Confronted by a brilliantly organized opposition that had created the first truly modern political party network in American history, Adams harbored no illusions about his chances for reelection in 1828. He would not stoop to making personal appearances before citizens whose votes he needed. In turning down a proposal that he speak to German farmers on the occasion of the opening of a canal in Pennsylvania, Adams said he thought such behavior "unsuitable to [his] personal character and to the station in which [he was] placed." To the modern critics who attribute Adams' decisive defeat in the presidential election largely to his own failure to match the organization and the tactics of his opponents, Adams would have answered that his principles meant more to him than did reelection. It was Henry Clay who later said he would rather be right than president, but it was John Quincy Adams who best lived up to the ideal. Certainly Adams would have rudely dismissed any suggestion that he should have modified or watered down the proposals his administration presented to Congress, with an eye toward broadening the base of his electoral support in 1828. He labored under the antique notion that there were things more important to a president than his reelection.
The 1828 campaign was a vicious one. A political ally of Adams' wrote him that he had never seen an opposition so "malignant and unprincipled as that which is organized against you." Over seventy years ago the historian Edward Channing, in attributing Adams' defeat to Jackson's overwhelming support in the South "combined with the employment of most unjustifiable methods by his partisans in Pennsylvania and New York," concluded that "possibly it was more honorable to have been defeated in 1828 than to have been elected." Writing a half century later, Remini concurs with this estimate, concluding that "this election splattered more filth . . . upon more innocent people than any other in American history." Jackson's opponents did not wear kid gloves, charging the Hero of New Orleans with murder and adultery, among other things. (Both charges were true, if only in a technical sense.) But these attacks paled in comparison to the smears leveled at Adams, who was charged, falsely, with adultery, using public funds to buy personal luxuries, and pimping for the czar during his ministry in Russia. Neither was the infamous "corrupt bargain" neglected.
Inevitably, the election returns can be variously interpreted. Jackson won a decisive victory in the electoral college, 178 to 83. When the popular vote is examined, Jackson's small majority in the West and the Middle Atlantic states and his decisive defeat in the New England states suggest that his smashing three-to-one majority in the South was the vital element in his election. Jackson's friends congratulated him on the outcome, one claiming that it was a victory for virtue. It was more surely a victory for the South. The popular totals also suggest that voters were not altogether indifferent to what they discerned as the principles of the two candidates—one a large slaveholder, the other a critic of slavery—for all the campaign's emphasis on parades, rallies, the dispensation of liquor, and other forms of ballyhoo.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the author of perhaps the most popular and influential book on the age of Jackson, attributes Adams' "overthrow in 1828" to his failure "to meet the problem" of an alleged widespread discontent among the American people. Historians' interpretations of such matters are bound both to differ and to change over time. The weight of the evidence seems to be that the chief "problem" Adams failed to confront was one posed not by the discontent of the people but rather by the ambition of political rivals determined under no circumstances to permit the sixth president to succeed himself in office.