Home > 1828 Campaign, 1828-1852 Campaigns > By Christine Strangie–1828 & The Coffin Handbill

By Christine Strangie–1828 & The Coffin Handbill

Mudslinging—the use of insults and accusations, especially unjust ones, with the aim of damaging the reputation of an opponent (Google). In 2017, mudslinging can be seen in campaign attack ads where the concept of image intersects with ideology and/or issues. In 1828 however, there was no cable television to help visualize the horrible qualities about the opposing characters. Instead, there was use of language, text and drawings to directly insult the candidate on issues, ideology, character, etc. Specifically, in the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson, a Democrat was campaigning against John Quincy Adams, the incumbent of the National Republican party. Both candidates’ campaigns initially began with the concept of mudslinging and brought to life a whole new method of campaign rhetoric. Jackson accused Adams of misusing public funds for personal use, such as gambling devices for his residency. Adams accused Jackson more personally by attacking his wife Rachel and accusing her of not being officially divorced, and being an adulteress. However, one piece of rhetoric from this campaign that stuck out was the Coffin Handbill.

The Coffin Handbill was a series of pamphlets written by a Philadelphia editor, John Binns. The pamphlets aimed to directly attack General Jackson by humanizing the people he killed in battle, as well as describing him as a bloodthirsty murderer.  The pamphlet is titled “Some Account of some of the Bloody Deeds of Andrew Jackson.” Visually, there are 23 coffins depicted to represent all that were murdered. The word ‘some’ holds a lot of weight in relation to the number of coffins because it makes Jackson look as if he is a serial killer. Although it is assumed that Jackson killed hundreds in the battle against Great Britain, the visual of the coffins as well as the names and stories beneath the coffins give life, as well as a face/story, to all that were killed. Binns aimed to simulate dialogue regarding the quantity of innocent individuals being murdered, as well as question the stability and civility of Andrew Jackson. The rhetorical theme of Jackson being a murderer or criminal made him seem unjust for a role such as the President of the United States.

When reading through the pamphlet, there were two stories and a quotation that stood out as important pieces of rhetoric. The first deals with the murder of a Native American woman and her three children. The story helps display the innocence of the victims and paints Jackson to look like a monster. As seen in history, and continuing now, women and children are supposed to be innocent, dainty and in need of protection. For Jackson to murder these four individuals who are supposed to be weak and presumably innocent, he looks careless and unstoppable. The story goes on to explain how Jackson invaded the tribe’s territory and completely destroyed their wellbeing as a community. Although invasions seemed common at this time, the lack of humanity and remorse in killing a mother and her children challenges Jackson’s ethics and morality. The indifference depicted throughout this specific story invites the reader to assume he would be aggressive in war tactics and be willing to attack anyone/anything. This type of rhetoric could easily evoke fear in potential voters, as well as disrupt their image of him as a war hero. Instead, they may have considered him a “cold-blooded murderer” and unfit to serve as president.

The second story that poses as an important piece of rhetoric is the visual of Jackson stabbing a man that is bent over. Although controversial and there being variations, Binns shared the story of a quarrel between Samuel and Andrew Jackson turning violent. After a heated argument turned violent, as you can see with both men’s top hats off of their heads, Samuel bent down to get a rock to defend himself. This is the moment Jackson stabbed him with his “sword cane,” when he least expected it. The story vividly describes the sword entering his “back and coming out his breast.” The gruesome details once again dehumanize Jackson, and make it appear that he was violent toward someone innocent and unknowing. Jackson was later charged with assault and battery based on this account, and once again it paints him to be a criminal and unfit to be president. The actual drawing depicting Jackson stabbing Samuel also poses some important rhetoric. Jackson almost appears to be wearing a Halloween mask based on the harsh wrinkles and anger drawn on his face. His vicious expression in comparison to Samuel being bent over disheveled and searching for a rock makes Jackson seem merciless and villainous. Although not related, Jackson did personally know Samuel and it shows how his anger could lead him to act violently and without care. Jackson appears to be relentless toward all individuals including ones he knew and had relationships with, which creates yet another concern for the American voter.

Finally, the quotation that follows the story of Samuel and Andrew Jackson poses as an important piece of rhetoric. Binns states, “gentle reader, it is for you to say, whether this man, who carries a sword cane and is willing to run it through the body of anyone who may presume to stand in his way, is fit to be president.” This statement almost reads like a rhetorical question—after posing all of these stories about Jackson being a murderer, being relentless and having no remorse, is he truly fit for presidency? Although the answer to Binns’ statement may seem obvious, he gives the power back to the reader and allows them to be the jury. The use of the word “gentle” weighs heavy in this sentence because it also makes the reader seem innocent and weak, and with the theme of this handbill assuming that Jackson would attack anyone, they would not be safe with him as president either. Additionally, Binns continues on the theme of attacking the weak and innocent by adding that he would “run it through the body of anyone who may presume to stand in his way”.  The lack of civility described here are just examples of how Jackson could not possibly be the candidate for such a prestigious and noble position.

Although not the most successful piece of campaign rhetoric, the Coffin Handbill has served as an example for mudslinging for over a century. The irony of this piece of rhetoric and its lack of success came full circle with a political cartoon of Binns, Adams and the third party candidate, Henry Clay. The political cartoon shows John Binns holding the coffins of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, as they are both trying to claw their way out. Adams desperately is trying to hold onto the presidential reign, depicted as a fancy chair, and although his efforts were grand, he lost the presidential election that year. In the Coffin Handbill, John Binns allowed the people to decide whether or not they found Andrew Jackson guilty and unfit to serve as president. The jury is out, and they found General Andrew Jackson not guilty, and capable of being the 7th president of the United States.

Sources:

Onion, Rebecca. “The “Coffin Handbill” Andrew Jackson’s Enemies Used to Circulate Word of His “Bloody Deeds”. Slate Magazine. The Vault, 05 Mar. 2014. Web. 09 May 2017.

“Presidential Campaigns: A Cartoon History 1789-1976.” Indiana University. Indiana University, 2008. Web. 09 May 2017.

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