The 1828 Election: Nationalism & Rise of Political Democracy

As the Syracuse New Times’ Luke Parsnow wrote back in March of this year, the 2016 election is not the dirtiest the United States has ever seen.  The 1828 presidential election was a benchmark in the rise of political democracy as well as divisiveness between voters, including those in Syracuse. It was the first contest in which popular votes determined the outcome meaning citizens, not state legislatures, designated electors committed to a particular candidate. This motivated more citizens to become involved in the political process.

The election also launched new campaign styles, with more public rallies, and a new emphasis on attacking the personal character of the candidates. This was also reflected in Syracuse as two local newspapers chose sides; the Syracuse Gazette & General Advertiser, which supported incumbent John Quincy Adams and another, The Syracuse Advertiser, who supported Andrew Jackson. In the weeks leading up to the election, each printed stories promoting their preferred candidate and attacking the opponent. Jackson supporters depicted him as a simple farmer, one who could identify with the common man, and as a great leader based on his reputation as a winning general in the War of 1812.  Proponents for Adams attacked Jackson’s character and his inexperience in government while mocking his supporters for their shallow assessment of his qualifications. This was evident in a “story” from the October 29, 1828 Syracuse Gazette & General Advertiser that created a sarcastic exchange between “two Farmers of Onondaga co.”

11.3a.70 Campaign Attack on Andrew Jackson’s Character in a Syracuse Newspaper, 1828

11.3a.70 Campaign Attack on Andrew Jackson’s Character in a Syracuse Newspaper, 1828

Jackson supporters attacked Adams as elitist, as one who did not relate to the common man and enjoyed an upper class lifestyle.  They saw Adams as embracing a government where the educated few made laws and decisions that they felt were best for the many. This philosophical split would eventually lead to the formation of the two major parties in the decades before the Civil War. At the time, both claimed to be heirs to Jefferson’s “Republican” party. Later, though, Jackson supporters became known as the Democratic Party and his opposition coalesced around what became known as the Whig Party.

A typical election year attack on Adams was printed in the Jackson-leaning The Syracuse Advertiser, below, referring to his service as Minister to Russia during the War of 1812. (Note: New York’s Governor during the War of 1812 was Daniel Tompkins and the Hartford Conventions were meetings in opposition to the War.)

Eventually, the “elector” representing Onondaga County who supported Jackson, a lawyer named Freeborn Jewett from Skaneateles, won the vote and so Onondaga County’s presidential elector vote went to Jackson, who carried New York State by 20 electoral votes to Adam’s 16. Jackson won the overall presidential election by 178 electoral votes to 83 for John Quincy Adams. New York State split its electoral vote between the two candidates as it bordered New England, on the east, which was strongly pro-Adams and yet its upstate area was closer to the South and West, Jackson territory Jonas Earll, running as a candidate for Congress from Onondaga County, was also elected on the Andrew Jackson ticket. Jackson supporters carried majorities in both the House and the Senate.