Part 7 of a series. See complete list of series here.
This spring, a small cadre of Williams College students is participating in an experimental history course on the American Presidents. Instead of producing papers, as is the norm in most history classes, the students will create video campaign ads for the presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln.
There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.
RealClearHistory has agreed to partner with our class. Every week or so, RealClearHistory will display the best videos the students produce.
We began with John Adams’ 1796 election and we will continue to Abraham Lincoln’s in 1860, stopping at all the major elections along the way. This week, we travel to one of the most contentious and transformative elections in American history, the election of 1828. The election pitted John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson. Jackson was still fuming from his loss to Adams in 1824, and Adams desperately wanted to hold onto the office. Fueled by anger, passion, and personal vendettas, each campaign resorted to mudslinging with hopes of making the opponent unpalatable to voters.
The videos this week show significant innovations, most notably the introduction of campaign songs, that reflect innovations of the political culture at the time. The addition of songs makes the videos even more engaging, which is fitting because the campaigns similarly used the songs to make the candidates more compelling to voters in the 1820s. The ads also capture the viciousness of the campaign. Beware.
John Quincy Adams faced a choice when he assumed the presidency. He knew his authority rested on shaky ground. He could either embrace the office and hope that a strong performance would secure him a second term, or he could adopt a more passive stance and hope that four lackluster but controversy-free years would assure the populace that he deserved a second term. Adams opted to have a vigorous, active presidency. Adams based his decision on an admirable though antiquated view of politics. He believed that there was a clearly defined public good and that dedication to serving this national interest would guarantee him a second term. Adam’s choice to make the most out of the office only emboldened his political enemies.
Adams outlined his ambitious plans to a joint session of Congress shortly after taking office. “Improvement” was Adams’ guiding principle in all that he did, and he wanted to use the federal government to improve all aspects of national life – individual and communal, social and economic. He called for massive federal subsidies to support internal improvements – meaning canals and turnpikes – to connect the national market. He wanted to build a national university to improve the nation’s educational system. He hoped to support new scientific explorations to improve knowledge about the world.
For a nation still unsure of the constitutionality of the bank and divided over federal funding of infrastructure, Adams’ proposals went over like a lead balloon. To top it off, Adams, knowing that he was ahead of popular opinion, called on Congress to ignore the opinion of their constituents and do what he believed was undeniably the right thing for the nation. Adams’ address offered a refutation of Jeffersonian ideals to a Congress and nation still deeply devoted to Jeffersonianism.
Many contend that Adams had a failed presidency. There is some truth to this. Congress and the nation rejected Adams’ vision for the federal government and many of his proposals. But, at the same time, the nation embraced his concept of internal improvements; they just disagreed with Adams on how best to fund them. Though Congress rejected the central planning Adams desired, they passed more internal improvements in Adams’ one term than they had for all of his predecessors combined. The numerous individual projects Congress financed collectively helped make the national market better connected and more efficient.
The parallels between John Quincy and his father are uncanny. Both men possessed enormous intellects and a desire to do good, but they lacked the emotional intelligence to succeed. They showed a willful naiveté toward the world of politics that bordered on the self-destructive. Both men knew how they should play the game of politics, but chose not to, deciding to take the higher road. They believed that if they served the public good as they understood it, then the nation would reward them for their service.
They were both wrong. Instead of establishing a national consensus, their policies and personalities gave rise to partisan animosity and party politics. In John Adams’ case, he ushered in the Jeffersonian Revolution. John Quincy Adams helped bring about Jacksonian Democracy.
Part of John Quincy Adams’ problem was that Andrew Jackson began running for the presidency almost as soon as John Quincy took the oath of office. Jackson resigned his Senate seat and headed back to Tennessee after Adams’ victory in the House. Retirement was not his intention, however. Instead, still smarting over the corrupt bargain, he plotted his next campaign. His home state’s legislature declared him a nominee for the presidency in October 1825, ensuring a rematch between Adams and Jackson in 1828.
Jackson and his supporters stood for traditional Jeffersonian ideals. Jacksonians hurled many of the same epithets at John Quincy that Jeffersonians had toward his father. They said John Quincy Adams was a monarchist, an elitist, and an aristocrat. Like his father, they claimed, John Quincy’s use of the federal government exceeded the Framers’ intent, betrayed the values of the American Revolution, and threatened individual liberty and state sovereignty. They also took particular aim at the “Tariff of Abominations,” an unusually high tariff passed by Congress in 1828 and signed by Adams.
Even though Adams disavowed politics, his supporters engaged in the same partisan tactics as Jackson – and maybe went even further. They accused Jackson of murder. They accused Jackson’s wife of adultery. They even claimed Jackson’s mother was a prostitute. They tied these personal attacks to policy. Jackson’s rashness and immorality, they said, would create a dangerous president who would not adopt the enlightened policies that an expanding nation needed to grow and thrive.
The name-calling often obscured the real policy differences that formed the core of the Second Party System. While personal animosity animated this particular election, a disagreement over the role of the federal government in American life was more fundamental to the divide between “Adams men” and “Jackson men.” The Adams faction – associated with New Englanders and merchants – endorsed a more active role of government. They often called themselves National Republicans and worried that Jackson’s support of decentralization would retard economic growth and development. The Jackson side – composed of westerners, southerners, and urban workers – supported a more limited role for the federal government. Calling themselves Democrats, they claimed that Adams’ policies would enrich the elite at the expense of the average American.
(Campaign ads videos from 1824 election on Page 2)