The Most Fractured Election
On February 9 Congress met in joint session to count the electoral votes from America’s most fractured presidential election ever. With the Federalist party of George Washington and John Adams all but extinct, the ruling Democratic-Republicans had faced no opposition, but as often happens, the clawing and scratching from within proved even more fierce. The electioneering had begun almost as soon as President James Monroe—the last remaining Revolutionary leader in national politics—was inaugurated for his second term, in 1821. By the spring of 1824 the choice had narrowed to four men: Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford of Georgia; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts; and Gen. Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, who was now a senator from Tennessee.
The electoral tally had been known (though not officially counted) since mid-December: Jackson 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41, Clay 37. Because no candidate had a majority, the House of Representatives would choose from the top three finishers, with each of the twenty-four states having a single vote. Crawford’s health was widely known to be failing, so the choice came down to Jackson and Adams.
Two years earlier, as the other candidates’ henchmen combed the country for support, the refined Adams had privately decried the “Sodom of political chapmen, who would barter a Presidency for a department or an embassy.” Soon after that expression of distaste, however, he abandoned his fastidious objections and began meeting almost nonstop with men who could help his cause. Now, with the electorate shrunk to a relative handful (including four states represented by a single congressman apiece), he resumed his wheeling and dealing. Being naturally cautious, Adams made no explicit quid pro quo agreements, but the promise of reward if he should be chosen was clear.
Most observers had predicted numerous ballots before the issue was decided, so the House chamber was in shock when Adams won on the first ballot with exactly the thirteen states he needed. Seven of those states had given a majority of their Electoral College votes to Adams, three to Clay, and three to Jackson. A few days later—as a reward, it was widely believed, for giving his vote and influence to Adams—Clay was named Secretary of State, an office that Adams and the three Presidents before him had all had on their résumés.
For the rest of his career, Clay was dogged by accusations of a “corrupt bargain.” While he remained influential for another quarter-century, he never won the Presidency he so ardently desired. Clay always denied any deal, and in fact he had been the victim of skullduggery himself when three putatively pro-Clay members of New York’s Electoral College delegation switched their votes to other candidates. Before that, mysterious rumors that he had withdrawn from the race circulated throughout 1824.
As for Adams, the maneuvering he engaged in to win office left him severely troubled throughout his Presidency with the internal torment that tends to afflict amateur wrongdoers. His single ill-starred term turned out to be the least effective segment of his otherwise distinguished public career. Jackson got the last laugh by ousting Adams in the 1828 election. He went on to serve two vigorous terms, establish a new party system around himself, and eventually have an era named after him.