1828 monmouth banknotePHOTO: 1828 Monmouth Banknote

Museum goers can get a closeup look at the year the first set of Twin Lights was built  with the opening of the newest exhibit at the Twin Lights Museum,  the 1820s.

The 1820s were also the time of primaries and presidential elections, mud-slinging and politics, notably with the 1828 election of  Andrew Jackson when he defeated incumbent John Quincy Adams.  That election is widely regarded as the beginning of the down-and-dirty “mud-slinging” tradition in United States politics. What might it have been like to live in Monmouth County during that pivotal year?

The new exhibit at the Museum  explores that question and transports visitors back nearly two centuries through a group of rare artifacts from the 1820s.

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Jackson Pines and Cranston Dean in residency at Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park
Jackson Pines and Cranston Dean at Langosta

The year 1828, in addition to the highly controversial election,  marks the completion of the first set of Twin Lights atop the Navesink Highlands. The two towers were not connected as they are today (the current building was erected in 1862) but served as a vital beacon to shipping in and out of New York harbor, which grew dramatically in size and importance during that era. The 1828 towers used polished parabolic metal disks to amplify their illumination; the first Fresnel lenses did not go online until the 1840s.

Through its collection of artifacts, the 1828 display transports visitors to a time when fewer than 30,000 people lived in Monmouth County. Even so, it had a robust economy and even its own bank. Part of the exhibit includes a $2 note issued by the Bank of Monmouth,  located in Freehold. Added to several copper and silver coins bearing a date of 1828, it represents what a laborer would have had in his pocket for a week’s work. Along with the coins and currency is a list of everyday items available in stores at that time, as well as the prices.

“Although three dollars and change doesn’t seem like much, you can clearly see that a typical working person could have fed a small family with what he made in a week,” said Jeff Tyler, President of the Twin Lights Historical Society.

“The new display also includes several items that would have been treasured by a boy or girl, including a lovely sampler that formerly belonged to the Newark Museum and a colorful little book that teaches American history through rhymes. You realize as you read the verses about the Revolution that this was a story that was also being told to children in 1828 by their grandparents, who lived through those times.”

Among the other features of the 1828 exhibit are items that tell the story of that year’s election—the most contentious in U.S. history to the time—and foreshadow the worst of modern political campaigns. A newspaper from that year overstates the positions and accomplishments of Jackson on its front page. The publication took its talking points from Jackson, who then repeated them as facts in his campaign rhetoric. A graphic poster produced by Adams supporters accused Jackson of mass murder and claimed that he had stabbed a business partner during a dispute.

“Jackson supporters accused Adams of having funneled underage girls to the Czar while he served as a diplomat in Russia,” said trustee Mark Stewart, who helped assemble the artifacts for the 1828 exhibit. “Throughout the campaign, supporters of the president besmirched Jackson’s wife, Rachel, suggesting that she was a prostitute—a relentless attack that may have led to her death shortly after election day. Jackson never forgave Adams.”

Why suddenly all the craziness?  According to Stewart, there were two catalysts for the heightened anger that served as a backdrop for the 1828 campaign.

Jackson had actually defeated Adams in the popular vote in the election of 1824 (an election when all four presidential candidates come from the same political party) but did not have sufficient electoral votes. For the first and only time in history, the final decision was left to Congress, which dealt Jackson out of the presidency. In the four years that followed, Jackson railed against Washington and burnished his image as an outsider, a man of the people who was not part of the ruling elite. Also during that time, the eligibility rules for voters were loosened, bringing more small farmers and working Americans into the campaign. Most intended to vote for Jackson.

“Imagine living in Monmouth County that year,” says Tyler. “New Jersey had gone for Jackson in 1824, but in 1828 they voted for Adams by a narrow margin. I imagine the political discourse got pretty heated in the taverns and drawing rooms around here.”

Jackson won the national vote by a landslide but refused to pay Adams the traditional post-election visit at the White House. Adams, in turn, decided to skip Jackson’s inauguration.

The Twin Lights Historical Society will be adding a video on the election of 1828 in January. The display will be up through the spring and is slated to be replaced by an exhibit on life in Monmouth County in 1862  sometime later in the year.

The Twin Lights recently hosted a traveling exhibit, “Guns Blazing!” which featured the maritime paintings of Maarten Platje. The exhibit, which occupied Galleries II and II, increased museum attendance dramatically during its 12-week run. A new exhibit of historic paintings is being planned for these galleries in 2020; currently they house lifesaving, maritime and technology exhibits. An original of the first printing of the Pledge of Allegiance is also on display adjacent to the 1828 exhibit.

The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10am . to 4pm., the grounds are open from 9am.. to 4:30.   Gates close promptly at 4:30pm – vehicles should not be left unattended on the property.  For further information contact the Museum at 732-872-1814.

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Muriel J Smith

Muriel J Smith an award-winning journalist, former newspaper editor, book author and historian, Her newest venture is her blog, www.venividiscripto.com in...