Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Election of 1828: Two New Books

The latest beneficiary of the odd phenomenon by which multiple books on the same topic appear almost simultaneously is the presidential campaign and election of 1828 – that's the one in which Andrew Jackson beat the incumbent, John Quincy Adams.

In this case the reader is also the beneficiary, because the two books that recently appeared on the subject – Donald B. Cole's Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System (University Press of Kansas 2009) and Lynn Hudson Parsons's The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 (Oxford University Press 2009) – have somewhat different emphases. The volumes are virtually identical in length (roughly 200 pages of text) and there is overlap, of course, but what is most surprising is the extent to which they focus on different aspects of the topic. I happily read both back-to-back with little been-there-done-that regret.

The title of Prof. Cole's first chapter – “The Spring of 1825” - reveals his general approach. Prof. Cole focuses rather tightly on the four-year period leading up to the election. As I suggested in an earlier post, this gives him the opportunity to explore the campaign in some depth. While he provides the obligatory background and history of the major players, Prof. Cole clearly most enjoys digging into the guts of how the Jacksonians and anti-Jacksonians went about the unfamiliar task of building campaign organizations.

The result is a detailed treatment of the formation of the two proto-parties that goes well beyond the typical top-down survey that largely restricts itself to following the centers of the organizations – Jackson and his cronies plotting in Nashville to dethrone the incumbent, while Quinzy stoically sits and stews in the Capital, refusing to take the actions necessary to energize his natural constituents. We certainly get all that, but in addition Prof. Cole focuses on six diverse states (New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire and Kentucky) to give us a worm's eye view of party formation on the ground, Along the way, we get a sense of how important pre-existing local political controversies and alignments were to the process. In my earlier post on the book, I took a look at Prof. Cole's treatment of this process in Kentucky, and I invite interested readers to consult that post by way of example. But in each state, advocates had to work within the context of local factions and try to turn them to their advantage.

Prof. Parsons, in contrast, might have subtitled his book “The Elections of 1824 and 1828.” The first sixty-odd pages of text (out of a book only two hundred pages of text in length) contain, in effect, parallel biographies of the lives and exploits of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams into James Monroe's second term. The 40-page Chapter Three takes us through the campaign and election of 1824. It is thus more than half-way through the book that the campaign of 1828 actually comes into view.

Structuring the book in this way allows Prof. Parsons to highlight the transition from the Monrovian Era of Good Feelings to the partisanship of the 1828 campaign. As different as they seem, it is possible to trace good deal of continuity between the two.

The second term of the Monroe administration was marked by factional development that was primarily personal and to a lesser extent regional as the principal players covertly jockeyed for position. The most obvious divide was between Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, who had been political enemies (and for Jackson personal enemies) since at least January 1819, when Clay had denounced Jackson on the floor of Congress as a modern day Julius Caesar.

Other relationships are more surprising, and point up the largely non-ideological nature of the political world. Among others, Clay and John Quincy Adams (later Whig soul-mates) were adversaries; Martin Van Buren (later joined at the hip to Old Hickory) was a vigorous advocate of Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford and shunned Andrew Jackson, who returned the favor (Van Buren's alignment, based on ideology, was the exception that proved the rule); fellow south-easterners John Calhoun (South Carolina) and Crawford (Georgia) were rivals; and, most surprising of all, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were closely aligned.

Prof. Parsons clearly relishes the irony that abounds in the early Adams-Jackson relationship given their later history. In 1818, Adams was the sole supporter in Monroe's Cabinet of Jackson's unauthorized (or perhaps tacitly authorized, or perhaps mistaken assumed by Jackson to be tacitly authorized, or whatever) incursion into Spanish Florida earlier in the year, during which he had two British citizens executed. Jackson did not learn until much later that no other Cabinet member had sided with Adams, but he was well aware of Adams's vigorous public defense of Jackson's actions. In 1821, Adams likewise justified and defended Jackson's questionable actions while serving as Governor of the newly-acquired Florida Territory.

Circumstances also showed the two men thought alike on foreign policy issues and could work together. Before signing the Adams-Onis treaty in 1819, by which the United States acquired Florida from Spain, a nervous President Monroe asked Adams (then Monroe's Secretary of State) to review its terms with Jackson, because the treaty would relinquish any claim by the United States that the Texas was part of the Louisiana Territory previously obtained from France. Adams met with Jackson twice in early February 1819, and Old Hickory readily agreed that the deal was well worth making. (In later years, Jackson would adamantly deny this. “But,” as Prof. Parsons archly notes, “Adams kept a diary, and Jackson did not.”)

Nor was Adams's support of Jackson merely for public (or international) consumption. At about this time (early 1819), the two men exchanged dinners at their Washington residences, and three years later (early 1822) Adams confided to his diary that “General Jackson has rendered such services to this Nation, that it is impossible for me to contemplate his character or conduct without veneration.”

Jackson returned the compliment. In a letter at the end of 1821 he expressed his admiration for Adams and indicated that he would be willing to support Adams for the presidency in 1824:
You know my private opinion of Mr Adams Talents, virtue, and integrity, and I am free to declare that I have never changed this opinion of Mr Adams since it was first formed, I think him a man of the first rate mind of any in America as a civilian and scholar, and I have never doubted of his attachment to our republican Government. . . . [I am] at liberty to say in my name both to my friends and enemies – that I will as far as my influence extends support Mr Adams unless Mr Calhoun should be brought forward.

“Historians are in agreement as to the importance of the election of 1828,” Prof. Parsons observes, “but not necessarily as to why.” Prof. Cole agrees: “Americans have interpreted the election in various ways.” Both debunk the idea that the campaign and election themselves created democracy (rather than taking advantage of democratizing developments that had already occurred but had not previously been exploited) and provide useful surveys of the ways in which the campaign, election and the coming of the Age of Jackson have been viewed.

While I would prefer to advise that you simply read both, that's probably an unrealistic hope. How, then, to choose? Reluctantly, if I have to pick one book over the other, I have to go with Prof. Parsons's work. You certainly lose the detail of Prof. Cole's valuable descriptions of the 1828 campaign itself. But Prof. Parsons' technique allows him to provide a better explanation of the continuity as well as the discontinuity of the period – how the Age of Jackson grew out of the Age of Jefferson.

About the illustration:
A figurative portrayal of the presidential race of 1824. A crowd of cheering citizens watch as candidates (left to right) John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson stride toward the finish. Henry Clay has dropped from the race and stands, hand on head, on the far right saying, "D--n it I cant save my distance--so I may as well "draw up."" He is consoled by a man in riding clothes, "Well dont distress yourself--there'll be some scrubbing by & by & then you'll have a chance." Assorted comments come from the crowd, reflecting various sectional and partisan views. A Westerner with stovepipe hat and powder horn: "Hurra for our Jacks-"son."" Former President John Adams: "Hurra for our son "Jack."" Two men in coachmen's livery: "That inne-track fellow [Crawford] goes so well; that I think he must have got the better of the bots [boss?]." and "Like enough; but betwixt you & I--I dont think he'll ever get the better of the "Quinsy."" A ragged Irishman: "Blast my eyes if I dont "venter" a "small" horn of rotgut on that "bald filly" in the middle [Adams]." A Frenchman: "Ah hah! Mon's Neddy I tink dat kick on de "back of you side" is worse den have no dinner de fourt of july." In the left background is a platform and an inaugural scene, the "Presidential Chair" with a purse.


  1. Do you really feel that Van Buren's endorsement of Crawford was ideological? Wouldn't that make and virtually unique in the New Yorker's career? Isn't it more likely that Van Buren believed that Crawford could deliver Virginia's electoral votes, while he delivered New York's, thus making him the man responsible for Crawford's victory? After the stroke,wouldn't Van Buren have become a kind of Edith Wilson?

  2. CW,

    Nervous as I am about crossing you, I don't agree with your premise that Van Buren was nothing but an opportunist without ideology consistency. He was, after all, the man who conceived the idea to cement a Virginia-New York alliance using Jackson in order to ward off sectional alignments. With respect to Crawford, didn't Van Buren's advocacy of him pre-date the latter's stroke? That said, I really like the Edith Wilson idea. Hadn't thought of that.


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