Some Americans think that dirty political campaigns are a relatively recent phenomenon. But that is not the case. Actually, mudslinging is as old as the Republic itself. And many historians have described the Presidential Elections of 1828 as the "dirtiest" in American History. The election pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), son of president John Adams and the candidate of the National Republican Party, against Andrew Jackson (1867-1845, pictured above), commander of the American forces in the Battle of New Orleans (1815) and a prominent Tennessee frontiersman, land speculator and slave owner. This was the second presidential race that featured Adams going up against Jackson. Four years earlier, Jackson lost to Adams in what many of Jackson's followers considered to be a corrupt election. In a four-way contest, Jackson had by far the most votes. But the House of Representatives decided the outcome of the election because none of the candidates received an actual majority of the popular vote, and they selected Adams to be president. Needless to say, the decision infuriated Jackson's followers.
Flash forward four years: Followers of Adams and Jackson believed the 1828 presidential election would be the most important race in the history of the Republic. Adams (left), a staunch elitist, believed it was his destiny to silence "the howl of raving Democracy" by defeating the "egalitarian" Jackson. Meantime, Jackson's supporters established their own political party, the "Friends of Jackson," which eventually morphed into the Democratic Party. Jackson was a lean (6 feet, 1 inch, 140 lbs.) and charismatic man with boundless energy. He journeyed on horseback and spoke to cheering crowds in towns and rural areas, repeatedly boasting, "I am not a politician."
Hatred between the Adamsites and the Jacksonians was intense. Jackson's supporters claimed Adams lived in "kingly pomp and splendor" in a "presidential palace." They insisted he was a monarchist "like his father." In reference to Adams, one Jacksonian noted, "His habits and principles are not congenial with the spirit of our institutions and the notions of a democratic people."
Much of the ugly smear campaigning came from the Adams camp. His followers unleashed a torrent of hateful charges against candidate Jackson. One pro-Adams faction published a pamphlet titled Reminiscences; or, an Extract from the Catalogue of General Jackson's Youthful Indiscretions Between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty, which -- as the titled suggested -- documented Jackson's alleged duels, brawls and fights. Other Adams backers attacked Jackson from the gutter. As one pro-Adams newspaper announced, "General Jackson's mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE, brought into this country by the British soldiers. She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!" It was all lies, but Jackson took it in stride. What he couldn't stand, however, were the numerous attacks against his beloved wife, Rachel (below). Jackson took part in no fewer than 13 duels to uphold his wife's honor. During the 1828 campaign, Adams' followers found out that years earlier, Rachel married Jackson while still married to her first husband, Captain Lewis Robards. It was due to a mix-up: Rachel and Lewis separated in 1790. Soon thereafter Lewis told Rachel the divorce had been finalized. After that, she became romantically involved with Jackson and the two were soon married. Turns out that the divorce had not been finalized, and Robards used Rachel's involvement with Jackson to claim she lived in "sin." When the divorce was finally granted in 1794, Jackson and Rachel had already been married a few years and the couple remarried.
Adams' followers found out about this and went absolutely apeshit. Karl Rove would've been proud. They claimed Rachel was an "adulteress" and a "whore." Pro-Adams newspapers were filled with stories about torrid trysts between Jackson and his married "lover." An anti-Jackson newspaper posed the question, "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?" The smear campaign against Rachel was so intense that she soon became physically ill and complained of heart pains.
By early December, newspapers announced that Jackson triumphed in the 1828 elections. "Well, for Mr. Jackson's sake, I am glad," Rachel said. But, she added, "for my own part, I never wished it." Rachel suddenly died just days later.
Jackson mourned her loss for the rest of his life and never remarried. He loathed Adams for not making an effort to stop the dirty campaigning. "May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them," Jackson said at her funeral. "I never can."
So ended the 1828 campaign, a low point for mudslinging in American history. It's pretty much impossible to say that things have gotten worse.
There's an interesting postscript: Jackson was raised in a Presbyterian household. But by the time of the 1828 election, he hadn't been a churchgoer in years. During the '28 campaign, Rachel urged him to attend church on Sundays with her, but Jackson refused. He told her, "My dear, if I were to do that now, it would be said, all over the country, that I had done it for the sake of political effect. My enemies would all say so. I can not do it now, but I promise you that when once more I am clear of politics I will join the church." Sure enough, after leaving office in 1837, Jackson immediately joined the Presbyterian Church. He attended services every Sunday until his death in 1845.
As Sean Connery's character Malone said in The Untouchables (1987): "Here endeth the lesson."