Coffin Handbill

In the late 18th and early 19th century, politicians claimed to “stand” for office like gentlemen rather than to “run” for office like demagogues. Most, in fact, sort of sauntered toward the presidency behind the scenes. Jackson, by contrast, galloped into the White House on a war steed; military jargon has since dominated election rhetoric.

In his first bid for the presidency, in 1824, Jackson received over 41% of the popular vote, 10 points higher than John Quincy Adams and well ahead of the other two major contenders, William Crawford and Henry Clay. He received only 99 votes in the electoral college, however. This was well shy of the 131 then needed to win so the choice, per the Constitution, was given over to the House of Representatives. Unfortunately for Jackson and his supporters, the Speaker of the House was disappointed runner-up Henry Clay. Clay threw his support behind Adams and soon thereafter Adams made Clay his Secretary of State, a post then considered the stepping stone to the presidency.

A few months later, an outraged Jackson condemned the “corrupt bargain” made between Adams and Clay and began actively seeking support for the 1828 election. The long “campaign” grew so uncharacteristically acrimonious that Jackson attributed the death of his wife Rachel in late December 1828 to it. The Adams “camp” branded the couple adulterers because Jackson and Rachel had lived together as man and wife in the early 1790s when Rachel was still technically married to another man.

Adams also painted Jackson, in the infamous coffin handbills, as nothing more than a military man who brutally executed Indians, duelists and even his own men. The Jackson camp countered with a campaign song, “Hunters of Kentucky,” and by accusing Adams of serving as the Czar’s pimp while minister to Russia. Jackson handily won what some consider to be the first modern presidential election, 178 votes to 83. In 1832, he completely avenged the corrupt bargain by defeating Clay 219 to 49 in the electoral college.