The 1824 presidential election produced the infamous “Corrupt Bargain,” in which the House of Representatives selected John Quincy Adams as President rather than Andrew Jackson, who finished first in the popular vote and in the Electoral College (but did not reach a majority in either). More important, however, is the fact that the 1824 election led to the creation of strong political parties and the system of national nominating conventions for the two main parties.
The person who recognized the problems of the 1824 election most clearly was Martin Van Buren, the great (and often-overlooked) architect of the 19th Century party system. The Corrupt Bargain happened in the first place, he determined, because of the lack of a two-party system. John Quincy Adams’ predecessor James Monroe had attempted to put an end to party strife once-and-for-all. As he argued in a letter to Andrew Jackson in 1816, on the eve of assuming the presidency, “Many men very distinguished for their talents are of the opinion that the existence of the federal[ist] party is necessary to keep union and order in the republican ranks, that is that free government cannot exist without parties. This is not my opinion.” He told Jackson that his object is to “exterminate all party divisions in our country.” Thus he presided over the “Era of Good Feelings” in which there was, in effect, only one party in existence throughout the country. Monroe ran unopposed for a second term in 1820 and won all but one vote in the Electoral College.
But Monroe’s vision of a party-free republic led to serious problems. Within the only party remaining there was internal strife and personal animosity. By 1822, halfway through his second term, an exasperated Monroe wrote to James Madison, “I have never known such a state of things as has existed here during the last Session, nor have I personally experienced so much embarrassment and mortification.” Monroe’s success, he explained, “has overwhelmed the federalist party, so that there is no division of that kind to rally any persons together in support of the [Monroe] administration.” Even worse, “The approaching election [of 1824], tho’ distant, is a circumstance that excites great interest in both houses….There being three avowed candidates in the administration is a circumstance which increases the embarrassment.”
Monroe’s presidency revealed important truths about the role of parties in a popular form of government. In a two-party system there is enough loyalty within each party to allow it to rally around and support a presidential candidate. In the absence of parties, personalities within the dominant party will divide up the party and turn elections into lengthy contests of personality and recrimination. As Monroe complained, the election of 1824 was well underway two years beforehand, and “In many cases the attacks are personal, directed against the individual.” Since all the candidates were within the same party, the attacks had to be personal rather than based on ideas, since the candidates were so similar in their principles.
Looking back at the carnage of the 1824 election, Van Buren concluded that it was time to revive the old two-party system and strengthen the political parties to avoid these contests of personality in the future. He hatched a plan, communicated in a letter to Thomas Ritchie of Virginia, to set up a party convention for the purpose of nominating presidential candidates. This idea, he argued, would revive the two-party system, “concentrating the entire vote of the opposition” back into the other party and achieving “the substantial reorganization of the Old Republican Party.”
In addition, Van Buren claimed, a nominating convention would “substitut[e] party principle for personal preference as one of the leading points in the contest.” If the candidate was nominated by a party of like-minded people united behind a national platform, then voters would be selecting the party platform when they voted for the party’s candidate. Otherwise, they would be merely selecting a candidate based on “personal preference,” a fundamentally unprincipled way to vote.
Van Buren’s plan eventually became a reality, and by the 1840s a two-party system – the Whigs and the Democrats – had re-emerged. Both parties were utilizing national nominating conventions, devising platforms to address the pressing questions of the day, and mobilizing voters to become engaged in the political process. Though these strong parties were not perfect, they ensured that the personalities and ambitions of candidates would be subordinated to the principles of the party that nominated them for office.
In recent decades parties have once again become weak, and we are back to the corrupt bargains of the 1820s. Today candidates win the presidency not based on the voters’ agreement with the party’s platform (which most voters and candidates never read), but based on the attractiveness of their personalities and the personal ideas of the candidate. Without internal party loyalty, each party has multiple candidates vying for the same office, producing a lengthy nomination process in which candidates of the same party attack and vilify each other on personal grounds. Contests are about popularity rather than principle. In these times we would do well to revisit the lessons learned from the 1824 debacle, and like Van Buren, seek to restore and strengthen the political parties to avoid these results in the future.
Joseph Postell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.