The Election of 1824: John Quincy Adams

Summary:

This Presidents and the Constitution eLesson takes us back to 1824 and the controversial election of John Quincy Adams. This was the first election decided by the House of Representatives after the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, which had been ratified in the wake of the election of 1800.

Resources:

Narrative:

By the election of 1824, the Federalist Party had broken up and the US was operating under a one party system dominated by Democratic-Republicans. The four prominent candidates in the election were Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and John Quincy Adams.

In the electoral vote, Jackson came out on top with ninety-nine votes, Adams with eighty-four, Crawford with forty-one, and Clay with thirty-seven. Jackson had received a plurality of both of the recorded popular vote and the Electoral vote. However, he did not meet the constitutional requirement to become President because he failed to win an electoral majority. The Twelfth Amendment says that when a candidate is not elected by a majority of the whole number of appointed electors, the decision will go to the House of the Representatives with each state allotted one vote.

Clay was eliminated from the contest because the Twelfth Amendment also states that the House will choose the President from only the top three candidates. However, as Speaker of the House, Clay controlled the proceedings in the House. He used his influential position to make it known that he would support Adams because he did not think that Jackson’s military history qualified him to be President. Clay was persuasive and the House elected Adams as President on February 9, 1825. Several days later Adams nominated Clay to be his Secretary of State.

Jackson was furious at what he perceived to be a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson claimed that the people’s voice had been distorted because the popular vote had been ignored. While this was Jackson’s perception, the fact is that the popular vote (where it existed) served the purpose of selecting electors. Jackson also overlooked the fact hardly any states had all four nominees on the ballot. Many states did not even have three. Finally, six states did not have a popular vote at all – state legislatures decided the vote.

The election of 1824 is sometimes described as a crisis. However, the constitutional procedures for electing the president were faithfully carried out.

Questions:

  1. What does the Constitution say will happen if no candidate for President receives a majority of electoral votes?
  2. Why did Jackson not become President-elect after receiving the most electoral votes?
  3. Why was Henry Clay so influential in the election?
  4. What is the purpose of the Electoral College? Do you think the President and Vice President should be chosen entirely by popular instead of electoral votes? Why or why not?

Extension:

Even though no evidence was ever produced for “the corrupt bargain,” Jackson’s four year campaign resulted in victory in his rematch with Adams in the Presidential election of 1828. Jackson’s efforts started the tradition of personal campaigning for the Presidency. The election of 1828 forever changed the face of the American political landscape by adding the element of the campaign trail for elected officials and was a seed of the strong political parties system we see today. Andrew Jackson is said to have ushered in the modern presidential campaign.

Have students research Jackson’s campaign and compare it to the current presidential campaign. What are the similarities? Differences? Issues? How has the campaign process changed since the days of Jackson?