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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Coffin Handbill

"Reader, mark the perfect indifference with which Gen. Jackson shoots, hangs or stabs his fellow beings, with or without trial, and the more than callous, aye, even exulting composure, with which he details his horrid and bloody deeds!"

"Some Account of some of the Bloody Deeds of Gen. Jackson," John Binns, 1828"

"Thus you see here, the voice of the people of the west have been disregarded, and demagogues barter them as sheep in the shambles, for their own views, and personal agrandisement [sic]."

This was Andrew Jackson's reaction to the results of the election of 1824. There had been four candidates running for president that year, Jackson among them. All the candidates were from Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. The old Federalists of the Revolutionary era had lost all influence as the young nation emerged from the stresses of the War of 1812. Despite being of the same party, the candidates held their own political views and represented the competing interests of the country. These were early signs of the developing sectionalism that would dominate American politics. William Crawford of Georgia represented the interests of the slave-holding south. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, represented the commercial interests of his fellow New Englanders. Henry Clay of Kentucky represented the growing western regions beyond the Appalachian mountains. The outsider was Andrew Jackson from Tennessee, famous for his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. These competing interests resulted in splitting the popular vote between the four men. To the surprise of many, Jackson garnered the most popular votes but not a majority. He also fell short of gaining a majority in the all-important Electoral College votes. Adams was second, Crawford third, and Clay came in last. According to the rules of the constitution at that time, it went to the House of Representatives to decide the winner from the top three. Speaker of the House Clay was shut out from the presidency, and he threw his support behind Adams despite previous disagreements. Weeks of backroom bargaining resulted in the House naming John Quincy Adams as President. A furious Jackson believed that Adams and Clay had struck some bargain in exchange for votes. Jackson viewed Clay as Judas receiving his pieces of silver. Clay's appointment as Adams' Secretary of State did little to temper the suspicions of Jackson supporters who believed in what was referred to as the "corrupt bargain."

(Left: John Quincy Adams; Right: Andrew Jackson)

To say Jackson held a grudge against those he felt had cheated him out of the election would be an understatement. Jackson was a combative individual. Born in the backcountry of colonial Carolina, his father died before he was born. His oldest brother died during the early years of the Revolutionary War. Andrew and his other brother, Robert, fought in the colonial militia during the British campaigns in the Carolinas. Both men were captured. When Andrew refused to shine the boots of a British officer, the officer slashed his face and hand, scars Andrew bore for the rest of his life. Both he and his brother contracted smallpox. Andrew's mother secured their release, but Robert died on the way home from the disease, and Andrew nearly died. His mother volunteered to nurse prisoners on board British ships in Charleston Harbor, but she succumbed to a cholera outbreak. Out of these experiences, the young Andrew Jackson saw the world as a violent place, and fighting was a means of survival. He had a reputation for a quick temper and was known to engage in dueling. He became a lawyer and landowner in the frontier town of Nashville, Tennessee, and led the Tennessee militia against the Creeks during the Creek Wars and then against the British in the War of 1812 to become the hero of New Orleans. Jackson brought this combative attitude to the political arena.

The "corrupt bargain" became a rallying cry for Jackson and his supporters, and they lost no time in preparing for the next presidential election in 1828. Jackson drew in a coalition of interests as he crafted his image as the true heir of Jeffersonian democracy and a champion of popularism. Jackson advocated for a small, unintrusive federal government that spent little. He believed himself to be a fighter for working-class individuals against the corruption and power of the wealthy and privileged. Jackson, along with New Yorker Martin Van Buren, developed the foundations of the modern political machine with its pyramidal structure that allowed for coordinated action and policy from the local to the national levels. More so than Adams, Jackson could gauge public sentiment and utilize the power of the press.

In the press, the campaign for the presidential election of 1828 would be fought. The number of newspapers doubled between 1824 and 1828. Jackson partisans painted Adams as an elitist, an intellectual, and one who was aligned with corporate interests. They labeled Adams an aristocrat whose travels to Europe made him have a taste for extravagant European culture. They accused him of setting up a gambling den in the White House. Adams and Clay were part of a plot that stole the election from Jackson and sought to divide the nation with talk of extending the franchise to free blacks and criticizing elite slave-holding southerners. The supporters of President Adams had their fodder to serve. They painted Jackson as a war criminal and an illiterate backwoodsman. They even accused Jackson of adultery. Jackson had married his wife, Rachel when she divorced her first husband. When they got married, though, the Jacksons were not aware the divorce had not been officially finalized. They did remarry afterward to correct the oversight.

The "Coffin Handbill," though, was the epitome of the nasty mudslinging that characterized the 1828 campaign. These were a series of broadsides first published by John Binns with the title "Some account of Some of the Bloody Deeds of General Jackson." Binns was the editor and publisher of the Democratic Press newspaper in Philadelphia and an avid supporter of President Adams. The most prominent feature of the broadside was the display of six coffins along the top. These represented six Tennessee militiamen who were executed for desertion by General Jackson. Soon after Jackson had subdued the Red Stick uprising among the Creeks in the summer of 1814, many of the militia under his command felt their obligations were complete and began pondering returning home. A group from the newly established Fort Jackson in Alabama decided to leave their posts. Jackson had the men arrested and then ordered a court-martial. In the meantime, he headed to New Orleans and the battle that would earn him fame. Most of the deserters were given leniency by the court-martial. Six, however, were condemned. In February 1815, Jackson carried out the court sentence, and the six men were shot while kneeling on their own coffins in front of the troops. In Jackson's defense, word of the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 had not reached anyone in this part of the United States. The men had left before the end of their six-month enlistment, and these were not the only grumblings of discontent. Realizing the threat of British forces still in the region, Jackson needed to maintain discipline and cohesion among his troops.

On his broadside, Binns published the names and biographies of the six men in an attempt to elevate them to martyrdom and manipulate the emotions of the reader. The story of the executed militiamen became the showcase example of Jackson's brutality.

" May that order and its consequences, sink deep into the hearts of the American people, and steel them against him who had no flesh in his obdurate heart."

The broadside also recounts other stories of Jackson's cruelty and propensity to settle matters through dueling. Included are accounts of other soldiers executed under the general's command, supposedly based on Jackson's whims, a massacre of Native Americans, many of whom were women and children, at Tallapoosa in Alabama, and a cartoon of Jackson killing a man in a duel.

"Gentle reader, it is for you to say, whether this man, who carries a sword cane, and is willing to run it thro' the body of any one who may presume to stand in his way, is a fit person to be our President."

There were several different versions of the Coffin Handbills. Each version sported a different number of coffins and arrangements of the stories highlighting Jackson's atrocities. (There are twenty-seven extant versions of the broadside.) The intent was the same. Critics of Jackson wished to portray him as a violent man who would quickly use military force against those who opposed him. They painted him as an American Caesar who would set authoritarian rule in the new republic. For their part, Jackson supporters did not shy away from responding to the accusations. They circulated rumors that Adams, as an ambassador to Russia, had procured an American girl for the tsar's service. They even went so far as calling Adams a pimp and claimed this was the reason Adams had been successful in foreign diplomacy. Attacks by both campaigns made excellent newspaper print, but whereas Adams recoiled from direct involvement with the nastiness of the tactics, Jackson relished in it. He provided newspaper editors with guidelines on how to respond to attacks and how to craft their attacks. In the end, Jackson handily won the election of 1828.

The election of 1828 was a pivotal moment in American politics. It firmly established the two-party system. The coalition built by Jackson would be the foundation of the Democratic Party. The supporters of John Quincy Adams would form the Whig Party, which would eventually become the Republican Party of Lincoln. The election saw the emergence of the modern party organization. The expansion of the franchise to universal white male suffrage changed the nature of politics. It also marked the beginning of mudslinging and character assassination as a normal and important aspect of political campaigning. The"Coffin Handbill" legacy was that it became synonymous with over-the-top hyperbolic smear attacks on political candidates.


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