The political history of the United States is littered with contentious presidential elections that inflamed the populace and led to accusations of corruption. None is perhaps so dubious as the election of 1824 and so-called “corrupt bargain.”
The election of 1824 brought 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 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 be a force on the national political scene.
This is not to say Federalist principles disappeared 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 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 has been nicknamed the “corrupt bargain.”
The primary contenders—John Quicy 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 was sent to the House of Representatives to decide.
Ultimately, Quincy Adams was elected President by the House, 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 Monroe was elected virtually unopposed, the Democratic-Republicans failed to consolidate behind a single candidate. Instead, the electorate was divided between five candidates: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun.
Calhoun would later drop out of the race for President in favor of the Vice Presidential race, leaving four candidates remaining.
Each candidate represented a certain faction within the United States. Adams was the former Secretary of State and represented the northeastern interests. Jackson ran on a populist platform and was popular in multiple regions as the famed General from the 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 prior 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.
131 total electoral votes were needed to win the election; however 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 it came at a time when not all states used the popular vote to determine electors for the electoral college.
Under the Twelfth Amendment, the election was sent to the House of Representatives to be decided. Only the top three candidates could be considered, and thus Clay was removed from deliberation.
Who Was Involved in the Corrupt Bargain?
Though Clay was removed from presidential consideration, he immediately became perhaps the most influential figure in the 1824 election as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
This great influence is the reason Henry Clay is cited as having the most involvement in the “corrupt bargain” charges that Jackson’s supporters accused him of. However, Clay decided early on that he would support Adams as the choice for the sixth President of the United States.
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.
Thus, 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. As thirteen was a majority (of twenty-four states), John Quincy Adams was declared 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.
Accusations were made 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.
Jackson attempted to provide evidence for the “corrupt bargain” by naming James Buchanan as an “agent” of Clay’s. This charge would backfire as Buchanan would provide documented evidence of the exchanges and came out as an ardent supporter of Jackson instead of Clay/Adams.
The Election of 1824 and the Corrupt Bargain Reexamined
Supporters of Andrew Jackson were confounded at how the candidate with the supposed majority of electoral and popular votes could lose the election. They 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 to be a faulty premise.
Firstly, 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.
As for the popular vote, it is an important distinction to note that in the 1824 election only eighteen of twenty-four states chose their presidential electors via the electoral college.
Thus, 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 thus did not record a popular vote.
This is notable, especially considering the state of New York was one of the six that did not choose via popular vote. At the time, New York was the largest state in the Union 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 suggest that Adams could have received at least an additional ~77,000 votes from New York, while Jackson may have received virtually none.
This massive vote swing alone could have turned the popular vote in favor of Adams over Jackson, thereby ending the claims that Jackson was the true choice of the people in the election of 1824.
Why Was the Corrupt Bargain Important?
Despite Jackson providing no verified evidence, he continued to maintain that the election of 1824 was a “corrupt bargain” and used that as a launching pad for his election campaign in 1828. Jackson would ride this populist wave to defeat Adams in a rematch during the 1828 election.
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.
Though Jackson was able to successfully lure more voters to the polls, Adams was a longshot for reelection simply due to the nature upon which he won in the first place. Adams benefitted from the fractured nature of the 1824 election where four separate candidates garnered significant electoral and popular votes.
Historically speaking, when new voters enter the political arena, they tend to skew towards voting against the incumbent. Voter turnout more than doubled in 1828 and Adams’ competition consolidated into just one opponent (Jackson).
This combination doomed Adams far more than Jackson riding a populist wave to victory ever could.
Despite this, Jackson’s victory ushered in a new era of intense democratization of US politics. Many property-owning requirements vanished as suffrage was expanded to nearly all white men.
By 1832 all states except for one (South Carolina) used the popular vote to determine electors, and many would change their systems to where the state winner would receive all electoral votes instead of a percentage.
It also ushered in the era of the so-called “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.
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 in any of the five elections he ran as a candidate.