Billiards, Anyone?

[ Posted Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 – 16:36 UTC ]

Yesterday, I wrote a column which pointed out that negative campaigning in American politics can be traced back (at the very least) to Andrew Jackson's era. Today's column should be seen as nothing more than a footnote to yesterday's, which was inspired by one of the comments I got on my site yesterday in response. To put it another way, we're going to dive deep into history today, to the election of 1828, so if that sort of thing doesn't interest you, then I'd advise you to spend your time more profitably elsewhere.

Andrew Jackson's first successful run for the presidency has long fascinated historians, because it truly was the beginning of modern party politics in America. All the trappings of campaigns which seem so familiar today (things like campaign buttons or T-shirts or yard signs) all had their roots in the 1820s. Partly, this was due to a historical coincidence (a visit to America by the Revolutionary War hero Lafayette, which had started the craze of personalized scarves and other doodads as souvenirs), and partly it was due to the impressive political machine put together by pro-Jackson newspaper editors and the "Little Magician" (as he was known), Martin Van Buren. Van Buren, if alive today, would doubtlessly be swapping campaign stories on cable television with the likes of Karl Rove and James Carville, who essentially do the same job Van Buren invented during the Jackson campaign. All of which is fascinating, no doubt, but is beside the point I'm trying to make.

Andrew Jackson was ruthlessly and viciously attacked in the opposition newspapers of the day. He was called all sorts of names, and all sorts of evils were laid at his door by editors who most definitely did not want to see him elected.

Jackson, on the other hand, ran as a "man of the people" -- the first to ever do so in American presidential history. He was the original "born in a log cabin" president (a claim made repeatedly thereafter by many contenders for the White House).

Without going in to the anti-Jackson attacks in detail (he did win, after all, so the attacks weren't all that effective in the end), one particular piece of negative campaigning from the pro-Jackson team is worth examining, for amusement's sake if nothing else.

After John Quincy Adams had stolen the 1824 election from Andrew Jackson in the House of Representatives, the Jackson campaign for the 1828 election started roughly the day after Adams was inaugurated. Much like Mitt Romney (and many other modern candidates), Jackson ran what can only be called a four-year campaign for the White House. Any weakness of Adams was exploited mercilessly in the pro-Jackson press, and when they ran short of weaknesses to exploit, they just went ahead and made things up (like the pimping story I related yesterday, for example).

But one story which was indeed true shows the power of negative campaigning on monumentally silly and bizarre micro-issues. We may scoff at the competing "dog" stories being bandied about in this year's campaign (Obama as a boy eating dog meat versus Romney strapping Seamus to the roof of his car), because they so obviously have nothing to do whatsoever with the governance either man would provide for the next four years, just to cite a modern example.

While professional pundits and amateur followers of politics tend to discount such things, though, they can indeed change a whole bunch of voters' minds. I'm thinking, in particular, of George H.W. Bush being shown supermarket checkout technology and appearing to be mystified at how lasers could read product codes. Sure, it's a stupid issue at heart, but these things can become symbolic of a candidate's political weaknesses in a much larger sense. For Bush, it symbolized how out of touch he was with how the common man and woman lived their lives. For Michael Dukakis, to give another example, riding around in a tank provided an image of how out of touch he seemed to be on military issues in general. One stupid little photo op can blow up into a serious campaign liability, in other words -- especially when the idea of being "out of touch" is attached to it in any way.

Which brings us back to John Quincy Adams. In 1825, newly-installed in the White House, Adams bought a billiard table for $50 (to liven the place up a bit, one assumes). He used his own money for this purchase, and one would think it wasn't really all that big a deal. One would be wrong.

By 1826, the Jackson newspapers were making as big a deal of this as they could possibly manage. Adams, they said, was encouraging gambling (gasp!) right there in the president's own house! [Cue "Music Man" interlude: "Ya got trouble... right here in River City... with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for pool!"] Billiards, in 1826, was a fairly elite game, seeing as how the tables cost fifty whole dollars -- a rather princely sum, in those days. Most Americans had never played billiards, or for that matter had even seen such a table in their entire lives. And, of course, the whiff of sinful gambling went hand in hand with the cue sticks.

Partly, this was the first anti-elitist American campaign, and the billiards story fit right in. Adams was about as close to an aristocrat as ever led this country, and Jackson was about as far removed from such elitism as can be imagined. By 1828, America had grown from states hugging the Eastern seaboard over into the trans-Appalachian regions of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys -- which, at the time, were the Western frontier. Frontiersmen were not big fans of affluent folks idling their time away around a billiard table, and one pro-Jackson editor in the new West helpfully explained to his readers that the billiard table cost as much as "a pair of wagon horses."

Now that was the sort of thing people could sink their teeth in. Comparing the luxury of Adams to such a down-to-earth purchase as a team of horses put it into brutal perspective for those wresting a living on the edge of the settled country.

Even having said all of that, it still sounds silly, on the face of it. This was before "public opinion polling" existed (or was even possible), and before campaign consultants analyzed such things in focus groups. The attack worked because of the innate savviness of the Jackson team in choosing what to throw at Adams, and because of the brilliance of newspaper editors who framed the issue in down-to-earth comparisons the average Joe could latch onto.

When the dust settled on the election of 1828, one of the Adams men in Ohio admitted that the billiard table attack lost Adams more Western votes than any other negative issue raised in the entire campaign.

In other words, as I said yesterday, this stuff works. Negative campaigning works wonders, which is why every election since 1828 has utilized it to the fullest extent. Oh, yes, we got trouble! Right here in River City!

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Billiards, Anyone?”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    After John Quincy Adams had stolen the 1824 election from Andrew Jackson in the House of Representatives...

    Hey, they actually followed the procedure specified in the Constitution. You get to be president if you win a majority of electoral votes, or if you win in the House after no one wins a majority of electoral votes.

    Adams was about as close to an aristocrat as ever led this country, and Jackson was about as far removed from such elitism as can be imagined.

    Um, no.

    The plantation system was an aristocracy, and it's what Jackson stood for. He wasn't an aristocrat himself, but he was steeped in aristocracy to his very core. According to Wikipedia, in 1824 he claimed to have been born on his uncle's plantation. In other words, he was for aristocratic pedigree before he was against it.

    John Quincy Adams was born with massive advantages, but his advancement was in large part meritocratic -- to the point that some of his achievements in lower office are more important than those of his presidency.

  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    I should add that this does not invalidate the suggested analogy between Adams and Romney. Romney is the son of a governor, wealthy beyond measure from birth. But (as far as I know) he succeeded on his own merits in running Bain Capital, whereas some other scions (cough)Dubya(cough) failed upward.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Then why did the Kentucky House legislation vote for Adams when there were -- in the popular vote which had been held -- exactly zero votes for him? That's right -- not a single soul in the state of KY voted for Adams, and yet the congressional delegation cast their vote for him in the House.

    Sounds pretty stolen to me.

    As for your other point, you make a pretty good case. To be more precise, I should have used the term "dynastic" rather than "artistocratic." JQA was groomed from birth to be president (rather like, say, Jeb Bush), but Jackson truly was born in a shack to parents of low standing (you should hear what the Adams people had to say about Jackson's parents in the newspapers... but I digress).

    Jackson's Hermitage was indeed a Southern estate. I was thinking more of parentage and upbringing in that comment. Jackson was mocked for being "illiterate" by the Adams people, even though he wasn't. He just couldn't spell worth a damn. But "illiterate" back then (to some people) meant not knowing at least French, Latin, and Greek.


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Just re-read your comment. I hadn't heard the bit about Jackson claiming to be born on a plantation, but if he said it, he was lying. He was born in either SC or possibly the state next door (his parents lived very close to the state line), and they were dirt poor farmers. Too poor to own slaves I believe (although Jackson did so later), which in the Southern "aristocracy" was pretty low down on the class scale.

    Jackson, interestingly enough, was the last president to have fought in the Revolution, I believe. He was a messenger boy of about 13, and was captured by the British. Only US president to have been prisoner of war (McCain would have been the second).


  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    not a single soul in the state of KY voted for Adams, and yet the congressional delegation cast their vote for him in the House. Sounds pretty stolen to me.

    Kentucky went almost unanimously for Clay, who came in fourth in the electoral count and was thus ineligible for the House vote. Clay was much closer to Adams (both ideologically and politically) than to Jackson. No corrupt bargain was necessary. If Clay had been ineligible to the office of secretary of state, or for further runs for president or both, he would probably still have supported Adams in the House vote. If Clay's voters or Clay's electors had faced the choice between Adams and Jackson, with no input whatsoever from Clay himself, they would probably also have chosen Adams.

    Finally, the representatives were under no obligation to follow the preferences of the voters, the electors, Clay, or anyone else. They had full authority under the Constitution to support whoever they chose for president, subject only to the voters' option of throwing them out of office at the next election.

    By no criterion does Kentucky's House vote provide any support whatsoever for the claim that the election was stolen.

    JQA was groomed from birth to be president

    Agreed. That's how meritocratic elites perpetuate themselves and mostly-exclude outsiders.

    Jackson truly was born in a shack to parents of low standing

    Agreed. He was an aristocrat in the sense that aristocracy was the social order he identified with and believed in, not in terms of his origins within that social order.

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    The "corrupt bargain" may not have actually happened, but it sure did get Jackson elected in 1828, didn't it?

    Heh. Had to smile when I read that term, as it shows you certainly do know what you're talking about...


  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:

    it sure did get Jackson elected in 1828, didn't it

    Yep. It and the billiard table, etc. Do you know whether that was the first instance of the pattern in US politics of getting "the common man" to side with one elite by vilifying another, or whether it was going on even earlier?

    (Language note: "vilify" comes from Latin vilis, meaning worthless or vile, and is thus unrelated to "villain" which comes from villanus, meaning farmhand.)

    as it shows you certainly do know what you're talking about...

    To the standards applicable in a casual discussion, anyway. I confess I didn't remember that Clay was from Kentucky, until I looked.

  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Well, you could certainly make an argument for the "Revolution of 1800" when Jefferson was elected. Jefferson had a Utopian dream of America peopled by simple, upright farmers. His republicans (or as historians now call them for the most part "Democratic-Republicans") were really anti-Federalists, and the Federalists stood for (according to their detractors) aristocracy and elitism, while the Jeffersonians stood for democracy and republicanism (and, by extension, the "common man").

    But Jackson was really the first one to use it, campaign-wise. Or, to be more accurate, Martin Van Buren, the "Little Magician," did.

    My own favorite grammatical note: "privilege" comes from two Latin words for "private" and "law" -- that's what the word was formed for: "private law." Makes all kinds of sense, don't it?



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