Coming into the 1828 U. S. presidential election, President John Quincy Adams was not on firm ground, as his election in 1824 had been uniquely decided by the House of Representatives because no candidate earned majority of votes. Andrew Jackson, who had earned more popular and electoral votes in 1824, was considered to many to have been the rightful winner. The fourth candidate, Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House, wielded the most influence when he threw his support to Adams. This solution became known as the “Corrupt Bargain” because it was believed that Clay opposed Jackson in order to gain a cabinet post and improve his own strategic advance in 1828.
Many voters' reasons for choosing either candidate were related to the previous election, as well as to Adams' performance while in office, the parties' platform points, and information brought out in the campaign.
In addition to being the incumbent president, Adams had served as Secretary of State under James Monroe, in which capacity he was considered the architect of the Monroe Doctrine. His previous service included Senator from Massachusetts, Ambassador to Russia, and chief negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent. Andrew Jackson, the former Senator from Tennessee, had gained national fame as a victorious general in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Jackson had previously served in the U. S. House of Representatives and as Governor of Florida (while it was a territory). The fundamental difference between the two was Adams’ considerable experience and skill as a diplomat, contrasted with Jackson’s military orientation.
In 1824, both men had been members of the Democratic-Republican Party, which crumbled in the wake of the hotly contested election. Jackson led the effort to create a new party, the Democratic Party, supported by John C. Calhoun, who ran with him for Vice President. The other faction became known as the National Republicans, and backed President Adams. The new trend was also to run only one candidate per party, and to have only two main candidates.
In reality, the two candidates’ platforms were not very far apart. Both focused primarily on domestic issues, advocating increased taxation to pay for infrastructure—especially railroad expansion—and agricultural improvements. However, the protectionist tariffs that both had supported in 1824 became a point of division. Adams had succeeded with the passage of a tariff bill in 1828, which Jackson now strongly opposed. With his roots in Massachusetts, Adams won New England but Jackson dominated all other regions of the nation. His westward-looking, frontier expansionist focus helped him win among newly enfranchised Western-state voters.
The differences were primarily in experience, style, and region. Adams’ strong belief in loyal service was played out in his approach to the campaign, which refused involvement in dirty politics. With a reputation for decency but also passivity, even before becoming president, his political experience had far outstripped that of Jackson. Adams was criticized primarily for his lackluster performance while president, as well as for the contested election itself. Jackson, the war hero, was known as a firebrand who promoted aggressive action in politics as well as the battlefield. He was challenged for being a slave owner, his anti-Native American policies in Florida’s “Indian Removal,” and for being an enemy of the Constitution.