The Election of 1824

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Many people think that politics and elections in the United States are the most controversial they have ever been.  History, however, begs to differ.

Perhaps the oddest and most controversial presidential election in American history was the election of 1824. It is an election that doesn’t get a lot of attention given who won and the lack of major issues at stake, but it is one which more people should be familiar with.

Learn more about the election of 1824 and the end of the Era of Good Feelings, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

To understand the election of 1824, you first have to understand the election of 1820. 

In 1820, President James Monroe ran for president and defeated… one. He ran unopposed.  He won every state and won 98.5% of the electoral college, and didn’t get 100% just because one elector from Maine didn’t like him. 

At this time, the United States was a one party state. Not in the way that North Korea is a one party state, but the opposition Federalist party fell apart after the war of 1812, leaving the Democratic-Republican party as the only viable, national political party in the country. 

The period of time in American history was known as the Era of Good Feeling. It is mostly glossed over in history books as there were no major wars, controversies, or other major issues. Basically, it was an era of good feeling because domestic politics were peaceful, because there was only one party.

In the lead up to the 1824 election, Monroe decided not to run for president, keeping with the Washingtonian tradition of presidents only having two terms. Monroe’s vice-president Daniel Tompkins had been dismissed as a serious presidential candidate due to health and financial issues.

Back then, there were no primaries, and in fact, there weren’t really even elections. 

At this period in history, parties choose their nominees for president and vice-president via a congressional nominating caucus. The Democratic-Republican nominating caucus overwhelmingly nominated William H. Crawford of Georgia to be their nominee. He received 64 of the 69 votes.

You’d think that if there was only one political party, and that party nominated you for president, you’d have a pretty good chance at being elected, yet there never was a president Crawford.

However, the states didn’t really like or honor the results of the nominating caucus. They thought the process was undemocratic. The states went ahead and nominated their own candidates for president, and this is where the problem starts.

Side note: the election of 1824 was the last time there was a Congressional nominating caucus. It was replaced by presidential nominating conventions, which are still in place today. 

There were four different people nominated by state nominating conventions. Each candidate was nominated by at least one state. They were: 

The aforementioned William Crawford of Georgia, who was the sitting Secretary of the Treasury.

Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Secretary of State John Qunicy Adams.

And Tennessee Senator and former General Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson wasn’t even seeking the nomination. His plan was to retire to his estate, the Hermitage, but he was recruited by the Tennessee state legislature.

I should note that all four men were members of the same political party. 

Unlike other presidential elections, this election wasn’t driven so much by differences in policy as geography. 

Also, both Adams and Jackson picked the same person for vice-president: John C. Calhoun. 

So far, I think you would agree that this election is shaping up to be very different. As I go through the actual election results, it will only get weirder. 

As I’m sure you know, the United States doesn’t select its president via a popular vote. They do so through the electoral college. In the early United States, electors to the Electoral College were chosen by state legislatures. 

In 1824, many states still didn’t have a popular vote for determining their Electoral College vote. Six states: Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont, didn’t use a popular vote to select their electors.

Moreover, not every candidate was on the ballot in every state that did have a popular vote. Adams was left off the ballot in 2 states, Crawford in 4 states, Jackson in 5 states, and Clay was left off the ballot in 9 states.

This election was almost designed to be a confusing mess. 

All four candidates won at least three different states.

In 1824 there were 261 total electoral votes, which meant you needed 131 votes to win.

No one reached the 131 number to win in the Electoral College.

Jackson received 99 votes, Adams 84, Crawford 40 and Clay 38. 

This was the only election in United States history where no one received a majority in the Electoral College.

While John C. Calhoun clearly won vice-president with 182 votes, even the vice-presidential election was weird. Six different people received votes for vice-president under the Crawford ticket. Andrew Jackson received votes for vice-president under the tickets of all three other candidates. 

According to the 12th amendment to the constitution passed in 1804, if no candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College, then the election will be sent to the House of Representatives where each state delegation will receive one vote. The top 3 candidates with the most votes in the Electoral College will be eligible for election by the House.

At the time there were 24 states, which required 13 states to win a majority.

This meant that Henry Clay was out as he came in last with 38 votes. 

Henry Clay, however, as I noted above, was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the very body which was now charged with electing the president. 

Clay hated Andrew Jackson. He was quoted as saying.  “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy.”

The problem was, at least at first glance, no one was set to get 13 states to vote for them. 

Clay’s policy views were closest to Adams. Adams was a good Secretary of State, probably the best in US history, and Clay viewed him as the least worst option. Crawford’s views were further away, and Crawford also had health issues.

Jackson just assumed that because he had the most electoral votes and the most popular votes, that he would naturally win. 

The Kentucky state legislature had a non-binding vote which recommended Jackson for president. Clay, however, cajoled the Kentucky and Ohio delegations, both states who voted for Clay in the Electoral College and where Jackson was the runner-up, to put their support behind Adams. 

On February 5, 1825, the house voted and John Qunicy Adams won on the first ballot with exactly 13 states. Jackson won 7 and Crawford 4.

Andrew Jackson was shocked and livid at the results. He figured that because he had won the plurality, he should have been elected president. 

Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State, which at the time was considered selecting an heir apparent. The last four presidents, Adams, Monroe, Madison, and Jefferson, had all served as Secretary of State.

The way this all played out didn’t sit well with a lot of people. Clay’s appointment as Secretary of State and his role as Speaker of the House in getting Adams was called a “corrupt bargain”. 

The 1824 election immediately set the groundwork for the 1828 election. Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and even Adam’s VP John C. Calhoun went on to lay the foundations for a new Democratic Party, which was the genesis of the political party with the same name today. Jackon beat Adams for the presidency in the next election, building a party structure from which modern politics was based.

John Quincy Adams, despite his brilliance as a Secretary of State, was a rather mediocre president. Something which he himself admitted later on.  In most historical rankings of presidents, he usually ranks in the 2nd quartile, which is good but not great. 

I should close on this note. I previously did an episode about the election of 1960 and how Nixon actually won the popular vote, and there should be 6 elections listed, not 5, where the popular vote winner didn’t win the election.

By the same token, there is an argument for removing the election of 1824 from that list. Yes, while Andrew Jackson did get more votes than any other candidate, a full quarter of the states didn’t even have a popular vote, and the largest state in the union at that time, New York, went for Adams but didn’t have a popular vote.

As it stands, however, with a four-way race, and a quarter of the states not having a popular vote, at 30.9% John Quincy Adams remains the president who was elected with the lowest percentage of the popular vote and one of two presidents elected with under 40% of the popular vote.

The other president? Abraham Lincoln.