Sex and the Election

Mudslinging has always been featured in our political elections.  The mud often involves attacks against women and their presumed or actual sexual activities.  One of the most famous of these attacks was against Rachel Jackson. 

Rachel married at an early age to a ne’er-do-well. They soon divorced and she moved back to Nashville, Tennessee, where she met and married Andrew Jackson.  Unfortunately, her divorce was not final when they married.  After discovering their error, they remarried legally.  No one would have cared about their marital status if Andrew hadn’t decided to run for president in 1824.  

In 1824, four men competed for the presidency.  One was the Massachusetts blueblood, John Quincy Adams, oldest son of our second president John Adams.   Treasury Secretary William Crawford threw his hat in the ring but has since faded into history.  The other two candidates hated each other’s guts, before and after the election.

Henry Clay of Kentucky was the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was a military hero who won the Battle of New Orleans, in 1815. He had served in Tennessee state government, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.  They were self-made men from the frontier west who clawed their way to the top of society by their ability and wits, but they had different visions of America’s political future. 

Jackson was the first populist to run for president. He disdained the elitist political class of Massachusetts and Virginia, educated at Harvard or Yale, who had been running the country since its formation.  He supported expanding the right to vote to all adult (white) males in order to make the government more closely resemble the actual population. 

Henry Clay supported the political elite as a counterweight to the threat of mob rule as the voter base expanded.  Clay was deeply worried that Jackson’s populism would destroy democracy in America and replace it with a presidential dictatorship.  Clay also stated that killing enemy soldiers at New Orleans was not a sufficient qualification for handling the duties of the presidency.  

In 1824, Jackson led the popular vote, but none of the four candidates gathered a majority of the votes in the Electoral College.  Since no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College votes, the Constitution required that the matter be referred to the House of Representatives. 

Jackson lost the vote in the House of Representatives and John Quincy Adams was declared president.  Adams immediately chose Henry Clay to be his Secretary of State.  No evidence has ever come to light of a quid pro quo agreement between Adams and Clay, but Jackson was convinced the two men had conspired against him.  

That set the stage for the mudslinging in the 1828 election. John Quincy Adams ran for reelection and Jackson ran to avenge his allegedly stolen win in the 1824 election.  Both sides were willing to stoop to any level of sleaze to win.  

Jackson’s supporters claimed that John Quincy Adams had procured a prostitute for Tsar Alexander I while Adams was the U.S. ambassador to Russia.  Adams’ supporters claimed that Jackson’s mother had been a prostitute who was impregnated by a black man and that his wife Rachel was a bigamist. 

When the dust settled, Andrew Jackson won the election of 1828, but Rachel died of a stroke a few months later. Andrew always believed her death was a result of the vicious personal attacks by his opponents.  By the time she died, Rachel was disgusted with Washington and its politicians.

Visitors to the Rachel Jackson Office Building in downtown Nashville can read her famous quote, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington”.  

There are scores of books about Andrew Jackson and his presidency.  A well-written, easy to read account is American Lion, by Jon Meacham (2008), where you can learn more about political mudslinging in the Age of Jackson. 

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