Image Making in the Presidential Election of 1828

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Andrew Jackson

The influence of universal white man’s suffrage on the Presidential election of 1828 led to a battle of images between the Jackson and Adams campaigns.

With the relaxation of property requirements in most states in order to vote, the Presidential campaign of 1828 introduced characteristics seen in today’s elections. In appealing to a broader spectrum of the public, both the Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams campaigns used new tactics, such as organized rallies, fund-raising, and campaign paraphernalia. The Jacksonians were masters of this new style, especially when it came to image making.

Hero of New Orleans

Building an image for Jackson was not hard for his campaign operatives- it already existed in the American mind. General Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans in the War of 1812 earned him the moniker “Hero of New Orleans” or the “Old Hero.” For the thirteenth anniversary of the battle, January 8th, 1828, campaign workers organized rallies and banquets nationwide to celebrate and promote Jackson. This military image portrayed Jackson as a strong leader- a second George Washington.

The Jackson campaign also used the image of the outsider. The Panic of 1819 left many economically distressed and they saw Washington D.C. at fault. Then, after the 1824 election, Washington insider Adams seemed to have stolen the Presidency from popular vote winner Jackson, thanks to a “corrupt bargain” with another insider Henry Clay. The Tennessee outsider Jackson was needed to end the corruption.

Lastly, an anti-intellectual image was fashioned by the Jacksonians. Since more people with little education were eligible to vote, the Jacksonians proudly compared Jackson’s meager book-learning to Adams’ Harvard-educated and European-cultivated background. The Jacksonian press made light of Adams’ reference of a Voltaire work at a public appearance, with many in the audience clueless to the reference. Adams seemed out of touch with most Americans.

Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson

To oppose these positive images, the Adams campaign constructed negative images of Jackson. Instead of the strong military leader, the Adams campaign promoted the dangerous, unstable side of the Old Hero. Adams partisan and newspaperman John Binns distributed the “Coffin Handbill” that emphasized Jackson’s execution of six Tennessee militiamen in 1815. Also, Jackson’s execution of two British citizens in 1818 during his illicit invasion of Florida was brought to attention. When his brawls and duels were added, Jackson was declared unfit for leadership by the Adams side.

Jackson’s image was further dented when Adams partisans harped on his marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards. The young couple eloped while Rachel was still married to Lewis Robards (he was pursuing a divorce at the time). Jackson now was accused of adultery and his wife a whore. Jacksonians countered with the falsehood of Adams, as U.S. Minister to Russia, pimping for Czar Alexander.

The image that Adams was cultivating for himself was a man above party politics. He subscribed to the Founding Fathers’ fear of political parties interfering with republican civic virtue. Adams wanted to rejuvenate the heyday of nonpartisanship from the Era of Good Feelings, where one party generally ruled Washington. However, this image made Adams appear aloof and the expanding electorate embraced the partisanship that Jacksonians were selling.

In the end, the Jackson campaign was better organized. With a network of local Jackson or Hickory Clubs, a multitude of partisan newspapers, and a central committee of close Jackson advisers for coordination, Jacksonians were successful in building a positive image. The Hero of New Orleans won in a landslide in 1828 and image creation became important in future campaigns, like Abraham Lincoln’s railsplitter image in 1860.