The “outsider” candidate running against “Washington insiders” has become a familiar figure on both ends of the political spectrum. But back in the 1820s, there was no such thing as an anti-establishment, populist candidate—until Andrew Jackson invented it.
At the time, the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution was approaching, and Americans were anxious that their republican experiment was faltering. President James Monroe would be the last of the original Founding Fathers to occupy the White House, and when his second term expired in January 1825, the torch would be passed to a new generation.
Harry Watson, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, says that the 1824 presidential candidates—all Democratic-Republicans who had served in Monroe’s cabinet—looked like “a disappointing group” to many American voters.
“They were all busily backstabbing each other and working more for themselves than what looked to many like the president’s agenda or the common good,” says Watson, author of Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America.
But Andrew Jackson was different. He wasn’t a career politician, but a bona fide military hero from the War of 1812. Jackson wasn’t born among the Northeastern elite, but to Scotch-Irish immigrants in South Carolina. He didn’t reside in Washington, D.C., but in Nashville, Tennessee, then considered the “West.”
Critics said Jackson was unfit for office because he had limited governing experience (he briefly served as territorial governor of Florida and as a senator in Tennessee). But Jackson’s supporters flipped the script, claiming that his outsider status would provide exactly the housecleaning that the country needed.
Back then, presidential candidates didn’t actively campaign for themselves; that was considered uncouth. So they had political boosters who would do the dirty work for them. One of Jackson’s closest allies was John Eaton, a Nashville lawyer who wrote a fawning biography of the war hero in 1817.
For the 1824 campaign, Eaton penned a series of anonymous letters called “The letters of Wyoming,” published widely in newspapers, that made the case for Jackson as the only true patriot worthy of the White House.
“Gentlemen, candidates for the first office in the gift of a free people are found electioneering and intriguing, to worm themselves into the confidence of the members of Congress,” wrote Eaton. “With the exception of that veteran of his country’s service; the man who has met every peril, and known no danger too disastrous to be encountered when it was demanded by the public weal; with the exception of this great man, the Hero of Orleans, Andrew Jackson.”
Eaton wisely drew comparisons between Jackson and the closest thing to an American god, George Washington.
“Let that name, consecrated, and which merits not comparison with any other, be laid aside!” wrote Eaton, “and where is the man next to him for abilities displayed, for firmness of purpose, for perils encountered, and devotion to the cause of liberty and his country? If one be living it is Andrew Jackson!”
The Jackson campaign did its best to paint Jackson’s closest competitor, John Quincy Adams, as an out-of-touch elite. The son of President John Adams, the younger Adams was raised in various European capitals and grew up to be a Harvard professor and secretary of state.
In an article for Smithsonian, Watson quotes a sniping editorial from 1824. “Although General Jackson has not been educated at foreign courts and reared on sweetmeats from the tables of kings and princes,” it said, “we think him nevertheless much better qualified to fill the dignified station of president of the United States than Mr. Adams.”
Daniel Feller, a history professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and the director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson, says that Jackson was indeed the first presidential candidate to use populism in his campaign, and while Jackson came about his outsider status sincerely, he also knew how to wield it as a weapon.
“Jackson was both an ideologue and a very shrewd politician,” says Feller. “He certainly understood and capitalized on the power of his political message, but he also believed it.”
Jackson’s “man of the people” candidacy was boosted by a rapidly expanding American electorate. Six new states joined the Union between the War of 1812 and the 1824 election, and those states extended the right to vote to (white, male) non-landowners. Many existing states followed their lead, giving the vote to a less affluent and less educated citizenry.
Also, by the time of the 1824 presidential election, all but six states allocated their electoral votes through a popular vote count. In the early years of the republic, state legislatures had chosen their electors, not the people.
The expansion of suffrage and the shift in state electoral laws made the 1824 election the first truly popular national election in American history. But it was also one of the most controversial.
When the ballots were tallied, Jackson had won 99 electoral votes and Adams took 84, but the two other candidates took 78 between them. According to the Constitution, since Jackson hadn’t won a majority of the total electoral votes, the decision went to the House of Representatives.
In what Jackson’s supporters saw as a “corrupt bargain,” Adams was awarded the presidency by promising that he would choose Henry Clay (the fourth-runner in the 1824 election) as his secretary of state, a position recognized a stepping stone to the White House. Jackson’s supporters were incensed.
“It looked like a rigged election where the honest soldier was forced out and these slimy connivers were brought in,” says Watson.
The stage was set for a rematch election in 1828, where the slogan of the Jackson campaign was “Andrew Jackson and the will of the people.” In that second contest, Jackson crushed Adams 178 electoral votes to 83, and took every state west of New Jersey. The people, it appeared, had spoken and Jacksonian Democracy had its start.