Presidential Feuds, Part 1

The Feud That Left a Mark on Presidential History

The United States Senate has been called “the most exclusive club in the world” but there is an even more exclusive club. Only forty-two men have held the office of President, making it the most exclusive club in American political history. Yet even this small group has its personality conflicts, disagreements, and even feuds.

The first and probably best known of all the Presidential feuds was between John Adams (left) and Thomas Jefferson (right). Close friends and political allies earlier in their careers, Adams was the chairman of the committee to write the Declaration of Independence and selected Jefferson to do the writing. As the new government took shape, Adams and Jefferson found themselves on opposite sides in the philosophical debate on the nature of the new government. Eventually, they ended up running against each other, with Adams winning the first contest, and Jefferson the second.

During the elections, both men followed the traditions of the time and refrained from campaigning. With communications slow, neither candidate had any control over their followers and depended upon them to campaign for them in each town and city. These followers got carried away (nothing different from today in many ways) and said things and made accusations that angered both men. The elections were marked by heated passions and excessive mudslinging, insults and character assassinations.

Adams did not take his defeat in 1800 well. On news of Jefferson’s election, Mrs. Adams left Washington for their home in Massachusetts. Adams and Jefferson met in Washington from time to time, and after the election had an unfortunate meeting. Some say it happened in the White House at a reception. Adams, always fussy and temperamental, snapped at Jefferson “You have put me out! You have put me out!” Jefferson remained calm and reminded Adams that the system by which Adams was defeated was one Adams had helped to create. The meeting ended on relatively friendly terms. In January, they met again and discussed the political situation.

Still, Adams did not take defeat well. He resented that the people had cast him aside without a second term. His pride hurt, Adams left Washington before Jefferson’s inauguration. At four in the morning, his carriage pulled away from the White House unnoticed. Jefferson was inaugurated without his predecessor present.

The wounds between the two men were kept open and sore by their political differences for a long time. After a time, they began writing to each other, and became friends again. Their letters contained a lively correspondence on the issues of the day as well as personal matters. In spite of their renewed friendship, they remained competitive right up to the end. Just before Adams died, he is reported to have said, “Jefferson still survives.” He did not realize that Jefferson had died several hours earlier at his home in Virginia.

An even more-bitter feud developed between John Quincy Adams (left), son of John Adams, and Andrew Jackson (right). John Quincy Adams was Secretary of State and Andrew Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Adams even held a dinner in Jackson’s honor. In 1824, they both ran for President.

The result of the four-way race was that no candidate had a majority in the Electoral College, although Jackson had finished ahead in both popular and electoral votes. It fell to the House of Representatives to choose the winner, and they chose Adams. Jackson’s followers felt a deal had been made between Adams and Henry Clay (who had finished fourth and was ineligible) who as Speaker of the House had a great deal of influence over the voting. When Clay became Adams’ Secretary of State, Jackson’s followers cried foul and claimed a “corrupt bargain” had been made. They spent the next four years making sure that nothing of importance was accomplished by the Adams administration in preparation for the rematch in 1828. They also succeeded in making Adams’ term extremely uncomfortable and unsatisfying.

The election of 1828 was one of the nastiest in our history. Adams’ followers (though not Adams himself) attacked Jackson and his wife on very personal terms. Jackson and his wife had been married before her divorce had become final due to the poor communications on the frontier where they lived. When they discovered their mistake, they were married again. Throughout his career, his opponents tried to trigger his well-known temper by attacking his wife’s character, accusing her of bigamy and adultery. In this election, she became the favorite target of the opposition on a national level. The attacks on her became so vicious and frequent that her health was affected. The strain of the humiliation weakened Mrs. Jackson, and she died of a heart attack between Jackson’s victory and his inauguration. Jackson blamed his political opponents for her death and never forgave them. One result was that Jackson removed from office as many members of the opposition party as possible and replaced them with his loyal followers. This extreme use of patronage became known as the Spoils System.

For his part, Adams was as hurt and upset by his defeat in the election of 1828 as his father had been in 1800. Like his father, he left Washington the night before the inauguration of his successor. Unlike his father and Jefferson, he was never reconciled with Jackson. Two years later, Adams returned as a Representative and continued to oppose Jackson and his policies.

In both cases, politics became very personal. In both cases, our political system underwent dramatic changes as a result. Jefferson worked to overturn a number of last minute appointments by John Adams. This resulted in the Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison which finally established beyond question the power of judicial review, giving the courts, rather than the states, the right to declare laws unconstitutional. At least in this respect, Adams had the last laugh since he had favored judicial review and Jefferson vehemently opposed it. Jackson created a new use of patronage that dramatically increased the political power of the Presidency and set new precedents for the use of appointments for political advantage. After these first two feuds, things would never be the same.

In future articles in this series, we will examine the feuds between Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and the especially nasty feelings for each other shared by Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.