John Quincy Adams was in trouble… in his reelection bid in 1828. Andrew Jackson built a nationwide network of support during Adams’ term in office. Jackson’s campaign structure was the first of its kind and by 1828 there were pro-Jackson committees in every state. All property requirements for voting had been removed, drastically increasing the electorate. Jackson’s populist message resonated with the newly enfranchised voters. In many ways, the election of 1828 was our first modern election. Adams was forced to resort to another modern strategy to win a second term, scandal.
Andrew Jackson was a man with… many skeletons in his closet. Jackson was a hard-drinking gambler who killed Charles Dickinson in a duel. The Adams campaign publicized all of Jackson’s indiscretions, even attacking his mother’s honor. But it was the salacious reporting on Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards that dragged the campaign into modernity. Cincinnati newspaperman Charles Hammond asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”
Rachel Donelson Robards was in a loveless marriage… when she met Andrew Jackson in 1788. Divorces were difficult in the 18th century and women had few recourses other than waiting for a husband to file papers. Rachel left her husband in 1790 to live with Jackson in Natchez, Mississippi territory. Believing that Lewis Robards had finalized the divorce, Jackson married Rachel in August of 1791. Due to a technicality, the divorce was not finalized in time, making Rachel a bigamist. Robards finally secured the divorce in 1793. Andrew and Rachel were remarried in Tennessee a year later. The charge of bigamy followed the Jacksons throughout their marriage, prompting Jackson’s duel against Charles Dickinson in 1806.
American voters rejected the negative campaign… of John Quincy Adams, and Jackson won in a landslide. Rachel’s health deteriorated during the campaign and the scandalous attacks made her condition worse. She died December 22,1828. Jackson would go to Washington alone. Old Hickory blamed Adams and Henry Clay for her death, “I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.” The American voters did a great service rejecting the smear tactics of the Adams campaign. Unfortunately, private lives of politicians and the scandals associated with them continue to dominate American political campaigns. A return to the spirit of 1828 is needed.