The Election of 1828 introduced a new level of contention into American politics, and it centered on personal attacks.
Supporters of President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay attacked Andrew Jackson based on his sex life. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 277. Jackson had met his wife, then Rachel Robards, in 1790, when she was married to another man, Lewis Robards. Id. Jackson and Rachel Robards allegedly became intimately involved with each other, even before her 1794 divorce from Lewis, which was difficult and rare at that time. Id. Then, once the divorce occurred, Andrew and Rachel married. Id.
The Cincinnati Gazette, a pro-Adams newspaper, ran this story on March 23, 1827, and Jackson’s campaign responded that Jackson and Robards had an earlier marriage ceremony in 1791, “under the mistaken belief that Lewis Robards had obtained a divorce then, so their adultery had been inadvertent and merely technical.” Id. citing Norma Basch, “Marriage, Morals, and Politics in the Election of 1828,” JAH 80 (1993): 890-918.
No proof was found that Jackson and Robards were in fact married, but instead, it seemed that they were living together as early as 1790. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 278 citing Norma Basch, “Marriage, Morals, and Politics in the Election of 1828,” JAH 80 (1993): 890-918.
Jackson went on the offensive, even against the seemingly innocent Adams. His campaign started a rumor that Adams, while minister to Russia, “procured an American girl for the sexual gratification of the tsar.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 278. Further, the Jackson campaign accused Adams of putting a billiards table in the White House at public expense, which was untrue in that Adams had paid for the table with his own money. Id.
Despite these vicious attacks, the Election of 1828 resulted in a strongly issue-oriented political discourse, which would be filled with “fierce debates over both economic policy and the enforcement of white supremacy.” Id. at 284.
The Election of 1828 reflected a shift in politics, with Americans being exposed to vicious personal attacks between the candidates. Perhaps it was the first notable instance of modern politics, where the candidates bring out the worst in each other to gain an edge in the contest for the White House. While other elections have been filled with personal attacks, Jackson and Adams showed that there would be no limit to the competitive nature of elections.