Sunday, September 06, 2009

Andrew Jackson, Murderer!

One of the charges that supporters of John Quincy Adams leveled at Andrew Jackson during the 1828 presidential campaign was that Old Hickory was not an Old Hero but rather a murderer. The charge was first made on March 19, 1827, “when two Adams congressmen from Kentucky, Richard Buckner and Francis Johnson, separately accused Jackson of having cruelly and illegally executed six Tennessee militiamen for mutiny.“ Donald B. Cole tells the background that gave rise to the story:
The incident occurred near Mobile in the Mississippi Territory in the late summer of 1814, while Jackson was in command of the entire Southwest. At the court-martial, which was held on December 5, 1814, the six men maintained that they were innocent because their terms of duty had expired, but the court ruled otherwise. Jackson was not present at the court-martial, but on January 15, 1815, shortly after the Battle of New Orleans, he approved the court’s findings, and on February 21 the men were executed.

The Jacksonians fought back, arguing vigorously that the men were guilty and the punishment just under the circumstances, particularly because the United States had been at war at the time. Core Jackson supporters set up a central organization, called the Nashville Central Committee, to respond to attacks on the Old Hero. As to the murder charge,
[t]hey published documents showing that the executed men had stolen food and supplies and that their terms of enlistment had not expired. They also pointed out that the mutiny and court-martial had taken place while the United States was under attack and that the men had been executed before word of the peace treaty arrived in New Orleans.

Nonetheless, anti-Jackson men kept repeating the charge. Ten months later, in January 1828, pro-Adams editor John Binns of Philadelphia created one of the great attack ads of the period by publishing a series of “Coffin Handbills” in his Democratic Press.
The first handbill, which appeared near the end of January 1828, was entitled “Monumental Inscriptions” and featured two rows of three coffins each, with brief attacks on Jackson at the top and bottom. Each coffin was topped by a skull and crossbones and a detailed inscription. About half of these contained the poem “Mournful Tragedy,” which called the executions of the militiamen “A dreadful Deed – A bloody Act / Of needless Cruelty.”

The Coffin Handbills were wildly successful. In early March, Jackson confidante John Eaton reported to the Old Hero “that ‘Binns 6 militia, & 6 Coffins . . . fairly inundated’ New Hampshire before the state election.”

New Hampshire Jacksonian editor Isaac Hill was himself a master of invective, having created the story that John Quincy Adams had pimped for the Tsar of Russia. Following the March 1828 New Hampshire state elections – “a decisive victory for the Adams men” – Hill lashed out in frustration (or, as Prof. Cole maintains, mock frustration) against the Coffin Handbills and other Adams attacks, producing one of the campaign’s most memorable lines in the process:
During the summer [of 1828] Hill and party press were forced to spend a large part of their time defending the Old Hero. Hill’s most memorable comment came when he was refuting the charges, one after another. Suddenly in mock exasperation he shouted, “Pshaw! Why don’t you tell the whole truth? On the 8th of January, 1815, [Jackson] murdered in the coldest blood 1,500 British soldiers for merely trying to get into New Orleans for Booty and Beauty.” Like his czar story, this remark won national attention.

The first illustration is, of course, one of John Binns’s Coffin Handbills:
One of the well-known "coffin hand bills" originated by Republican editor John Binns in his campaign against presidential candidate Andrew Jackson. The six coffins across the top of the broadside represent six militiamen executed under Jackson's orders during the Creek War in 1813. Other coffins represent soldiers and Indians allegedly condemned and executed by Jackson. The broadside's text is a catalog of these and similar atrocities attributed to the candidate. A woodcut scene at lower right portrays Jackson assaulting and stabbing Samuel Jackson "in the streets of Nashville." Another version of the handbill, reproduced by Lorant, has the same text but substitutes a reversed copy of the cut at lower right.

About the second illustration:
A satire on the reverse impact of John Binns's anti-Jackson "coffin handbill" campaign during the presidential race of 1828. Editor-publisher Binns supports on his back a large load of coffins, upon which are figures of Henry Clay (left) and incumbent President John Quincy Adams (right). Binns: "I must have an extra dose of Treasury-pap, or down go the Coffins Harry, for I feel faint already." Clay: "Hold on Jonny Q – for I find that the people are too much for us, and I'm sinking with Jack and his Coffins!" Adams (grasping the presidential chair): "I'll hang on to the Chair Harry, in spite of Coffin hand-bills Harris's letter Panama mission or the wishes of the People."

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