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The Dirtiest
Presidential Campaign
In American History

Guest Commentary by
Pamla M. Sterner
October 1, 2004



It will, no doubt, be remembered as the "Dirtiest Presidential Campaign in History," a battle for the White House that pitted the incumbent son of a former President against a man whose Senate record was arguably  mundane at best. The issues of the day, history will record, were relegated to a far lower level of priority than personal attacks on the candidates' personalities, character, and fitness to be President of the United States.

For starters, the incumbent was the son of a respected former President who, despite the esteem in which he was held by many Americans, had been unable to win re-election to a second term. When his son ran for office years later, Junior's first term in the White House was marked by charges that he had manipulated the outcome.  Indeed, the former President's son had not won the popular vote in that first bid for the White House, and the electoral tally had been a mess in a tight race that forced intervention by a separate branch of government to determine the winner. The controversy surrounding that outcome led to calls to abolish the Electoral College in favor of election by POPULAR VOTE only, and the President faced charges of "stealing the election" by some segments of the American public throughout his first term in office.

The incumbent's efforts to win a second term pitted two angry, vastly different men, against each other. It became a veritable shoot-out featuring a Massachusetts "blue blood" against the down-to-earth, tough-talking favored Son-of-the-South. The incumbent did his best to run on his record of service in office before, and then during, four years in the White House. The challenger, on the other hand, opted to make his military record and role as a "war hero" a focal point. He was intentionally vague whenever the issues of the day were brought up.

Though it was evident both men vying for the Presidency had little love for the other, most of the mud-slinging in arguably the dirtiest Presidential campaign in history came not from the Senator or the President he sought to defeat, or even from their close campaign leadership; instead it came from individuals from separate "special interest groups."

The charges of "fitness to lead" began in earnest when one of the challenger's fellow veterans turned to the media to personally produce images bolstering his charges that the soldier turned Senator had NOT been a war hero, but was rather, a man who had turned on his brothers in uniform, ultimately leading to the death of some.  The Senator, in turn, responded by claiming that the man behind the vicious ads that attacked his credibility as a war hero and who had accused him of being responsible for the death of fellow veterans, was on a personal vendetta.

The attacks sank to an even lower level when they focused on the spouses of the two candidates for the White House. The incumbent's wife had always been, even by her husband's detractors, considered a graceful and appropriate hostess for official functions. She was in sharp contrast to the wife of the challenger, who was deemed by many to be not only unqualified, but personally objectionable to be the First Lady.  Her personal history became the subject of back-room whispers, rumors, and gossip, and then then of blistering media attacks on her own character. The subject of divorce and remarriage was but one of numerous ethical issues aimed at destroying the credibility of the Senator who sought to unseat the incumbent who had been happily married for decades to but one woman, and whose mother had been one of the most-loved First Ladies in White House history.

On the other hand, the incumbent, a Harvard educated man-of-vision with a familial history of public service, was accused by supporters of the opposition of mis-using his Presidential powers and of corruption. Though he claimed to be non-partisan in terms of those he appointed, some of the most damning criticism leveled his way was that he had used his powers of appointment to steal the previous election. In fact, this president had taken unprecedented fairness in making Presidential appointments regardless of partisan politics, looking more towards an individual's qualifications--a matter that alienated many in his own party. One member of his own party noted: "During his administration (he) failed to cherish, strengthen, or even recognize the party to which he owed his election."  Despite his best efforts to be a unifier of the people, under his administration the face of American politics reached the most divisive level in our nation's history.

A devoutly religious man, the President's personal convictions were sometimes seen as extreme. He said, for instance, "I reverence God as my creator. As creator of the world. I reverence him with holy fear. I venerate Jesus Christ as my redeemer; and, as far as I can understand, the redeemer of the world. But this belief is dark and dubious." The incumbent President's personal Christian convictions, regular church attendance, and uninhibited references to God while in public office, drew criticism from some. It also placed him at odds with a religious movement he perceived as a great danger to the world, Islam. He noted, for instance: “The jihad may be regarded as Islam’s instrument for carrying out its ultimate objective by turning all people into believers."

In an election where the issues took a back-seat to personality, even mannerisms and personal appearance became issues.  The President was seen as aloof, stern, and unyielding in his agenda. His challenger was described by a Congressional colleague as "a tall, lanky, uncouth-looking personage."

For the American public the dirtiness of the Presidential campaign was further compounded by its length. The leading candidate in opposition to the incumbent's bid for re-election had been identified far earlier in the process than in previous elections, meaning that the charges and counter-charges, the nastiest in history, continued far longer than in any previous political debate. The challenger and his supporters, with great organization during this period,  mounted an unprecedented grass-roots get out the vote campaign to register thousands of first-time voters on their candidate's behalf.  Most observers noted this highly successful effort would probably result in the greatest voter turn-out in history, despite the general public's growing indifference to the mud-slinging that had gone on long enough to weary most voters.

On December 2 the American Public indeed turned out to vote in record numbers. Like his father, the incumbent president was defeated in his own bid for a second term.  

The date of that election is not a typo and the results are not a prediction. Indeed, the dirtiest Presidential campaign in history occurred in 1828 when John Quincy Adams, son of our second president, was defeated by Andrew Jackson, a disputed war hero. 

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

John Quincy Adams

In the election of 1824, Harvard-educated John Quincy Adams, son of our second president who was the first incumbent to fail to earn a second term, failed to win either the popular vote or the electoral majority.  The Massachusetts fortunate son came in second in a four-way race with challengers Andrew Jackson (who won the popular vote by 40,000 votes and the electoral vote by 15), and fourth-place finisher Senator Henry Clay. Since none of the candidates had achieved a plurality, it was left to the U.S. House of Representatives to determine the winner. Only when Senator Clay threw his support behind Adams was the winner declared.

In the four years that followed, the legitimacy of the Presidency of John Quincy Adams would be continually questioned amid charges of corruption and the accusation that he had obtained the support of Clay, only by promising to make him the Secretary of State. There were calls for election reform, for abolishing the Electoral College, and the opposition (Jacksonians) immediately began their campaign to defeat the incumbent in 1828. The identity of the two contenders for the next election was well-known three years before that election, thus kicking off the rhetoric at the earliest stage in presidential campaign history.

Andrew Jackson

Unlike today's political process, in the early years of Presidential politics, the candidates generally did not campaign for themselves. Rather, they built an organization to work on their behalf. Loosening voter qualifications in between the two elections opened the way for thousands of first-time-voters in the election of 1828. The Jackson machine went to work with great success to rally these voters behind their candidate, war hero and former Senator Andrew Jackson, the plain-speaking, down-to-earth, Son-of-the-South.

Andrew Jackson reveled in his reputation as a war hero, and had little problem avoiding the issues of his day. In fact, he addressed his silence on the issues by telling his supporters: "My real friends want no information from me on the subject of internal improvement and manufactories, but what my public acts have afforded, and I never gratify my enemies. Was I now to come foreword and reiterate my public opinions on these subjects, I would be charged with electioneering for selfish purposes."

Because of this attitude, no one knew exactly where the challenger stood on the issues. The incumbent President's four years in office made his own stance well known, and fodder for attack. Meanwhile, the challenger either changed his mind on issues, or addressed them in vague terms that left more questions than answers. 

While Jackson ran on his record as a war hero, Colonel Charles Hammond called the man's service into question, personally producing The Coffin Handbill that accused Jackson of turning on his brothers in uniform, specifically in killing John Woods (a mutineer Jackson had executed during the Creek War) and six Tennessee militiamen he had executed in Alabama. It was an action independent of the President for Charles Hammond was a friend of Henry Clay,  not President Adams. Never-the-less, this fact that did not stop candidate Andrew Jackson from asserting that Hammond was a pawn in the political process, or prevent the negativity of the ads from being associated with the incumbent President's reelection effort.

In point of fact, most of the media had a bias towards the challenger and leveled their own nasty charges at the President. He was accused of indiscretions in his youth and of getting too close with the Russian leadership. He was portrayed as an elitist, an angry man who was set in his ways, and whose visionary ideas for the future were unrealistic. The incumbent was portrayed in the media as the rich son of a rich family, that only favored the wealthy and powerful, while his challenger, though wealthy himself, was seen more as a self-made made who was the champion of the less-fortunate.

President John Q. Adams came to the White House in the shadow of his famous father, whose First Lady Abagail Adams had become something of the matriarch at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His own wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, established a reputation as a gracious hostess appropriately supporting her husband and doing so with quiet dignity. Some might have called her the social epitome of a First Lady. For supporters of the President, she was a sharp contrast with the wife of Andrew Jackson.

For the first time the specter of divorce and remarriage became an issue in Presidential politics. Rachel Jackson's earlier, first marriage, became the basis for charges that neither she nor her husband were fit to inhabit the White House. She and Jackson had married before her divorce was finalized, providing great fodder for the gossip closets. (They did, once the divorce became final, marry anew.) Colonel Hammon, in but one of several personal attacks on Rachel and her husband wrote in one pamphlet, "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?"

Despite the fact that everyone anticipated a higher-than-normal turnout on election day, the actual numbers were shocking--more than double the numbers of the previous election. Andrew Jackson won and John Quincy Adams went home. The repercussions of that bitter campaign, however, continued. Before the inauguration, Rachel Jackson died. The president-elect blamed the ugliness of the campaign for the stress that caused her apparent heart-attack, noting:  “May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can.”  Meanwhile, still stinging from the dirty tactics that had denied him a second term in the White House, John Quincy Adams refused to even attend the inauguration of his successor. (It was one of only three times in history that this has happened--ironically, the first being when his father failed to attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson.) 

Despite the similarities in the present quest for the White House with the campaign of 1828, there are also many differences. America and our political process has come a long ways in 176 years. The confrontational nature of the Adams/Jackson campaigns gave us our first real test of the two-party system. (In fact, references to Andrew Jackson as a "jackass" gave the party that evolved from his effort the symbol they use to this day.) It is a system that, despite its problems, works to give American's a choice. As my husband has frequently noted, "The United States has the WORST form of government in the world--except for ALL THE OTHERS!"

Our great nation survived the mud-slinging of 1828 with its personal attacks, Coffin Handbill, media bias, and heated emotion. So too, our nation will survive Swift Boat ads, Fahrenheit propaganda videos, 527 groups, and personal attacks, to remain the greatest nation in the world. The democratic process, despite its inherent problems, still beats any alternative out there. 


Pam Sterner is a Political Science Major and Honors Student at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Together with her husband she co-produces the popular American History website at

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What I find truly spooky in this article is not so much all of the similarities to the present race, but by how much Kerry actually LOOKS like Andrew Jackson! For fun you might try looking at a photoshop mockup of John Kerry AS Andew Jackson at: Notwithstanding many similarities, as you state there are also plenty of differences - JQ seemed to have quite a different view of Islam than George "Islam means peace" Bush. See BTW, given the high turn-out for the election, were there many allegations of vote fraud, etc? As there are rumors of it (and vote suppression, etc) now? It looks like a great page - keep it up!

J. Summers
Palm Desert, CA USA -

Open letter to Lynne Cheney Lynne Cheney, where's your logic or your mother love? In the last debate, by refusing to agree that homosexuality was innate, George Bush was suggesting that your daughter and other gays and lesbians intentionally engaged in sinful conduct. That idea appeals greatly to his supporters. On the other hand, John Kerry agreed that sexual choice IS innate - said that your daughter was only playing out the role God gave her. If there is a cheap trick involved, it is Republican use of smoke and mirrors to turn Kerry's kinder remarks against him. Is it only a Republican mother that would choose to focus national attention on her daughter's homosexuality for a few political points? Or was it Mary Matalin's idea?
Wallace Brand <>
Alexandria, VA USA -
Great essay, It was enlightening. Alot of times we forget that what we consider new lows are just a rehash of old lows. Muckraking, yellow journalism, political corruption and blatent hypocrosy are nothing new in politics. The only new thing seems to be that we expect politicians to play by a set of rules and the media to be arbitrar and enforcer of those rules. Peter Jennings recently said that he thought it was dangerous or wrong or something like that for the public to expect the media to be unbiased. That is a fairly new concept, historically newspapers and magazines had an overt and obvious political agenda and ideology that was advanced by editorial decisions and policy. The new development isn't that the carbon copy media outlets spin and filter the information they deseminate, rather it is that they do it so blatently while denying it the whole time and aren't confronted by it. When the media was bashing Jackson almost 2 centuries ago, at least they were honest about it.
Gainesville, fl USA -

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