Forward Into The Past
When I was in high school I didn’t care much for history unless it was about battles or airplanes. I was pretty sure there was nothing cooler than a WWII airplane, and I must have put together a couple of hundred of the plastic model plane kits. Maybe it was the glue. Now that I am a little older I find myself voluntarily reading history and biographies of famous and infamous people from many countries and eras. It might be that I appreciate it more because I have a larger life sample to provide referential experiences, or maybe I just appreciate discovering that even the best heroes have a bad day or a bad idea or even a bad year sometimes, and that none of us are good all the time. That’s rather comforting in an odd sort of way. We can pretend history didn’t happen but that’s like hiding under the covers when you think there’s a monster in your room. Sooner or later whatever you are afraid of has to be confronted or it will be there again the next night - and every successive night. I have also noticed a strong relationship between youth and self-centeredness, and that I seem to spend more time worrying about the long run now that I’m much closer to its end than I used to be.
I discovered, for example, that our Founding Fathers were not all agreed on just what sort of country we should have since the king-subject thing didn’t work out so well with Britain. The problem with monarchies is that sooner or later you’re going to get a king like George III that may not be mentally stable or competent. Hmmm. There were many arguments before and after the Revolution concerning the underlying principles that would guide our new Republic. What all the speeches and arguments finally came down to was federalism and anti-federalism. Federalism is the belief that the Federal government is the big cheese and that state governments were allowed to make rules and decisions as long as they didn’t conflict with what the federal government wanted or controlled. The anti-federalists believed that too much power would eventually corrupt the central government and allow it to seize more and more power and become a tyrannical entity that did not respond to the will of the people. These anti-federalists, convinced the Constitution by itself would lead to a group of “elitists” controlling the central government, insisted on including a “Bill of Rights” that guaranteed the rights of the individual citizen and limited those of the central government. In addition to a desire to limit the expansion and influence of the Federal government, they also believed in fiscal responsibility, the elimination of the national debt and in the Jeffersonian ideal of strict interpretation of the Constitution. This dichotomy, still present today, was fundamental to the Presidential elections of 1824 and 1828.
In 1823, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson were candidates for the Presidency, and all were members of the Democratic-Republican party, the only national political party at the time. While Jackson won more popular votes and an electoral advantage, Adams and Crawford had significant totals themselves. Clay finished fourth and was eliminated from the race, and the election was decided in the House of Representatives. Clay, a leading member of the House, decided to lend his support and influence to Adams if he were offered the position of Secretary of State in Adam’s administration, since they shared similar views on many issues. Clay also knew the position was considered to be a stepping stone to the Presidency. With Clay’s support, Adams won the vote in the House and was named President. Jackson, the popular choice, was defeated. Clay was indeed named Secretary of State by Adams. Jackson immediately declared the apparent agreement between Clay and Adams as scurrilous and unprincipled, and insisted the election had been stolen as a result of their illicit conspiracy. His supporters began to plan immediately for Jackson’s 1828 campaign.
Jackson believed Clay to be corrupt and more interested in his own advancement than in that of the country, and Clay thought Jackson, despite his military experience and service as the Governor of Tennessee, unprepared for the duties of President. Their mutual animosity was established years before the 1824 election when Clay labeled Jackson’s Florida military campaign as illegal, and denounced not only the expedition but its military leader. Additionally, Clay thought his “American System” of using Federal dollars for roads and projects a legitimate function of the government, and Jackson believed such a system was unconstitutional, illegal and a threat to American prosperity. Jackson was a populistt with ideas that became known later as “Jacksonian Democracy.” He envisioned the power and influence of large corporations and business influences being replaced by the interests of common men and allowing the vast majority of white males, especially laborers and farmers, suffrage. He campaigned on a promise to end rampant corruption in Washington and believed strongly in Manifest Destiny as a governmental policy to push American growth westward, largely at the expense of Native American peoples. Jackson also believed that Native Americans should assimilate or be moved west of the Mississippi. He did not count them as citizens.
Adams, on the other hand, began his term of office acutely aware that ⅔ of the electorate did not support his presidency, and that many of his colleagues considered him aloof and unwilling to compromise on his programs and ideas. Adams’ proposals were extraordinary for the time, and included federal support for scientific and economic development to be paid for with increased tariffs on trade and commerce. His ideas were condemned by Jackson and by Thomas Jefferson as unconstitutional. Both were convinced Adams’ programs would undermine states’ rights and create “an aristocracy...riding and ruling” over the common citizenry. President Adams did little, if anything, to build support for his policies, and refused to fire administration officials that opposed his programs and worked actively to defeat their implementation. His signature on the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828 also contributed to his unpopularity. Southerners were convinced the tariff on imported goods was beneficial to the industries of the north and unfair and harmful to the South. Adams’ policies on Indian removal were also unpopular. He did believe Indians should be removed from the South to lands west of the Mississippi, but that their lands should be purchased and not just taken. Adams also insisted that treaties made with the Indians be honored. These were not popular stances, especially in the West.
The Presidential election process in 1828 differed significantly from campaigning in its present form. State legislatures nominated the candidates, and, since travel was slow and often undependable, newsprint took on an increasingly important role. The number of newspapers in the US almost doubled between 1824 and 1828. Political writings and pamphlets were circulated among newspapers, and political cartoons were especially popular. Rather than attempt to hold rallies at a variety of distant locations, candidates often relied on friends and supporters to present their platforms at meetings and rallies. 1828 was also the first presidential election in which all white males, regardless of whether they owned property or not, were allowed to vote. Qualified citizens had from October 31 until December 2 to vote, and 145,788 votes were cast; about 9.5% of the population.
While we might believe that mudslinging in political campaigns is a relatively recent development, that is certainly not the case. Adams supporters portrayed Jackson as a military martinet, a heavy drinker and gambler and unfit for the office of President. They also noted his participation in several duels, and accused him of murder because he had several deserters shot during his military campaigns. Jackson’s supporters countered with claims that Adams was an “elitist aristocrat” that did not keep the Sabbath, had installed a pool table in the White House, was a gambler, had married a foreigner and had, while Secretary of State, provided a prostitute for a foreign diplomat. Also prominently featured among the attacks on Adams was his quote from his first address to Congress, when he said “politicians should not be palsied by the will of our constituents”; providing proof to his opponents that his elitist beliefs would lead the nation to disaster. Adams’ supporters also brought up an old story about Jackson courting and marrying his wife before her divorce to another man had been finalized, an attack that Jackson never forgave. Jackson’s wife Rachel died between his election and his inauguration, and Jackson was convinced it was the public airing of the story of their marriage that killed her.
After Jackson was elected, it seemed that most of the residents of his home state of Tennessee decided to attend his inauguration, and Daniel Webster noted with disdain that “most of them seem to think the nation had been saved through his election from some horrible disaster.” Jackson and Adams, in spite of having a good relationship before the campaign, did not reconcile after the election. Jackson refused to call on Adams when he arrived in Washington, and Adams refused to attend the inauguration. In the election of 1832, Jackson beat his old enemy Clay, and, in his estimation, repaid him for the “Corrupt Bargain” with Adams in the 1824 election.
The election of 1828 is often seen as the beginning of the “total war” political campaign that has become the standard we expect to see. The primary difference in then and now is that the Press Corp is not evenly divided among candidates, and they have not only discovered but developed to a high degree the power and ability, through the addictive powers of television, not just to report the news, but report the news in such a way as to effectively sway public opinion. I will leave you with three thoughts; Mark Twain observed “it’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled”; Norm Chomsky noted “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow lively debate within that spectrum”; and William Casey remarked “we’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American people believe is false.” Maybe the real channel of the news is 666. None of this bodes well for the future of our Country.
Watching the nightly or weekly news is like settling yourself on the couch for your daily dose of angst and a continued indoctrination of fear and hopelessness with a new disaster appearing weekly. Don’t ignore the news, but don’t watch it. Read for yourself and leave the videos for pets, kids and recipes. You’ll be a better and happier person for doing so, and may even discover what it’s like to think for yourself again.