Historian Parsons (John Quincy Adams, 1998, etc.) examines a watershed in American campaign history.
The 1828 presidential election pitted frontiersman and war hero Andrew Jackson against incumbent John Quincy Adams, a highly educated aristocrat, accomplished politician and the son of a previous president. The word “campaign” is a military term, Parsons points out, and this particular one was more like an all-out war. It introduced many innovations that persist to this day in American politics, including coordinated media efforts, get-out-the-vote campaigns and other touchstones of organized political party strategy. Most notably, the campaign showcased the use of smear tactics. The notorious “Coffin Handbills,” distributed by Adams advocates, branded Jackson’s wife an adulteress—her divorce, unknown to her, was legally shaky—and attacked the candidate for executing military deserters and for his brutal military actions against Native American villages. Meanwhile, Jackson partisans charged Adams with procuring a young woman for Russian Czar Alexander I while in the foreign diplomatic service. Ironically, Parsons reveals that Jackson and Adams had previously worked in common cause for shared political goals and expressed genuine mutual admiration and respect. Though the campaign highlighted their differences, the two men actually had much in common. In particular, both intensely disliked organized electioneering by their political parties. After the 1828 election, however, the party polarization they loathed emerged triumphant—and effectively persists today.
Sharply focused introduction to an election that fundamentally changed the landscape of American politics.