The political history of the United States is littered with contentious presidential elections that inflamed the populace and led to accusations of corruption. Perhaps none is so dubious as the important election of 1824 and so-called “Corrupt Bargain.”
The significance of the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824 is that it helped bring an end to a period known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” This period is strongly associated with the presidency of James Monroe and the widespread nationalism and unity following the important War of 1812.
Monroe ran virtually unopposed in the 1820 election as an overwhelming number of voters backed the incumbent president and the Federalist party ceased to exist on the national political scene after the original purpose of the 1814 Hartford Convention backfired.
Federalist principles would remain as candidates associated with the party continued to be relevant at the local and state levels, particularly in New England.
The election of 1824 was hardly the first US presidential election to have been contentious. In fact, the experiences during the important elections of 1796 and 1800 ultimately led to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution which changed the presidential electoral process.
The new process and whether or not the Constitution would hold would be put to test in the election of 1824, which earned the nickname the “Corrupt Bargain.”
The primary contenders—John Quincy Adams, son of second President John Adams, and Andrew Jackson—fought bitterly to win the election. After neither candidate won a majority in the electoral college the election moved to the House of Representatives to decide.
The House ultimately elected John Quincy Adams, though not without accusations of corruption from Jackson supporters. This “Corrupt Bargain” in the election of 1824 was important as the political landscape of the United States drastically changed in its aftermath.
The Election of 1824
The election of 1824 featured a unique situation rarely seen in presidential elections. For the second straight election the Federalist party failed to unite behind a candidate in opposition to the Democratic-Republican party.
Unlike the election of 1820 where voters elected Monroe virtually unopposed, the Democratic-Republicans failed to consolidate behind a single candidate. A total of five candidates comprised the electorate: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Calhoun would later drop out to run for Vice President.
Each candidate represented a certain faction within the United States. Adams was the former Secretary of State, known for his role in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, and represented the northeastern interests. Jackson ran on a populist platform and was popular in multiple regions as the famed General from the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend and 1815 Battle of New Orleans.
Crawford was the former Secretary of the Treasury and the preferred candidate of the Democratic-Republican caucus. He was also popular throughout the south. Henry Clay was the current Speaker of the House of Representatives and preferred in the western states.
This division within the party led to a split electorate in which no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes.
The winner required 131 total electoral votes to win the election. Jackson only received 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37. The results also suggested that Jackson also received a majority of the popular vote, though the election came at a time when not all states used the popular vote to determine electors for the electoral college.
Per the Twelfth Amendment the House of Representatives would now decide the election. Clay was eliminated from consideration as only the top three candidates could be considered.
Who Was Involved in the Corrupt Bargain?
The Corrupt Bargain primarily involved Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, as well as Presidential candidate John Quincy Adams.
Clay immediately became perhaps the most influential figure in the 1824 election given his role as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Clay decided early on that he would support Adams as the choice for president.
Crawford suffered a stroke in the summer of 1823 and was in ill health. Clay simply did not believe he was fit enough to be president.
Clay was diametrically opposed to Jackson and personally detested the man. He also genuinely believed he was unqualified to be president and was against many of his proposed policies such as the American System.
Even though Clay and Adams had a combative relationship and were constantly at odds throughout Monroe’s presidency, Adams was seen as the lesser of evils. Clay thus worked to influence the House of Representatives to vote in favor of Adams.
The February 1825 vote resulted in thirteen state delegations in the House voting for Adams, seven for Jackson, and four for Crawford. With twenty-four total states the thirteen was a majority and made John Quincy Adams the winner of the election of 1824.
When Adams immediately offered Henry Clay the position of Secretary of State in his cabinet, the move prompted outrage from Jackson supporters. They could not understand how the candidate with the majority of electoral and popular votes could not be elected as President.
Jackson and his supporters hurled accusations of a “corrupt bargain” wherein Clay helped Adams win the election in return for the Secretary of State position. Clay and Adams both vehemently denied the charge, and Clay even supported and launched an independent investigation into the matter.1
Jackson attempted to provide evidence for the “corrupt bargain” by naming James Buchanan as an “agent” of Clay’s. This charge would backfire when Buchanan provided documented evidence of the exchanges and came out as an ardent supporter of Jackson instead of Clay/Adams.2
How did the Corrupt Bargain Get its Name?
The Corrupt Bargain got its name after Andrew Jackson and his supporters spread the tale of alleged corruption in the election of 1824 far and wide. They could not understand how the candidate with the majority of electoral and popular votes could lose the election without corruption of some sort.
Jackson used this disparity as a rallying point at how the federal government was corrupt, undemocratic, and against the will of the people.
Upon further examination, the election of 1824 and the “corrupt bargain” may not have been so dominated by Jackson as his followers would have you believe. Without that domination, the narrative of Adams’ victory being against the will of the people proves a faulty premise.
The electoral victory was anything but suggestive of the majority will of the people. The Three-fifths Compromise amplified the electoral power of slave-holding states, despite having fewer voting eligible citizens.
Historian Robert Forbes calculated that without the three-fifths rule, Adams would have received 83 electoral votes to Jackson’s 77. This suggests the will of the voting eligible people actually favored Adams according to the electoral college.3
It is also important to note that only eighteen of twenty-four states chose their presidential electors via popular vote in the 1824 election.
When Jackson supporters claimed he won the popular vote and thus represented the will of the people, he really only won the popular vote in eighteen states. The remaining six states had state legislatures choose electors and did not record a popular vote.
This is notable considering the state of New York was one of the six that did not choose via popular vote. New York was the largest state in the Union at the time and held nearly one-seventh of the entire US population.
Adams dominated the vote in the state legislature, winning twenty-five of the thirty-six votes. Jackson was not popular in the state and only received one electoral vote.
Speculative data based on voter turnout in New York’s gubernatorial elections suggests that Adams could have received at least an additional ~77,000 votes from New York, while Jackson may have received virtually none.3
This massive vote swing alone could have turned the popular vote in favor of Adams over Jackson. Therefore the claims that Jackson was the true choice of the people in the election of 1824 do not stand upon closer examination.
The Significance of the “Corrupt Bargain” Election of 1824
The significance of the “Corrupt Bargain” election of 1824 lies in how Andrew Jackson used the unfounded claims to maintain popular support during Adams’ presidency and capitalized on the outrage by winning a rematch in the election of 1828.
Jackson’s politically savvy move of enraging his base supporters and giving them a cause to become politically active certainly helped in his election victory. Voter turnout drastically increased from 1824 to 1828, rising from ~27% to ~57% of the voting eligible population.
Adams’ chances for reelection were slim simply due to the nature upon which he won in the first place. Adams benefited from the fractured nature of the 1824 election where four separate candidates garnered significant electoral and popular votes.
New voters historically tend to skew towards voting against the incumbent after entering the political sphere. Voter turnout more than doubled in 1828 and Adams’ competition consolidated into just one opponent.
This combination doomed Adams far more than Jackson riding a populist wave to victory ever could.
Despite this, Jackson’s victory ushered in the so-called “Jacksonian Era,” known as a period of intense democratization of US politics. Many property-owning requirements vanished as suffrage expanded to nearly all white men.
By 1832 all states except for one (South Carolina) used the popular vote to determine electors. Most had also changed their systems to where the state winner would receive all electoral votes instead of a percentage.
It also ushered in the era of the “Second Party System.” Jackson had many political enemies who formed a new party to oppose his policies and “King Andrew” himself. The Whig Party briefly came into prominence to counter the Jacksonian Democrats following the important Bank War of 1832.
Many battles would be fought over the nature of tariffs including the dreaded 1828 Tariff of Abominations that directly led to the 1832 Nullification Crisis, as well as numerous Native American events such as the 1830 Indian Removal Act and his failure to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia.
Henry Clay’s reputation also suffered greatly from the unfounded accusations of the “Corrupt bargain.” Though once a shoo-in for president, Clay failed to win any of the five elections he ran as a candidate.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Morgan, William G. “HENRY CLAY’S BIOGRAPHERS AND THE ‘CORRUPT BARGAIN’ CHARGE.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 66, no. 3, 1968, pp. 242–58, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23376844.
2) Stenberg, Richard R. “Jackson, Buchanan, and the ‘Corrupt Bargain’ Calumny.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 58, no. 1, 1934, pp. 61–85, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20086857.
3) RATCLIFFE, DONALD. “Popular Preferences in the Presidential Election of 1824.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 34, no. 1, 2014, pp. 45–77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24486931.