Andrew Jackson’s defeat of John Quincy Adams in the 1828 presidential election has often been heralded as the beginning of the second American party system. While historians today offer a more complicated interpretation of the two-party system that emerged in the 1820s and 1830s, the 1828 contest between Jackson and Adams was unquestionably a pivotal turning point in American political history.
A significant demographic change that furthered the growth of the two-party system began with the 1828 campaign. For the first time that year, a majority of the voting-eligible population, 57% to be exact, cast a vote for a presidential candidate. The previous election, in 1824, had seen an estimated 27% of eligible voters participate. A common interpretation of the increase in participation has been that voters, almost exclusively white men, flocked to the polls to support Jackson because he championed the people. It is clear, however, that rather than Jackson sparking a democratic upsurge among voters, he instead benefitted from changes in state electoral and suffrage laws. In 1824, for example, six states still chose electors via state legislatures; four years later, only two (Delaware and South Carolina) maintained that process. State constitutional changes allowing for universal white manhood suffrage also increased the number of potential voters.
Enticing these new voters to the polls required work, however. One significant change in that regard came with the reconstitution of partisan identities. With the Federalists a fading national presence and a diminishing regional influence, it appeared obvious that future political divisions would largely come from among the National Republicans, whose factionalism had been apparent to all during the 1824 election. Leading the way in shaping the new partisan landscape was New York politico Martin Van Buren. In January 1827, he described to Richmond, Virginia, newspaper editor Thomas A. Ritchie his vision for American politics. Van Buren wanted national conventions to select candidates. He also stressed the need for convincing party members to “substitut[e] party principle for personal preference.” Van Buren hoped for a partnership “between the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the north,” and he chose Jackson as his new party’s candidate of choice. It took his opponents time to respond with their own organization, but when they did, the modern two-party American system with which we are familiar was born.
As Van Buren indicated, the murky political divisions of the 1820s needed to be sharpened in order to differentiate candidates, so the emerging political parties attacked both policies and personalities. While personal attacks on presidential candidates were not unknown prior to the 1828 campaign, the amount of mud-slinging by both the Adams and Jackson camps set a precedent all too often emulated in future elections. Jacksonians emphasized the incumbent president’s robbery of the people in the 1824 election, criticizing Adams and Henry Clay for reaching an suspected agreement to trade the presidency for a cabinet appointment. The “corrupt bargain,” as they called it, was not the Jacksonians’ only criticism. The Adams campaign had a far easier time lobbing charges at Jackson, whose personal life and public career provided his enemies with plenty of ammunition. The president’s supporters focused on Old Hickory’s temper, duels, and brawls; his illegal invasions of Spanish Florida on two occasions; his connection to the treasonous actions of Aaron Burr’s secession movement during Thomas Jefferson’s second presidential term; and his direct involvement in the domestic slave trade. Adams men also introduced the questionable circumstances of Jackson’s marriage to his wife, Rachel, in the newspapers. Never before had a campaign stooped to character attacks on this scale, but they have become a common feature of American presidential politics.
The 1828 election was not the first time that two American political parties opposed one another or the first time that personal attacks were used against candidates. Nor was it the bellwether of democracy that some Americans have regarded it. Nevertheless, it signified a new era in U.S. politics, one that we see playing out as we watch Democratic and Republican hopefuls jostle for position ahead of the 2016 national party conventions. In our rush to celebrate the American Revolution and mourn the sectional infighting that produced the Civil War, take a moment to reflect on how the two-party politics of the Jacksonian era linked the two events. By attempting to preserve the Founders’ legacy, Jacksonian politicians laid the foundation for four years of bloodshed when perpetuating that legacy proved impossible.
Mark R. Cheathem is professor of history at Cumberland University and project director/co-editor of The Papers of Martin Van Buren. He is the author or editor of five books, including the award-winning Andrew Jackson, Southerner.