Adams and Jackson: The Electoral College in the Elections of 1824 and 1828
By Margaret A. Hogan
Former Managing Editor, The Adams Family Papers
Massachusetts Historical Society
The Campaign and Election of 1824
Although John Quincy Adams should have been the heir apparent to the presidency as James Monroe’s secretary of state, the year 1824 was a political turning point in which none of the old rules applied. Four other men also wanted to be President, each with substantial regional backing. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina had served as secretary of war in the Monroe administration and had support from slave owners in the South but he needed support from outside the region to be a viable candidate. The politically ambitious and able William H. Crawford of Georgia enjoyed the support of party regulars in Congress—especially Senator Martin Van Buren of New York—as well as substantial footing in Georgia. Crawford had served as secretary of war and of the treasury in the two previous administrations. His main drawback stemmed from his explosive temper, which had alienated a number of fellow political leaders including President Monroe. The two men had almost engaged in a fistfight in a cabinet meeting before Crawford gathered his wits enough to apologize. Thereafter, the two men seldom spoke to one another.
The most visible candidate was House Speaker Henry Clay. A leading War Hawk during the War of 1812, Clay had a power base in Kentucky, was a gifted public speaker, and had support for his so-called American System of protective tariffs and federally sponsored internal improvements. His high-profile advocacy of these issues made him a familiar name in much of the country. Although he was well known, his clear identification with the war and nationalism weakened his roots in the South, which was beginning to fear supporting anyone for President who was not a slave owner or a supporter of states’ rights.
Then there was General Andrew Jackson from Tennessee, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson’s reputation as an Indian fighter and western expansionist, owing to his military escapades in Spanish Florida (see Jackson biography, Life Before the Presidency section), gave him national standing above all other candidates. It also helped that Jackson could enter the race as an outsider, a defender of the Republic who had risked his life in service of his nation. In fact, his supporters talked about him as another George Washington. Few experienced politicians, however, expected Jackson to win if any of the opposing candidates could broker a cross-regional coalition that would unite either the West or the South with New England or the mid-Atlantic States.
Such a coalition was no easy task to achieve. After all, the 1824 election occurred in a day and age when a new political electorate composed of regionally focused voters had only recently been empowered with the franchise. Since 1820, the old political caucus method by which the congressional leaders nominated presidential candidates had fallen into disrepute. This was principally because the old caucus system failed to connect with the wishes of the new voters, the tens of thousands of males who had been enfranchised by the removal of property ownership as a criterion for white male suffrage. This new climate looked to regional endorsements of candidates by state conventions or state assemblies, which meant that regional popularity, rather than congressional intrigue, would drive the nomination process.
Although Adams was a centrist politician of sorts—a Jeffersonian-Federalist, to coin a new term—many Americans still identified him as a New Englander and as the son of the old Federalist leader John Adams. Additionally, many staunch Democratic-Republicans blamed Adams and his supporters for having transformed the party of Jefferson into a disguised form of Federalism under the rubric of “National Republicans.” Southerners, moreover, objected to Adams because of his moral opposition to slavery. They remembered his criticism of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as a proslavery conspiracy, and they suspiciously recalled Adams’s efforts to include language opposed to the international slave trade in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812.
Four Democratic-Republican Candidates
In the summer of 1824, an unofficial caucus of less than a third of the congressmen eligible to attend nominated Crawford for President. Supporters for Adams denounced the caucus bid, and the Massachusetts legislature nominated Adams as their favorite-son candidate. The Kentucky legislature did the same for Clay. Both nominations followed the pattern set by the Tennessee legislature, which had nominated Andrew Jackson in 1822. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina dropped out of the presidential race by announcing his bid for the vice presidency, a move that both Adams and Crawford endorsed. Because all four candidates were nominal Democratic-Republicans—the Federalist Party had disintegrated by this point—the election would be decided without reference to party affiliation.
As the campaign progressed, Jackson emerged as the man to beat. The size of his rallies in key swing states—Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, New York, and New Jersey—far surpassed or rivaled those for Clay and Adams. In this first election in American history in which the popular vote mattered—because eighteen states chose presidential electors by popular vote in 1824 (six states still left the choice up to their state legislatures) —Jackson’s popularity foretold a new era in the making. When the final votes were tallied in those eighteen states, Jackson polled 152,901 popular votes to Adams’s 114,023; Clay won 47,217, and Crawford won 46,979. The electoral college returns, however, gave Jackson only 99 votes, 32 fewer than he needed for a majority of the total votes cast. Adams won 84 electoral votes followed by 41 for Crawford and 37 for Clay.
Jackson was the only candidate to attract significant support beyond his regional base. He carried the majority of electoral votes in eleven states: Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Adams won all six of the New England states plus New York. Crawford and Clay carried only three states each—Delaware, Georgia, and Virginia for Crawford and Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio for Clay.
Acting under the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, the House of Representatives met to select the President from among the top three candidates. Henry Clay, as the candidate with the fewest electoral votes, was eliminated from the deliberation. As Speaker of the House, however, Clay was still the most important player in determining the outcome of the election. The election in the House took place in February 1825. With each state having one vote, as determined by the wishes of the majority of each state’s congressional representatives, Adams emerged as the winner with a one-vote margin of victory. Most of Clay’s supporters, joined by several old Federalists, switched their votes to Adams in enough states to give him the election. Soon after his inauguration as President, Adams appointed Henry Clay as his secretary of state.
A “Corrupt Bargain”?
Jackson could barely contain his fury at having lost the election in what he claimed was a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay to overturn the will of the people. To most Jackson supporters, it looked as if congressional leaders had conspired to revive the caucus system, whereby Congress greatly influenced—if not determined—the selection of the President. Jackson laid the blame on Clay, telling anyone who would listen that the Speaker had approached him with the offer of a deal: Clay would support Jackson in return for Jackson’s appointment of Clay as secretary of state. When Jackson refused, Clay purportedly made the deal with Adams instead. In Jackson’s words, Clay had sold his influence in a “corrupt bargain.”
Clay denied the charges, and while there certainly had been some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Clay to push the vote to Adams, it most likely reflected Clay’s genuine doubts about Jackson’s qualifications for the office. In assessing the odds of successfully forwarding his own political agenda, Clay questioned Jackson’s commitment to the “American System” of internal improvements. On the other hand, Clay knew that Adams had supported it consistently over the years. Also, the loss of three states that Jackson had won in the popular vote—Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana—due to the defection of congressmen who supported Adams suggests that more was involved in the outcome than the political maneuvering of one man. Enraged, Jackson resigned his seat in the Senate and vowed to win the presidency in 1828 as an outsider to Washington politics.
The Campaign and Election of 1828
Within months of Adams’s inauguration in 1825, the Tennessee legislature nominated Andrew Jackson for President. Over the next three years, Jackson put together a highly disciplined grassroots campaign with one goal: to defeat John Quincy Adams in a rematch that would pit “the people” against Adams. Jackson issued so-called memorandums (a misuse of the word that endeared him to his growing western constituency) in which he outlined the erosion of representative power over the last decades at the hands of “gamesters” like Clay and Adams. In Jackson’s mind, the “corrupt bargain” was just one of a number of such schemes. Jackson claimed that the Panic of 1819, a devastating economic collapse, had resulted from (1) a conspiracy of disreputable creditors and the Bank of the United States, (2) the unpaid national debt, (3) the political swindlers in office from Madison through Adams—schemers who would be turned out with a Jackson victory—and (4) the backstairs dealings of “King Caucus” to select a President in defiance of popular opinion.
While Jackson issued his statements and traveled the nation rounding up support, his most brilliant lieutenant, Martin Van Buren of New York, assumed the duties of a campaign manager. Van Buren had switched allegiance from Crawford to Jackson shortly after the election of 1824. His efforts thereafter were focused on securing a victory for Jackson in the popular vote. Van Buren’s strategy was to portray Jackson as the head of a disciplined and issue-oriented party that was committed to states’ rights and the limited-government ideology of the old Jeffersonian Republicans.
In the year before the 1828 election, Van Buren’s organizational efforts began to create a new political entity that would come to fruition in the 1830s. For the 1828 election, Van Buren focused on linking the opponents of federalism in the North and South into a coalition that he envisioned as the heir to the old Jeffersonian Republican Party. In his mind, victory for this new movement would protect slavery in the South, ensure the legitimacy of majority rule based upon direct voting for candidates by the electorate, and guarantee preservation of the Union, with states’ rights as the fundamental basis of American liberty. When he won the support of Vice President John C. Calhoun and powerful Virginia political leaders, Van Buren effectively laid the basis for a party system that would endure until the Civil War. (Calhoun was moving away from his postwar ideology of nationalism to a states’ rights conservatism that was more reflective of his region’s fear of abolitionism, costly internal improvements, and high protective tariffs.)
While Jackson and Van Buren organized, Adams diligently carried out the duties of the presidency, refusing to prepare himself or his supporters for the coming contest. Adams did not remove even his loudest opponents from appointive office and hewed to the old-fashioned notion that a candidate should “stand” for office, not “run.” When the election campaign officially began, Adams’s supporters formally adopted the name National Republicans in contrast to Democrats, trying thereby to identify themselves accurately with the link between old-style federalism and a new nationalistic republicanism. Jacksonians, on the other hand, argued for a new revolutionary movement that rested on a firm faith in majoritarian democracy and states’ rights—ideas that were not always compatible.
Personal Campaign Battles
Although issues clearly separated the candidates along lines more distinct than any since the election of 1800, the campaign itself was highly personal. Indeed, it was the first campaign in history to use election materials such as campaign buttons, slogans, posters, tokens, flasks, snuffboxes, medallions, thread boxes, matchboxes, mugs, and fabric images so extensively. Almost all of these campaign trinkets depicted some aspect of the candidate’s popular image. Jackson’s status as a war hero and frontiersman played far better with the public than Adams’s stiff-looking elder statesman stance.
Neither candidate personally campaigned in 1828, but their political followers organized rallies, parades, and demonstrations. In the popular press, the rhetorical attacks reached a level of cruelty and misrepresentation not seen since the election of 1800. Jackson was accused of multiple murders, of extreme personal violence, and of having lived in sin with his wife, Rachel, who herself was attacked as a bigamist. Adams, on the other hand, was attacked for his legalistic attitudes, for his foreign-born wife, and for reportedly having procured young American virgins for the Russian czar as the primary achievement of his diplomatic career. Adams’s critics referred to him as “His Excellency” while Jackson came under attack as an ill-mannered, barely civilized, backwoods killer of Indians.
In a masterstroke of popular politics, the Jacksonians made good use of the general’s nickname, Old Hickory. He had earned the name because he was reputed to be as tough as hickory wood. To publicize his image, Jackson supporters put hickory poles all over the country, distributed hickory toothpicks and canes, and served up barbecues fired by hickory chips.
The branding of Jackson’s wife as an “American Jezebel” and convicted adulteress—because she had married Jackson before her divorce from an earlier marriage had been finalized—surprisingly backfired as an election strategy. It unleashed a backlash against Adams for humiliating a woman who had lived for 40 years as the devoted wife of General Jackson, for grossly violating the general’s privacy and honor, and for applying narrowly legalistic pronouncements in place of common sense. To countless Americans, Jackson’s duels, brawls, executions, and unauthorized ventures represented the victory of what was right and good over the application of stiff-minded and narrowly construed principles. The attacks simply enhanced Jackson’s image as an authentic American hero who had drawn upon his natural nobility and powerful will to prevail against unscrupulous political foes, educated elitists, the pride of the British army, and “heathen savages”—often at the same time.
The campaign turned out more than twice the number of voters who had cast ballots in 1824—approximately 57 percent of the electorate. Jackson won the election in a landslide, and by a wide margin of 95 electoral votes. Adams carried New England, Delaware, part of Maryland, New Jersey, and sixteen of New York’s electoral votes—nine states in all. Jackson carried the remaining fifteen states of the South, Northwest, mid-Atlantic, and West. Incumbent Vice President John C. Calhoun won 171 electoral votes to 83 for Richard Rush of Pennsylvania, Adams’s running mate.
Originally published by the Miller Center, University of Virginia, under open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.