1824 Electoral Mayhem Throws Presidential Race into U.S. House of Representatives
While most shrewd political observers in the modern epoch are familiar with a presidential election’s share of chaos or sideshows, those unacquainted with history or the election devices built into the Constitution to determine the presidential victor tend to believe electoral turmoil is only a recent phenomenon. On February 9, 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected president on the first ballot in the country’s first contingent election held following an Electoral College deadlock. Similarly, the election of 1824 emerged to be another first: It witnessed Adams claim the White House without earning a majority of popular votes.
Unlike the present day, in which political parties hold conventions to nominate candidates, a Congressional caucus system had been established to put forward the most attractive officer seeker of all declared candidates. In the absence of standing political parties, the 1824 Congressional caucus anointed the then-Treasury Secretary, William H. Crawford, as its nominee by an overwhelming margin. Despite the snub, Secretary of State John Adams, Senator Andrew Jackson, and House Speaker Henry Clay all chose to remain in the race.
An election held between October 26-December 2, 1824, the final vote tally saw war hero and populist Tennessee Senator Andrew Jackson win easily over John Quincy Adams with 153,544 popular votes to Adams’ 108,740. For Jackson, this was a landslide and a resounding victory which should have placed him in the White House. Unfortunately for the upstart Tennessee senator, math is hard: Jackson failed to win the required minimum Electoral Votes to claim the White House. A “first-past-the-post” election system, Jackson’s 99 Electoral Votes were 32 shy of the required 131 to be elected president.
Under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment, candidates failing to earn sufficient Electoral Votes to stand among the top-three positions were eliminated from further contention for the presidency. An election to be decided by the House of Representatives, only Adams, Jackson, and Crawford remained. A race in which House Speaker Henry Clay was eliminated, Clay, who would earn the sobriquet “The Great Compromiser” for his legislative efforts on Capitol Hill in following years, would play a crucial role in the unfolding events of the House vote in 1825.
A bitter rival of Jackson, Clay returned to the House and immediately threw his support behind Adams. Popular myth has it Clay not only announced his support for Adams, but labored tirelessly on Adams’ behalf for two months to carry out his end of an agreement with Adams his backing would be a service returned with a nomination to lead the State Department. At the time, the role of Secretary of State was considered the stepping stone to the White House.
On February 9, 1825, Adams was elected to the presidency on the first ballot, defeating Jackson by 16 votes, 87-71. Mr. Crawford trailed with 54 votes.
For the first and only time in U.S. history a candidate, Jackson, earning a majority of the popular vote and a majority of Electoral Votes in a presidential election would lose the White House.
Upon assuming the presidency, Adams immediately named Henry Clay as Secretary of State, inspiring calls the election was rigged, and earning the election of 1824 a epithet it would never shake: A “Corrupt Bargain.”
Bitter and resentful, Jackson would return to the Senate and would later unseat Adams in the presidential election of 1828. He would serve two terms and his presidency would be characterized as representing the “forgotten man.” Having lost his re-election bid in 1828, Adams sought election to the House where he earned a reputation as a passionate foe of slavery until his death in 1848. After serving as the country’s chief diplomat, Clay would return to Congress, this time in the upper chamber, and often clash bitterly with Jackson. Frequently described as an “inevitable” president, the electorate never forgave his political grifting and he lost two later attempts at the White House in 1844 and 1848.