Birth of Modern Politics by Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

She believes that the leadership, order, and willingness to follow someone else that make military campaigns successful are also what make political campaigns successful, though she acknowledges that, at least for the individuals involved, the direct and immediate consequences of failing to follow the leader are less severe in a military campaign. Modern political campaigns frequently follow the military model, but Jackson's campaign was the first to really do so. In fact, the 1828 campaign differed significantly from prior candidacies. Jackson's campaign featured coordinated media, fund-raising, rallies, political polls, paraphernalia, and ethnic voting blocks, image-making, smear tactics, dirty tricks, and opposition research. (Parsons, 2009, p.133). Jackson's supporters introduced many of these tactics. However, Parsons makes it clear that they were not doing something unethical when they did so. On the contrary, Jackson and his supporters had to deal with a dramatically expanding electorate. One of the conclusions that these campaigners came to understand is that issues had become less important than a candidate's image. Of course, the outcome of the 1828 election, which Jackson won, was not solely due to Jackson's supporters. Adams largely refused to run any type of campaign. Therefore, he did not respond to the tactics used by Jackson's camp. In modern terms, that would make it almost a one-person election, because the vast majority of the electorate was constantly bombarded with information about Jackson, with little information about Adams. Combined with the fact that Adams had been plagued with suspicions of corruption throughout his presidency, the fact that his side was virtually silent when compared to Jackson's very vocal campaign, it probably seemed that Adams was uninterested in a second-term. This was a very interesting development, because in the time span between 1824 and 1828, Jackson and his supporters had managed to completely change the face of the American political scene.

In chapter six, Parsons makes it clear that Adams was not as passive in the 1828 election as history makes him appear to be. Jackson alleged that Adams' camp was conducting early polling as a means of pressuring people to switch from supporting Jackson to supporting Adams. Clay worried that Jackson's camp would send people from Tennessee to vote in Kentucky, but conceded that Adams' side would probably have illegal border-crossing voters as well. (Parsons, 2009, p.161). Moreover, the 1828 election marked the beginning of the viciousness that continues to characterize today's partisan politics. For example, Adams' camp began to distribute pamphlets detailing illegal, unethical, or immoral things committed by Jackson in his role as military leader, including, but not limited to, allegations that he had enlisted men executed and Jackson's scandalous marital history. What was missing from the campaign was any real issue upon which the candidates disagreed, so personal attacks came to characterize the political propaganda of both parties. Parsons concluded that two images came to dominate the end of the campaign. The first image was one promulgated by Adams, and he claimed the role of lifelong public service to support his bid for reelection. However, Adams continued to be plagued with questions about the validity of his election to the presidency, making people wonder about his commitment as a public servant. The second image was one promulgated by Jackson. He, too, claimed a lifetime of public service, but added to it a history of military service for his country. However, Jackson had to deal with concerns that, as a military leader, he would be willing to exploit the presidency for his own power. It was difficult for Adams' supporters to deal with the issue of the Battle of New Orleans. Any mention of Jackson's military career was likely to bring up New Orleans in the minds of voters, and Jackson's success in that campaign was dramatic and well-known to any potential voter. However, failing to mention Jackson's military history meant that Adams' camp would have been failing to address the one issue where Jackson seemed inferior to their candidate. Of course, Jackson prevailed in that election, which is no surprise given the similarities between military and political campaigns.

I was interested in this book, and because of a familiarity with Parsons' 1999 book about John Quincy Adams, I thought that the book would be informative. Parsons is a history professor and a writer who does outstanding research for his books, so I was confident that the book would be accurate and insightful. In fact, I found the book to be very enlightening, because I had no knowledge of how political parties operated prior to 1824. I knew that the federalists and the anti-federalists had been concerned about how political parties would impact the American political system. Furthermore, I knew that George Washington's presidency had been the result of a single-candidate running. However, I knew little of the history between Washington's election and the election in 1824. I do not feel that this book gave me specific information, but it did do a good job in distinguishing early presidential candidates, who did not actively seek the office, from later presidential candidates, who not only actively sought the office, but zealously campaigned for the position. In that way, I understood how the book supported Parsons' thesis that the election of 1828 marked the beginning of modern American politics.

However, I felt as if Parsons' thesis was a little over-reaching. I found the information about Jackson and Adams to be riveting and very illuminating about the individual men and their individual characteristics. Moreover, from a historical standpoint, I felt that the information Parsons gave about how each man's background played into their campaigns gave me some insight into the general attitudes held by people of that time. However, modern political campaigns differ dramatically from the campaign of 1828. Most significantly, the electorate has changed to encompass women and African-Americans, not only white males. Those changes seemed impossible in 1828. In addition, the media has exploded in a way that people could not begin to foresee at that time. When Parsons describes the smear campaigns that the candidates used against one another in the 1828 election, it was difficult to understand why they were so seemingly ineffective. Because I am a modern reader, with access to 24-hour news stations and the internet, it difficult to imagine a world in which juicy rumors like a presidential candidate being involved in civilian deaths would not help derail a campaign. As a result, I think it is probably more likely that modern presidential politics came into being in the Nixon-Kennedy debates, where voters were able to really witness the candidates and vote for charisma and likeability. Despite the fact that I do not feel that Parsons fully supported the book's thesis, I do feel that the book makes a valuable contribution to history, in that it explains Jackson's 1828 victory better than any other…

Sources Used in Document:


Parsons, Lynn. The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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