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Death of the Mute Tribune
on April 19, 2015
Mr. Parsons supports his thesis that the United States presidential election of 1828 definitively marked a transition in American politics. Prior to this election, men became presidents by playing the role of the Mute Tribune. The 1828 election was the first with organized campaigns that featured exaggerated claims about both the favored candidates and their opponents, and this transition has continued for almost two centuries. There are several reasons why this happened at this time:
* Rise of political parties
* Transition from candidates being selected by caucus to popular vote
* Western expansion of the nation
Both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were born in 1767 and, by most measures, had very impressive resumes before they ran against each other in 1824 and 1828. Which of these two men was the better president? That is slightly outside the scope of the book, but Mr. Parsons points out the strengths and weaknesses of both. Unfortunately, he seems to argue that the steps that each man took to expand the role of the executive branch were beneficial. Mr. Parsons suggests that Abraham Lincoln took the best from Adams and Jackson, but refrains from saying that Lincoln also took the worst. Jackson suspended habeas corpus in New Orleans as Lincoln did during the Civil War.
Mr. Parsons also makes sound arguments that the "Era of Good Feelings" was not so good and the "Corrupt Bargain" was not so corrupt. In the first year of his administration, Republican President Monroe made efforts to reconcile with Federalists, and a Federalist newspaper prematurely gave the positive label to the era thinking that political bickering would be minimized. This rapprochement was very short-lived, and partisan bickering quickly resumed over tariffs, slavery, infrastructure building, and other issues. The presidential election of 1828 featured the two frontrunners from the 1824 election, which was tainted by what contemporaries called a "corrupt bargain." The office of Secretary of State might have been even more prestigious in the early nineteenth century than it is today, as the previous four presidents had used the Secretary of State position as a stepping-stone to the presidency. But Mr. Parsons argues that this label was unwarranted. John Quincy Adams might have been naïve, but not corrupt. Clay approached him to offer his help; Adams did not solicit it. Appointing Clay as Secretary of State might have been naïve, not a quid pro quo issue. So, even though Jacksonians and other opponents denounced Adams for using this appointment to accomplish a political goal, Mr. Parsons argues persuasively that, other than this appointment, Adams avoided offering positions to supporters and terminating opponents to a fault.
One example of negative campaigning was the Jacksonians accusing Adams of putting a billiards table in the White House at taxpayer expense. This was due to an error in reporting such expenses to Congress that was made by Adams' son. The reporting error was quickly corrected (the president had paid for the table out of his own funds), but the Adams campaign did not realize that the correction needed to be publicized. The opponents capitalized on this oversight.
This book contains several surprising revelations. First, history and this book treat Thomas Jefferson with such reverence that it is shocking to read his expression of anti-Semitism on page 171. Another unusual revelation is the exercise habits of Adams, including nude swimming in the Potomac. Also notable is the question of political party labels. If the election of 1828 marks the birth of political parties, one would expect the party names to be better defined. But many sources refer to both candidates as Democratic-Republicans. Some call Adams a National Republican, and Jackson's party is referred to as Democratic or Jacksonian. Mr. Parsons simply refers to both candidates as Republicans.