Modern history


The Improvers

On the Fourth of July 1826, Americans celebrated their nation’s Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. They observed the occasion with a holiday, speeches, toasts, and cannon salutes. Most remarkably, however, the day was hallowed by an unforeseeable combination of events. At fifty minutes past noon Thomas Jefferson, eighty-two-year-old author of the Declaration and third president, died at Monticello, his home in Albemarle County, Virginia. His last words had been, “Is it the Fourth?” Five hours later ninety-year-old John Adams, congressional advocate of the Declaration and second president, likewise died at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Friends in youth, the two men had become political adversaries, only to resume their friendship in old age and engage in a philosophical correspondence. Adams’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” though in fact he was mistaken. Couriers traveling by steamboats and relays of galloping horses carried the news of the deaths north from Virginia and south from Massachusetts. Compounding the coincidence, the riders bearing these tidings met in Philadelphia, where it had all started at Independence Hall fifty years before. In Washington, John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, learned of Jefferson’s death on the sixth; he learned of his father’s on the ninth in Baltimore, having started north to visit the old man. The president pronounced the juxtaposition of events a “visible and palpable mark of Divine favor” to the nation, and most of his countrymen agreed.1

With the deaths of Jefferson and Adams, only one signer of the Declaration of Independence, eighty-nine-year-old Charles Carroll of Maryland, remained alive. As the Founders of the republic passed from the scene, Americans were left to carry on their legacy with the help of their example. John Quincy Adams could not have felt more keenly the responsibility to preserve that “precious inheritance.” The United States demonstrated to the world the merits of “representative democracy” (the

1. Lyman Butterfield, “The Fourth of July, 1826,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 61 (1953), 117–40; Merrill Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York, 1960), 3–4; James Morton Smith, The Republic of Letters (New York, 1995), III, 1973–74.

term was still novel, and Adams the first president to use it). The president believed that knitting the Union together, strengthening it economically and culturally, fulfilled the promise of the Revolution. The whole point of liberation from foreign domination, Adams asserted, was so that Americans could pursue the goal of human improvement, for their own benefit and that of mankind.2

The deceased patriarchs had been obvious examples of the talent and virtue that the Founders believed should characterize leadership in a republic. But they were also examples of personal improvement. Through hard work and study they had developed their potential and then turned it to the betterment of their countrymen. “Improvement,” in its early nineteenth-century sense, constituted both an individual and a collective responsibility, involving both the cultivation of personal faculties and the development of national resources. Representative government and the Erie Canal improved society. The printing press and public education improved both society and individuals. To improve something was to turn it to good account, to make use of its potential. Thus, one could “improve” an occasion, that is, take advantage of it. A system of “internal improvements” would take advantage of the nation’s opportunities and develop its resources, just as a woman might “improve herself by reading.” Whether individual or collective, the word “improvement” had a moral as well as a physical meaning; it constituted an obligation, an imperative. Many an American, rural as well as urban, poor as well as middle-class, embraced the ethos of material and intellectual improvement. The young Abraham Lincoln with his book by the firelight shared this outlook, both as applied to himself and as applied to navigable waterways in Illinois. Improvement, personal and social, had not only a secular but also a religious appeal, as evangelical reformers like Beecher and Finney showed. To this culturally powerful conception John Quincy Adams dedicated his presidency.3


John Quincy (pronounced “Quinzy”) Adams represented another man of talent and virtue, a worthy son of his father. His intellectual ability and

2. John Quincy Adams, “Inaugural Address,” Presidential Messages, II, 294, 296; Daniel Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 44–50.

3. OED, VII, 118; Daniel Howe, Making the American Self (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 123; Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999), 43–49. See also Nicholas Marshall, “The Power of Culture and Tangible Improvements,” American Nineteenth-Century History 8 (207: 1–26.

courage were above reproach, and his wisdom in perceiving the national interest has stood the test of time. In an age when presidents were typically well prepared by prior public service, he came to the office the best prepared of all. He had been professor at Harvard, senator from Massachusetts, and “minister plenipotentiary” to the Netherlands, Prussia, Britain, and Russia (the United States did not use the title “ambassador” until the 1890s). More recently, Adams had served his country as peace negotiator at Ghent and as one of the greatest secretaries of state. Despite all this, Adams was not fated to enjoy a successful presidency. The limitations on his effectiveness lay partly beyond his control, but some of the responsibility rested with contradictions in Adams’s own conception of his presidential role.

Contemporaries considered John Quincy Adams the quintessential New England Yankee: serious, hardworking, devout, with integrity of granite. Yet his time in Europe had given him a cosmopolitan perspective (and thanks to childhood years in Paris, fluency in French). Though his ancestors had been Puritans, Adams belonged to the liberal wing of the Congregational Church, much influenced by Enlightenment concepts of human rights and freedom. In both public and private life, Adams devoted himself to “improvement,” which for him meant the painstaking regulation of all activities. Every day he made time for diary-writing and exercise; during his presidential term this included swimming naked in the Potomac at dawn. (He almost drowned there on June 13, 1825, in a rowboat that suddenly filled with water; the president didn’t have time to take off his clothes, which weighed him down.)4 A lifelong student of Cicero and the moral philosophers of eighteenth-century Scotland, Adams envisioned the American republic as the culmination of the history of human progress and the realization of the potential of human nature. Drawing an analogy between technological and political improvement, he once called the United States government “the steamboat of moral and political being.”5Adams was the most learned president between Jefferson and Wilson but, like many intellectuals, felt ill at ease in society. He could not learn to welcome public appearances. Portly and balding by the time of his inauguration at the age of fifty-seven, he had lost his youthful good looks; charisma he had never possessed. Brooding, critical of those around him, Adams was most unsparing of all toward himself. First

4. Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956) is still unsurpassed; for this episode, see 121.

5. John Quincy Adams, “Report on Manufactures,” U.S. Congress, Register of Debates, 22nd Cong., 1st sess. (1833), VIII, pt. III, 83.

Lady Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams of Maryland, charming and musical, had been a major asset to her husband’s election campaign. In the White House, however, her health and spirits declined.6

Adams came into office acutely conscious of his vulnerability as a minority president. “Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors,” he pleaded in his inaugural address for the “indulgence” of the public.7 The contrast between the all-but-unanimous election of Monroe in 1820 and the protracted, divisive election of 1824–25 could not have been greater. Accordingly, the new president took every possible step to underscore the continuity between Monroe’s administration and his own. He stayed in close contact with the outgoing president during the transition, praised Monroe’s achievements, and promised to pursue his initiatives. Indeed, Adams probably had been Monroe’s favored candidate, though it is characteristic of the Virginian’s politic discretion that he never made any such public acknowledgment.

Upon assuming the presidency, Adams refused to admit that the Era of Good Feelings could not be perpetuated. His inaugural address rejoiced that the “baneful weed of party strife was uprooted.” He avowed as his goal a truly nonpartisan approach to government and sought to create an administration based on “talents and virtue,” not party politics or sectionalism—which he declared even “more dangerous” than party. The role of an executive above party was dictated by political theory (Adams had long admired Bolingbroke’s treatise The Idea of a Patriot King), by Monroe’s example, and by the constraints of his situation as a minority president with little natural support outside his own section.8 Accordingly, Adams left most of Monroe’s officeholders in place, although some of them had backed his rivals in the recent election. He even offered to allow William H. Crawford to remain at the Treasury, though he must have been relieved when Crawford declined. Forgiving DeWitt Clinton his support for Jackson, Adams offered Clinton the premier diplomatic post at London. But Magnus Apollo was unwilling to forgo his governorship and the coming Erie Canal ceremonies, which he understandably relished. Adams then turned to the Federalist elder statesman, Rufus King, who had been minister to Britain many years before. Old

6. Lyman Butterfield, “Tending a Dragon Killer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 118 (1974): 165–78; Jack Shepherd, Cannibals of the Heart (New York, 1980), 259–69.

7. Presidential Messages, II, 299.

8. Ibid., 296, 297. See Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party (Chapel Hill, 1984), 130–36.

Republicans howled in protest against the nomination of a Federalist, and Adams actually made few other Federalist appointments.9 He filled the vacancy at the Treasury with Richard Rush of Pennsylvania and gave the War Department, Calhoun’s former office, to James Barbour of Virginia. Monroe’s attorney general, postmaster general, and secretary of the navy all stayed put. In the end, Adams hoped he had laid the basis for government by consensus, or what his British contemporaries called a government of “all the talents.”

Of course, Henry Clay’s nomination as secretary of state represented the most momentous appointment. Apart from the role Clay had played in Adams’s election, it was a logical choice, both to give the West a seat in the cabinet and to recognize Clay’s concern with Latin American policy. Adams consulted with Monroe before making the offer, and the outgoing president did not advise against it. In later years Clay came to regret accepting the office, as seeming to confirm the accusation that he had traded his support in the presidential race for it. At the time, however, Clay felt that to decline would be to concede the justice of the accusation even more clearly. Clay had been disappointed when Monroe had not appointed him secretary of state, and now it seemed that Adams had recognized his deserts. Even if Clay had not joined the administration, his enemies would very likely still have gone into opposition.10 However logical the Adams-Clay alliance in terms of their agreement on future policies, in 1825 it startled observers that the leading policymaker in the Monroe administration should join up with that administration’s most outspoken congressional critic. Jackson rallied the disappointed of several factions to his cause with the cry that a “corrupt bargain” had been consummated.

The accusation of a “corrupt bargain” proved one of the most effective political weapons ever forged; it harassed the Adams administration and would haunt Henry Clay for the rest of his life. Today its effectiveness seems puzzling. In a multifactional election, a coalition government is inevitable, and an Adams-Clay coalition was as logical as any other (except Adams-Jackson, now no longer an option). But the political culture of the time did not acknowledge that the Jeffersonian Republican party had indeed fragmented into a multifactional system, nor even that candidates sought the presidency. Adams’s appointment of Clay seemed to confirm the charge of “Wyoming” that all the candidates but Jackson were intriguers. Furthermore, the word “corruption” had a special resonance.

9. Shaw Livermore, The Twilight of Federalism (Princeton, 1962), 187–94.

10. Mary Hargreaves, The Presidency of John Quincy Adams (Lawrence, Kans., 1985), 43–47.

In the eighteenth century, British monarchs bestowed offices in return for support in Parliament, and colonial governors often tried the same tactic with their legislatures. Critics had called the practice “corrupting” the legislature.11 The parallel, while not exact, was close enough to imply that Adams and Clay were not only dishonest but un-American.

In the Senate, the vitriolic Old Republican John Randolph led the opposition to the administration. Of all possible critics, this flamboyant Virginia aristocrat was surely the most to be feared. Randolph hated Clay’s nationalism, envied his successful career, and for years had contrived ways to torment him. In the first session of Congress he delivered a characteristically inflammatory speech full of ingenious insults, calling the Adams-Clay administration “the coalition of Blifil and Black George— the combination, unheard of till then, of the puritan with the blackleg.” His listeners gasped, then roared with laughter. Everyone recognized the allusion to the popular culture of the time. In Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, Blifil was a sanctimonious hypocrite, Black George an irresponsible scamp. A “blackleg” meant a cardsharp.12 Poor Clay had been trying to live down his early reputation as a gambler and high liver and cultivate an image of statesmanlike moderation. Coming on top of the “corrupt bargain” charges, Randolph’s insult seemed one too many, and Clay challenged the Virginian to a duel. Dueling was a feature of the southern code of manly honor, but two years earlier Clay had foresworn the practice, in support of Lyman Beecher’s movement to abolish it. His good resolution was forgotten in the heat of the moment.13

On April 8, 1826, the two men, accompanied by their seconds and doctors, met and exchanged shots at a distance of ten paces. In spite of coming from Kentucky, Clay was a fumbling incompetent with firearms and missed both times, though his second bullet put a hole in Randolph’s coat. Randolph was a better marksman and came with a pistol set on hair-trigger. Still, he too missed the first time (apparently aiming at Clay’s leg) and then fired into the air. Honor satisfied, the two shook hands and went home. Clay had embarrassed the Adams administration, which depended on evangelical reformers opposed to dueling as part of its core constituency. To his own core constituency of plantation masters, Randolph had shown himself a chivalrous gentleman. He had counted on Clay’s

11. See Bernard Bailyn, Origins of American Politics (New York, 1968), chap. 2.

12. There is a good account of the speech in Merrill Peterson, The Great Triumvirate (New York, 1987), 140–41.

13. On the frequency of dueling in this period, see Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), 41–45.

poor marksmanship and had never intended to kill him. The theatricality of it all, speech and duel alike, appealed to Randolph.14

In the House of Representatives the administration initially enjoyed the support of a modest majority and secured the Speakership for John Taylor of New York, who had been a strong supporter of the Tallmadge amendment. The Senate presented more difficulty, but the presiding officer there was Vice President Calhoun, who assumed the right to appoint committee members.15 Calhoun and Adams had long been close associates in Monroe’s cabinet and had worked together in support of a nationalist agenda. In 1821, Adams had confided to his diary that Calhoun seemed “above all sectional and factious prejudices more than any other statesman of this Union with whom I have ever acted.”16 Now, however, far from aiding the administration, Vice President Calhoun used his influence in the Senate to distance himself more and more from President Adams. What had gone wrong with their partnership?

When Adams first indicated an intention to appoint Clay secretary of state, Calhoun tried desperately to dissuade him.17 Calhoun thought he should be Adams’s successor and felt betrayed. Adams did not feel he had made such a commitment to Calhoun—and anyway, Calhoun had not delivered South Carolina to Adams in the election, so Adams didn’t owe him as he did Clay. But if Adams served two terms and Clay then succeeded him, Calhoun could see his own presidential hopes receding into a remote, imponderable future.

The estrangement of the two former colleagues derived from more than personal ambition. The political climate in South Carolina had changed significantly since Denmark Vesey’s aborted uprising of 1822. Moderation and nationalism were becoming unpopular in the white community. James Hamilton, who as mayor of Charleston had rooted out the plotters, gained election as a Radical state-rights congressman; Justice William Johnson, who had questioned the propriety of the measures

14. See Andrew Burstein, America’s Jubilee (New York, 2001), 181–204; Kenneth S. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery (Princeton, 1996), 53–65; Robert Dawidoff, The Education of John Randolph (New York, 1979), 255–59.

15. No other vice president has exercised this power. In 1823, the Senate had delegated the right to its “presiding officer,” who at the time was its president pro tempore in the absence of Vice President Tompkins. Calhoun, when he took up his duties as vice president, appointed the Senate committees. Restive at having a nonsenator possess this power, the Senate later in the session resumed control over its own committees.

16. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Philadelphia, 1874–79), V, 361.

17. Ibid., VI, 506–7.

taken in the wake of the conspiracy, came to feel so uncomfortable he moved to Philadelphia. As secretary of state, Adams had angered South Carolina by urging repeal of preventive detention for visiting black sailors. While he was president-elect, the state legislature emphatically rebuffed his proposal.18 Even if Calhoun had wanted to cooperate with Adams, it would have been politically awkward for him to do so. A sudden fall in cotton prices from thirty-two cents a pound to thirteen cents during 1825 compounded South Carolinians’ growing sense of insecurity. Rather than blame overproduction on the rich soils of the Gulf states, Carolinians complained about the unfairness of the tariff (raised in 1824 against their wishes), which condemned cotton producers to buy in a protected market and sell in an unprotected one. Calhoun decided he could no longer support a nationalist agenda of internal improvements and a protective tariff in the face of such dissatisfaction in his home state. After the Missouri Compromise, Calhoun and his lieutenant, George McDuffie, had beaten back a challenge from South Carolina Old Republican Radicals who had refused to accept the restriction of slavery. But by 1825, Radicals were starting to call the shots in South Carolina politics. That year the legislature passed a resolution condemning internal improvements and a protective tariff as unconstitutional. Calhoun spent seven months in his home state then, his first extended stay there in eight years, and he came to realize that he would jeopardize his political base if he continued to defy the state-righters. The new vice president accordingly commenced what has been called a “breathtaking reinvention” of his political self, from nationalist to particularist.19

As the running mate of both Jackson and Adams in 1824, Calhoun had been officially neutral between the two. In office he made clear his independence from the Adams administration. By 1826, he was actually debating against an administration spokesman in the newspapers—both parties using pseudonyms, of course.20 In June of that year Calhoun offered Jackson his unequivocal support for president in the next election.

18. David Robertson, Denmark Vesey (New York, 1999), 108–16; Philip Hamer, “Great Britain, the United States, and the Negro Seamen Acts,” Journal of Southern History 1 (1935): 3–28.

19. Quotation from John Larson, Internal Improvement (Chapel Hill, 2001), 176. See also William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (New York, 1966), 89–122; Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 143–45.

20. Calhoun used the pen name “Onslow”; the defender of the administration was Philip Fendall, writing as “Patrick Henry.” Many contemporaries assumed “Patrick Henry” was the president himself. See Irving Bartlett, John C. Calhoun (New York, 1993), 132–35.

The two reached an understanding, brokered by Van Buren, that Calhoun would again be Jackson’s running mate. Calhoun could still hope to become Jackson’s heir, if not Adams’s. Encouragingly, Jackson had said presidents should serve but one term.21 At this point, it remained unclear in what policy directions either Jackson or Calhoun would move.

The Crawfordites too eventually rallied to the standard of the military hero who claimed to represent the voice of the people, unfairly shut out by a bargain among corrupt insiders. The Richmond Junto took longer than the Albany Regency to be persuaded to accept this rank outsider.22 Jackson himself resigned his Senate seat and went back to Nashville, where planning his next run at the White House became his full-time job. In October 1825—before Adams’s first Congress had even met—the Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson for president. With the caucus now discredited as a system of choosing nominees, and national party conventions not yet invented, this seemed a logical way of putting Old Hickory’s candidacy before the public, though it was three years early.

As the Republican Party drew apart into two contending divisions, the press groped for terms to describe them. Most often it simply referred to “Adams men” and “Jackson men.” Everyone felt reluctant to admit publicly the splintering of Jefferson’s great party. For a president who had aspired to govern by consensus, the reality of polarization, whether avowed or not, showed that things were not working out.


While the opposition to his administration gathered its forces, John Quincy Adams was formulating a program for American economic development. Adams laid out his vision both broadly and specifically on December 6, 1825, in his First Annual Message to Congress—what later generations would call a “State of the Union” message.23 Where the president had been conciliatory in his inaugural address, this time he was bold. His message represented the logical fulfillment of John C. Calhoun’s exhortation of 1816: “Let us conquer space.”24 Adams celebrated the benefits of improved transportation and communication and

21. John Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (Baton Rouge, 1988), 118.

22. Robert Forbes, “Slavery and the Meaning of America” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1994), 486–88.

23. Although the Constitution directs that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the state of the union,” in the antebellum years people referred simply to the President’s “annual message.”

24. Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 2nd sess., 854. Also see above, p. 87.

undertook to marshal the resources of the federal government to further them. The time had come to implement the projects planned by the General Survey enacted under Monroe, and the Army Corps of Engineers should be expanded to aid in the process. One of the president’s favorite Scottish philosophers, Adam Smith, had declared that where private enterprise needed help, government should supply economic infrastructure and public education; this would be especially important in the early stages of economic development.25 Adams agreed. With the national debt about to be retired, Adams looked forward to the time when “the swelling tide of wealth” generated by the sale of the public lands “may be made to reflow in unfailing streams of improvement from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” What made it particularly appropriate to spend the proceeds from public land sales on transportation projects was that these improvements would raise land values, benefiting the government and private landowners alike. Land sales under this policy would eventually generate enough money for the federal government to run all its programs, Adams hoped, without having to take anything from the people in taxes. In this climactic document of Republican nationalism, Adams proposed a federal version of DeWitt Clinton’s program for the state of New York, singling out the Erie Canal as an example of what could be done by an involved government.26

The president’s vision of expanded American commerce did not stop at the water’s edge. He endorsed negotiating free-trade agreements based on reciprocity and “most favored nation” clauses with as many countries as possible, meanwhile building up the navy to protect American ocean commerce. Other proposals to help American business included a standard national bankruptcy law and the adoption of the metric system, a fulfillment of the massive Report on Weights and Measures Adams had prepared while secretary of state. Both of these were explicitly authorized by the Constitution but had not yet been carried out. Adams’s forward-looking proposals included a Department of the Interior (it would be created in 1849) and a federal organization to coordinate the state militias (not really implemented until 1903). The president waxed most eloquent over his plans for exploration, science, and education, which included a national university in Washington, D.C., and at least one astronomical

25. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (Indianapolis, 1981), II, 723.

26. John Quincy Adams, “First Annual Message,” Presidential Messages, II, 299–317, quotation from 305; Daniel Feller, The Public Lands in Jacksonian Politics (Madison, Wisc., 1984), 56, 76.

observatory (of which, he pointed out, there were 130 in Europe and not one in all North America). The inclusion of these subjects demonstrates that his objectives were not only material but also intellectual, including personal as well as public improvement. Indeed, there is a striking analogy between Adams’s plan for national improvement and his own careful, rigorous program of individual self-improvement.27

After enumerating the Constitution’s grants of power to the federal government, the president concluded that “to refrain from exercising them for the benefit of the people” would be “treachery to the most sacred of trusts.” Adams interpreted the Constitution as defining duties as well as rights. He had a positive rather than a negative conception of liberty; freedom properly exercised was not simply a limitation on authority but an empowering of human initiative. “Liberty is power,” he declared. American citizens had a responsibility to use their freedom, to make the most of their God-given faculties. Their officials had a corresponding duty to facilitate improvement, both public and private. “The spirit of improvement is abroad upon the earth,” Adams pointed out in his peroration. Let not foreign nations with less liberty exceed us in “public improvement,” the president exhorted his countrymen. To do so would “cast away the bounties of Providence” and doom what should become the world’s most powerful nation “to perpetual inferiority.”28

When Adams laid the draft of this message before his cabinet, all save Richard Rush considered it too ambitious. But the president stuck to his guns. He felt that even if his program could not all be attained immediately, it would be worthwhile to have it before the public as a long-term goal, provoking discussion and influencing opinion. Adams’s explicit presentation contrasted sharply with the consummate ambiguity of his predecessor. Adams had no taste for Monroe’s hidden agendas, advanced through patient private consultation. Long before Theodore Roosevelt, John Quincy Adams determined to use the White House as a “bully pulpit.” How could the American people reject his compelling vision of national destiny and mission?29

In fact, upon delivery, Adams’s famous message provoked no hostile outcry from the public at large. Internal improvements were not unpopular,

27. See also Daniel Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 43–68.

28. “First Annual Message,” quotations from 316. Adams’s message is well analyzed by John Larson, “Liberty by Design,” in The State and Economic Knowledge, ed. Mary Furner and Barry Supple (Cambridge, Eng., 1990), 73–102.

29. See John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, VII, 58, 63.

and the president’s program deliberately included a lot for the South, including a second national road to link Washington with New Orleans. The formation of an opposition to the administration had more to do with the Adams-Clay alliance and consequent frustration of Jackson, Crawford, and Calhoun than it did with internal improvements. Criticism of Adams’s national program originated with the strict constructionists of the Richmond Junto, among whom old man Jefferson seemed particularly irreconcilable.30The opposition mocked Adams’s rhetoric not only where it was weak (his tactless admonition to Congress not to be “palsied by the will of our constituents”) but also where it was strong (his felicitous metaphor for astronomical observatories as “lighthouses of the skies”—which called attention to the applicability of astronomy to celestial navigation).

In Congress, of course, members did not want to surrender control over pork-barrel legislation to planners in the Executive Branch. The same reaction had stymied the plans of Albert Gallatin and John McLean. The result this time was not a blanket rejection of internal improvements but a multitude of individual projects with no overall plan. Back in 1817, James Madison had vetoed the Bonus Bill rather than allow congressional logrolling to define priorities in internal improvements. Adams proved more flexible. Even piecemeal federal aid to internal improvements was better than none at all, he decided, approving more internal improvements than all his predecessors put together. By 1826, the federal government had become the largest entrepreneur in the American economy. The bottleneck of presidential reluctance to sanction internal improvements without a constitutional amendment had finally been uncorked.31

Conspicuous among the internal improvements Congress approved during the Adams administration, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal fulfilled the dream of George Washington long before. Centerpiece of the system of national works laid out in the General Survey Act of 1824, the canal was built by a mixed public-private enterprise in which the states of Maryland and Virginia, several municipalities, and the federal government all cooperated. On the Fourth of July 1828, the president participated in the ceremonial groundbreaking. When he took spade in hand to dig the first earth, the tool struck a hard root and bounced ineffectually off. Rising to the occasion, Adams threw off his coat and renewed his

30. See Joseph Harrison, “Sic et Non: Thomas Jefferson and Internal Improvements,” JER 7 (1987): 335–50.

31. Larson, Internal Improvement, 67–68, 149–50, 165–66; William Appleman Williams, Contours of American History (Cleveland, 1961), 211.

assault with such vigor that soon he was able to hold up a shovelful of dirt. The friendly crowd of two thousand cheered the president’s resolution. It was one of the few times that Adams felt good about a public appearance.32 Eventually the Chesapeake and Ohio, like many other canals, was overtaken by the development of railroads. In 1850, the canal reached Cumberland, Maryland, where it connected with the National Road. Thereafter construction ceased, and in 1852 the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad made the link to the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), that the canal had originally been intended to create. But until it finally closed in 1924, the C&O Canal performed a useful function as a broad waterway from upcountry to tidewater.

Adams’s “spirit of improvement” addressed not only transportation but also communications. His innovative and successful postmaster general, John McLean, completed the postal network and reinvested the profits of the postal system in it. An expanded stagecoach industry received federal subsidies for carrying the mail, strengthening both communication and transportation. But McLean’s political ambitions complicated the picture. His alliance with John C. Calhoun had made good sense during the latter’s nationalist years. As Calhoun became estranged from the administration, however, McLean had to choose. Secretly, he remained loyal to the vice president, rather than to the president. When this came to light, Clay urged Adams to fire McLean, but Adams refused. Having been accused already of “corruption” in bestowing cabinet office as a reward for political support, Adams did not want to lay himself open to another such charge by a dramatic removal. Besides, there was a philosophical issue. The chief executive wanted the federal government to operate as a non-partisan meritocracy even at the highest levels. McLean exemplified the talent Adams hoped the government would recruit. To dismiss him for political reasons would concede the failure of government by consensus and the conception of office as a public trust.33

The president’s grand program for economic development was by no means the only serious challenge he faced. Additional problems arose for the Adams administration from Indian affairs. During the Monroe administration, Secretary of War Calhoun had been responsible for Indian policy. He had encouraged gradual resettlement of the southern tribes across the Mississippi, while simultaneously promoting the assimilation of some of their members into white society. This dual policy failed to

32. Memoirs, VIII, 49–50.

33. Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 64–111.

satisfy white settlers eager to seize the Natives’ lands; in particular, it led to a conflict between Calhoun and Governor George M. Troup of Georgia. Back in 1802, Georgia had relinquished her claim to what is now Alabama and Mississippi in return for a promise by the Jefferson administration that the federal government would seek voluntary removal of the Indian tribes remaining within her boundaries. The Georgians now felt they had waited long enough for the federal government to make good on what they saw as a binding commitment. They were eager to take possession of the lands retained by the Creek and Cherokee nations. Crawford had exploited these feelings in his presidential campaign. The Georgians also complained that Calhoun seemed too ready to treat the Native Americans as racial equals.34

In the closing days of the Monroe administration, leaders of the Creek tribe signed a treaty at Indian Springs agreeing to sell their Georgia lands and move west of the Mississippi. Seeing in the treaty a convenient end to a troublesome issue, the lame duck Senate swiftly consented to ratification. Within two months, however, serious problems came to light. Chief William McIntosh, head of the Creek delegation and Andrew Jackson’s old ally against the Seminoles, had apparently been bribed. The federal commissioners who negotiated the treaty had colluded with Georgia officials. The Creeks refused to ratify the treaty, and outraged fellow tribesmen assassinated McIntosh as a traitor. Adams concluded that the Treaty of Indian Springs was a nullity and that the Creeks remained the rightful possessors of their lands. Yet the state of Georgia, led by Governor Troup, insisted on implementing the treaty and surveying the Creek lands. Adams’s secretary of war, James Barbour, maintained federal authority against the claims of state rights with a firmness all the more commendable in a Virginian. Andrew Jackson, however, egged on the Georgians. The stage seemed set for a serious federal-state confrontation. At the last minute the Creek tribe got the administration off the hook by agreeing to sell the lands in another treaty, one more favorable to them. Whites throughout the South drew the conclusion that Jackson, but not Adams, could be counted on to secure the complete expropriation of the Five Civilized Tribes. Adams’s annulment of the Treaty of Indian Springs would remain unique in the history of the government’s Indian relations.35

34. Niven, Calhoun, 111; Bartlett, Calhoun, 95–98; Lynn Parsons, “John Quincy Adams and the American Indian,” New England Quarterly 46 (Sept. 1973): 352.

35. Benjamin Griffith, McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1988), 234–52; Lynn Parsons, John Quincy Adams (Madison, Wisc., 1998), 182; Michael Green, The Politics of Indian Removal (Lincoln, Neb., 1982), 125.

Foreign policy proved most troublesome of all for Adams’s presidency— an irony indeed for this great diplomatist. Adams integrated his foreign policy with his domestic policy and designed both to promote commercial expansion. In his First Message to Congress, he recommended appointment of delegates to attend the first pan-American conference, scheduled to meet in Panama City. The conference had been conceived by the great Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar. Secretary of State Clay felt the United States should play an active role in inter-hemispheric affairs. He wanted to take advantage of the breakup of the Spanish New World Empire to promote U.S. trade with Latin America. Otherwise, he feared, the newly independent republics would gravitate into the British commercial orbit. The location of the conference in Panama had particular relevance to the potential of Central America for a canal linking Atlantic and Pacific, a possibility that already interested the Adams administration.

Martin Van Buren, senator from New York, hit upon the idea of criticizing participation in the Panama conference as an issue that could rally opposition to the administration. Van Buren was smarting from the resounding defeat his Bucktails had sustained at the hands of the New York People’s Party in 1824 and looking for a way to make a comeback. Vice President Calhoun seized the opportunity to join with him. Calhoun hoped to discredit Clay’s foreign policy leadership and force the president to remove him as secretary of state. Van Buren looked farther ahead, to the next presidential election; he had already decided to throw in his lot with Jackson. To lead the charge against the administration in the Senate, they enlisted two redoubtable orators: Robert Y. Haynes of South Carolina and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. The Panama conference might compromise the country’s avoidance of entangling alliances, the senators argued. To win over the South, they played the race card. Participation in the conference would require associating with mixed-race regimes that had in most cases already abolished slavery. Discussion of the slave trade appeared on the agenda; who knew where this could lead? What if delegates from the black nation of Haiti showed up? Eventually Congress approved participation in the conference, 27 to 17 in the Senate and 134 to 60 in the House. But prolonged debate had delayed the delegates past their optimum departure time. One delegate refused to set out during the malaria season; the other, more foolhardy, died on the way. Having postponed its meetings in the hope of securing U.S. participation, the Panama conference finally came to little. Clay’s hopes for expanding trade with Latin America were not fulfilled.36

36. Bartlett, Calhoun, 130; Bemis, Adams, 76–77; Forbes, “Slavery and the Meaning of America,” 470–79.

A mere six months after Spain and the United States exchanged ratifications of the Transcontinental Boundary Treaty, Mexico achieved her hard-won independence from Spain in the Treaty of Córdova, signed August 23, 1821. It occurred to Adams that the new regime in Mexico City might be willing to renegotiate the boundary, so he instructed Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. minister (in effect, ambassador) to Mexico, to learn what concessions might be forthcoming. Poinsett, a diplomat with broad Latin American experience and fluency in Spanish, got nowhere with this. He tried to strengthen the hand of Mexican liberals in domestic politics and counteract the influence of the British, but his efforts backfired, and a conservative Mexican government eventually requested his recall. Poinsett returned to his native South Carolina to lead the Unionist Party there and cultivate his botanical interests, developing the poinsettia from a flower he had found in Mexico. His Notes on Mexico, Made in the Autumn of 1822, remain a classic account by an outside observer.

Another problem for U.S. policymakers was presented by Cuba, still a Spanish colony after almost all the rest of Spain’s once great American empire had achieved independence. Latin Americans discussed the possibility of Mexico and Colombia mounting an expeditionary force to encourage a Cuban revolution and liberate the island. The prospect of an independent Cuba provoked great anxiety in the United States, which coveted the island but could only hope to purchase it so long as Spanish rule continued. Moreover, an independent Cuba would probably abolish slavery and set another bad example. Perhaps the worst eventuality, from the U.S. point of view, would be for Spain to transfer Cuba to France or Britain, for in the hands of a major power the island would pose a strategic threat. Accordingly, the United States employed its diplomatic leverage to dissuade all other countries, both Latin American and European, from intervention in Cuba.37

The final big diplomatic issue of the Adams years also involved the Caribbean: the American attempt to recover the trade with the British West Indies, which had been so profitable before the Revolution. When the United States achieved independence, it was at the cost of losing imperial preferences in trading with the British Empire. To recover the West Indian export trade would help American farmers and fishermen; to have it carried in American vessels would help Yankee shipowners. In 1823, the United States began to threaten retaliations in an effort to pry open the BWI. From 1826 on, mutual retaliations diminished the remaining trade

37. See Piero Gleijeses, “The Limits of Sympathy,” Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (1992): 481–505.

to the vanishing point. Adams was paying a price for not having cooperated with Canning’s overtures at the time of the Monroe Doctrine; the British did not trust him. The deadlock in negotiations hurt the administration politically and (to a lesser extent) the United States economically. It overshadowed the administration’s successes in nine trade agreements with other foreign powers. The British West Indian trade stalemate was not resolved until after Adams had left office.38

As the midterm congressional elections of 1826 and 1827 approached, Adams and his secretary of state disagreed over tactics. With each state setting its own election date, the voting was staggered across the months, like presidential primaries today. Clay thought it time to abandon nonpartisanship and purge the government of officials who were not backing the administration, but Adams did not feel ready to give up on government by consensus. The president had been trying to use patronage to win over critics rather than to reward friends, but his policy had not proved effective. The politics Adams understood was the old-fashioned kind, based on courting regional leaders who could deliver their followings. Van Buren and the men around Jackson’s Nashville headquarters were forging a new politics that worked from the grass roots up, based on patronage, organization, and partisan loyalty. When the elections came, they revealed the administration’s organizational weakness. All too often its supporters could not agree on a single congressional candidate and consequently split their vote, especially in places where there were Federalists as well as Adams Republicans. The opposition gained control of both houses of Congress, producing the country’s first experience with divided government. One of the few consolations for the administration was the Virginia legislature’s decision to replace John Randolph in the U.S. Senate. His successor, John Tyler, seemed willing to work with the administration.

Adams’s difficulties did not simply result from his crotchety temperament, nor from any refusal on his part to engage in political calculation. They stemmed most obviously from the determination, ruthlessness, and skill of his opponents, especially Martin Van Buren. Adams’s program of government activism had a fighting chance for adoption on the strength of its merits and was not inevitably doomed. But his administration suffered from an incompatibility between the president’s means and ends. Adams wanted to govern by consensus, as Monroe had done, but at the same time he wanted to press an agenda of major policy innovations. The

38. Hargreaves, Presidency of Adams, 91–112; George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York, 1952), 367–81.

president’s goals, openly avowed, proved too controversial to permit implementation by consensus. The Monroe model of governance did not fit with Adams’s bold program in domestic and foreign affairs.39


In February 1816, a Massachusetts merchant sea captain named Paul Cuffe sailed his brig Traveller across a stormy Atlantic to the west coast of Africa with a cargo of tobacco, flour, and tools to trade for camwood. Cuffe was unusual among New England shipowners in being the son of a West African father and a mother from the Wampanoag Indian tribe; he staffed his ships with all black crews. Cuffe had made similar voyages before, but this time he also carried thirty-eight African American passengers intending to make new homes in Sierra Leone, Senegal, and the Congo. Cuffe sought to implement a dream that had been nursed by a few black Americans for more than a generation: emigration away from racist oppression to the ancestral homeland. He hoped this would be the first of many such trips and had worked to create an institutional network to promote emigration as a means to a better life for black people. A practicing Quaker, Cuffe also intended his enterprise to promote Christianity in Africa, help stifle the slave trade, and, God willing, turn a profit.40

After Cuffe’s return to New England, white sympathizers contacted him. Cuffe welcomed their involvement, for he wanted congressional support for his cause. He attracted two groups of whites, one centered in Virginia and the other in New Jersey. The Virginians were led by Congressman Charles Fenton Mercer, the Princetonians by the Rev. Robert Finley. Mercer enlisted an impressive range of supporters, including not only Federalists like himself but staunch Republicans like John Randolph and John Taylor of Caroline. As Mercer proposed it, voluntary migration to West Africa would help Virginia deal with what whites saw as the problem of a growing free black population. Proslavery whites regarded free Negroes as a bad example to the slaves, and even antislavery whites feared them as potential incendiaries.

The most common objection offered to emancipation in the South was that it would create a subordinate population who could neither be admitted to political participation nor any longer be effectively controlled. White southern critics of slavery professed themselves baffled by

39. See Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 110–28.

40. Floyd Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality (Urbana, Ill., 1975), 21–44; Lamin Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad(Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 88–98.

this conundrum. In Jefferson’s eloquent metaphor, “we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”41 Presented as a solution to Jefferson’s dilemma, the African colonization movement initially attracted widespread support in Virginia. The commonwealth had passed a law requiring newly manumitted freedpeople to leave within a year. But other states were reluctant to accept them; Missouri had set the example by banning the settlement of free Negroes. Perhaps a foreign destination would work. Mercer’s own long-range goal was that Virginia should industrialize and shift away from reliance on enslaved labor. But he carefully phrased his endorsement of colonization in such a way as to make it appealing as well to proslavery whites who simply wanted to get rid of those blacks already free. Back in 1807-8, humanitarians had realized their hope to abolish the importation of slaves from overseas by cooperating with slaveholders who wanted to protect the value of their property against cheap foreign imports. Mercer had been active in the anti-slave-trade movement; now, he hoped to forge an analogous alliance behind his new cause. His strategy paid off when the Virginia state legislature overwhelmingly endorsed colonization in December 1816.42

Robert Finley seems to have learned of colonization from Mercer and Cuffe but gave it his own spin. His version of colonization was more clearly antislavery than Mercer’s. Finley saw it as a way of solving both the slavery problem and the race problem, encouraging manumissions by individual masters and, in the long run, gradual emancipation by states. No longer would southern whites have to fear that emancipation would create a class of embittered freedpeople ripe for rebellion. This vision did capture the imagination of certain self-consciously enlightened moderates in the Upper (and occasionally even in the Lower) South. Some slaveholders were willing to promise emancipation to certain slaves at a future date on condition they then left for Africa. Such action, while partly altruistic, also helped ensure the good behavior of the slave and deterred escape. Slaves might even negotiate under these circumstances, agreeing to emigrate only if family members could accompany them.43

Finley’s followers operated colonization as a voluntary fund-raising charity, while Mercer’s treated the cause as a political lobby. The two groups cooperated within a nationwide American Colonization Society,

41. Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, TJ: Writings, 1434.

42. Douglas Egerton, “A New Look at the American Colonization Society,” JER 5 (1985): 463–80.

43. Many such cases of masters, mistresses, and slaves are described in Eric Burin, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution (Gainesville, Fla., 2005).

headed at first by Associate Justice Bushrod Washington and later by ex-president Madison. (Ex-president Jefferson, though on record as supportive of colonization, remained aloof from the movement.)44 In the next few years, the legislatures of Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and six northern states followed Virginia’s example in endorsing colonization; so did the national governing bodies of the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal denominations. The Maryland legislature was the most forthcoming with funds. In an age of great migrations, when many people responded to a wide range of problems by leaving home, plans to address the problems of race and slavery through migration commanded serious support down to the time of the Civil War and even afterwards.45

In 1819, Mercer succeeded in getting an appropriation from the Monroe administration to subsidize the ACS; more help would come later. The American Colonization Society operated, like the national bank and so many other institutions in this period, as a mixed public-private enterprise. The society decided to follow the example of the British philanthropist Granville Sharp. He had founded Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa in 1787 as a haven for blacks migrating from England and the empire, some of whom had originally been liberated by the British army during the American Revolution.46 In 1821–22, the U.S. Navy helped the ACS purchase from indigenous Africans land adjacent to Sierra Leone in order to found Liberia, with its capital of Monrovia named in the president’s honor. After Andrew Jackson became president, the federal government sharply reduced the financial support it had been providing.47 Still, by 1843, African Americans to the number of 4,291, most of them former slaves, had migrated to Liberia; over ten thousand more would come before the Civil War. Disease exacted a heavy toll and deterred others from coming. At first it was supposed Liberia might be a U.S. colony, but in 1847 the nation declared its independence. The settlers saw themselves as freedom-loving black Americans, enabled by migration to realize their dream of opportunity, seldom as Africans returning from exile. For over a century these settlers and their descendents would

44. See Thomas Jefferson to Jared Sparks, Feb. 4, 1824, TJ: Writings, 1484–87.

45. See Katherine Harris, African and American Values: Liberia and West Africa (London, 1985); William Freehling, The Reintegration of American History (New York, 1994), 138–57.

46. See Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (London, 2005).

47. Some of this support had actually lacked congressional authority; see Douglas Egerton, “Averting a Crisis,” Civil War History 43 (1997), 142–56.

rule the indigenous African inhabitants through the Liberian True Whig Party.48

The minority of Colonization Society migrants who took an interest in African cultural roots were generally first- or second-generation African expatriates. Among these was Abdul Rahahman, born into a wealthy noble family in Timbo (now part of Guinea), captured in war as a young man, enslaved, and shipped across the ocean to New Orleans. Eventually Rahahman was recognized in a Natchez market by a white mariner who had known his family in Africa and had been aided by them. With the help of this man and the ACS Rahahman’s cause attracted publicity and contributions. He finally secured his own liberation and that of eight family members. Rahahman returned to Africa in 1829 after an absence of forty-one years. When he died (sadly, soon afterwards) he donated his writings to the library of the Timbo school where he had been educated as a child.49

In the meantime, Paul Cuffe had died prematurely in 1817, and other black leaders sympathetic to his cause, such as AME Bishop Richard Allen, began to have second thoughts. Could not locations for black self-development be found less distant than Africa—such as Haiti or the American West? And if the talent and resources of the black community were drained off into emigration, would not the plight of the remaining African Americans worsen? While reaching out to whites, the colonization movement began to lose some of its early appeal among the free Negro elite. Colonization gathered support from an unstable coalition, and it was difficult to strike the right balance among the different aims of its supporters. The great majority of free African Americans firmly decided that their future lay in the United States. Still, historians have estimated that about 20 percent of free blacks remained favorably disposed to emigration during the years from 1817 to the Civil War. During the 1850s, the black nationalist Martin R. Delaney would advocate a “Back to Africa” program of his own.50

48. James Wesley Smith, Sojourners in Search of Freedom (Lanham, Md., 1987); Amos Beyan, The American Colonization Society and the Creation of the Liberian State (Lanham, Md., 1991); Antonio McDaniel, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Mortality Cost of Colonizing Liberia (Chicago, 1995), 60.

49. James Horton and Lois Horton, In Hope of Liberty (New York, 1997), 189–91. Terry Al-ford, Prince Among Slaves (New York, 1977), treats the name Abdul Rahahman used by contemporaries as a form of Ibrahima (Abraham).

50. See Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 233–45; Donald Wright, African Americans in the Early Republic (Arlington Heights, Ill., 1993), 171–78; Mary Frances Berry and John Blassingame, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (New York, 1982), 400.

One of the most committed leaders in the American Colonization Society was Secretary of State Henry Clay. Although Clay operated his plantation of Ashland in Kentucky with the labor of fifty slaves, he consistently advocated gradual emancipation for his home state from 1799 until his death half a century later. Self-consciously moderate, Clay saw colonization as a responsible middle ground between abolitionism and the defense of slavery as a positive good. His enthusiasm for it was typical of his faith in active government and his optimism that solutions could always be found that offered something to everybody. Colonizationists like Clay took the existence of white racism as a given and tried to work around it to achieve emancipation. It would not be necessary to transport all black Americans to Africa; Clay advocated colonization as a way of reducing the black population in America to the point where the whites would not feel threatened by the prospect of emancipation. Although the number of people transported to Liberia was very small, Clay insisted that colonization constituted a realistic program. He estimated in 1825 the annual increase in the slave population of the United States at fifty-two thousand. If each year fifty-two thousand healthy young slaves could be freed and persuaded to go to Liberia, this would keep the slave population static or slowly declining, at a time when the white population was doubling every generation. Eventually, Clay argued, the black percentage of the American population would fall to the point where southern whites would feel comfortable with the abolition of slavery. There was nothing fantastic about Clay’s numbers: The illegal international slave trade of the 1820s was still transporting more than fifty-nine thousand people a year across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, mostly to Brazil and Cuba, in spite of efforts by the Royal Navy to interdict it.51 President Adams never shared Clay’s enthusiasm for African colonization, but he allowed his secretary of state to promote it and continued the modest level of financial support commenced by the Monroe administration.

When Rufus King was about to leave the Senate to accept Adams’s appointment as minister to Britain in 1825, he laid out a program of African colonization to be funded by the government’s western land sales. It was similar to ideas advanced earlier by Jefferson and Madison. Nevertheless King’s proposal angered many southern politicians, for they had come to feel that the slavery question must be left to the southern white public

51. “Speech Before American Colonization Society” (Jan. 20, 1825), Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Mary Hargreaves and James Hopkins (Lexington, Ky., 1981), VI, 83–97; David Brion Davis, “Reconsidering the Colonization Movement,” Intellectual History Newsletter 14 (1992): 13, n. 1.

alone. Radicals like George Troup of Georgia and William Smith of South Carolina used the issue to strengthen their local power base and inflame resentment against the Adams administration.52 Meanwhile, the Ohio state legislature had recently (in January 1824) passed an even more far-reaching resolution, proposing colonization linked with gradual emancipation, the whole package to be accomplished at federal expense. Within a year this proposal was seconded by the legislatures of seven other free states plus Delaware, the southern state with the fewest slaves. In reaction, six other southern state legislatures passed resolutions deploring outside interference with slavery.

Despite the hopes of King and others to use land sales for emancipation and colonization, the Great Migration to the West both undercut colonization plans and facilitated the expansion of slavery. The early white support for colonization in Virginia and the rest of the Upper South largely rested on a desire to shrink the black percentage of the population. But the export of people through the interstate slave trade could serve much the same purpose—the “diffusion” (as it was called) of the blacks so they would pose less of a danger in the case of rebellion. As it became clear that the New Southwest beyond the Appalachians would absorb them, masters found it more attractive to sell surplus workers out of state than to pay for their manumission and transport to Africa. African colonization was then revealed more clearly as a means of facilitating emancipation, and therefore became more alarming to states of the Deep South whose economy clearly rested on the exploitation of enslaved labor. These states had never embraced colonization; now, their politicians denounced it harshly. They feared involving the federal government in any solution to the problem of slavery, even on a voluntary basis, lest it move in more threatening directions later.53

African colonization constituted one of the most grandiose schemes for social engineering ever entertained in the United States. Improvers of this era did not think small. The colonization program provided a means for questioning the merits of slavery that remained discussible in many slave states until the 1850s. At least in the Upper South, the American Colonization Society could function along with temperance organizations, Sunday schools, and Bible societies, as part of the network of Christian reform movements.54 Despite considerable support, the colonization

52. See Richard H. Brown, “The Missouri Crisis, Slavery, and the Politics of Jacksonianism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 65 (1966), 66–67.

53. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 157–61; Egerton, “Averting a Crisis.”

54. See, for example, Elizabeth Varon, “Evangelical Womanhood and the African Colonization Movement,” in Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery, ed. John McKivigan and Mitchell Snay (Athens, Ga., 1998), 169–95.

plan was ultimately killed by resistance from two opposite quarters: southern masters and African-Americans themselves.

In the event, many more black Americans in search of a better life would move to Canada than to Liberia. Slavery had been ended in the colonies of British North America by a series of executive, legislative, and judicial actions in the late eighteenth century. As a result, Canada attracted both fugitive slaves and free Negroes from the United States. There they joined the descendants of black Loyalists from the Revolution, African American refugees from the War of 1812, and Jamaican maroons transported to Nova Scotia. In one migration of 1829, a thousand free African Americans, after violent persecution in Cincinnati, obtained refuge in Canada. Although Canadian whites were seldom eager to welcome large numbers of black settlers, by 1860 the black population of Canada numbered about forty thousand.55 An escaped slave named Joseph Taper, who settled on a farm in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1839, wrote this letter back to a white Virginian, instructing him to pass it on to his former master:

Dear Sir,

I now take this opportunity to inform you that I am in a land of liberty, in good health.... Since I have been in the Queens dominions I have been well contented, Yes well contented for Sure, man is as God intended he should be. That is, all are born free & equal. This is a wholesome law, not like the Southern laws which puts man made in the image of God, on level with brutes....

We have good schools, & all the colored population supplied with schools. My boy Edward who will be six years next January, is now reading, & I intend keeping him at school until he becomes a good scholar....

My wife and self are sitting by a good comfortable fire happy, knowing that there are none to molest [us] or make [us] afraid. God save Queen Victoria.56


On the evening of September 12, 1826, a stonecutter named William Morgan languished in the jail of Canandaigua, New York, where he was being held for an alleged two-dollar debt. Morgan had been subject to a

55. Wright, African Americans, 136; Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada, 2nd ed. (Montreal, 1997), 233–40.

56. Quoted in John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves (New York, 1999), 294–95.

series of persecutions by local authorities and mysterious mobs ever since he had undertaken to publish the secret rituals of Freemasonry. His home in nearby Batavia had been ransacked in search of the manuscript. An attempt to burn down the shop where his work awaited printing had been foiled. Two days earlier he and his printer had both been transported to this jail on trumped-up charges. The printer had been released by a magistrate, and Morgan expected he would be too as soon as his case was called. Suddenly, the prisoner learned that someone had paid his bail. Morgan found himself released into the custody of strangers who forced him into a waiting carriage. “Murder! Murder!” he cried out. The renegade former Mason was never again seen alive.

The investigation of Morgan’s disappearance was hampered at every turn by the cover-up of strategically placed Freemasons. Although his wife and dentist identified a partly decomposed body, three inquests did not make an official finding. Juries were packed with Masonic brothers; accused conspirators fled before testifying. Eventually the sheriff of Niagara County served thirty months for his central role in the kidnapping conspiracy, but otherwise prosecutors had little to show after twenty trials. Enough came to light, however, that the public felt outrage and the Masonic Order (whose leaders never denounced the crimes committed against Morgan or dissociated the order from the perpetrators) was badly discredited.57

Freemasonry, introduced into America from Britain in colonial times, had been an important force in the young republic. Its members had constituted a kind of republican elite, with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington prominent among them. The international Masonic brotherhood satisfied longings for status, trust, and metropolitan sophistication in an amorphous new society; its hierarchies and secret rituals offered a dimension lacking in the stark simplicity of much of American Protestantism. Freemasonry promoted the values of the Enlightenment and new standards of politeness. Its symbols of the pyramid and the eye had been incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States. Its ceremonies graced many public occasions, including the dedication of the United States Capitol and the construction of the Erie Canal. But in the Morgan episode, Masonic commitments of secrecy and mutual assistance led to disastrous consequences. To be sure, the Masonic brotherhood succeeded in the short run, protecting members from legal punishment

57. Paul Goodman, Towards a Christian Republic: Antimasonry and the Great Transition in New England (New York, 1988), 4; Ronald Formisano and Kathleen Kutalowski, “Antimasonry and Masonry,” American Quarterly 39 (1977): 139–65.

and preventing Morgan from publishing all but the first three degree rituals, which appeared in print a month after his disappearance. But, as American Masonry’s most recent historian has shown, “it lost the larger battle in the court of public opinion.” During the decade after the Morgan affair, thousands of brothers quit the order and hundreds of lodges closed. Although Freemasonry recovered its numbers after the Civil War, it never recovered the influence it had wielded in the first fifty years of independence.58

Reaction against the Morgan crime and (even more) its cover-up led to the formation of an Antimasonic movement. Concerned citizens pressed for judicial investigations of Morgan’s disappearance and more information about Freemasonry. But Antimasonic speakers were harassed and their publishing outlets persecuted by local authorities who belonged to the order. Masons and Antimasons disrupted each other’s meetings and vandalized each other’s property. The conflict soon acquired a political dimension. Since the Morgan episode had occurred in western New York state, the Antimasonic movement arose in an area of strong support for DeWitt Clinton, the People’s Party, and John Quincy Adams. President Adams and his New York campaign manager, Thurlow Weed, showed clear sympathy with the Antimasons; Martin Van Buren and his Albany Regency, on the other hand, treated the movement as a threat. Governor Clinton, a prominent active Mason, could not afford to alienate the Anti-masons and trod a fine line, mostly leaving the problem to local authorities. Andrew Jackson was a Mason, but so were a few of the Adams Republican leaders, including Henry Clay. Eventually, the Antimasonic movement organized as a third party but supported Adams in the presidential race of 1828. The party elected members to the New York legislature and spread to neighboring states, notably Pennsylvania, Ohio, Vermont, and Massachusetts.59

The Antimasons became the first third party in American history. Once organized as a political party, Antimasonry developed a political image and stands on other issues. The participants saw themselves as restoring moral order and transparent democracy, defending the little people against a secret cabal with ties to machine politics. Antimasonry appealed to the same attitudes that had been fostering increased democratization of

58. Steven Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood (Chapel Hill, 1996), 277–79, 313–16, quotation from 278; Illustrations of Masonry, by One of the Fraternity (New York, 1827).

59. Michael Holt, Political Parties and American Political Development (Baton Rouge, 1992), 90–94; Donald Ratcliffe, “Antimasonry and Partisanship in Greater New England,” JER 15 (1995): 199–239.

American politics, such as the elimination of property requirements for voting and the popular election of presidential electors. The Antimasons took advantage of the opportunities for influencing public opinion provided by the growth of the printed media. Strongest in rural areas and small towns, their movement nurtured a provincial suspicion of metropolitan and upper-class values (Masonry was strongest in the cities). In their own time and since, the Antimasons have been accused of fanaticism, demagogy, and “paranoid delusions.”60 It seems more accurate to see them as responding to real provocation and reviving a tradition of popular political participation going back to the American Revolution and the English “commonwealthmen.” The Antimasons often supported tenant farmers against landlords. They welcomed the participation of women in their movement, contrasting it with Masonry, which was then all male. (When the Masons created their own women’s branch, the Order of the Eastern Star, in 1852, it helped defuse such criticism.) Many Antimasons eventually moved into antislavery. Antimasonry would remain an identifiable force in American politics for years to come.61

Despite historians’ efforts to correlate Antimasonry with economic interests, the movement in fact cut across economic lines. Including middle-class townsmen as well as poor farmers and residents of areas both prospering and declining, newly settled and long established, Antimasons had in common an ideological commitment to democracy and Protestant Christianity. In many ways the movement was a political precipitation from the evangelical religious awakenings, embracing a variety of denominations.62Antimasons referred to their cause as “the blessed spirit.” They accused Freemasonry of corrupting Christianity, of being in effect a rival religion. They showed some continuity with the sabbatarian opposition to Sunday mails, though Antimasonry enjoyed broader support. Antimasonry represented a Christian grassroots version of the impulse to “improvement.”

In 1831, the Antimasons would be the first political party to hold a national convention, a practice that evangelical reform movements had pioneered. The convention seemed a more democratic means of selecting a nominee than the congressional caucus, and the other political parties quickly adopted it. While Martin Van Buren has often been credited with creating the modern American political party, in fact his rivals the

60. Goodman, Toward a Christian Republic, 245.

61. For more on the Antimasonic Party, see Ronald Formisano, The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790s–1840s (New York, 1983), 197–221.

62. See Kathleen Kutalowski, “Antimasonry Reexamined,” JAH 71 (1984): 269–93.

Antimasons made an important contribution too.63 Van Buren’s concept of party was primarily concerned with organization and patronage. The lasting contribution of the Antimasonic movement to America was a concept of party politics that combined popular participation with moral passion. Antimasonry proved to be a precursor of the Republican Party of the 1850s, devoted to halting the spread of slavery. It can also be likened to the Progressive movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, which would favor popular participation against corruption and secrecy in government and would share something of the same Protestant moral tone.


Henry Clay’s hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, was a thriving commercial crossroads with a diversified economy. Located in the fertile Blue-grass country, it boasted the first newspaper and the first library west of the Appalachians, as well as Transylvania University, founded in 1798. There the aspiring young Clay had earned fame as a trial lawyer and money as counsel to banks and insurance companies. On his plantation, Ashland, just outside town, Clay grew hemp with a labor force of some fifty slaves. He also invested in the rope factory at Louisville that used his raw material. His wife, Lucretia Hart Clay, the daughter of a prominent local merchant and manufacturer, made the perfect plantation mistress, combining social graces with financial good sense. Henry Clay’s political philosophy was his private life writ large. As his own career synthesized commerce, agriculture, and industry with public service, so the Kentuckian aspired to create a harmony of varied economic interests in the United States as a whole. Clay called his program for the nation “the American System.” “I am executing here [at Ashland], in epitome, all my principles of Internal improvements, the American System, &c.,” he correctly observed. Clay’s American System was a full-blown systemization of the Republican nationalism that had found expression in Madison’s message to Congress after the War of 1812.64

As Clay envisioned it, the American System constituted the economic basis for social improvement. It would create, not division between haves and have-nots, but a framework within which all could work harmoniously to improve themselves both individually and collectively. To

63. On Van Buren, see Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System (Berkeley, 1969); for the Antimasonic Party, see Robert O. Rupp, “Antimasonry in New York Reconsidered,” JER 8 (1988): 253–79.

64. Daniel Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 123–49; Clay quotation from Stephen Aron, How the West Was Lost (Baltimore, 1996), 134.

achieve this goal, Harry of the West was more than willing to enlist the power of government. Through sale of its enormous landholdings, the federal government could well afford to subsidize internal improvements. By levying protective tariffs, the government should foster the development of American manufacturing and agricultural enterprises that, in their infancy, might not be able to withstand foreign competition. The promotion of industry would create a home market for agricultural commodities, just as farms provided a market for manufactured products. Farmers and planters would benefit not only from increased sales to the cities and towns that would grow up around industry but also from the increased value of their lands as internal improvements connected them with markets. Clay could see that the policy of cheap land and rapid settlement favored by westerners like Thomas Hart Benton would multiply agricultural producers and production faster than existing markets could absorb, leading to cycles of overproduction and more panics like that of 1819.65

Clay’s system was “American” in a triple sense. Obviously, it purported to promote the welfare of the nation as a whole. But it was also “American” in its assertion of national independence against the “British system” of unregulated free trade. The Kentuckian feared that a passive policy of economic laissez-faire would leave America in a neocolonial relationship to Britain, the economic giant of the day. Britain, Clay pointed out, protected her own domestic interests with tariffs like the “corn laws” while pressuring other countries to practice free trade.66 In a third sense, Clay also used the term “American System” to apply to his hemispheric trade policy. He was willing, indeed eager, to include Latin America as part of his home market. Clay wanted to synthesize the Madisonian Platform with the Monroe Doctrine. The American System was directed against European, particularly British, commercial hegemony, not against sister republics of the New World.67

In 1824, Clay succeeded in getting the average tariff rates set in 1816 increased from 20 to 35 percent. The Panic of 1819 and ensuing depression had illustrated the dangers of dependence on foreign markets for trade and capital. Reapportionment following the census of 1820 had increased the political power of the Middle Atlantic and Ohio Valley states, where

65. See Maurice Baxter, Henry Clay and the American System(Lexington, Ky., 1995).

66. “Speech on the Tariff,” March 30–31, 1824, Papers of Henry Clay, ed. James Hopkins (Lexington, Ky., 1963), III, 683–730.

67. On this use of the term “American System,” see Robert Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York, 1991), 174–75.

tariff protection commanded popular support. Monroe’s last Congress included many members elected on protariff pledges. The debate in Congress was conducted at a high intellectual level, with free-traders invoking Adam Smith and the classical economists, while protectionists challenged them with arguments about the need to maintain full employment, encourage infant industries, prevent foreign dumping, and secure the national defense. Free-traders argued that individual profit maximization would promote the general welfare, but protectionists declared that republican virtue sometimes demanded short-term sacrifice by the public in the long-run national interest.68 At the end, protection prevailed; among those voting for Clay’s tariff of 1824 was Andrew Jackson, then senator from Tennessee.

In New England, the growth of the textile mills encouraged protectionist sentiment, which by the 1820s overcame the traditional free-trade sentiment of the region’s maritime shipping interests. New England’s most famous congressional spokesman, Daniel Webster, converted from free trade to protectionism while also abandoning the moribund Federalist Party for the “National” Republicans (i.e., the Republicans supporting the national administration). In 1827, Webster pressed for a further increase in the duty on woolen textiles, and the administration supported it. After passing the House, Webster’s bill was defeated in the Senate by the casting vote of Vice President Calhoun. This dramatic action publicly affirmed Calhoun’s break with the Adams-Clay administration and his own protectionist past. Martin Van Buren, eager to underscore the break, arranged for a tie to occur by absenting himself from the Senate chamber so the vice president would have to vote.69

Calhoun’s change of heart on the issue of the tariff reflected the South’s loss of interest in developing a textile industry of its own. In the early years of the cotton boom, it had seemed plausible to suppose that mills might be built near the fields where the cotton was grown. Occasionally a wealthy planter would erect a mill to spin and weave some of his own cotton production, operating it with slave labor, or hire out slaves to work in a neighbor’s mill. But early textile mills depended on water-power, and sometimes the fall line was inconveniently located far

68. Richard Edwards, “Economic Sophistication in Nineteenth-Century Congressional Tariff Debates,” Journal of Economic History 30 (1970): 802–38; James Huston, “Virtue, Equality, and the General Welfare in the Tariff Debates of the 1820s,” JER 14 (1994): 523–48.

69. Robert Remini, Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party (New York, 1959), 134–36; Sellers, Market Revolution, 293.

upstream from the best cotton-growing lands. More importantly, it was usually more profitable to keep the enslaved labor force in the fields. During the pre–Civil War years, southern investors complained they found it hard to recruit diligent mill workers among southern poor whites, but after the war they certainly found them. In the final analysis, cultivating the short-staple cotton so well suited to the climate with the gang labor of slaves proved a far more attractive investment opportunity than building factories. For most of the antebellum South, what economists call its comparative advantage was encapsulated in the slogan “cotton is king.”70

New England, with its stony soil and short growing season, had needed to industrialize; most of the South did not. Manufacturing enabled the Yankees to make use of female labor, but the planters found plenty of work for their female slaves in agriculture. The relationship between the planters and the Yankee processors of their raw cotton proved by no means altogether compatible. Two-thirds of the cotton crop was exported, mainly to Britain, giving its producers an interest in free trade. But the American cotton mills needed a tariff to stay in business. Even with its protection, they could only compete in the cheaper lines of product; the finer goods required a skilled workmanship that was prohibitively expensive in the United States.71 The kind of coarse textiles that American mills made from cotton and wool was the kind in which southern masters clothed their slaves. The protective tariff raised the price of textiles and thus diminished the demand for southern cotton at the same time as it increased the cost of maintaining slaves. The cotton planters were morally wrong about slavery, but they were economically right to complain that the tariff did not serve their interest.72 Only three islands of protectionist sentiment remained in the South: the sugarcane growers of Louisiana, Clay’s hemp growers in Kentucky and Missouri, and the Appalachian valleys of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, where the predominantly nonslaveholding population continued to hope for industrial development of their natural resources and water power.

70. Randall Miller, “Slavery in Antebellum Southern Textile Mills,” Business History Review 55 (1981), 471–90; Carole Scott, “Why the Cotton Textile Industry Did Not Develop in the South Sooner,” Agricultural History 68 (1994): 105–21.

71. Mark Bils, “Tariff Protection and Production in the Early U.S. Cotton Textile Industry,” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 1033–45; Knick Harley, “International Competitiveness of the Antebellum American Cotton Textile Industry,” ibid. 52 (1992): 559–84.

72. John James, “Welfare Effects of the Antebellum Tariff,” Explorations in Economic History 15 (1978): 231–46, esp. 249; Knick Harley, “The Antebellum American Tariff,” ibid. 29 (1992): 375–400.

President Adams allowed Clay and his secretary of the Treasury, Richard Rush of Pennsylvania, to take the lead in pressing for tariff protection. He thus deferred just a bit to what was left of the old free-trade sentiment in maritime New England. However, no one had any doubt where the president’s sympathies lay on the tariff question. Protectionism embodied the conscious encouragement that Adams wanted the federal government to give to economic development. Clay encouraged protariff forces to hold a convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, during the summer of 1827. Because of its popularity in strategic places like Pennsylvania (already appropriately nicknamed “the Keystone State”), protectionism potentially provided a winning issue for the Adams administration.

Martin Van Buren began to worry about the groundswell of opinion building up in favor of a tariff increase. Van Buren realized that he needed to neutralize Clay’s efforts politically, lest the tariff issue help reelect Adams. In theory, Van Buren was a strict constructionist of the Old Republican school. In practice, however, he recognized the strength of protectionism in the Middle Atlantic region, including his own New York state. Accordingly, Van Buren determined to construct a tariff that could be turned to the advantage of the Jackson presidential campaign. Led by Silas Wright of New York and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Van Buren’s followers in Congress took control of the administration’s tariff initiative. They reshaped it to add benefits for pivotal regions that Jackson sought to carry, cynically disregarding the interests of regions whose electoral votes were not in doubt: New England (sure to go for Adams) and the cotton South (sure to go for Jackson). To help sheep raisers (like Van Buren himself), raw wool got high protection, though it increased the price masters would have to pay for “slave cloth.” The transformed bill sharply increased tariffs on other raw materials like molasses, hemp, and iron, to the disadvantage of New England distillers, ropemakers, and shipbuilders, not to mention consumers. The result was the well-named “Tariff of Abominations.” John Randolph’s witticism got repeated often: The tariff bill had been designed to promote not the manufacture of broadcloths and bed blankets but the manufacture of a president. Van Buren was happy for the bill to pass in the form he had given it, “ghastly, lopsided, and unequal” though it was.73

73. This is the characterization of the historian who has studied the passage of the act most thoroughly, Robert Remini (Henry Clay, 329). Many contemporaries and later historians were reluctant to believe that Van Buren could really have intended the Tariff of Abominations to pass, but Remini has proved he did (Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party, 170–85).

Southern Jacksonians hoped that Van Buren’s bill had become so objectionable to New England that Yankee congressmen would join them in voting against its final passage. They therefore prevented it from being amended in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, however, amendments were added making the tariff slightly less unpalatable to New England. It then finally passed by the combined votes of Van Buren’s followers plus the administration supporters, who accepted the general principle of protection while deploring particular features of the bill. The act served the Little Magician’s purpose of allowing Jacksonians in the middle states to board the tariff bandwagon. Jackson backers in the South felt bitter and betrayed but had nowhere else to turn, since Adams was the only alternative. They consoled themselves that Calhoun would be Jackson’s running mate and hoped the South Carolinian could exert more influence on the next administration. Embarrassing the hope of Adams and Clay for government-promoted economic development, Van Buren’s Tariff of Abominations demonstrated how government intervention in the economy could be manipulated for political advantage.


The campaign for the presidential election of 1828 lasted the whole four years of John Quincy Adams’s administration. Eventually defenders of the national administration started calling themselves “National” Republicans, while the supporters of the man who claimed the popular mandate called themselves “Democratic” Republicans, later simply “Democrats.” The terms came into use only very slowly. For Adams and his followers, to recognize the emergence of partisanship was to confess failure. Jackson and his followers saw themselves as the legitimate Jeffersonian Republican party and referred to their opponents as a corrupt clique of “federalists.” Accustomed as we are to a two-party system, we seize upon labels that contemporaries hesitated to employ. By the time the new party names gained acceptance, the election was over.

What came to be called the National Republicanism of Adams and Clay represented a continuation of the new Republican nationalism that had arisen out of the experience of the War of 1812. The Democratic Republicans of Jackson, Van Buren, and the recently transformed Calhoun recruited the proslavery Radicals of William H. Crawford and embraced the state-rights tradition of Old Republicanism. Despite the role played by Van Buren in putting together the opposition coalition, Jackson always controlled his own campaign, operating it from his headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. The few remaining Federalists generally joined the

Adams party in New England, the Jackson party in the South, and divided between them in the middle states.

Each side embraced its own version of modernity. The administration’s supporters endorsed economic modernization and appealed for votes on the basis of their improvement program. The Jacksonians emphasized their candidate rather than a program but developed a very modern political organization with attendant publicity and rallies. The one step they did not take was to hold a national party convention, but they did sponsor many state conventions. The Adams supporters followed suit; in the face of Jackson’s political machine, their aspiration to classical nonpartisanship could not practically be maintained. Taking advantage of improvements in communications, both sides relied heavily on partisan newspapers to get across their message, though Jackson’s followers kept theirs under tighter control. Handbills and campaign biographies also made use of the new opportunities for printed propaganda. Mindful of ethnic divisions, both sides published some campaign literature in German.74 The techniques of electioneering reflected the increased public participation in the election of the president. By 1828, all but two states (Delaware and South Carolina) chose their presidential electors by popular vote. Most states opted for electing them at large, since that maximized the state’s influence, although it would have been more democratic (that is, reflected public opinion more accurately) to choose the electors by congressional district.75

As in 1824, Jackson campaigned against Washington insiders. He himself described the contest as a “struggle between the virtue of the people and executive patronage”—an ironic expression indeed, in view of his party’s exploitation of the spoils of office once in power, but there is no reason to suppose it not sincerely felt.76 Rather than debate policy, Jacksonians harped on the “corrupt bargain” that had robbed the people of their preferred candidate. The charge played well in provincial America, where Yankees like Adams were often unpopular peddlers and storekeepers, notorious for cheating farm wives with wooden nutmegs and driving many a small “corrupt bargain.”77 (Through much of the American

74. Sample election documents are reprinted in Arthur Schlesinger Jr., History of American Presidential Elections (New York, 1985), II, 437–91.

75. On the transition in the method of electing presidents, see Michael Heale, The Presidential Quest, 1787–1852 (London, 1982).

76. AJ to James Hamilton Jr., June 29, 1828, Papers of Andrew Jackson, ed. Harold Moser et al. (Knoxville, Tenn., 2002), VI, 476–77.

77. Pointed out by Harry Watson, Liberty and Power (New York, 1990), 93.

hinterland, Yankees were the functional equivalent of Jews in rural Europe.) Contrasted with such a figure of metropolitan guile appeared the Old Hero Jackson, a leader of stern virtue, a frontiersman who had made his own legend. To celebrate his victory at New Orleans, Jackson’s campaign marketed the song “The Hunters of Kentucky”—in defiance of the historical record, which showed that Jackson had reproached the Kentucky militia for their conduct in the battle. Where Adams exhorted his countrymen to a program of deliberate “improvement,” the Jacksonians celebrated their unrefined “natural” leader. Old Hickory was portrayed as a straightforward man of action, a hero the common man could trust.78

The Adams press responded that Jackson’s personal attributes actually disqualified, rather than qualified, him for the presidency. He possessed a notoriously fiery temper and had repeatedly displayed vindictive anger. Adams partisans reminded the public that Jackson had been involved in several brawls and duels, killing a man in one of them. The “coffin handbill” distributed by Philadelphia newspaperman John Binns called sympathetic attention to the six militiamen executed by Jackson’s orders in February 1815. (In retaliation, pro-Jackson mobs persecuted Binns and his wife.)79

The Adams-Clay supporters also indicted Jackson’s character on the basis of his sex life. Back in 1790, young Jackson had set up housekeeping with Rachel Robards, a woman married to another man. Though divorce was difficult and rare, Rachel’s husband, Lewis Robards, successfully divorced her on grounds of desertion and adultery. In 1794, after learning of the divorce, Andrew and Rachel underwent a marriage ceremony; prior to that time they had been “living in sin,” as respectable nineteenth-century opinion understood it. (On the eighteenth-century frontier, people did not inquire closely into such matters; Andrew and Rachel had simply been accepted as Mr. and Mrs. Jackson.) This juicy story was resurrected by an Adams newspaper, the Cincinnati Gazette, on March 23, 1827. Jackson’s Nashville campaign office responded with an elaborately contrived narrative claiming that Andrew and Rachel had participated in 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. No evidence has ever been found of this alleged wedding, and Jackson’s scrupulous biographer Robert Remini

78. See John William Ward, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York, 1955).

79. Robert Remini, The Election of 1828 (Philadelphia, 1963), 156.

must be right in concluding that no 1791 ceremony took place, and that in any case Andrew and Rachel were living together as husband and wife as early as 1790.80

Raising the subject of adultery related to the larger issue of Jackson’s character, the charge that he was so willful, impetuous, and impatient of restraint that he could not be trusted with supreme responsibility. In the vocabulary of the time, it was said that Jackson’s “passions” ruled him. The general almost played into his critics’ hands during the campaign. When Samuel Southard (Adams’s secretary of the navy) suggested at a dinner party that Secretary of War Monroe might have been entitled to some of the credit for the New Orleans victory, Old Hickory wrote a furious message to him preparing the way for a duel. Jackson’s friend Sam Houston managed to get the letter rephrased.81

The Jackson campaign did not confine its falsehoods to defenses of the candidate’s honor but invented others to attack his rival. The scrupulous, somber Adams might not seem to offer much of a target for salacious arrows, but Jacksonians did not let this inhibit their imagination. Jackson’s New Hampshire supporter Isaac Hill retailed the libel that while U.S. minister to Russia, Adams had procured an American girl for the sexual gratification of the tsar. Less preposterous, and therefore perhaps more dangerous, was the accusation that Adams had put a billiard table in the White House at public expense. In truth, Adams did enjoy the game and had bought such a table, but paid for it out of his own pocket. Adams’s religion was not exempt from attack: The Presbyterian Ezra Stiles Ely denounced the president’s Unitarian theological views as heresy and called on all sound Christians to vote for Jackson. Taken together, the accusations against Adams were designed to show him as aristocratic, intellectual, and un-American.82

The hope that Adams and Clay had entertained that the election might constitute a referendum on the American System evaporated. Instead, the presidential campaign of 1828 was probably the dirtiest in American history. It seems only fair to observe that while the hostile stories circulated about Adams were largely false, those about Jackson were

80. Norma Basch, “Marriage, Morals, and Politics in the Election of 1828,” JAH 80 (1993): 890–918; Remini, Jackson, I, 64–67.

81. Michael Birkner, “The General, the Secretary, and the President,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 42 (1983): 243–53.

82. Edwin Miles, “President Adams’ Billiard Table,” New England Quarterly 45 (1972): 31–43; Ezra Stiles Ely, The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Magistrates (Philadelphia, 1828).

largely true. An exception was the charge appearing in an Adams paper that Jackson’s mother had been a prostitute.83 However, shifting the focus of the campaign from program to personalities generally benefited the Jacksonians. They were only too willing to see the choice posed as a popular ditty had it: “Between J. Q. Adams, who can write/And Andy Jackson, who can fight.” Depressed by the turn the campaign was taking, Adams stopped recording events in his diary in August and did not resume until after the election.

The bitterness with which the campaign was waged manifested the intensity of the feelings it aroused. For beyond the mudslinging, important national issues were at stake. Adams stood for a vision of coherent economic progress, of improvement both personal and national, directed by deliberate planning. Instead of pursuing improvement, Jacksonians accepted America the way it was, including its institution of slavery. They looked upon government planners as meddlesome, although they were more than willing to seek government favors on an ad hoc basis, as when a particular internal improvement or tariff rate gratified a particular local interest. They did not publicize a comprehensive program as the national administration did. But they too had a vision of the future, and theirs centered not on economic diversification but on opening new lands to white settlement, especially if those lands could be exploited with black labor. Jackson the frontier warrior personified this vision, and it had potential appeal not only to the slaveholders of the South but also among the common white men of both sections.

Martin Van Buren set out the strategic logic behind the Jackson campaign in a letter he wrote to Thomas Ritchie on January 13, 1827. Editor of the Richmond Enquirer, Ritchie was a key opinion-maker in the southern Radical circles that had supported Crawford in 1824. Van Buren wanted Ritchie to swing his influence behind Jackson in 1828. But this time the Little Magician had more than just a temporary, tactical purpose in mind; he aspired to forge a fundamental realignment in American politics. Van Buren despised the nonpartisan, meritocratic ideal of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams; he wanted to re-create the party system that had divided Republicans from Federalists. Van Buren wrote to persuade Ritchie of the merits of a political alliance “between the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the North.” This alliance around Jackson should claim the mantle of the Jeffersonian Republican party and stigmatize its opponents as Federalists. Political parties are inevitable,

83. Remini, Election of 1828, 153.

Van Buren argued, so it behooved the Jackson supporters not only to embrace partisanship openly but also to define the parties in as advantageous a way as possible. If a second party system were not created, Van Buren believed, the result would be a politics based on sectionalism. In the absence of strong party distinctions, “prejudices between free and slave holding states will inevitably take their place,” he warned Ritchie. The Missouri debate illustrated the danger, he pointed out. The senator from New York did not scruple to appeal to the southern Radical’s desire to preserve slavery from northern interference. “Party attachment in former times furnished a complete antidote for sectional prejudices by producing counteracting feelings.” Van Buren held out the creation of the Jacksonian Democratic Party as a promised means of containing antislavery. Ritchie was persuaded.84

As Van Buren’s letter foretold, the campaign saw the commencement of a novel acceptance of parties in American political life. And not surprisingly, given the commitment of Van Buren and most other Jacksonians to protecting slavery, the campaign also shaped up as highly sectional. For the only time in American history, the two sides presented the electorate with opposing sectional tickets. To run with him against the two southerners, Jackson and Calhoun, President Adams picked his Treasury secretary, Richard Rush of Pennsylvania, creating an all-northern team. In the South, Jackson’s popularity was enhanced by the feeling that only he could be relied upon to maintain white supremacy and expand the white empire, to evict the Indian tribes, to support and extend slavery.

In the North, the race was tight. Appeals to defend slavery would not work for Old Hickory, and the Adams-Clay economic development program enjoyed widespread support. Moreover, the populistic, egalitarian Antimasons were opposing Jackson. Without Van Buren’s brilliant strategy, his party organization, and his tariff abominations, it is hard to see how the all-southern ticket could have won, even given Jackson’s legend. Van Buren gave the effort his all, even sacrificing his Senate seat to run for governor of New York in 1828, so as to hold back the tide of Antimasonry in the state.

The election returns, as they gradually came in, gave Jackson the victory, 178 to 83 in the electoral college. His 56 percent of the popular vote set a record that was not surpassed until the twentieth century. His followers

84. The classic analysis of this letter is Richard H. Brown, “The Missouri Crisis, Slavery, and the Politics of Jacksonianism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 65 (1966): 55–72. The letter itself is in Martin Van Buren Papers (Library of Congress microfilm), ser. 2, reel 7, rpt. in Robert Remini, ed., The Age of Jackson (New York, 1972), 3–7.

also won control of both houses of Congress, by a particularly impressive 138 to 74 in the House of Representatives. Jackson racked up awesome majorities across the South and West—except, ironically, in Louisiana, scene of his greatest battle. There his high-handed conduct was remembered, he was unpopular with the French Creoles, and the sugarcane planters needed a tariff. The Jacksonians, who believed in partisan politics wholeheartedly, not surprisingly had waged it more effectively than the Adamsites, some of whom engaged in it only grudgingly. Everywhere outside New England and New Jersey, Jackson benefited from more effective organization. In Georgia, where Indian Removal was the big issue, Adams got no popular votes at all. Calhoun’s record on Indian Removal did not satisfy Georgians either, so seven of the Georgia electors cast their vice-presidential votes for the South Carolina Radical William Smith, Calhoun’s longtime rival.

As in 1824, Adams carried his core constituency: New England, the Antimasonic and evangelical areas of New York state, the shores of the Great Lakes. He also won New Jersey, Delaware, and some of the congressional districts of Maryland. Under his leadership, New England had emerged from Federalist particularism and embraced Republican nationalism. The attack on his theology did not hurt Adams among Christians of the Universal Yankee Nation (as the New England zone of settlement was called). In the South, Adams showed pockets of strength in the towns and commercial areas like the Kentucky Bluegrass. But his running mate Rush failed to deliver Pennsylvania, and Clay failed to deliver any electoral votes in the Ohio Valley. The Tariff of Abominations had effectively counteracted the political appeal of the American System in those areas.

The popular vote tripled in size from 1824, partly because of states changing their method of choosing electors, but mostly because of heightened public interest and organized get-out-the-vote efforts. A two-way race captured the public imagination more clearly than a five-way race had done. Participation of eligible voters, 57.5 percent overall, was generally highest in states where the race was close, like New York and Ohio, and where good local transportation made it not too inconvenient to get to the polling place.85Where state offices were more hotly contested than the presidency, turnout was higher in those races. Legal enfranchisement of new voters did not represent a significant factor in increasing the size of the turnout, although some states were in the process of removing the remaining property and religious tests for voting. The

85. Voter participation figures are given at (viewed March 1, 2007).

great majority of adult white males had long enjoyed the legal right to vote.86

Did Jackson’s victory constitute the coming of democracy to America? Certainly the Jackson political machine tried to persuade voters to see it that way. But continuities with an earlier time are evident: Jackson’s campaign slogans celebrated antique agrarian virtue and promised to restore Old Republicanism. His personal popularity rested to a large extent on military prowess, which of course is the oldest political appeal of all, and by no means democratic. If Jackson was the candidate of the “common man,” as he was so often described, it was specifically the common white man, and one not bothered by slavery or the abuses of Freemasonry. The Jacksonians cultivated an antielitist image. How far this corresponded with the reality of their support has not been easy for historians to document. Most voters in antebellum America, on both sides of the political divide, were farmers. The few industrial wage-earners who were male often voted for the American System, not Andrew Jackson, in the belief that a tariff protected their jobs. Adams did well among people living along commercial routes. Jackson did well in economically undeveloped regions, among non-English white ethnic groups, and among first-time voters (young men, immigrants, or the previously apathetic). But Jackson’s leading newspaper editor, the ardently proslavery Missourian Duff Green, knew how to exploit the communications revolution: He distributed his United States Telegraph through the mails using the franking privilege of Jackson congressmen. Jackson’s successful campaign owed as much to improvements in communications as to the democratization of the electorate.87

The vote displayed striking sectional characteristics. Jackson managed a bare majority in the free states (50.3%) while racking up 72.6 percent in the slave states. The South provided most of his electoral votes. Thanks to the peculiarities of the Electoral College (with the notorious three-fifths clause inflating the power of the slaveholding states), the 400,000 popular votes Jackson got in the North brought him only 73 electoral votes, while the 200,000 southerners who voted for him produced 105.88 There is no justification for claiming that the states Jackson carried were more democratic

86. See Richard P. McCormick, The Second American Party System (Chapel Hill, 1966).

87. For careful analyses of the election of 1828, see Richard R. John, “Affairs of Office,” in The Democratic Experiment, ed. Meg Jacobs et al. (Princeton, 2003), 50–85; and Lee Benson, Toward the Scientific Study of History (Philadelphia, 1972), 40–50.

88. Leonard Richards, “The Jacksonians and Slavery,” Antislavery Reconsidered, ed. Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman (Baton Rouge, 1979), 101.

than the ones Adams carried; indeed, in some tangible ways state governments in the North, where Adams ran better, were the more democratic.89 To be sure, Jackson and his supporters had successfully encouraged and exploited broadening political participation. They had laid the groundwork for a new two-party system. But much of what they had done could as fairly be called demagogy as democracy. In the words of an antebellum newspaperman, the Adams campaign had “dealt with man as he should be,” while the Jackson campaign had “appealed to him as he is.”90

The election of 1828 proved a pivotal one; it marked the end of one kind of politics and the beginning of another. During the so-called Era of Good Feelings, presidential politics had been unstructured by party rivalry and had been driven less by issues than personal ambitions. In 1828, the incumbent, Adams, had boldly based his campaign on a national economic program. The challenger, Jackson, had run on a combination of personal popularity, organization, and the evocation of symbolism. The Jackson campaign, while claiming to be anti-politics, had in practice created a new and far more potent political machinery. Having won, Jackson did not feel content to bask in the glory of his record as a military hero vindicated by the electorate. He became an activist president. His administration would witness novel assertions of presidential power, rancorous debate over issues, and the rebirth of political parties. After 1828, the classical ideal of nonpartisan leadership, which Adams and Monroe had shared with Washington and countless political philosophers, was dead— killed in battle with Old Hickory as surely as General Pakenham.

There was another aspect of the outcome, less often noticed by historians but no less important. The National Republican improvement program of planned economic development would have encouraged a diversified economy in place of reliance on the export of slave-grown agricultural staples. Its strong central government would have held long-term potential for helping the peaceful resolution of the slavery problem, perhaps in connection with some kind of colonization program, while weaning portions of the South, especially in the border states, away from plantation agriculture toward mixed farming, industry, and commerce.91 Whatever such promise Adams’s program held had been frustrated, to a large extent by

89. E.g., Robin Einhorn, “Institutional Reality in the Age of Slavery: Taxation and Democracy in the States,” Journal of Policy History 18 (2006): 21–43.

90. Thomas B. Stevenson, quoted in Peter Knupfer, The Union as It Is (Chapel Hill, 1991), 156.

91. See Richard John, “Governmental Institutions as Agents of Change,” Studies in American Political Development 11 (1997): 347–80.

defenders of slavery who recognized in it a vision of America’s future incompatible with their own. Still, the Adams-Clay vision of government-sponsored national economic development, though temporarily checked, lived on. The second American party system, originating in the election of 1828, was strongly issue-oriented. It would be characterized by fierce debates over both economic policy and the enforcement of white supremacy.

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