With the demise of the Federalist Party after the War of 1812, the Republicans almost inevitably 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 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 Presidential election of 1828 pitted Adams against Tennessee war hero Andrew Jackson in one of the more toxic campaigns in American history (For example, a Jackson backer accused Adams of among other things pimping for the Czar during his service as ambassador to Russia.)
The striking and rare broadside offered here was one of dozens of “coffin handbills” published by Adams supporters. Beginning with a broadside titled “Monumental Inscriptions” issued by Philadelphia journalist John Binns, the series skewers Jackson for the allegedly unjust execution of six Tennessee militiamen after leaving their unit near Mobile, Alabama 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, but a court martial found them guilty of desertion and sentenced them 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, and at least 26 versions of “coffin handbills” were published during the campaign, each repeating similar themes and employing the coffin iconography. 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, and Adams lost in a landslide.
This broadside features a title in headline type, below which appear six woodcut coffins, each bearing the name of one of the executed militiamen. Under the coffins are five columns of text describing the execution in the most pathetic terms, followed by the stanzas of “Mournful Tragedy:”
“Hard as the flint was Jackson’s heart;
He would not grant relief.
“He order’d Harris out to die,
And five poor fellows more!
Young, gallant men, in prime of life,
To welter in their gore!!”
The lower half of the broadside includes accounts of other Jackson misdeeds, some illustrated with additional woodcut coffins and one with a crude but powerful cut of Jackson running a man through with a sword. Of particular interest are accounts of a “sanguinary massacre” of “about 1000 Indians, with their squaws and children” and of an incredibly violent Nashville brawl in which future U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton and his brother Jesse were nearly killed by Jackson and a group of his followers.
This variant does not seem to be described in William Cook’s “The Coffin Handbills-America’s First Smear Campaign,” which lists no fewer than 10 versions with the “multiple coffins and Benton letter” format. It is closest in format to Cook’s item III.6, which appeared on October 18, 1828 as a supplement to the Hagerstown, Maryland newspaper Our Country. The present version, however, has significant differences in both typography and graphics, such as pointed- rather than flat-topped coffins and an added mourning border to the left of the Jackson woodcut. At least one example has been located in the North Carolina State Archives, and another is held in a private Tennessee collection.
Background from William C. Cook, “The Coffin Handbills-America’s First Smear Campaign.” Imprint vol. 27, no. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 23-37 (not listing this variant of the broadside.) Not listed in the William C. Cook War of 1812 in the South Collection at Historic New Orleans.