18 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 40


History shows that rows over presidential elections serve a purpose


It was the first election in which popular voting mattered, and Jackson clearly won it. Of 356,038 votes cast, he got 153,544, against 108,740 for Adams. He carried 11 states, against seven for Adams and three each for the other two. He was also the winner in electoral-college votes, with 99, against 84 for Adams, 41 for Crawford and 37 for Clay. However, under the 12th Amendment, if no presidential candidate secured a majority of electoral-college votes, the issue had to be taken to the House of Representatives, which selected the winner from among the top three by voting simply by states. So the decision was handed over to the politicians and, in prac- tice, Henry Clay, the cleverest of them and Speaker of the House, was the broker.

Though elections were held in November, the new president did not then take over until March, and the House did not meet to pick him until 9 February 1825. In the mean- time, rumours circulated that Jackson was to be deprived of the presidency which the vot- ers had given him by some kind of deal between Adams and Clay. The 'corrupt bar- gain', as it was called, was for Clay to arrange for Adams to win the House vote, and in return Adams would make him secre- tary of state in his new administration. Whether a bargain was struck is still a mat- ter of historical dispute, Adams's copious diaries mysteriously falling silent about his meetings with Clay. When the House met, Clay had lined up 12 states behind Adams but needed a 13th to clinch it. New York was the swing state and, as it happened, its cast- ing vote was held by General Stephen Van Rensselaer, known as 'the Patroon'. He was old, dotty, religious and henpecked, and he had promised to vote for Crawford. But:

Before the box reached him, he dropped his

head upon the edge of his desk and made a brief appeal to his Maker for guidance in the matter, a practice he frequently observed in great emergencies, and when he removed his hand from his eyes he saw on the floor directly below him a ticket bearing the name of Adams . . . Taking up the ticket he put it in a box.

Thus Adams got the Patroon, New York and the presidency.

God's intervention, however, was not known at the time and, when Clay was made secretary of state, everyone in the Jackson camp concluded that a corrupt bargain had indeed been struck. As Jackson himself put it, `The Judas of the West [Clay] has closed the contract and will receive the 30 pieces of sil- ver. His end will be the same. Was there ever witnessed such barefaced corruption?' (He never forgave opponents. On his deathbed he said that his only two regrets were that 'I did not shoot Clay and hang Crawford'.) The first consequence, of historic importance, was that the next presidential campaign began imme- diately, in the spring of 1825. Jackson's own state, Tennessee, immediately renominated him for president and, in accepting, he gave the 'corrupt bargain' as his reason. A cam- paign against Adams began at once and con- tinued throughout his presidency — another innovation. The media entered the arena for the first time in a decisive manner, both sides buying up newspapers and turning them into partisans of the bitterest sort.

The vituperation became highly personal, again for the first time. Adams was a snooty New England puritan. His only indulgence was to take a daily swim in the Potomac naked, of course, as was usual then. On one occasion his boat overturned, he lost his trousers and got back to the White House as best he could. This episode, oddly enough, did not get into the scandal sheets. What did was Adams's habit of playing bil- liards and chess. A billiard-table and a chess-set appeared in a White House inven- tory. Adams had paid for both out of his own pocket, but Representative Carson of North Carolina demanded to know 'by what right the public money should be applied to the purchase of Gambling Tables and Gambling Furniture?' The Jackson press now began to portray him as a raffish fellow, instead of the grim stick he actually was, and they asserted that, while US ambassador in Russia, he had pandered to the Tsar by supplying him with a young American girl. He was 'the Pimp'. The Adams papers hit back even harder. One asserted, 'General Jackson's mother was a Common Prostitute, brought to this country by British soldiers! She afterwards married a Mulatto Man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!' Still worse followed. As the 1828 election drew nearer, editors sent reporters to investigate Mrs Jackson's for- mer marriage and her one with Jackson, con- cluding that it was invalid. This assertion appeared in many newspapers and in an abu- sive pamphlet, 'A View of General Jackson's Domestic Relations', which asked, 'Ought a convicted adulterer and her paramour hus- band to be placed in the highest offices of this land?' Despite Jackson's efforts to shield her, his wife saw these calumnies during the campaign, took to her bed and died. He held his opponents guilty of her 'murder'. He was also the victim of the 'Coffin Handbill', per- haps the most notorious election poster of all time, which showed the coffins of all those he had (allegedly) killed in duels. Har- riet Martineau, visiting New England, Adams's fief, related that a schoolboy, asked by a teacher who killed Abel, replied, 'Gen- eral Jackson, ma'am.'

As a result, the people became engaged, democracy was accelerated and the 1828 election, which Jackson won, was the first popular contest of its kind in history. The real American-style electoral razzmatazz began. Campaign badges had appeared in 1824, but it was in 1828 that the campaign was first properly organised. Known from his army days as 'Old Hickory' — 'the hardest wood in creation' — Jackson was now boost- ed through nationwide 'Hickory Clubs', with hickory canes and hickory sticks sold to his supporters, hickory trees planted all over the country and hickory poles erected in town- ships. The first campaign song, The Hunter of Kentucky', celebrating his famous 1815 victory of New Orleans, was written.

Such was the expectation of Jackson's supporters that, when he was wafted to Washington, he created the Spoils System, the wholesale replacement of administra- tion placemen by the new president, which endures to this day. So history is made and constitutions mature. The dispute over the present election will also serve a purpose. It will persuade Americans, as nothing else can, that votes do matter, and get them out of the slothful, cynical habit of not voting — the real blot on US democracy.