a gentleman should not seek public office -- 7/1/19
Today's selection -- from Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics by Clemont Eaton. The 1828 presidential election between John Quincy Adams (National Republican, MA) and Andrew Jackson (Democrat, TN) was controversial. Even though Andrew Jackson won a plurality of both the electoral college and popular vote, John Quincy Adams was elected by the House of Representatives in a contingent election, largely orchestrated by Speaker of the House Henry Clay. This marked the beginning of a new style of politics, one in which politics became more popular and party politics became increasingly divisive:
"The election of 1828 sharply revealed that the day of the old type of politician was over and that new men and a new type of politics had arrived. While James Monroe, the last of 'the Virginia dynasty,' was President, there still lingered the tradition of the early Republic, that a gentleman should not seek public office but that the office should seek him. The electorate was relatively small, for many of the common people did not have the vote. Moreover, the common people regarded governmental officials with respect as men whose personal opinions had great weight. The leading figures in public affairs were not forced as a rule to truckle to popular passions and whims. The best of them were philosopher-statesmen, well grounded in a knowledge of political theory, of Locke, Sidney, Harrington, and the debates of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
"Yet in [Speaker Henry] Clay's lifetime, a revolution took place in the political mores of the American people. The aristocratic attitude toward politics disappeared with the spread of Jacksonian democracy. The politician then tried to identify himself with the common people, to wear old clothes, claim a log-cabin origin, and conceal his superior education and his command of the king's English. It became a common practice to treat the voters with whiskey and to speak grandiloquently of 'the sovereign people.' Kemp Battle, who was long the president of the University of North Carolina, described this custom in his Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel. He witnessed a candidate for office in a mountain village in North Carolina who harangued the Demos, standing before a grog shop waving in his hand a tin quart pot to give point to his arguments. After his speech was finished he invited the sovereign people to follow him into the shop. He was elected. ...
"The crude democracy of Jackson's time, moreover, led to a lower quality of government. The voters, [Alexis] de Tocqueville observed, failed to elect their superior men to office. To obtain the suffrage of the people it was not necessary for a politician to have a superior education or a brilliant mind. Rather, he must be able to sense the common man's discontents, his economic grievances, his prejudices, and his dreams. The successful politician in the 1830's and 1840's was, as a rule, a vigorous or eloquent stump speaker, a man who could devise popular slogans and organize political workers, and who gave the common people a feeling of their own importance. As party warfare developed into violent partisanship and as sectional tensions arose, the politician who had strong convictions and had taken a courageous public stand on issues was often pushed aside in favor of a candidate of availability."