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The presidential election of 1824, which involved three major figures in American history, was decided in the House of Representatives. One man won, one helped him win, and one stormed out of Washington, D.C., denouncing the affair as “the corrupt bargain.” Until the disputed election of 2000, this was the most controversial election in American history.
In the 1820s, the United States was in a relatively settled period. The War of 1812 was fading into memory and the Missouri Compromise in 1821 had put the contentious issue of slavery aside, where it would essentially remain until the 1850s.
A pattern of two-term presidents had developed in the early 1800s:
- Thomas Jefferson: elected in 1800 and 1804
- James Madison: elected in 1808 and 1812
- James Monroe: elected in 1816 and 1820
As Monroe's second term reached its final year, several major candidates were intent on running in 1824.
John Quincy Adams: The son of the second president had served as secretary of state in the James Monroe administration since 1817. Being secretary of state was considered one obvious path to the presidency, as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had all previously held the position.
Adams, by his own admission, was considered to have an unexciting personality, but his long career of public service made him well qualified to be chief executive.John Quincy Adams. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Andrew Jackson: Following his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, Gen. Jackson became a larger-than-life American hero. He was elected as a senator from Tennessee in 1823 and immediately began positioning himself to run for president.
The main concerns people had about Jackson were that he was self-educated and possessed a fiery temperament. He had killed men in duels and had been wounded by gunfire in various confrontations.Andrew Jackson. Stock Montage / Getty Images
Henry Clay: As speaker of the House, Clay was a dominating political figure. He had pushed the Missouri Compromise through Congress, and that landmark legislation had, at least for a time, settled the issue of slavery.
Clay had an advantage if several candidates ran and none of them received a majority of votes from the electoral college. That would put the decision in the House of Representatives, where Clay wielded great power.
An election decided in the House would be unlikely in the modern era. But Americans in the 1820s didn't consider it outlandish, as it had happened recently: The election of 1800, which was won by Jefferson, had been decided in the House of Representatives.
William H. Crawford: Though mostly forgotten today, Georgia's Crawford was a powerful political figure, having served as a senator and secretary of the treasury under Madison. He was considered a strong candidate for president but had suffered a stroke in 1823 that rendered him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Despite that, some politicians still supported his candidacy.
In that era, candidates didn't campaign for themselves. Campaigning was left to managers and surrogates, and throughout the year various partisans spoke and wrote in favor of the candidates.
When the votes were tallied from across the nation, Jackson had won a plurality of the popular as well as the electoral vote. In the electoral college tabulations, Adams came in second, Crawford was third, and Clay was fourth.
While Jackson won the popular vote that was counted, some states at that time picked electors in the state legislature and didn't tally a popular vote for president.
The U.S. Constitution dictates that a candidate needs to win a majority in the Electoral College, and no one met that standard. The election, therefore, had to be decided by the House of Representatives.
The man who had a huge advantage in that venue, House speaker Clay, was automatically eliminated. The Constitution said only the top three candidates could be considered.
Clay Supported Adams
In early January 1824, Adams had invited Clay to visit him at his residence, and the two men spoke for several hours. It is unknown whether they reached some sort of deal, but suspicions were widespread.
On Feb. 9, 1825, the House held its election, in which each state delegation got one vote. Clay had made it known that he supported Adams and thanks to his influence, Adams won the vote and was elected president.
'The Corrupt Bargain'
Jackson, already famous for his temper, was furious. When Adams named Clay as his secretary of state, Jackson denounced the election as "the corrupt bargain." Many assumed Clay had sold his influence to Adams so he could be secretary of state and increase his chance of being president someday.
Jackson was so angry about what he considered Washington manipulations that he resigned his Senate seat, returned to Tennessee, and began planning the campaign that would make him president four years later. The 1828 campaign between Jackson and Adams was perhaps the dirtiest campaign ever, with wild accusations thrown about by each side.
Jackson was elected. He would serve two terms as president and begin the era of strong political parties in America. As for Adams, after losing to Jackson in 1828, he retired briefly to Massachusetts before running successfully for the House of Representatives in 1830. He served 17 years in Congress, becoming a strong advocate against slavery.
Adams always said being a congressman was more gratifying than being president. He died in the U.S. Capitol, having suffered a stroke in the building in February 1848.
Clay ran for president again, losing to Jackson in 1832 and to James Knox Polk in 1844. While he never gained the nation's highest office, he remained a major figure in national politics until his death in 1852.