Targeting Andrew Jackson with the first “Coffin Handbill”

MONUMENTAL INSCRIPTIONS! [Philadelphia: John Binns, 1828.]
Broadside with letterpress and woodcut elements. Printed area 19”h x 13 ½”w on a 20 7/8”h x 15 ¼”w sheet, uncolored.
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A great rarity of Presidential politics, published during the virulent campaign of 1828.

Background
With the demise of the Federalist Party after the War of 1812, the Republican Party began to fracture into “National” and “Radical” or “Old Republican” factions. The former advocated a more robust Federal government and attracted old Federalists such as John Quincy Adams. The latter found their support in the South and the West and represented the Jeffersonian tradition of weak central government, states’ rights, and a preference for an agricultural over a mercantile economy. Against this background of deep differences the Election of 1828 pitted Adams against Tennessee war hero Andrew Jackson in one of the most virulent campaigns in American history (By way of example, Adams was at one point accused of pimping for the Czar during his service as ambassador to Russia.)

This broadside was the first in a salvo of “coffin handbills” fired by the Adams forces. Issued in 1828 by Philadelphia journalist John Binns as a supplement to his Democratic Press, it skewers Jackson for the allegedly unjust execution of six Tennessee militiamen after leaving their unit near Mobile in the Summer of 1814. Their defense had argued that they had left their unit under the mistaken belief that their enlistments had expired, only to return after realizing their error. They were nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to death. Jackson let the decision stand, and the men were executed on Feb. 21, 1815, not long after the Battle of New Orleans.

Whatever the merits of the accusation, the story caught fire. “Monumental Inscriptions” was soon issued in pamphlet form, and no fewer than 26 other “coffin handbills” appeared during the campaign. All trumpeted the theme of Jackson’s misdeeds, but many expanded the range of accusations and increased the number of his purported victims. However effective as propaganda, the handbills of course failed to turn the tide of the campaign, and Adams lost in a landslide.

Description
The broadside features the title in headline type, below which appear six woodcut coffins, each ornamented by a skull and crossbones and winged angels at the corners. Each coffin bears the name of one of the militiamen and describes his fate. For example, we read of one John Harris that:

“His temporal substance was destroyed by Fire. To earn bread for a wife and nine children, he entered as a substitute in the militia during the Creek War. He sought information from his Colonel as to his legal tour of duty. IT WAS WITHHELD FROM HIM. He was instructed by his officers that his tour of duty would expire on the 20th September; on that day he surrendered his musket to his Captain, took from him a receipt for it, departed from camp, and returned to the wretched hovel which contained his family. Fearing that he might have erred, he VOLUNTARILY RETURNED TO CAMP, and offered to do duty, if he had mistaken his rights. For these acts he was arrested, tried, and by the orders of GEN. ANDREW JACKSON, SHOT TO DEATH.”

At the base of the broadside the stanzas of “Mournful Tragedy” describe the event in the most pathetic possible terms.

In all, a rare and handsome broadside, offering striking evidence of the long history of vitriol in American politics.

References
OCLC 32368301 (Brown and Harvard) and probably OCLC 001833830 (British Library). Other impressions are held by the Historic New Orleans collection (MSS 557.6.1), the Library of Congress, and a private collection (sold by this firm several years back). Background from William C. Cook, “The Coffin Handbills-America’s First Smear Campaign” (Imprint vol. 27, no. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 23-37.)

Condition

Folds flattened, minor residual soiling, and three neatly-mended tears extending 1-2” into image but now almost invisible. Lined on verso.