Robert Remini cites observations from the period and later writings that a multi-party political system was considered a guarantor of healthy national debate and an antidote to an entrenched elite.
“Democratic-Republican” was shortened to “Democratic.” It would become the party of Andrew Jackson. It would be the party of voters who sought a direct role in political affairs. An aggressive, organized party would make the political shift complete, connecting with voters on a personal level while invoking grand themes and fielding a hero candidate. The stage was set for Andrew Jackson’s comeback.
Enter the consultants
Jackson’s 1828 campaign benefited greatly from two key advisors who created an essential component of the modern campaign: the consultant. U.S. Senator Martin Van Buren engineered Jackson’s machine, impressing upon the candidate the effectiveness of party politics based on his experiences in New York. While Jackson was fondly known as Old Hickory, Van Buren went by multiple nicknames—“Old Kinderhook” in recognition of his hometown, “The Red Fox” and “The Little Magician” as acknowledgments of his political wiles. A so-called “Radical,” he embraced the Jeffersonian ideals of limited central government and was attracted to Jackson’s similar views.
Media expert Amos Kendall owned and edited the Argus of Western America, a Kentucky newspaper. He had worked for Jackson’s nemesis Henry Clay as a family tutor and political writer. Kendall broke with Clay and sent an introductory letter to Jackson, expressing disdain for Clay’s tactics and certitude that the “corrupt bargain” had transpired. Kendall joined the Jacksonians and personified the success of the campaign’s communication.
The campaign takes shape
Remini states that while Jackson could not partake in the “unseemly” act of direct campaigning, he was ever the general to his growing army of advisors and allies. From his Tennessee farm, The Hermitage, Old Hickory took the nation’s political pulse from a gamut of newspapers. His most trusted advisors were at hand, eventually forming the Nashville Central Committee to manage the campaign.
Journalists and editors openly backed candidates, and the Jacksonians vigorously recruited a national news network. Editor Duff Green bought the Gazette in Washington, DC, with the financial support of Jackson and key Democrats, changing the paper’s name to the United States Telegraph and setting the tone for biased reporting.
Unlike the fragmented contest of 1824, the election of 1828 was a two-man race between Jackson and Adams, whose party became known as the National Republicans. “Jackson and Reform” was Old Hickory’s campaign slogan, the man and his promise expressed in a single breath. Both sides heavily employed newspapers and pamphlets. Public relations historian Scott Cutlip points to the explosive growth of publications and print shops in the early decades of the 19th century as an inevitable communications engine for politicians.
Local committees, often called “Hickory Clubs,” distributed materials and staged events. Historians have likened the multitude of Jackson marches, rallies and barbecues to a planned pandemonium. A keen sense of modern branding accompanied the frenzy as “Hurra Boys,” Jackson field operatives, planted hickory trees and doled out hickory brooms, sticks and poles. Remini describes the use of pop culture in the Jackson campaign including songs, humor, and cartoons. “The Hunters of Kentucky,” honoring brave sharpshooters from the Bluegrass State who fought under Jackson in New Orleans, became an anthem with lyrics distributed as campaign literature.
While Jackson turned down numerous requests to appear at election events, he could not refuse a commemoration of the Battle of New Orleans. He considered it a patriotic observance, not a political spectacle; therefore, he upheld campaign protocol while reaping a publicity windfall by attending. A fleet of steamboats, saluting cannon batteries, and ecstatic crowds welcomed the General for a four-day celebration. Newspapers around the country dutifully reported Jackson’s visit, a powerful beginning to the election year of 1828.
Victory by a mudslide
Along with its use of party machinery and mass media, the 1828 campaign’s attack politics stand out. Facing a mythic opponent, Adams’ supporters resorted to virulent mudslinging, questioning Jackson’s military record, emotional stability and beloved wife.
The Coffin Hand Bill was anti-Jackson propaganda at its most creative, a printed chronicle of people “murdered” by Andrew Jackson including executed militiamen and a civilian stabbed with a sword cane during a street altercation. The masthead featured black caskets and a notice of Andrew Jackson’s “Bloody Deeds.” Jackson had explanations. The militiamen were deserters who had destroyed and stolen government property. The man he had run through had been seizing a rock as a weapon. Nevertheless, Jackson’s history of dueling and quarrels gave his enemies ample content.
The Jacksonians had no trouble taking the low road as well. They pounced on a billiard table in the Adams’ White House, evidence of government funds spent on “gambling furniture.” Earning the derogatory title “The Pimp of the Coalition,” Adams was accused of procuring a teenage girl for Czar Alexander I while serving as U.S. minister to Russia.
The most devastating smears targeted Jackson’s wife of over 30 years, Rachel. The Adams press began publishing stories that Rachel had not received an official divorce from her previous husband when she married Jackson. Detractors further hammered Jackson as sanctimonious, a self-proclaimed reformer whose private life was immoral.
The enduring political legacy
Andrew Jackson resoundingly defeated John Quincy Adams, 56 to 44 percent in the popular vote and 178 to 83 in the Electoral College. Voter turnout increased threefold from the 1824 election. Jackson had conducted the first million-dollar presidential contest. He had reinvented and institutionalized the two-party system. He had grasped the power of media. Jackson had created a political campaign in his own indomitable image, won the presidency, and changed history.
Today, we may complain about expensive elections and partisan divisions. We may tire of the soundbites, ads, mass e-mails and mailers. We may shake our heads at the exposés and accusations. It is an imperfect system, at times clumsy and cruel, but it is the tactical realization of the Founding Fathers’ democratic dream, growing in tandem with our country over the past 180 years. It is “Politics as Usual,” authored by one final Founding Father, the last president to participate in the American Revolution, the first president to wage the modern campaign: Andrew Jackson.
Jason Karpf is a PR and marketing executive based in Southern California. He received an Award of Excellence from the PRSA Los Angeles Chapter for co-managing media relations for the Santa Barbara County District Attorney during the 2004-2005 Michael Jackson criminal trial. A history enthusiast, Karpf was a four-time champion on the TV game show, “Jeopardy.”