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Race For The White House: Jackson vs. Adams. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired April 03, 2016 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[21:00:15] KEVIN SPACEY, "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE" EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: If you think the presidency has been stolen from you, then democracy is dead. Do you retreat or do you fight again? What will sustain you through the battles that ahead? Truth, justice or vengeance?
It's only been 50 years since the revolution and America is about to elect its sixth president.
PROF. TIMOTHY NAFTALI, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: The country is at a pivotal moment, who's going to lead it now? It was easy when you had the revolutionary generation and their proteges. You knew the line of succession. But that generation was dying out. And the issue was who could be president.
SPACEY: There's a new contender in the race, he comes all the way to Washington from Tennessee. He may be an outsider, but he has the people's vote. His name? General Andrew Jackson.
STEVE INSKEEP, JACKSON BIOGRAPHER/JOURNALIST: Up until that time there had never been a candidate really on the public stage in America like Andrew Jackson.
SPACEY: General Jackson is a national hero. The man who many believe saved his country a decade ago at the battle of New Orleans.
INSKEEP: He was regarded as a dangerous man who, as a general had more than once exceeded his authority. And broke the rules in order to defend his honor. In fact, Andrew Jackson was willing to kill to get his way.
PROF. DANIEL FELLER, UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE: The other candidates were kind of astonished when it became apparent that Jackson had a popularity that transcended what they thought were qualifications.
SPACEY: Jackson's rival has a perfect presidential resume. His name? John Quincy Adams.
FELLER: John Quincy Adams was probably the most qualified man to be president that the United States has ever produced. He was the son of John Adams. The first vice president and then president of the United States. He had served as a congressman, as a senator, as a diplomat, he had then been secretary of state under James Monroe.
SPACEY: As Secretary of State Adams believes he's set for the top job. The last three men who held the post went on to become the president. His turn next.
GEN. WESLEY CLARK, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, 2004: Of course John Quincy Adams has to be the next president. Because well, his father was the president. He's from Massachusetts, and -- he's secretary of state. And the secretary of state has always been the president. Who is Jackson to come in here, he's just from Tennessee.
SPACEY: The votes are counted. And the man from Tennessee surprises everyone.
FELLER: Jackson had more popular votes than anyone else. And more electoral votes than anyone else.
SPACEY: But not enough to win an absolute majority. Instead, Congress will choose America's next president.
INSKEEP: Andrew Jackson was enraged.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have been chosen by the will of the people.
INSKEEP: Let me rise or fall on the rule that the majority of the people should decide who their president is.
SPACEY: But Jackson is shouting in the dark. In two months' time the presidency will be decided by just 213 men.
ANN TOPLOVICH, TENNESSEE HISTORICAL SOCIETY: Things really went into higher gear in Washington City to negotiate for the vote that was going to take place.
[21:05:08] SPACEY: Adams needs to turn the vote in his favor. Fortunately, he has a secret weapon. Mrs. Adams.
TOPLOVICH: Louise Adams was a very accomplished woman. She had learned how to entertain in the courts of Europe while Adams was a diplomat.
SPACEY: Hundreds of miles from home, Andrew and Rachel Jackson can't compete with the Adams family.
TOPLOVICH: Rachel Jackson was completely a fish out of water when it came to what was expected of elite women in the cities of the eastern seaboard. The Jacksons were living if a boarding house, and it was very difficult for them to entertain people. Louisa Adams was often seen having conversation with Henry Clay.
SPACEY: Henry Clay is speaker of the House of Representatives. He controls the 213 men tasked with choosing between Adams and Jackson.
INSKEEP: The most powerful legislator of his time now had an opportunity to be a king-maker. He could swing the vote.
SPACEY: Clay and Adams talk, has the kingmaker met his future king.
FELLER: Clay asked for as Adams put it, assurances on some matters of great public importance. The two of them had a long conversation. Clay went away apparently satisfied.
SPACEY: Two months of negotiation and speculation pass. The House convenes, to announce America's new president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gentlemen, I am humbled and delighted with that which you bestow.
FELLER: The House of Representatives elected Adams.
SPACEY: John Quincy Adams becomes the sixth president of the United States of America. His secretary of state? Henry Clay.
FELLER: From Jackson's point of view, it looks like a corrupt bargain. It's two guys in a back room, making a deal. To steal the election away from the people of the United States.
INSKEEP: For Jackson, this is a betrayal. And it's clear from the very beginning he's never going to forget that betrayal as he sees it.
SPACEY: Jackson turns to the Bible to shame his enemy, Henry Clay.
INSKEEP: Mr. Clay is Judas taking the 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Andrew Jackson was a passionate man and a killer.
FELLER: Jackson was certainly capable of physical violence in defense of democracy. So the threat that he might do something was very real.
INSKEEP: After that election, there was a reception at the White House hosted by the outgoing President Monroe. To congratulate John Quincy Adams on his victory. And so Jackson walked into that crowded room, in front of this collection of notables.
FELLER: People were watching you know, what's going to happen between these two guys. They thought that there might be an explosion of temper. Jackson.
(THE WHITE HOUSE, FEBRUARY 10, 18250)
[21:12:47] SPACEY: Andrew Jackson has just lost the election he thought was his. He now approaches its victor John Quincy Adams.
FELLER: Adams looked uncomfortable. He thought that there might be an explosion of temper from Jackson.
INSKEEP: But he could be very controlled when it fit his motivations.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope you are well, sir.
FELLER: But it was all play-acting. Jackson even made a kind of disarming remark. He had his wife with him and he said, I give you my left hand. Because as you can see, my right is devoted to the fair.
INSKEEP: You don't want to seem like a sore loser, but behind the scenes, his advisers were already thinking about the next election four years away and how to position Andrew Jackson to crush this man.
SPACEY: Humiliated, Jackson heads home.
FELLER: Jackson's fury over being deprived and the American people being deprived of the presidency drove him for the next four years.
TOPLOVICH: Rachel Jackson was hoping that now he would give up that public ambition and simply be her husband.
SPACEY: But Jackson has no plans to retire. He believes that a dangerously divided America needs him.
HOWARD DEAN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, 2004: Jackson represented people who are dispossessed, all of those people who had gone west do make a better life for themselves and they found they couldn't have a better life, because all the resources were strangled by the wealthy class that was emerging in the eastern establishment.
SPACEY: Once again Andrew Jackson plans to try for the presidency. He has just four years to turn America against John Quincy Adams, but he can't do it alone.
DEAN: In these campaigns of outsiders and populists, you need a fixer, you need an insider.
SPACEY: New York Senator Martin Van Buren is as popular as he is smart. And he's very smart.
FELLER: Van Buren had the interesting nickname -- the little magician. It perfectly represented what he was famous for. And that is, procuring political marvels.
SPACEY: Van Buren agrees with Jackson -- John Quincy Adams stole the election of 1824.
FELLER: Van Buren believed deeply in democracy, the rule of the majority. The rule of the people.
SPACEY: Van Buren wants to bring down the stale, old elite by creating a new political party.
NAFTALI: Who better to run a national party than Andrew Jackson? A war hero, a man who, who ached for the presidency and was fueled by resentment, at the outcome of the 1824 election. Martin Van Buren said, that's how we're going to beat John Quincy Adams. And of course the man we're going to beat him with is Jackson.
INSKEEP: It would take several more years before that organization became known as the Democratic Party. But this was the heart of it.
NAFTALI: Once more Jackson will face Adams for the presidency, but this time Van Buren is on board and he has a powerful new weapon.
INSKEEP: You had an increasing number of newspapers, which were being carried across the country by an expanding transportation network to an expanding population. [21:17:09] SPACEY: Wherever he goes, Martin Van Buren tells the same
story -- democracy is in danger and the only man who can save it is Andrew Jackson.
DEAN: The editorial boards would be flattered of course to have someone like Van Buren going to meet with him. Would write something positive and suddenly there would be this boom, oh my God, Jackson could win.
NAFTALI: Martin Van Buren is the first Politico to understand that American presidential candidates to be successful have to be part celebrity.
SPACEY: Jackson is already famous, but now he has to become legendary.
Nesting in the White House, President Adams has no time for the modern world.
NAFTALI: Adams doesn't take advantage of the fact that he' in the White House. To use the White House as a way of gaining popular support. He remains aloof. And he thinks that's OK. His vision, his understanding of politics was the old politics. He would not stoop to do things to get re-elected, even if they were perhaps absolutely necessary.
SPACEY: Meanwhile for Secretary of State Henry Clay, the political just got personal.
NAFTALI: Clay was mad at Jackson for him spreading the idea of the corrupt bargain. These men hated each other.
SPACEY: Clay realizes that Jackson mania will hamper his plans. Something must be done.
CLARK: In politics, it's no holds barred. Whatever is found as a weakness can be and will be exploited.
SPACEY: Clay goes for Jackson's Achilles heel. And in doing so changes presidential campaigning forever.
[21:23:32] INSKEEP: This has been described as one of the really great smear campaigns of its time.
SPACEY: In the spring of 1826, an Englishman with a grudge arrives in Harrisburg, Kentucky, he's still fuming at Andrew Jackson for defeating his countrymen at the battle of New Orleans. His name is Edward Day and his purpose is to dig up dirt on Jackson's wife, Rachel.
TOPLOVICH: This fellow Day was traveling around in Kentucky, had gone to Harrodsburg and other places where Rachel had lived.
SPACEY: The results of day's snooping are delivered to the liberty hall and "Cincinnati Gazette." Loyal to President Adams, the gazette runs day's story on its front page.
TOPLOVICH: The newspaper reports that Rachel had knowingly run away from her husband, Lewis Roberts with Andrew Jackson and that Andrew Jackson had lived with her in bigamy.
NAFTALI: It is our way as Americans, to assume that every presidential campaign is the very worst. Somehow we have lost the decorum, the etiquette of the past. 1828 is a reminder that we've had bitter presidential campaigns for centuries.
TOPLOVICH: The story gets picked up by newspapers all over the United States. They were outraged that someone had so overturned the laws of society.
SPACEY: Henry Clay's supporters have turned Rachel Jackson into the scarlet woman of the hour.
TOPLOVICH: Rachel is despondent. She writes a letter to the friend of hers, the general's enemies have dipped their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me.
SPACEY: But Clay's real target isn't Rachel Jackson -- it's her husband.
FELLER: Jackson and Rachel were deeply in love with each other. He thought the people who made these attacks ought to be thrashed.
TOPLOVICH: Their hope was that Jackson would react so violently, that would put him beyond the pale as far as the American electorate was concerned.
INSKEEP: Andrew Jackson was a man with a ferocious temper who was willing to challenge people to duels and actually fight duels in order to win.
SPACEY: Twenty years before, a local horse breeder had made a fatal mistake of insulting Jackson's wife. The fatal mistake.
TOPLOVICH: Andrew Jackson went to the dueling ground with Charles Dickinson.
SPACEY: Dickinson fired first. And hit Jackson in the chest.
CLARK: Jackson stood and took it, it was a kind of discipline that an Andrew Jackson had to sort of iron control. And then took his time and calmly killed the man who had fired.
SPACEY: The message was clear, insult Rachel Jackson and Andrew Jackson will shoot you dead. Jackson carried the bullet with him all his life as a reminder to himself and everyone else of what he would do for love.
TOPLOVICH: Jackson found himself having to defend Rachel's honor or at least her virtue.
SPACEY: There is just one tiny flaw in Jackson's rage. FELLER: The accusation that Jackson was a bigamist. A wife-stealer.
It was actually true.
SPACEY: Thirty years before, Rachel had fled an abusive husband and eloped with Jackson before getting a divorce.
TOPLOVICH: It became clear that this was going to become an issue in the campaign. Many people commented, are an adulterer and her husband really the proper leaders of a Christian nation.
[21:28:22] SPACEY: In Washington, President Adams has no time for gossip.
FELLER: Adams was a very self-disciplined man. He got up before dawn every morning. Took a little swim in the Potomac. Privately he conceded that probably two-thirds of Americans did not want him to be president.
SPACEY: Adams needs to prove himself if he's going to modernize America.
INSKEEP: The Adams administration was in favor of broadly popular programs which were called internal improvements such as new roads, new bridges, lighthouses and so forth. Aids to the economy.
FELLER: He said we should lead the world in economic development. Not only to make us richer, but to enable us to accomplish all the great things that man has put on earth to accomplish.
SPACEY: While President Adams gets to work building the new republic, Andrew Jackson is offered a lifeline that could resurrect his election campaign.
[21:33:07] SPACEY: Andrew Jackson is now seen as America's most famous wife stealer. He needs a new image, and he needs it now.
FELLER: On January 8th, 1828, there was a huge commemoration of the battle of New Orleans planned. And Jackson was invited to it.
CLARK: Jackson was the personal victor in that battlefield. So obviously when it comes time to celebrate the battle of New Orleans, it's about Andrew Jackson.
FELLER: The Jackson people thought there was a sense of opportunity here. Let's make it a big campaign event.
SPACEY: In the war of 1812, America had been in danger of becoming a British colony again. Vastly outnumbered, Andrew Jackson was ordered to halt the redcoat menace.
CLARK: Jackson's army, they weren't trained to stand in a European battlefield and duke it out at 100 meters with muskets. So Jackson put them behind barricades.
FELLER: The British lost about 2,000 casualties. And Jackson lost not many more men that you count on the fingers of both hands.
CLARK: What a personality. What a strength of character. And what generalship he showed.
SPACEY: Jackson's team have a year to prepare for the anniversary.
FELLER: The battle commemoration at New Orleans was extensively planned. And it was very carefully choreographed and stage-managed.
TOPLOVICH: Rachel Jackson, she has to go and support her husband, it's important for her to be seen by his side and she loves Andrew Jackson. But she comforts herself throughout it, thinking of how empty these honors are in this world.
SPACEY: The Jacksons travel 1100 miles by steamboat down river from Nashville to New Orleans.
FELLER: There were advantages to just doing that. One of them was that could you meet crowds along the way.
NAFTALI: It's a fundamentally different approach to politics and it lays the foundation for politics. Driven by personalities. Driven by spectacle. A sense of adventure and theater. It could then be extensively reported in the newspapers and that was really the point of it. It was not just to have this celebration, but to have news of this celebration, spread around the country.
Andrew Jackson learn as lesson that politicos around the world would learn -- a lot of people vote based on their gut. On a sense of, I like this person, I trust this person.
DEAN: Shaking the hand, looking in the eye, having somebody be able to touch you, joke with you. If they like you, then you've got them forever.
FELLER: The New Orleans event was all over the pages of the newspapers, reminding everybody that this was the hero of New Orleans. Looking at it now, would you say this was the first mass campaign rally in American history.
SPACEY: Jackson fever grips the nation as the fearless warrior, who saved America, now invades its hearts and minds.
NAFTALI: Jackson represents the new politics. I believe in America. The way things are being run in Washington are wrong. Vote for me because we can bring change.
John Quincy Adams didn't believe in meeting with people. He wouldn't do it. He felt that was pandering for votes. The Adams people realized that they had to make their candidate into a popular guy, which with John Quincy Adams was not easy, because he did not have a popular touch.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was observed that the first step --
SPACEY: Adams is persuaded to travel to Maryland where he will break ground on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A waterway that will link East and West.
[21:38:19] FELLER: He actually took the shovel and stuck it into the ground and hit a root. Then according to the Adams newspapers, he threw off his coat, and attack that root again. The Jackson newspapers predictably ridiculed this.
SPACEY: Adams might well have dug his own grave. It's time for Secretary of State Henry Clay to step in.
FELLER: Clay in so many words said -- you want to win or not? And Adams saying in so many words -- I'm not going to disgrace and degrade myself to win.
TOPLOVICH: They had to throw everything that they could think of at Andrew Jackson, if they had any hope of Adams retaining the presidency.
CLARK: The way politics works is, you attack your opponents' strength. You may find a weakness, good. But you must attack his strength.
So it was very logical to attack his military record.
[21:43:39] SPACEY: Henry Clay's researchers are digging into Andrew Jackson's military record.
FELLER: You do see in the 1828 campaign, the beginnings of what today we would call opo-research or opposition research. That is, employing people or delegating people to go sniff out dirt about the opponent.
SPACEY: And amongst the yellowing documents they hit pay dirt. Sixteen years ago, as Jackson's depleted army were gearing up to fight the British, one recruit, private John Wood, got into a fight with his comrades in arms.
INSKEEP: Private Wood ended up seizing a weapon at one point and brandishing it around, he was given a hasty court-martial and put to death.
They found story after story after story, alleging that he had been impetuous, that he was brutal. That he had his own men executed.
SPACEY: Henry Clay sanctioning a handbill to be printed in Philadelphia. The pamphlet describes the execution of six militiamen, an execution ordered by Andrew Jackson.
FELLER: Across the front were the silhouettes of six coffins representing six militiamen who Jackson had shot.
SPACEY: This morbid document soon becomes known as the coffin handbill.
FELLER: Andrew Jackson of course was known to be a killer of his enemies, nobody particularly had a problem with that. But now he was questioned in campaign literature for killing his own men or having them put to death.
CLARK: If you could assault a man's character, that's the unanswerable attack. If you can get his character. That's, that's where it hurts.
FELLER: The message of this is simple, you know, do you want this violent unbridled, perhaps crazy man, do you really want him as president of the United States? The lifeblood of his countrymen flowed plentifully of his order. Marks the perfect indifference with which General Jackson shoots, hangs or stabs his fellow beings.
SPACEY: Jackson is convinced the story comes directly from his mortal enemy, Henry Clay.
TOPLOVICH: For Rachel Jackson, seeing these people attacking him was the most distressing thing at all. She's also despondent at this idea that they would win the White House. She does make the statement that I'd rather be a door keep anywhere in the palace of the lord than in that palace in Washington.
SPACEY: With three months to go until the next presidential election, Andrew Jackson is in no mood to turn the other cheek.
TOPLOVICH: He managed to calm himself enough to counterattack.
INSKEEP: You see Jackson and his correspondents sending clippings to political friends and allies saying here's some information you can use against someone. He is somebody who really understands early 19th Century news media and was surrounded by supporters who knew how to help him use it.
SPACEY: Attack is now the only form of defense. And the more vicious, the better.
FELLER: The Jacksonians main line of attack was that Adams was a fop. And aristocrat, a snob, a New Hampshire Jacksonian newspaper charged that Adams, back when Adams had been minister to Russia had set up an American girl for the czar. They were calling the president of the United States a pimp. To him, it showed how unfit Jackson was to be president, that would have these mongrels around him doing this kind of thing.
[21:48:16] SPACEY: Adams' boys hit Jackson in a most unexpected way. With a Spelling Bee.
FELLER: Some Adams' newspapers uncovered Jackson letters, pointing out that Jackson had misspelled a number of fairly elementary words. Misspelled words like "government" "congress" with a "k." It was of all the accusations, perhaps the one that John Quincy Adams held most closely too privately.
Clay and Adams believed that you ought to be something of an intellectual to lead the people. Jackson's people said well, you know, George Washington misspelled a lot of words, what difference does it make?
SPACEY: Adams has shown himself to be a man disconnected from the people.
DEAN: It was incredibly stupid. And the average person goes, that's right, I got some imperfections and I know it and so does he and I'm voting for the guy just like me.
SPACEY: Time for the voters to decide between the patriotic hero and the born leader.
(OCTOBER 31, 1828)
[21:53:19] SPACEY: The 1828 presidential election, voting is under way.
John Quincy Adams takes his morning dip on the Potomac. He's not feeling confident.
FELLER: Adam himself became increasingly convinced that he was going to lose. He was appalled at the idea that this boob, this hick, could become president.
SPACEY: But Adams like the rest of America will have to wait a month for the rest for the results to come in. Meanwhile, Rachel Jackson is finding life in the public gaze increasingly unpleasant.
TOPLOVICH: She was in Nashville in a shop and overhead women talking about her. She said from what I have heard these people say, I realize what a pitiful old woman they think I am. I am not sure if I can go to Washington.
SPACEY: Rachel Jackson isn't alone in her anxiety. The ambitious Henry Clay is all too aware of what an Adams' victory will mean for him.
INSKEEP: A pattern had developed in the early years of the country in which each succeeding secretary of state rose to the presidency.
TOPLOVICH: Following John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay felt that he would be the next president.
SPACEY: But Clay's job prospects are now in the hands of the voters, and by early December, the results are in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jackson took the entire South and he also carried Pennsylvania and most of the electoral vote of New York.
SPACEY: Four years after his first bitter loss, Andrew Jackson is now elected as America's seventh president.
FELLER: He believed entirely that the country had been rescued, that democracy had been as Martin Van Buren would have said, set back on course.
SPACEY: Jackson appoints Van Buren as his secretary of state. Eight years later, he would succeed Jackson as president. NAFTALI: Andrew Jackson is representative of a new era in American
politics. They wanted a president that they could identify with, that they could understand. What you have here is the beginning of Americans wanting a president that they could have beer with.
TOPLOVICH: Rachel was happy for the country, but she felt it was her loss. With a heavy heart, I'm sure, she is preparing herself to go on to Washington and take her place by his side, because the people have demanded it. The date has been set for when the Jacksons are doing the leave for Washington City. But instead, Rachel suffers a heart attack.
SPACEY: For four days, Jackson does not leave Rachel's bedside. On December 22nd, she dies.
TOPLOVICH: Jackson is crushed, he's beside himself. He just cannot believe that this woman that he has loved and defended all of these years has left him.
FELLER: Jackson held the Adams' and Clay people responsible for killing her with their slanders.
SPACEY: On February 11th, Jackson begins his three-week journey to Washington, D.C., to be inaugurated.
INSKEEP: He did not pay a call on the departing president as protocol would have required. Didn't do it.
SPACEY: The harsh and bitter campaign has deeply wounded both candidates.
FELLER: Adams refused to attend the Jackson's inauguration. He left that morning going back to Boston.
(THE CAPITOL, MARCH 8, 1829)
Jackson supporters flood into Washington. A human tide keen to see the people's generated sworn in as president.
FELLER: Jackson encouraged it because Jackson and his supporters had encouraged members of the non-political elite to feel a direct connection to the presidency. Hundreds of people descended on the White House, and there was free food, and there was free booze, and it turned into quite a mob scene.
NAFTALI: You can date many of the characteristics of the modern presidential election system to 1828. In the sense that Americans want a president they are comfortable with, that they can identify with.
SPACEY: Jackson has lost the love of his life and won the biggest battle of his career, and along the way, he has changed American politics forever.
NAFTALI: For 40 years American presidents were largely selected by the American political elite. The shift that occurs between 1824 and 1828 is the American people don't want their representative representatives to choose presidents anymore. They want to choose presidents themselves. Andrew Jackson is the beneficiary of that huge change in the American presidential political system.