The Presidential Election of 1824: Henry Clay Engineers a Victory for John Quincy Adams

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John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States

Although Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, the House of Representatives denied him the presidency in 1825 by supporting rival John Quincy Adams.

For the second time in American political history, a president of the United States would be chosen by the House of Representatives. The Election of 1824 involved four candidates: William Crawford, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and John Quincy Adams. Although Jackson won the popular vote, Adams would become the sixth president following what Jackson supporters called a “corrupt bargain.” The Election of 1824 would set the stage for 1828, a bitter and scurrilous campaign that would see Jackson vindicated.

The Candidates in 1824

By far, John Quincy Adams, at least on paper, had the most presidential resume of all the candidates. Son of the second president, John Quincy had a distinguished diplomatic career and had recently served as Secretary of State under James Monroe where he had authored the Monroe Doctrine. Erudite and well traveled, the one time Harvard professor epitomized the very best of aristocratic civil service.

The least qualified candidate, Andrew Jackson, was also the most popular. A war hero of the 1812 conflict with Great Britain, Jackson’s leadership saved New Orleans after the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had already been signed, virtually obliterating the invading army with a comparatively smaller group of defenders including Bayou pirates.

Jackson was an Indian hater and a slave owner, a man quick to rise in anger. Frequently indignant, Jackson used duels to solve conflicts. Other than an appointment to the National Senate – where he didn’t distinguish himself, Jackson had never been elected to office. Yet the American electorate, propertied white males in 1824, liked the image of a self-made hero with a frontiersman mentality.

Henry Clay, by contrast, was the consummate politician. As Speaker of the House, he would be the “king-maker” in 1824. Clay was the master manipulator with great personal ambition. Despised by Jackson and the complete opposite of the Puritan minded John Quincy, he had a reputation for playing cards and drinking.

William Crawford, who pulled the third largest number of elector votes in 1824, had fallen ill and could not devote the energies needed to secure the nomination, while South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun dropped out early, content to run as vice-president.

Outcome in the House of Representatives

Henry Clay knew that he had to secure a winner on the first ballot. Having been rebuffed by Jackson, who firmly believed that he should be the next president by virtue of popular votes, Clay visited John Quincy Adams. Adams, an avid diarist, never recounted the substance of the conversation.

The vote in the House was close and came down to the delegate from New York, the old General Van Rensselaer who, in matters of great importance, stopped to pray before casting his vote. When he opened his eyes, a ballot naming John Quincy rested on his desk. Taking this as a sign from God, he voted for Adams.

Shortly after the inauguration of Adams, Clay was named Secretary of State, a possible future stepping stone to the presidency. Jackson supporters cried foul and spoke of a “corrupt bargain,” denied by Clay and Adams. The acrimony would continue through the four uneventful years of the Adams’ presidency and culminate in the rancorous 1828 election. As president after 1828, Jackson would champion a Constitutional Amendment abolishing the Electoral College.

Sources:

  1. Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Campaigns From Goerge Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  2. Page Smith, The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic, Vol. 3 (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1980)