The election of 1828 served as the white, rural laborer’s revenge on the big-government establishment. While the Jackson years made a lot of other people’s lives worse, the recognition of popular vote was an area of progress. But now that he was in charge, Jackson had a lot of hype to live up to. Could he could hold it all together and earn another win?
The Last Four Years
Much like Thomas Jefferson, winner of the last “political revolution,” Andrew Jackson believed in small government. Also like Jefferson, he didn’t exactly follow this rule as president. While Jackson despised the big-government policies of the National Republicans, he used the full extent of his executive authority to stop them.
Much of Jackson’s first term was overshadowed by drama between him and his own administration, specifically Vice President John C. Calhoun. One of the most notorious scandals was the Petticoat Affair. The issue revolved around Jackson’s Secretary of War, John Eaton, and his wife, Peggy. Eaton had been providing financial help to Peggy’s first husband. When that husband suddenly died, she was quick to marry Eaton in his absence. This caused quite a stir among Washington’s social scene, many of whom believed the relationship started as an affair.
Led by Second Lady Floride Calhoun, the wives of Jackson’s cabinet members shunned Peggy, believing the worst of her and Eaton. The controversy caused extreme divisions among the men, as well. Eaton was close to Jackson. After all the negative press Jackson and his late wife, Rachel, had endured in the previous election, he was sympathetic to their story. Their third ally on the matter was Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, the man considered the brains behind the Democrats’ party organization, and the only other unmarried widower in the cabinet. The situation was so toxic that Van Buren’s solution was to start the cabinet over again to get rid of dissenters. He resigned his position and Jackson fired the rest of his cabinet. Only the Postmaster General stayed. Van Buren, along with Jackson’s other close but unofficial advisors, became known instead as the “Kitchen Cabinet.”
The other source of drama between Jackson and Calhoun involved our old friend, the Tariff of Abominations. The heavy tariff had been proposed by the Democrats to make John Quincy Adams look bad, though it’s unclear if they actually believed he would pass it. Now, with Jackson in control, many Southerners were annoyed that it was still in effect. Calhoun, a native South Carolinian, took a stand and wrote an essay outlining states’ rights against the federal government. Calhoun argued that states could nullify federal law and even secede if they felt the government was unjust. For all his faults, Jackson was not a secessionist. He hated that Calhoun had gone against him. The issue became known as the Nullification Crisis. It largely went unresolved, but inception-ed the idea of secession in the minds of Southerners.
The final straw between the Jackson and Calhoun came when Van Buren was appointed as Minister to Great Britain, pending Senate approval. The vote resulted in a tie, to be broken by the Vice President. To spite Jackson, Calhoun voted against Van Buren. Jackson was furious and it was clear that Calhoun would not be invited back to the Democratic ticket. Just before his term was up, Calhoun resigned his position and returned to South Carolina.
In other, depressing news, Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The Act gave the president authority to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes that would move them from their homes (at this time, the Southeast was in mind), to land in the West, unclaimed by any states. The negotiations were BS and the resulting forced removal caused the deaths of many Natives. While other presidents’ Native American policies were far from perfect (essentially, let things play out without major government intervention and maybe the Natives will become “civilized”), Jackson’s aggressive policies against the tribes followed a hateful pattern going back to his time in the Creek and Seminole Wars. Unfortunately, this was not a major concern of voters.
The 1832 election essentially became a referendum on one issue, the Second National Bank. The bank had been created under President Madison to help reduce debt from the War of 1812. It was a second-coming of Hamilton’s strong-government plan, as the Federalists were being absorbed by the Democratic-Republicans. It was also a major part of Henry Clay’s American System for improving the economy. Jackson, on the other hand, hated banks. He saw the National Bank as the ultimate symbol of big government run amok. He convinced his “average American” supporters that banks were only for rich people, and had to be destroyed.
Henry Clay and the National Republicans saw Jackson’s extreme views on the Bank as a weak spot. They believed the bank was widely popular by voters. Even better, its headquarters was in swing-state Pennsylvania. By forcing a vote on the Bank’s new charter early, they could expose Jackson’s anti-bank beliefs just before the election. Jackson took the bait and vetoed the charter, a strong assertion of power that handed the National Republicans their talking point for the campaign.
Party Watch & The Candidates
In response to the failed campaign of William H. Crawford in 1824, political parties had done away with the closed-door nominating caucus. Instead, they opened up the process with the first ever party conventions. All of them were held in Baltimore.
Don’t overthink it, the Democrats are supporting their founder, President Andrew Jackson. But with John C. Calhoun out of the picture, his new bestie, Martin Van Buren, won the chance to be his running mate.
The National Republicans nominated Jackson’s arch-nemesis. Ok, I guess that doesn’t really narrow it down, he had a lot of nemeses. In this particular scenario, it was Henry Clay, once Speaker of the House and part of the Corrupt Bargain that kept Jackson out of office in 1824. His running mate was John Sergeant, a former Representative from swing-state Pennsylvania. As you may have gathered, Pennsylvania was the key to the National Republican’s strategy.
There were two other parties making guest appearances in this election.
The first was the Anti-Masonic Party. This group formed in 1826 after disappearance of William Morgan in upstate New York. The missing Morgan was a former member, turned critic of the Freemasons. The Freemasons were (and still are) an organization of craft guilds that have lots of weird, religious-like traditions. In the 1800s, conspiracies grew that they were a secret society pulling the strings of government and hiding treasure maps on the back of the Constitution. In fairness, many important public offices had been held by Freemasons (George Washington was one!). The founders of the Anti-Masonic Party believed these government leaders used their power to cover up the murder of William Morgan, and would do the same to any who opposed them (a totally normal thing to base a political party on). The Anti-Masons are actually credited with starting the nominating convention craze to pick their candidate. John Quincy Adams expressed interest, but even these crazy guys knew he was too unpopular at this point. Instead, they chose William Wirt, the former Attorney General and, believe it or not, also a former Freemason. They had been infiltrated!!
Lastly, as supporters of Calhoun’s opposition to Jackson, politicians in South Carolina formed the Nullifier Party. They agreed with his argument that states had the power to nullify federal laws. Classic South Carolina. Calhoun declined to run for president, so instead they nominated Virginia Governor John Floyd. South Carolina was the only state that still appointed electors by the state legislature and not by popular vote. Tough luck, democracy!
Charles Carroll of Carrollton Pause!
Remember that scene at the beginning of National Treasure where Nicolas Cage’s super-great-grandfather learns about the secret treasure from an old man visiting the White House? Well that man was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the oldest and longest-lived signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was asked to attend the first ever Democratic National Convention in 1832, but declined due to poor health. He died just a few months later at the age of 95. He was the wealthiest Declaration signer and an early supporter of independence. As the only Catholic founding father, Carroll was an important advocate for freedom of religion and separation of church and state. The story goes, on the day of the signing, John Hancock and other members of the Continental Congress accused Carroll of shielding his wealth by only signing his given name. Charles Carroll, at that time, was a common enough name that British loyalists wouldn’t know for certain that it was their rich business partner. Carroll walked back to the Declaration and added “of Carrollton,” noting his home at the family’s Carrollton Manor.
Clay leaned into his support for the National Bank, hoping it would drive divisions against Jackson. The President of the Bank even used his power to help the campaign’s finances. Not the best rebuttal against Jackson’s accusations that the Bank was corrupt and evil.
The National Republicans and the Anti-Masonic Party had some great Jackson-bashing political cartoons, but at the end of the day, the Democrats were still way better at organizing and having fun campaign events. The voters were riled up once again. Jackson never doubted his victory.
Oooh boy, that’s a lot of blue. Looks like the National Republican’s Pennsylvania plan didn’t work out. In other news, Wirt won Vermont and Floyd won South Carolina. Good for them!
Andrew Jackson wins again in a landslide! He won 219 electors to Clay’s 49, winning states in all regions.
What Did It Say About America?
For one, the National Bank was doomed (sorry, economy!). Henry Clay was alarmed that “the people” had gained so much control over the executive branch. How could Jackson ignore the will of the political establishment!
One last check-in with John C. Calhoun before we move on. After he returned to South Carolina, he won a Senate race. Once back in Congress, he became a major pro-slavery advocate in the buildup to the Civil War. He’s worse than Jackson, after all!
Was It The Right Decision?
Look, no doubt there was an aristocratic establishment that didn’t care much about the common laborer. But, Jackson’s not the guy, man. Again, as nice as the popular vote was, American voters (and narrowly those that could vote) were voting against government institutions that were actually providing important services, as well as ignoring threats on minority rights that the president seemed to have a personal vendetta against. Good thing we’ve learned since then!