The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News's White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website each Wednesday through September. This is the fifth in the series.
From the first presidential election in 1789 until the balloting of 1828, all of America's chief executives had been from Virginia and Massachusetts. But the balance of power in the new nation was shifting. The states that had anchored the Revolution were losing influence to the rapidly growing region farther west that had needs, aspirations, and styles different from those of the original colonies.
Andrew Jackson of Tennessee capitalized on that trend. The rough-hewn, quick-tempered, self-taught lawyer—nicknamed "Old Hickory"—had become a national hero as commander of U.S. forces defending New Orleans in the War of 1812 and in his military campaigns against the Seminoles in Florida. He served in the Senate starting in 1823, and in the presidential election of 1824 Jackson won the most popular votes, 43 percent, and a plurality of electoral votes. But since no one got a majority, the decision was thrown to the House of Representatives and Jackson came out the loser. He believed that John Quincy Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay, both of whom had been candidates, entered into a "corrupt bargain" that gave a majority to Adams, who became president and named Clay his secretary of state.
Jackson and his supporters simmered for four years. But in 1828, they pulled out all the stops in what became, for all sides, one of the toughest and dirtiest campaigns ever, setting the precedent for future negative campaigns. Jackson's forces attacked Adams as a corrupt politician, a monarchist, and an anti-Catholic zealot. Adams was accused by a Jackson supporter of using "a beautiful girl to seduce the passions of Czar Alexander and sway him to political purpose" while Adams was minister to Russia.
For their part, Adams's backers said Jackson was a gambler, an adulterer, and a murderer. Most troubling to the candidate, they accused him of marrying his wife, Rachel, before she and her first husband had been legally divorced. They depicted Rachel as an immoral seductress, and she thought that her reputation was ruined. When Rachel died a few weeks before Jackson's inauguration as America's seventh president, he blamed Adams and his enemies for dragging her name through the mud and causing her to have a fatal nervous breakdown. "In the presence of this dear saint, I can and do forgive all my enemies," he said at her funeral. "But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy."
It was the first time that all the states except Delaware and South Carolina chose their electors by popular vote, a sign that the elites who had run the country, such as the state legislators and landed gentry, were losing power. In addition, most states, by reducing or abolishing property requirements, had made it easier for citizens to cast ballots. The total vote rose from nearly 357,000 in 1824 to more than 1.1 million in 1828.
During the campaign, Jackson pushed the notion that elites from the East had "cheated" poor whites—and him—out of the White House in 1824. He pledged to protect everyday people from the rich and powerful—a populist theme that has boiled up regularly in presidential campaigns ever since and finds echoes in Barack Obama's theme of taking back Washington from corporate lobbyists this year. Jackson won the popular vote with 59.5 percent and took the Electoral College majority over Adams 178 to 83. Adams's party was known as the National Republicans, Jackson's the Democratic Party.
The dawn of a new populist era was vividly clear on Inauguration Day. Jackson opened the White House to his backers, and hundreds of them pushed and shouted their way through the building in search of conviviality as they celebrated their hero's victory. Many were rough men in muddy boots who climbed on the chairs and devoured the food and drink provided by uniformed waiters. Women, children, farmers, laborers, ambassadors, members of Congress—a stream of humanity took over the place for the day. "Several thousands of dollars' worth of art glass and china were broken in the attempt to get at the refreshments; punch, lemonade, and other articles were carried out of the house in buckets and pails," wrote a shocked witness. "Women fainted; men were seen with bloody noses; and no police had been placed on duty."
From the start of his administration, Jackson fought what he considered a profligate and selfish American aristocracy and worked on behalf of western farmers and eastern laborers. He tried to weed out corruption and incompetence from the civil service. He dismissed many government workers and installed loyalists. A backer said Jackson found "nothing wrong in the rule that to the victors belong the spoils of the enemy." He vetoed the recharter of the Bank of the United States, saying it would have made "the rich richer and the potent more powerful." His extensive use of the veto, in fact, set the precedent of making the chief executive central to the legislative process. Until that time, presidents generally exercised their veto power only when a bill seemed unconstitutional. Jackson broadened the criteria for veto to include bills he disagreed with. Most Americans liked what they saw.
One of the strongest presidents in history, Andrew Jackson insisted that federal authority must be preserved from attacks by southern states. One of his worst crises came when South Carolina leaders declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were null and void. Threatening to secede from the Union, South Carolina forbade federal officers from collecting revenues in the state. Jackson was incensed, and he promised in the fiercest of terms to strictly enforce federal laws. "If a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States," he said, "I will hang the first man I can lay my hands on engaged in such conduct upon the first tree that I can reach." Eventually a compromise was found—the tariffs were reduced—and the crisis passed.
Jackson easily won re-election in 1832.
More from our Most Consequential Elections series:
George Washington and the Election of 1788
Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1904
Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912
Franklin Roosevelt and the Election of 1932
Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964
Ronald Reagan and the Election of 1980