I am going to make a prediction about the next presidential election. I do not know who is going to be the next president. I don’t even know who is going to run. I can tell that the winner of the next election will be either a Republican or a Democrat. I grant that this isn’t a particularly useful prediction considering that every presidential election since 1852 has been won by a member of those two parties. Our present two party system has proven to be so long lived and stable that it is almost unthinkable that any third party could possibly make any headway against the domination of the two major parties. Although political parties are not mentioned in the constitution, the Democratic and Republican parties are as much an institution of government as Congress or the Supreme Court.
This was not always the case. Before 1850, American politics was considerably more fluid than it has been since. Under the first party system, from 1796 until 1816, the two parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. After 1816, the Federalist party was effectively dead and in 1820 President James Monroe had been unopposed when he ran for re-election. This period of one party rule was known as the Era of Good Feelings. Many observers believed that the period of partisan politics had ended. Events proved them to be wrong. The United States had begun a transition from the first party system to the second party system and the Era of Good Feelings was only the calm before the storm. There was to be one more single party election, the election of 1824, but tensions were already developing in the ruling Democratic-Republican party and there were to be a number of candidates.
Much of this tension was regional. The United States was still not very united and different sections of the country, north and south, east and west, had different economic interests and cultures and favored different types of men for the presidency. Another source of trouble was the method the parties had been selecting their candidates. Up until then, each party had held of caucus of its leading men, usually in Congress, to select the candidates. This method seemed undemocratic in an age in which property qualifications for the franchise were being dropped and universal suffrage for white males was becoming the norm. Many people loudly denounced “King Caucus“, and believed candidates should be selected by state legislatures or conventions.
In February 1824, the Congressional Caucus Selected William Crawford of Georgia as the Democratic-Republican candidate. He had served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Monroe, and was Monroe’s favored choice as his successor. Unfortunately King Caucus had become so unpopular that this nomination did Crawford more harm than good. He had suffered a stroke back in September 1823 while seeking the nomination and had never really recovered
Then there was John Quincy Adams from Massachusetts. He was the son of President John Adams, and had served as M0nroe’s Secretary of State. At the time, the the position of Secretary of State was seen as the natural stepping stone to the Presidency, and Adams believed himself to be the natural heir. He was a talented man and had served his country with distinction. Several state legislatures in New England nominated him as the Democratic-Republican candidate. He was too much of a New Englander to be popular in the South and West
Henry Clay was another obvious and popular candidate. From Kentucky, he was a noted lawyer and orator, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives. He transformed the Speakership from a relatively minor position to one nearly equal to the President in power. He favored a policy of internal improvements like railroads and canals to help develop the West. He played a key role in crafting the Missouri Compromise of 1820. He was naturally popular in the South and West and he might have been the choice of the Caucus if he had been foolish enough to seek it.
Finally, there was Andrew Jackson. He was from Tennessee and indeed had helped to found the state. He had served as Congressman and Senator from Tennessee and had served as the military governor of Florida after the United States acquired it from Spain in 1821. Jackson was also a war hero with distinguished service in the War of 1812, the Creek War and the Seminole Wars. Jackson had commanded the American Army that defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans, and if the battle took place two weeks after the war ended, it still counted as the greatest victory the United States had won in that war. Although Andrew Jackson was very wealthy, owning plantations and hundreds of slaves, he liked to pose as a humble man of the people and supported what came to be known as Jacksonian Democracy. He was also popular in the South and West and was a bitter rival to Clay.
There was also John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. He had served as Secretary of War under Monroe and wanted to run for President but lacked decided the competition would be too fierce. He was popular in the South and effectively ran for vice-president seeking support from Adams and Jackson.
With four candidates, all from the same party, and generally favoring the same policies, the Presidential contest became a matter of personalities and regionalism. It was considered undignified for presidential candidates to actively campaign but their supporters eagerly campaigned on their behalf and the campaign of 1824 quickly became enthusiastic, personal and negative, with each candidate’s advocates praising their man and condemning the others. Adams had an English wife. Clay was a drunk and Crawford a thief. Jackson was a wild man who liked to kill people. Irregularities in Jackson’s marriage to his wife Rachel were also brought up. She had been married before, but her husband had left her, presumably seeking a divorce. When Andrew Jackson and Rachel married, it turned out that he not not gotten the divorce and the marriage was invalid. The matter was quickly corrected but Jackson’s enemies could accuse his wife of being a bigamist.
With four candidates, no one achieved a majority of electoral votes. Adams won the New England states and got 108, 740 popular votes with 84 electoral votes. Jackson was ahead of him, gaining most of the south, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, with 153,544 popular votes and 99 electoral votes. William Crawford was third with Virginia and Georgia and 40,856 popular votes and 41 electoral votes. Henry Clay was last. He got 47,531 popular votes and won Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri with 37 electoral votes. New York, Delaware, Maryland, Louisiana, and Illinois split their votes.
The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.
The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.
This meant that the House of Representatives would select the President from the top three candidates; Jackson, Adams, and Crawford, with each state delegation getting one vote, while the Senate would select the Vice President. Calhoun had easily won the Electoral Vote for Vice President, so that was already settled.
Clay, in fourth place, was out of the running for President, but, as Speaker of the House, he had considerable influence in the House of Representatives and would inevitably play an important role in the selection of the next President. Suddenly Henry Clay was the most popular man in Washington, with representatives from the Adams and Jackson campaign approached him with all kinds of offers for his support. Eventually, he threw his support to Adams and in the end Adams won thirteen states, Jackson nine, and Crawford four. Andrew Jackson was not at all happy with the results. He had gotten the most votes, both popular and electoral, and it seemed to him, quite reasonably, that he should have been president. His suspicions that there had been some sort of deal between Adams and Clay seemed to be confirmed when Adams named Clay as his Secretary of State, and he loudly denounced the “corrupt bargain”. Adams was aware that his election, being so irregular, lacked a certain legitimacy, and he regretted that they could not simply hold the election over again.
Was there a corrupt bargain? It seems incredible that there weren’t some sort of negotiations between Clay and Adams. Yet, Clay had made no secret that he vastly preferred Adams to Jackson, whom he viewed with disdain. Adams and Clay both shared the idea that the federal government to improve the lives of the people. Clay was also a natural choice for Secretary of State and perhaps any President would have been happy to name him for a cabinet position. It didn’t matter, though. The deal was seen as corrupt, especially by Jackson’s supporters.
John Quincy Adams turned out to be a decent man and President. He wasn’t able to get much done, largely because of the way in which he became President, but also because he was not a natural politician and, like his father, disdained to play the usual partisan games. Jackson spent the next four years preparing for a rematch and easily defeated Adams in 1828, but that is getting ahead of the story.
- The Election of 1816 (davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com)
- Martin Van Buren’s legacy: Expert politician, mediocre president (constitutioncenter.org)
- The “Corrupt Bargain” of the 1824 Presidential Election (mrdsneighborhood.com)
- Even Great Men go Wrong Sometimes (writedge.com)
- Barnburners! (crazytownblog.com)
- How John Quincy Adams’ ugly win changed politics forever (constitutioncenter.org)