The 1824 Presidential Election and the “Corrupt Bargain”

As we get ready to go to the polls on November 3, we’re looking back one of the more controversial elections—the 1824 Presidential election. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock, an archives technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD. 

John Quincy Adams was elected President on February 9, 1825, when the House of Representatives decided the Presidential election of 1824.

Portrait of John Quincy Adams by Edward Marchant, ca. 1840. (National Archives Identifier 50777263)

The Presidential election of 1824 is significant for being the only election since the passage of the 12th Amendment to have been decided by the House of Representatives. The 12th Amendment, passed in 1804, addressed concerns that had emerged in the election of 1796 and election of 1800. The election of 1824 is often claimed to be the first in which the successful Presidential candidate did not win the popular vote, even though the popular vote was not measured nationwide at the time, further clouding the issue.  

The election featured five candidates, all of whom ran as Democratic-Republicans (the Federalists having ceased to have a national political presence). The crowded field included John Quincy Adams, the son of the second President, John Adams. Quincy Adams, representing New England, had separated with the Federalists in the early 1800s and served on various diplomatic missions, including the assignment to secure peace with Great Britain in 1814. 

A second candidate, John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, had served as Secretary of War and represented the slave-holding South. Eventually, he dropped out of the Presidential race to run for Vice President. 

A third candidate, Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, represented the western states. He favored an active federal government committed to internal improvements and infrastructure in order to strengthen national economic development and settlement of the West. 

Portrait of Henry Clay, undated. (National Archives Identifier 528344)

William H. Crawford, a slaveholder from Georgia, suffered a stroke in 1823 that left him more or less incapacitated, but he continued his campaign with the support of the New York machine led by Martin Van Buren.

Andrew Jackson, the celebrated “hero of New Orleans,” rounded out the field. Jackson was popular for his military victories in the War of 1812 and in wars against the Creek in 1814 and the campaigns against Choctaws, Cherokees, and Chickasaws and his conduct of the First Seminole war in Florida. He had been elected to the Senate in 1823, and his popularity soared as pro-Jackson newspapers promoted the narrative of his courageous exploits.

Portrait of Andrew Jackson, undated, (National Archives Identifier 530991)

The election was as much a match of favorite sons as it was a struggle over policy. In general, the candidates were favored by different sections of the country, with Adams strong in the Northeast; Jackson in the South, West, and mid-Atlantic; Clay in parts of the West; and Crawford in parts of the East.

With tens of thousands of new voters in the United States, the older system of having members of Congress assemble congressional caucuses to determine who would run was no longer tenable. It became clear that voters had regional interests and for the first time, the popular vote had significant implications in a Presidential election. Electors were chosen by popular vote in 18 states, while the 6 remaining states employed the older system in which state legislatures selected electors.

Results from the 18 states where the popular vote determined the electoral vote gave Jackson the election, with 152,901 votes to Adams’s 114,023, Clay’s 47,217, and Crawford’s 46,979. 

The Electoral College, however, was another matter. Of the 261 electoral votes, Jackson needed 131 or more to win but secured only 99. Adams won 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37. Meanwhile, John C. Calhoun secured a total of 182 electoral votes and won the Vice Presidency in what was generally an uncompetitive race.

Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote, 2/9/1825 (National Archives Identifier 306207)

Because Jackson did not receive a majority vote from the Electoral College, the election was decided following the terms of the 12th Amendment, which stipulated that when a candidate did not receive a majority of electoral votes, the election went to the House of Representatives, where each state would provide one vote. Following the provisions of the 12th Amendment, only the top three candidates in the electoral vote were admitted as candidates in the House: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William Harris Crawford.

“A foot-race,” by David Claypoole Johnston, 1824. The cartoon depicts (left to right) John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson running a foot race. Henry Clay has dropped from the race and stands on the far right with his hand on his head. Note the Presidential chair and money bag hanging in the center background. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

House Speaker Clay did not want to see his rival, Jackson, become President and set about his efforts within the House to secure the Presidency for Adams, lobbying members to cast their vote for the candidate from New England. Ultimately, Clay’s efforts paid off and despite failing to win the popular vote, John Quincy Adams was certified by the House as the next President on February 9, 1825, on the first ballot with 13 states. Jackson followed with 7 and Crawford with 4. Once in office, Adams installed Henry Clay to the post of Secretary of State.

Adams’s victory was a gut punch for Jackson, who expected to be elected President having more popular and electoral votes. Following this logic, Jackson and his followers accused Clay and Adams of striking a corrupt bargain. The Jacksonians campaigned on this narrative over the next four years, ultimately propelling Jackson to victory in the Adams-Jackson election rematch of 1828.

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