Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


The election of 1824 was eerily similar to the 2016 campaign.  It was characterized by fierce personal attacks launched by the surrogates of candidates and by the candidates who accused each other of corruption.  Several establishment candidates ran but failed to rouse the base.  One highly popular candidate ran as an anti-establishment, Washington outsider and was widely accused of being a demagogue.  The partisan media lined up for their favorite candidates.  Economic issues ruled the day with many concerned about government intervention in the economy while others railed against “the interests.”

On the night of January 8, 1824, the campaign for president kicked off with a most remarkable event as one candidate, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, hosted a reception for his opponent, military hero and Senator Andrew Jackson.  One thousand guests attended the event, though if Adams thought Jackson would be consequently willing to serve as vice-president, he was sorely mistaken.

Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford of Georgia had recently suffered a massive stroke, but his supporters hid him from public view and thought that winning a congressional caucus would ensure him the election as it did in previous elections.  The caucus was held on February 14, and Crawford did indeed win.  But, few congressmen showed up, and the caucus died because it was perceived as an elitist relic in an increasingly democratic age.

At the time, candidates did not openly campaign because such ambition was perceived to be unseemly and contradictory to public service.  However, newspapers at the time were openly partisan and launched fierce personal attacks on opponents.  Adams wrote in his diary in the summer that, “The Presidential canvassing proceeds with increasing heat.”

In the fall, voters in eighteen states out of twenty-four selected presidential electors pledged to support a candidate for the Electoral College, while state legislatures did so only in the remaining six.  When the results came in, Jackson led the pack with 99 votes, Adams was a close second with 84, the debilitated Crawford had 41, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay trailed with only 37.

No candidate won the required majority in the Electoral College.  While some historians have described a similar election in 1800 that went into the House as a “crisis,” the Constitution in fact provided for such an outcome.  The election went to the House of Representatives where each state would have one vote and choose from among the top three winners in the general election.  The horse-trading really began as candidates lobbied members of Congress for their support and where Speaker Clay exercised great power and influence.

On a frigid, snowy evening of January 9, Speaker Clay ventured to the lodgings of Adams.  The two warmed themselves by a fire for over three hours during which Clay assessed Adams as an alternative to Jackson, whom he considered a demagogue and would-be military dictator.  They also agreed on most political principles and ideas about using internal improvements as an engine of economic development.

A month later, on another snowy day, February 9, the members of the House of Representatives assembled and settled in for what they might have expected to be a long day with a contentious series of ballots.  However, they elected John Quincy Adams on the first ballot when he won thirteen of twenty-four states.  Adams was able to win over some of the state delegations whose states had voted for Jackson in the general election, and Clay swung some of his states into Adams’ corner.

President Adams offered Clay the Secretary of State because of their shared political principles and the latter’s statesmanship.  Jackson and his supporters immediately suspected foul play and claimed he lost because of a “corrupt bargain.”  Jackson bitterly accused that, “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver.  His end will be the same.”

The election of 1824 dramatically and successfully demonstrated the complex constitutional mechanisms that resolved elections according to the principles of federalism in the House of Representatives when no winner emerged in the Electoral College.  The historic election would also see the decline of the one-party system and subsequent rise of the Democratic and Whig Parties in upcoming elections.

Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, co-authored with Stephen Knott.

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