The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons (1824, 1828 elections)

The Line To Run For President Ends Here. It Begins Back There. Birth Of Modern Politics by Lynn Hudson Parsons Image Image Although the title of this book states that it is about 1828, close to half the book is devoted to the 1824 election. The two elections were so closely related that they merit discussion in the same place. From out of the chaos that was the 1824 election, came a manner of presidential elections that, with only occasional exceptions, has been the same. That is, with two slates of candidates from two parties, slugging it out on a national stage, full of name-calling, mud-slinging, and vague discussions of the issues. So why was the election of 1824 such a mess? The main reason for that was that there was effectively only one political party in the United States, the Democratic-Republicans. They were not a tightly controlled group  and there was no  centralized party control. Another reason for the confusion was that there were no formal mechanisms for nominating candidates for president or vice president.

In 1824, most people would have considered President James Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, to be the leading contender for President. Monroe had been Secretary of State under James Madison and Madison held the same job under Thomas Jefferson. And Adams was the son of a former President and a Founding Father. However, Adams did not receive a nomination from what was considered the “official” source, which was from a secret vote by a caucus of party members in Congress. Since Congress was effectively only one party, that nomination had meant a lot. But by 1824, the caucus process was considered to be undemocratic and most in Congress avoided it. William Crawford of Georgia, the Secretary of Treasury, got the nomination from what was left of the caucus. Adams would receive the support of state nominating conventions in the Northeast.

But, other people wanted in on the race. Andrew Jackson, America’s leading military hero (for his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans) wanted to run. Or at least keep Crawford from winning, since he didn’t like Crawford. The Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson for President in 1822 and later would send Jackson to the Senate.

Speaker of the House Henry Clay was given a nomination by his home state’s legislature in Kentucky. Clay did not care much for the other three candidates, considering Adams to be too arrogant, Jackson to be too hotheaded, and Crawford he mainly just disagreed with on political issues.

John Calhoun of South Carolina, the Secretary of War under Monroe, wanted to run for President. But, nobody would nominate him. Instead, he made himself available to run for Vice President and declared he would be willing to serve under either Adams or Jackson. Calhoun would win the Vice Presidency easily.

1824 was the first time there was a popular vote for the Presidency. However, not all of the 24 states allowed a popular vote. Six states, including New York, had their presidential electors chosen by their state legislatures (South Carolina would continue this practice until the Civil War. Colorado was the last state to appoint its electors, back in 1876, primarily because it was granted statehood too close to Election Day to get organized.) Jackson, because he had the highest name recognition, won the most popular votes. Adams finished in second. Although Clay won more popular votes, Crawford edged him out in electoral votes for third place.

Finishing third was important because under the terms of the 12th Amendment, if no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes (which would have been 132 votes in 1824), the election would be then fall to the House of Representatives, who would choose among the top three vote getters. This left Clay, literally, out of the money. However, if Clay couldn’t be President, he could wield enough power to decide who would get the job. Crawford was eliminated from consideration because he had suffered a stroke and could not speak or see at the time. (He would get better and live nine more years). That left Clay to decide between Jackson or Adams. Clay’s favorite issue, besides promoting himself, was internal improvements.

Clay wanted a Federal government that would raise enough revenue to build roads, canals, and bridges that would improve commerce throughout the country. Adams was much more aligned with this view. Jackson, in Clay’s mind, was a “military chieftain.” At some point, Adams and Clay met to decide how Clay’s supporters would vote in the contingent election in the House. It was generally believed at the time that Adams offered Clay the job of Secretary of State in an Adams administration in exchange for his support. Some historians believe that Adams offered Clay the job, fully expecting to be turned down, because if Clay accepted the job it would blatantly look like Clay traded his support for a Cabinet post, which would be political suicide. When the House convened to decide the 1824 election, it took just one ballot as 13 states backed Adams. Three states that had chosen Jackson switched to Adams when the vote got to the House (Illinois, Louisiana, and Maryland). Jackson and his supporters were livid over the decision. The Adams-Clay arrangement would forever be known as “the Corrupt Bargain.”

Adams’ presidency quickly jumped off the rails when his first annual message of Congress described an overly ambitious series of internal improvements, including a national university and a series of observatories, which Adams called “lighthouses of the skies.” Jackson’s supporters in Congress thwarted Adams’ ideas at every chance. When Clay asked Congress for money to send some American diplomats to a conference in Panama to discuss matters among the several new independent nations in Central and South America, it was refused out of fears getting the U.S. involved in any alliance.

Almost as soon as the Election of 1824 was decided, the Tennessee Legislature nominated Jackson for president again in 1828. And this time, Jackson was not going to let Adams and Clay get the best of him. (Jackson supporters in Congress also tried to abolish the Electoral College or use different voting systems. None of the proposals went anywhere.) Helping out Jackson was a New York politician named Martin Van Buren. Van Buren had backed Crawford in 1824, but switched his loyalty to Jackson in 1828. Van Buren’s political organization, called “The Bucktails”, provided Jackson valuable support in the richest state in electoral votes. (New York switched to a popular vote in 1828.)

Jackson’s friends in Congress used their free postal privileges (called franking) to send thousands of pieces of Jackson literature to their constituents. The majority of newspapers supported Jackson. But what was Jackson campaigning on? It turned out to be, not much. Jackson had resigned from the Senate not long after being elected to it in part that he would not have a legislative record to examine. He preferred to be remembered as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.

In an era when presidential candidates did not actively campaign, Adams managed to alienate people even more during his infrequent public appearances. At a large event in Baltimore, Adams gave a toast at a banquet that turned was a joke based on a Voltaire saying. I would reproduce it here, but jokes that weren’t funny in 1828 are even worse in 2013.

Adams supporters went negative during the campaign. There were two different ways the Adams people went at this.

1. Jackson had killed people in duels and also, during his military service, had performed actions that would be considered war crimes today. Nevertheless, Jackson was able to rebuff these as examples of his bravery and fortitude.

2. Jackson believed that his wife, Rachel, was divorced from her abusive first husband when they married. It turned out that they were not, so the two had to marry a second time. The Adams camp referred to Rachel Jackson as an adulteress. Andrew Jackson was, somewhat understandably, deeply upset by this. Jackson’s advisors did their best to keep their candidate from fighting more duels to uphold his wife’s honor.

Making matters simpler in 1828 was the restoration of the two-party system. The Adams/Clay group, which supported a more active Federal government, called themselves the National Republican Party. Jackson’s party, more of a small government group, dropped Republican from its name and became the Democratic Party, a name that has stuck to this day.

In another oddity, the sitting Vice President, John Calhoun, decided he didn’t want to run on the same ticket as Adams anymore. He wanted to be Jackson’s VP. So Adams chose Richard Rush to be  his running mate. (Jackson did not know at the time that Calhoun hated him. Their relationship would not end well.) Jackson would end up beating Adams by a comfortable margin in 1828.

Adams, upon the advice of Clay, decided to get out of Washington before Jackson’s inauguration. Although Adams was something of a sore loser, both Adams and Clay thought that Jackson or his supporters might physically harm them out of anger because of the negative campaigning. That did not happen. Instead, Jackson invited pretty much everybody to his inauguration, opening the White House to anyone who wanted to come in. It was a mess.

John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson reportedly never spoke or wrote to each other again after the election of 1828. So did 1828 mark an important change in American politics? According to Lynn Hudson Parsons, it was the election that introduced America to party machines, opinion polling, and opposition research. The election of the President became something that most voters now realized was the most important one they were able to participate in. The Federal government became far more important in everyone’s lives after 1828.

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2 Responses

  1. Did Calhoun switch To Jackson for the simple reason that he thought Jackson would win (making him VP) or for other reasons?

    • Calhoun, like most political observers, thought Adams was a dead duck. And Calhoun and Adams didn’t get along well either.

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