ADVANCE PLACEMENT
AMERICAN HISTORY

THE ELECTION OF 1828 AND THE NULLIFICATION CRISIS

*Ever since his defeat at the hands of the House of Representatives in the election of 1824, Jackson and his followers had been campaigning for Jackson’s presidential candidacy in 1828.  The Republican party split into the National Republicans (under Adams and Clay) and the Democratic-Republicans under Jackson.

*When 1828 rolled around Jackson’s supporters, managed by the brilliant Martin van Buren (a veteran of the Byzantine politics of New York), came out in vast numbers to cheer and to vote for Old Hickory.

*The Election of 1828 was almost certainly the dirtiest America had yet seen.

*Jackson was called a dangerous man, and the ‘coffin handbills’ were published, with pictures of six coffins representing six men hanged by Jackson shortly before the Battle of New Orleans for, according to him, robbery, arson, and mutiny (or just wanting to go home according to Jackson’s detractors).  Jackson was also called a murderer due to his duel with Charles Dickinson.

*Dickinson was a wealthy planter, slave owner, lawyer (who had studied under John Marshall), horse racer, and duelist.  After Dickinson lost $800 when his champion stallion could not run against Jackson’s in an appointed race, Jackson began spreading rumours that Dickinson tried to cheat him by paying him with bad money.  Dickinson then made some rude comments about Jackson’s wife, a subject about which Jackson was notoriously sensitive.  Rumours and slander were spread by both men, and neither would back down.  Eventually Dickinson wrote a letter to Nashville’s newspaper calling Jackson a scoundrel, poltroon, and coward.  Jackson challenged him to a duel, Dickinson accepted, and both men meant to kill the other.  Dickinson was believed to be one of the best shots in Tennessee, and possibly the nation, while Jackson was not a great marksman.  On the day of the duel, fought in Kentucky where it was legal, Jackson wore a large, ill-fitting coat.  He also meant to reserve his shot, and take Dickinson’s ball.  He did so, but Dickinson was apparently misled by the large coat Jackson wore, for he did not kill Jackson outright, although the ball did hit Jackson and get within a fraction of an inch of his heart, where it remained the rest of his life.  With all the time he needed, Jackson, ignoring the blood pooling in his boots, carefully aimed his pistol and pulled the trigger.  The gun snapped, but only to half-cock.  Jackson re-cocked the pistol and fired, hitting Dickinson in the belly; he expired within hours.  Some said Jackson’s re-cocking of the gun was in violation of the code of the duel, and made it murder by any definition.  Others disagree, saying that if there was any dispute, the seconds on the field would have called it on the spot.

*Adams was accused of being a son of privilege raised at the government’s expense, of being an incipient king just like his late father, of introducing gambling tables into the White House, was connected to the corrupt bargain of 1824, and worst of all, was said to have been a pimp while Ambassador to Russia, where he had supposedly sold an American girl to the Tsar.  Furious, Adams responded with worse.

*Jackson’s mother was (completely falsely) accused of being a prostitute brought to America by the British army during the Revolution, which infuriated Jackson—Jackson and his two brothers had actually served in the Revolutionary Army and his mother died of cholera contracted while acting as a nurse for the US Army.  Jackson was also called an adulterer and his wife was accused of bigamy.  Technically this was true; Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson had thought herself legally divorced from Mr Robards when she married Jackson.  Rachel was hurt so badly by the rumours and slanders that it broke her heart and she died shortly after Jackson’s election.

*Jackson was elected with an overwhelming majority in the electoral college (178 of 261), ironically provided by the political machines of the northeast in the many cases, while Adams won only 83 electoral votes, although he did get 44% of the popular vote.  Adams, unlike all other ex-presidents, did not retire, but ran for Congress and served in the House until his death in 1848.  There he opposed slavery with such skill that he was called ‘Old Man Eloquent.’

*Jackson’s supporters called the election of 1828 the Revolution of 1828, and in some ways it was a revolution.  It was the first real triumph of popular, relatively democratic, elections over the supposedly elitist entrenched interests of the east.  Jackson was the first western president—indeed, the first president not to either be from Virginia or named Adams.  He was a man of the people, wild, a fan of gambling, horse-racing, cock-fighting, and dueling; at his inauguration so many people crowded into the White House that Jackson himself was in danger of being crushed by ‘King Mob.’  Jackson also stirred up the government with the Spoils System in a way that none of his predecessors ever had.

*The Spoils System was the system of rewarding political supporters with important posts in the government, and doing so on a large scale.  Jackson did this for two reasons.  First, of course, was the practical side of party patronage—one had to reward one’s supporters.  Second, Jacksonian Democracy was based on the idea that anyone could govern, so there was no reason not to let the common man hold a government office.  Getting out the old public servants—a few of whom had been appointed by Washington almost forty years before—and replacing them with new ones was called ‘rotation in office’ and seen as healthy for a democracy—it kept the government in touch with the people.  Ultimately 20% of current office-holders were replaced by Jackson supporters in 1828.  These rewards for loyalty built a strong political machine for Jackson while maintaining the ideals of Jacksonian Democracy—the people must be heard.

*Jackson’s cabinet was, on the whole, unimpressive, filled largely with people owed jobs by the party.  His vice-president was John C Calhoun, and his Secretary of State was Martin van Buren.  These two men quickly became rivals for power within the administration.  To make sure he got useful advice, Jackson also had another set of advisors, some of whom were also in the real cabinet.  This group of unofficial advisors was called Jackson’s ‘kitchen cabinet.’  It was valuable for Jackson to have such a group, because his official cabinet was soon rent by the Peggy Eaton Affair.

*Peggy O’Neil Eaton was the daughter of a Washington, D.C. tavernkeeper and the wife of Secretary of War John Henry Eaton, and old friend of Jackson’s.  It was rumoured that Mr and Mrs Eaton had been intimate as a husband and wife before they were actually married.  Furthermore, the high-class wives of most of the rest of the cabinet sneered at the common-born Peggy, hurting her feelings immensely.  Jackson, whose own wife was treated harshly, was deeply sympathetic, and ordered his cabinet to be so, as well.  Only van Buren, a widower, managed to do so, and henceforth he, rather than Calhoun, would be Jackson’s favourite, and Jackson and Calhoun would grow further and further apart.  This business badly disrupted the cabinet until Eaton eventually resigned.

*Jackson gained many enemies during his presidency, chief among them Henry Clay.  One of the accusations against him was that he himself was a tyrant.  As president, Jackson used the power of the veto twelve times, more than all other previous presidents put together.  Eventually his detractors would call Jackson ‘King Andrew I,’ and depict him in cartoons trampling on the Constitution as he vetoed new laws.

*One of his most controversial vetoes was that of the Maysville Road Bill in 1830.  This was a direct blow against Clay and his American system, and also a victory for certain factions in the South and for the East against the West.

*Some parts of the South opposed the bill on the grounds that it interfered with states rights, and if the government started doing that here, it might eventually move on to other things, such as slavery, which Southerners had been increasingly tense about since Vesey’s rebellion.

*Many Easterners opposed the bill because it would drain men away from the factories to cheap land in the West.  With the veto of the Maysville Road Bill, a New England senator introduced a bill that would stop the survey of western lands until all existing surveyed land had been sold, which would hurt western expansion and the West immensely.  Now the South sided with the West, and a great debate arose in the Senate.

*This debate is known as the Hayne-Webster Debate, as the South was represented by Robert Hayne of South Carolina and New England by the godlike Daniel Webster.  Although initially about land, the debate quickly came to revolve around who had the final say in the interpretation of laws.  Hayne argued that the states had the right to interpret and even nullify laws that were unconstitutional.  His argument was that the Constitution was a compact of independent and sovereign states, each of which had the right to interpret internal laws for itself.  This was not meant to dismember the Union, but to give the states a way to deal with grievances while remaining in the Union.  Webster claimed that the Constitution was not an alliance between the states, but rather a creation of ‘We, the people,’ and that the Supreme Court ultimately decided the constitutionality of laws.  His famous line, reprinted throughout the nation (as all the debate was), was ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.’  Webster, perhaps the greatest orator his day, would have his speeches read throughout the Union and memorized by a generation of Yankee schoolboys, who would later go out to fight to preserve the Union he described.  Neither side won the debate, but it put the disagreement between states’ rights and the supremacy of the Federal Government out in the open for all to see.
*The sectional controversy was further highlighted by Jackson’s invitation to the Jefferson Day Banquet held on Mr Jefferson’s birthday, 13 April, 1830.  Calhoun requested that Jackson attend, meaning to sound him out on the issue of states’ rights and the ending of the Tariff of Abominations.  A series of toasts to Jefferson were offered, tailored to lead to a toast to states’ rights.  However, Jackson had been apprised of the plan, and was prepared.  He offered the toast to ‘Our Union:  it must be preserved!’  Calhoun, tough to the end, countered with ‘Our Union:  next to our liberty most dear.’

*The sectional controversy continued to grow worse as South Carolina, following the suggestions of the South Carolina Exposition, attempted to nullify the Tariff of Abominations.  However, a 2/3 majority was required to accomplish this, and South Carolina did not quite manage this.

*A new tariff was created in 1832 reducing the rate to 35% (from 45%), but this was not enough for South Carolina.  In response, South Carolina took advantage of the election year to elect a legislature that would vote to nullify the tariff.

*Fearing civil war as unionists and nullies in South Carolina began forming militias and drilling for battle and as South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union outright, Henry Clay, despite his love for tariffs, stepped forward and negotiated a decrease in the tariff.  This compromise tariff of 1833 would gradually reduce the tariff by 10% to about 20-25% by 1842.

*Jackson took a more direct approach, and privately threatened to hang the nullifiers, but publicly sent a small detachment of the army to police the state, while preparing a larger force for invasion.  Congress also passed the Force Bill, authorizing Jackson to send up to 50,000 troops to South Carolina.

*South Carolina rescinded her nullification of the tariff, but, to prove her point, nullified the Force Bill.

*Although South Carolina had hoped other Southern states would join her in nullification and perhaps secession, none seemed especially eager to do so.  Although sectional problems would continue to bedevil the nation, for the moment they have been contained once again.

*Although the Nullification Crisis was important in 1832, the big issue of the election was the Bank of the United States, which Jackson was known to hate and which Clay and his supporters, sure of its popularity, chose to make an issue for the election by trying to renew its charter early.

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This page last updated 14 October, 2003.