Presidential Election of 1824: Nationalists, Radicals, and the Origins of a New Two Party System

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The election of 1824 pitted two factions of the Republican party, the only major party existing, against each other: National versus Radical or Old Republicans.

In the decade before 1824, the nation experienced three major events. The War of 1812 resulted in a stronger national government and a booming economy. The Panic of 1819 subsequently silenced that boom, creating distress across the country. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 introduced the first murmurs of sectional discord. The stage was set.

The National Republicans

The Nationalist wing of the Republican party believed that the federal government should help foster economic development in the wake of the War of 1812. To that end, the dominant Nationalists passed the Bank of the United States and protective tariff bills in 1816. This contributed to a speculative economy.

Congressional leader and Presidential candidate Henry Clay was instrumental in passing that legislation. Clay neatly packaged the Nationalist program as the “American System”- protective tariffs, a national bank, and federal support for internal improvements. The stature of the slaveholder Clay was further enhanced by his role in constructing the Missouri Compromise, cooling heads over slavery.

Those against slavery warmed to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams as President. Adams was the most experienced diplomat in America. He helped negotiate an end to the War of 1812 with the Treaty of Ghent. He was the chief architect of the Monroe Doctrine, which discouraged Old World influence in the Western Hemisphere.

The Radical Republicans

The speculative economy went bust in the Panic of 1819. Thousands of midwestern and southwestern farmers, along with land speculators, suffered foreclosure of their mortgages. Businessmen went bankrupt and workers lost their jobs. They all readily blamed bankers and the entrenched elite.

The economic crisis energized the radical wing of the Republican party, which was almost dormant during the Nationalist “Era of Good Feelings.” Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford of Georgia was a radical leader in Washington and was nominated for President by a congressional caucus. He favored states’ rights, strict construction of the Constitution, and the egalitarian virtues of the Revolution.

However, the farmers and laborers wanted an outsider and turned to War of 1812 hero Andrew Jackson. Jackson felt the mood of the public. His campaign pamphlet “Letters of Wyoming” blasted the nation’s capital as a sinkhole of corruption and called for the people to renew the fading republican virtues. The people answered the call, easily giving Jackson the popular vote.

Corrupt Bargain

No candidate attained a majority in the Electoral College, so the House of Representatives would choose between the top three: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. But Clay was still a factor as partisans of the three aspirants sought his support in the House. Even Adams himself held a meeting with him. Eventually, it was public knowledge that Clay would support fellow Nationalist Adams.

Still the nation was shocked after the House vote. Adams won, picking up states that supported Clay. Once Adams nominated Clay for Secretary of State and the news of the Adams/Clay meeting got out, Radicals charged that a “corrupt bargain” was formed to steal the Presidency from Jackson.

Corrupt bargain or not, the election of 1824 had significant ramifications. Even the appearence of a sly deal motivated Radicals to organize for 1828 and would rename themselves Democrats. President Adams did not have a mandate for his nationalistic agenda but the Nationalists would form the core of the new Whig party to oppose Democrats after 1828.

Sources:

  1. Brands, H.W., Andrew Jackson, Doubleday: New York, 2005.
  2. Holt, Michael, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party, Oxford: New York, 1999.
  3. Miller, William Lee, Arguing About Slavery, Vintage: New York, 1995.