Book Review: The Birth of Modern Politics by Lynn Hudson Parsons
As I sit here and watch the returns come in from Arizona and Michigan in the 2012 Republican primary, I’m writing about an election which gave rise to the type of campaigns we see today: the 1828 battle between incumbent President John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, as told by Parsons in The Birth of Modern Politics.
These two candidates had faced off in 1824, but with no candidate receiving a majority in the Electoral College, the outcome was decided by the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams was chosen to succeed President Monroe. Jackson was embittered by the results of the 1824 election and alleged that a “corrupt bargain” had been made between John Quincy Adams and Speaker of the House Henry Clay, who had also been a candidate that year.
When 1828 arrived, Jackson was prepared. As Parsons describes, the Jacksonian forces built an organization which allowed Jackson to carry the day. While the Adams forces did very little on behalf of the President, Jackson and his allies made every effort to take advantage of the expansion of the right to vote. In 1828, only two states electors were chosen by the state legislature; the other states allowed electors to be chosen through popular vote. The Jacksonians adapted to these new circumstances and prevailed while Adams remained aloof.
In this election, we witness a foreshadowing of many of the aspects of campaigns we see today. Both campaigns engaged in opposition research - using voting records, newspaper reports, etc. - to bolster charges against each other. There were also themes in the campaign which would be familiar to a 21st century voter: anti-intellectualism (aimed at Adams), concerns about a change in the form of government (allegations of creating a monarchy), opposing interpretations of the Constitution, and tests of party loyalty (primary aimed at Adams, who was no true “Republican”), etc.
One aspect of the campaign which was not similar to our campaigns today is that much of the campaigns’ expenses were covered by public funding. Using their franking privilege, Congressmen mailed partisan publications - primarily newspapers - to their constituents.
As much as the election of 1800 changed American politics, the election of 1828 changed the nature of how national politics are conducted, and Parsons does a good job of explaining how this election effected the future of U.S. politics.