The “Corrupt Bargain” of the 1824 Presidential Election

Electoral College Results for 1824. Courtesy of Wikipedia

There is no such thing as a one-party system.

Whenever a political group manages to dominate all the others, there’s only one thing for the top dogs to do: fight among themselves.

From Commie red to Fascist black, the song remains the same: Stalin vs. Trotsky, Hitler vs. Rohm, Castro vs. Che, Mao vs. Deng, and in 1824, Jackson vs. Adams vs. Crawford vs. Clay.

The 1824 presidential election was rife with mudslinging, regional balkanization, backroom dealing, alliance building, nursing old grudges and settling old scores. It would be the first-and last-time only one political party would vie for the presidency—and in the process, throw politics and the Constitution into chaos.

It all began with a war hero.

Andrew Jackson, hero of the Creek War, the War of 1812, and the Seminole Wars, thought himself a perfect fit for the top job in 1824. Tough and ornery, with a series of duels under his belt, Jackson amassed a fortune selling horses and gambling to become a gentleman planter in Tennessee—the direct opposite of his upbringing in the Carolina backcountry. Yet he appealed to common folks in the South and the frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee as a sort of “common man.”

His main rival was anything but common.

John Quincy Adams was born into public service, literally. The son of the second President of the United States, Adams accompanied his father on his trips to Europe during the Revolution (and compiled an impressive diplomatic resume in the process). As secretary of state, Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, as well as drafted the main ideas of the Monroe Doctrine. A favorite of New England (naturally), Adams felt he was due for the Presidency.

(and unlike another son of a chief executive, Adams was genuinely astute, brilliant and principled.)

If it were just these two, we wouldn’t be talking about it now. Yet two other rivals also come into the race-one a member of numerous Cabinets, the other a Speaker of the House that was a master of the backroom deal.

William Crawford was a Georgia Senator who also served as Minister to France, Secretary of War and Secretary of a Treasury. It makes for an impressive candidate except for one thing: Crawford suffered a stroke the year before, brought on by a side effect of a doctor’s prescription. Even though Crawford recovered—even receiving the endorsements of former Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—his campaign was never the same.

The last of the candidates was Henry Clay, known to history as the “Great Compromiser.” Most historians view him as a great orator and politician. In my mind, Clay was the first great Congressional wheeler-dealer in history. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, and later a United States Senator, Clay would be instrumental in the most important legislative deals of the 19th century: the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Nullification crisis, etc. He was the epitome of the great orator, a man who could charm anyone into voting for anything.

He also hated Andrew Jackson with a passion.

Referring to Jackson’s victory in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Clay scoffed: “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy.” It isn’t much of an argument: Washington was responsible for quite a few British scalps himself. Yet Clay made his point; military victory alone does not a President make (a point often lost on the electorate, even then).

All the candidates had one thing in common: they were all Democratic-Republicans.

Since the Federalist Party imploded during the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans had been the only real political force for almost a decade. The previous President, James Monroe, ran without any opposition, demonstrating the Dem-Rep dominance of the period.

But, as expected, the unity couldn’t last. Tensions ran high, scores needed to be settled, and regions were quick to attack other areas of the United States. Welcome to the US in 1824, eerily similar to the Yugoslavia of 1994, minus the bloodthirsty militias and hard-to-pronounce surnames.

As Election Day neared, all four candidates were staking out their bases—and not much else. Adams was popular in the Northeast. Jackson, now less frontiersman and more planter, was a friend of the South. Crawford, on the other hand, had supporters in the Old South states of Georgia and Virginia, old planters that feared Jackson’s popular support. Parts of the West, especially the old Northwest Territory, supported Clay.

The results, as expected, provided little clarity.

Although more and more states were using the popular vote to decide their Electors to the Electoral College, Many still relied on the state legislature to make the decision, making the ballots cast a moot point. In 1824, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina and Vermont still didn’t trust their citizens enough to choose Electors for the top job. So bear that in mind when reading the results:

Presidential Candidate

 

Popular Vote(a)

Electoral Vote

Count

%

Andrew Jackson(b)  

151,271

41.3

99

John Quincy Adams(e)  

113,122

30.9

84

William Harris Crawford(c)  

40,856

11.2

41

Henry Clay(d)  

47,531

13.0

37

(Massachusetts unpledged electors)  

6,616

1.8

0

Other

6,437

1.8

0

Total

365,833

100.0%

261

Needed to win

131

Although Jackson won the most votes, and the most Electors, he didn’t win a majority. He won 41% of the popular vote (again, without the votes of 6 states) and 99 out of a possible 261 Electors. Too bad he needed 131 to win.

So for the second time in America’s history, the US House of Representatives will decide the winner.

This time, however, was different from the last mess. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson failed to secure the majority of Electors for the Presidency, the US House of Representatives acted under different rules. Under those rules, the winner became President, and second place became Vice-President. With a little conniving by a West Indian New York lawyer and former Cabinet secretary named Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson won the tiebreaking vote, and his opponent Aaron Burr become the veep—only to snuff out Hamilton on the dueling grounds of Weehawken four years later.

The 1824 debacle would be decided under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804. It served to make the process less messy and more straightforward. Now, President and Vice-President were cast as separate ballots. In the House, each state would vote amongst the top three vote-getters. Each representative would vote their preference, but the final vote is cast by state (usually the majority among the state’s representatives).

Henry Clay, as the fourth runner, was left out—just in time for him to do some back-parlor magic.

As Crawford was a non-issue thanks to the stroke, the House machinations came between Jackson and Adams. Clay, as Speaker of the House and a political boss to a sizeable number of Congressmen, was in the enviable position of kingmaker. It didn’t take long for him to make a decision.

Politically, Adams’ policies on internal improvements and tariffs for promoting domestic industry was along the lines of Clay’s ideas as well (funny enough, the ideas were actually the brainchild of 1800 kingmaker Hamilton, as the first Secretary of the Treasury.) Furthermore, Clay saw Adams as more “presidential.” He came from a leading family. He held high positions in government for most of his life. He understood the domestic and international rigors of the job.

Jackson, to Clay, was no more than an ill-bred, hillbilly Napoleon with a rabble of voters and a workload done by slaves (all of which has some truth to it). Also, Jackson had an unsavory reputation for dueling, stealing women, horse betting—the sort of backcountry foolishness that would make both Boston Brahmins and Virginia planters cringe.

Finally, though no one could substantiate this claim, an anonymous account in a Philadelphia newspaper claimed that Clay sold his vote to Adams in exchange for a Cabinet post, namely Secretary of State. It was neither confirmed nor denied, and we won’t know the whole story, but such a deal would make sense: Adams and three previous Presidents had been Secretary of State, making it a logical step for an heir to the top office.

House Votes in the 1824 Election. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

So promises were made, deals were struck, cigars were smoked and hands were shook. When the votes were counted on February 9, 1825, all of Clay’s glad-handing and backslapping paid off. Adams won on the first ballot, with 13 states. Jackson wins 7 states, with Crawford bringing up the rear with 4.

Jackson and his supporters were shocked at the vote. For the next four years, the Jacksonians, soon to evolve into the modern Democratic Party, would hound and harass the Adams administration, accusing them of colluding into a “corrupt bargain” to secure the Presidency.

Adams, for one, immediately offered Clay the Secretary of State job. This did nothing to help his reputation, as the increasing number of states using popular votes would make a second term difficult. It also didn’t help that Adams attempted a principled, prudent set of policies with a Congress packed with his enemies. It virtually ensured that Adams would lose the rematch to Jackson in 1828—which is exactly what happened.

Jackson would win two terms as President, and would be decried and applauded for extending executive power in the federal government. His exploits, both good and bad, were so famous that the era itself adopted his name—“The Age of Jackson.”

Adams would serve 17 years as a US Congressman after he left office in 1829, this time as a member of the Whig Party. His last years were incredibly productive: Adams would be a steadfast champion against slavery and the slave trade, especially serving as counsel in the famous 1841 Amistad case. All of this, of course, made Jackson the slaveholder hate Adams even more.

Crawford, the third man in the voting of the 1824 election, recovered very well from his stroke—even though it was too late to convince the voters. Adams offered Crawford to stay on as Treasury Secretary. Crawford, sensing his own mortality and probably the changing political winds, declined and returned to Georgia. He served as an active state superior court judge until his death in 1834.

So what happened to Henry Clay, the man whose backroom deals vaulted Adams to the White House?

Well, the Department of State was no longer the stepping stone it once was.

Clay, who became a US Senator after he left the Adams administration, would try four times for the high office. In 1832, the Clay campaign was thrashed by the ever-popular Andrew Jackson. He would try to get the Whig nomination in 1840, but another war hero stopped him in William Henry Harrison. Clay would get the Whig nomination in 1844, but James Polk would beat him in the general election. Finally, yet another war hero, Mexican War general Zachary Taylor, would beat Clay yet again for the Whig nomination in 1848.

So what are the lessons we learn from the clusterfuck that was the 1824 election?

First, the laws are necessarily meant to produce a popular result—just ask Andrew Jackson.

Second, when someone is felled by a near-fatal illness, it’s hard to convince an electorate otherwise—just ask William Crawford.

Third, even when the contest it’s over, it’s never really over—just ask John Quincy Adams.

You don’t have to remind Henry Clay twice about the best laid plans of mice and men.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The “Corrupt Bargain” of the 1824 Presidential Election

  1. phil

    good stuff

    just can”t send out with “clusterfuck”

  2. Pingback: The Election of 1824 | David's Commonplace Book

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