Henry Clay’s gamble: the 1824 U.S. Presidential election — Mistakes Were Made

Image for post
Image for post

In the early years of America, the position of Secretary of State was seen as the next President in waiting. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were all previously Secretary of State’s before they became President. In the 1824 Presidential Election, John Quincy Adams was the sitting Secretary of State and the presumptive next President. Adams was the son of John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States. Besides, having Presidential blood lines, Adams also had an extensive history of serving as an Ambassador, a U.S. Senator and serving in Congress before becoming Secretary of State. If you could draft a dream resume for a U.S. President, it would resemble Adam’s in 1824.

Under Monroe’s presidency (the sitting President), the nation was amid the political era known as the era of good feelings. In this era, President Monroe downplayed partisan affiliation when he made political nominations. Monroe’s goal was to unite the country and eliminate political parties all together. President Monroe was successful in these endeavors on the surface, though lurking underneath the surface lurked a strained and divisive political atmosphere. It’s under these circumstances that the 1824 Presidential election takes place.

In 1824, the Democratic Republican Party was the only national political party in the country. Monroe served two terms as President and declined to run again, as was the norm. Daniel D. Tompkins was the Sitting Vice President under Monroe, but he ruled himself out for the office of Presidency because of health problems and a financial dispute with the government. The path to the Presidency seemed wide open, even though Adams was the prohibitive favorite because of his position.

A side effect to one nationwide party was that party discipline eroded and went to hell. As a result, different factions rose within the party. A Congressional caucus was held to nominate the nominees for President and Vice President. William Crawford (the Treasury Secretary) won the presidential caucus by a landslide, and Albert Gallatin won the Vice Presidential vote. The caucus had low attendance and was widely decried as an undemocratic event. Gallatin withdrew his Vice President nomination at the request of Crawford. Andrew Jackson (war hero and famous general), John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay (the Speaker of the House) were the others receiving votes for President in the caucus. The states ignored the caucus results and nominated their own picks, four emerged as viable candidates Crawford, Adams, Jackson and Clay.

In the 1800s, candidates didn’t actively campaign for the Presidential office. Campaigns were waged via political cartoons, newspaper editorials, and popular songs tweaked to add a political message. Adams, a Massachusetts resident, had vast support in the New England area. Clay had massive support in his home state of Kentucky and neighboring states. Crawford was popular in Virginia and North Carolina. Jackson had the geographically broadest area of support with huge vote support in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

When the election finally occurred the results went along the prescribed geographical lines. The result is no one got enough electoral votes to win the Presidential election. Jackson came close he had the highest percentage of the popular vote and the highest number of electoral college votes at 99 (you needed 132 electoral college votes to win). In such a scenario, the 12th amendment gives the House of Representatives the right to decide the election. Under the rules of the 12th Amendment, the House is limited to choosing between the three candidates who received the most electoral college votes. This eliminated Clay but left Jackson, Adams and Crawford. They needed a majority of 13 state votes out of 24 to win the nomination.

Since they eliminated Clay, he figured his best political move was to temporarily abandon his hopes for being king and play king maker instead. Clay hated Jackson and had deep policy differences with Crawford. This left only Adams, who Clay shared similar economic goals with. Though the Kentucky legislature instructed Clay and the Kentucky delegation to vote for Jackson, Clay persuaded them to vote for Adams. Clay then used his political sway as Speaker of the House to persuade congressional representatives in states that Clay won a lot votes in to vote for Adams. The result was they elected Adams President with 13 states, followed by Jackson with seven and Crawford with four.

The results of the House vote shocked Jackson. Since he had the most popular votes and the highest number of electoral college votes he expected the House to vote for him, but there were other factors at play Jackson was unaware of. Clay didn’t push all those votes to Adams out of the kindness of his heart, they made a secret deal. In return for Clay pushing the House towards Adams, Adams would name Clay the Secretary of State in his administration. Remember, the Secretary of State position was the next President in waiting according to the past few elections.

Jackson and his followers accused Adams and Clay of striking a corrupt bargain. Jackson’s team would use this claim as their primary campaign focus in 1828. Adams lost the 1828 Presidential election fair and square to Jackson, then Jackson won his reelection bid in 1932, ironically against Clay. Adams was a one term President just like his father. This campaign marked the end of the era of good feelings. Jackson and his supporters would splinter off from the Democratic Republican party and form what we know today as the Democratic Party. The Adams and Clay supporters would become the National Republican party, which would eventually turn into the Whig Party then become what is today known as the Republican Party. Jackson is the only Presidential candidate that won most of the popular vote and the most electoral college votes and still lose a Presidential election.

As aforementioned, Clay would run against Jackson in the 1832 Presidential election and lose. Clay would run again in 1840 but lost the Whig party nominee to William Henry Harrison. in 1844, Clay would run once again but he lost the general election to James K. Polk. in 1848, Clay again sought the Whig Party nominee but was defeated by Zachary Taylor. Clay would never become U.S. President, though he served a long and influential political life.

Mistakes Were Made:

In this current era of hyper partisanship, it’s hard to imagine an era in American politics where we had one political party. The era of good feelings lasted for 10 years a lifetime in today’s politics but was ended by the results of the 1824 election. What lessons can we learn from this election?

1. Short-term goals over long-term values

Adams was a believer and follower of the era of good feelings principles. He even offered cabinet positions to Jackson and Crawford, who both declined. Adams then offered positions to Crawford supporters who accepted. The problem was how Adams became President, politically Adams did what he had to do to become President. Adams had to know his actions wouldn’t go over easy with Jackson and would end up fracturing the party, which it did. The office of Presidency is hard to turn down when it’s in your sights, but would the era of good feelings lasted longer if the corrupt bargain wasn’t struck?

Becoming President trumped keeping the party unified. The result is Adam’s presidency is considered a mediocre one because Jackson supporters in the House inspired by the corrupt bargain blocked all his legislation. Jackson would win the next two Presidential elections and usher in a whole new political party and a new political era. Was the bargain worth it? History says it was not worth it. Adams and Clay sacrificed their values for a sure thing that ended up being only temporary for Adams and never happening for Clay.

2. Are you sure it’s a sure thing?

Clay wanted to become President, and he saw the deal he struck with Adams as the direct path to achieve his goal. The problem was Clay underestimated Jackson and backed the wrong horse. Jackson ended up being the transcended President not Adams, and this move made Clay an enemy of Jackson. Clay hated Jackson, but the smart long-term thing would have been to stay out of the fracas. By rigging the election, Clay set in motion events that ensured he would never become President. That sure thing move ended up not working out at all.

3. Democracy? What’s Democracy?

Can you imagine if instead of Biden being declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election, Donald Trump got Kevin McCarthy (House minority leader) to persuade House members to cast their votes for Trump for a cabinet position and Trump was declared the winner? I think another civil war would start under that scenario. Though I think Trump would be a ok with this scenario, what does that say about our so called “democratic” system?

This scenario played out in the 1824 election, minus a few different variables. The candidate who had the most popular votes and the most electoral college votes lost the election! Jackson lost because the sitting Speaker of the House cut a deal with the candidate with the second most electoral college to push votes to him in exchange for the Secretary of State position. I’m surprised the actions of Clay and Adam didn’t outrage more voters, though back then I assume most people didn’t know the inner workings of what happened. Just like people are still confused by the U.S. Supreme Court stepping in and stopping ballot counting in Florida in 2000 and handing the election to George W. Bush.

The 1824 election is one of three decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, and one of a handful decided by less than ideal democratic channels. Given how close this recent election was, I can foresee a future Presidential election being decided not by the will of the majority again.

Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on November 10, 2020.

Written by

recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on www.mwmblog.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store