Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Election of 1824

After the votes were counted in the U.S. presidential election of 1824, no candidate had received a majority of the Presidential Electoral votes, thereby putting the outcome in the hands of the House of Representatives. To the surprise of many, the House elected John Quincy Adams over rival Andrew Jackson. It was widely believed that Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House at the time, convinced Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State. Supporters of Jackson, a Senator from Tennessee at the time, who won a plurality of those popular votes which had been counted (though not necessarily of all votes) as well as the greatest number of electoral votes, denounced this as a "corrupt bargain." The "corrupt bargain" that placed Adams in the White House and Clay in the State Department launched a four-year campaign of revenge by the friends of Andrew Jackson. Claiming the people had been cheated of their choice, Jacksonians attacked the Adams administration at every turn as illegitimate and tainted by aristocracy and corruption. Adams aided his own defeat by failing to rein in the pork barrel frenzy sparked by the General Survey Act. Jackson's attack on the national blueprint put forward by Adams and Clay won support from Old Republicans and market liberals, the latter of which increasingly argued that Congressional involvement in internal improvements was an open invitation to special interests and political logrolling.

More recently, analysis by means of game theory mathematics has proposed that, contrary to the assertions of Jackson, his supporters, and countless historians since, the results of the election were consistent with so-called "sincere voting"—that is, those Members of the House of Representatives who were unable to cast votes for their most-favored candidate apparently voted for their second- (or third-) most-favored candidate, as the Constitution requires. This suggests that the result was not a consequence of any "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay, but was instead a natural consequence of an electoral field that was fundamentally divided between those who supported Jackson and those who would support anyone other than Jackson. The latter united behind Adams—who was the natural alternative to Jackson, since third place candidate William H. Crawford was in poor health and had no realistic chance of winning the House vote—and so prevailed. Clay was also from the same subdivision of the Democratic-Republican Party as Adams, making him the natural choice. The persistence of the "corrupt bargain" charge appears, therefore, to be the subject of serious dispute.

Regardless of the various theories concerning the matter, John Quincy Adams was a one-term President, and his rival, Jackson, was elected President by a large majority of the Electors in the election of 1828. The corrupt bargain theory, however, still carries sufficient merit not because of the decision of electing John Quincy Adams, but as a result of the agreement to give the Secretary of State position to Henry Clay. While it had occurred in a few previous elections that the incumbent President had been succeeded by his Secretary of State (James Madison, who had served as Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, succeeded Jefferson as President; James Monroe, Madison's Secretary of State, followed Madison into the presidency), this result was not inevitable. Still, it is possible that Clay saw his installation in this office as likely to enhance the likelihood of his someday becoming President. Clay being offered the position of Secretary of State may be the strongest indication that he might have made an agreement with Adams to secure his election in return for the post.

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