Adams, Jackson and the Corrupt Bargain

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Part 6 of a series. See Complete list of series here.

This spring, a small cadre of Williams College students is participating in an experimental history course on the American Presidents. Instead of producing papers, as is the norm in most history classes, the students will create video campaign ads for the presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln. 

There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.  

RealClearHistory has agreed to partner with our class. Every week or so, RealClearHistory will display the best videos the students produce.  

We began with John Adams’ 1796 election and we will continue to Abraham Lincoln’s in 1860, stopping at all the major elections along the way. This week, we travel to the election of 1824. The election had four candidates vying for the office. John Quincy Adams, a New Englander and figure of the D.C. establishment, represented the National Republicans. Andrew Jackson, a war hero from Tennessee, represented the frontier and western interests. The third candidate, William Crawford, was the choice of the southern establishment. Kentuckian Henry Clay was the fourth candidate to gain supporters. When the results were in, Jackson had won the popular vote, but the Electoral College had no majority. The decision fell to the House, where John Quincy Adams forged an alliance with Clay and secured the presidency. Jackson dubbed the decision a “Corrupt Bargain.” The fallout from this election reshaped American politics.

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Monroe’s “Era of Good Feelings” came crashing down in 1824. Before 1824, Congressional Republicans caucused during presidential election years in order to choose a consensus candidate. The nomination process reflected Republican ideology that Congress best reflected the wishes of the people. The caucus also helped maintain party unity. The decisions for Madison and Monroe were fairly straightforward. The system worked.

With the Presidency up for grabs in 1824, the Congressional caucus selected William Crawford, a distinguished statesmen from Georgia, as their nominee. Not everyone was pleased with the decision. Indeed, only one-third of the members participated. The remaining two-thirds had given up on the system and had left D.C. in order to support their own candidates.  

As the election unfolded, the once-unified party fractured along regional lines, although the geographic divisions also had underlying ideological differences. Four competing camps developed, but only two gained real traction.  

One camp, called the National Republicans, advocated for a more vigorous federal government. They supported the Second Bank of the United States and federal funding of internal improvements to connect the national market. John Quincy Adams, the son of Federalist President John Adams, was their choice. John Quincy had a distinguished career as a good Republican. Soon after the Jeffersonian Revolution, he renounced his father’s party and served in the administrations of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Most recently, he had served as Monroe’s Secretary of State, a common stepping-stone for the president. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had all served as Secretaries of State before assuming the Presidency.  

Another camp supported Andrew Jackson. Few in Washington took Jackson seriously, but many outside did. In D.C., Jackson had a reputation for rashness. Outside of D.C., however, Jackson had a reputation as a war hero for his defense of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and for his service in the First Seminole War, which helped the United States acquire Florida. He published a campaign biography that touted his upbringing on the frontier. He was, the campaign argued, a “man of the people.” Jackson distrusted the federal government, the National Bank, and industrialization. He believed that these “moneyed interests” from eastern cities undermined the power of the common man on the frontier. His vision for the United States contrasted John Quincy Adams’ vision.

Two other candidates garnered some support. William Crawford stood for the status quo. Crawford suffered a stroke shortly after receiving the Congressional nomination. His health threw his weak candidacy further into doubt, but his speedy recovery meant that he was still a player in the election.  

Henry Clay, a Kentuckian and a major force in the House, also gained some supporters. He too appealed to frontier settlers, but he offered a vision of government very different from Jackson. Where Jackson saw federal funding of internal improvements and modern finance as a threat, Clay viewed banks and infrastructure as the best means to improve frontier regions. He promoted an “American System” that called for economic nationalism. He proposed a program of high tariffs to protect American producers and manufacturers, a national bank to help finance expansion and industrialization, and federal funding of canals and turnpikes to connect the nation by facilitating easier trade and speedier communication. He was ideologically if not geographically aligned with John Quincy Adams.

(Campaign ads videos from 1824 election on Page 2)


Our ads this week focus on the two major candidates, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. As you’ll note, these videos include more images and are more personal than previous ads. These changes in our ads reflect real developments in American political culture. The 1820s saw the expansion of the voting franchise and the explosion of print. As America democratized, its politics became more personal. As printing increased, so too did political ephemera. The country was awash in partisan paper. After 1824, political cartoons, broadsides, pamphlets, and campaign biographies became regular parts of politics.

Aimee Dennett’s attack ad “John (Quincy) Adams” has the highest production values we have yet seen. She casts Quincy Adams as a closet Federalist by linking him to his unpopular father. The ad argues that his support of a strong federal government would undermine the ideals of the Republican Party. The ad reflects the fear that many of Adams’ opponents felt towards his strong government policies. In the words of one newspaper she cites, he would “destroy the liberties of the nation.” You can read an explanation of her ad here.

Brian Edgerley’s video “Do Not Elect a Murderer” follows Aimee’s lead, except he sets his sights on Jackson and his past. Brian challenges Jackson’s reputation as a distinguished general. Instead of focusing on Jackson’s victories, Brian questions Jackson’s tactics. Brian highlights Jackson’s summary execution of soldiers, his history of dueling, and his authoritarian leadership style. At the end of the ad, Brian also brings up rumors of Jackson’s infidelity. As Brian’s ad states, Jackson is “unfit for presidential power.” You can read an explanation of his ad here.

Sam Weinstein has a different point of view. She argues that Jackson can best represent the nation and its future. The most important theme in her video is the growing divide between the establishment in D.C. and those outside of it. Quoting from Jackson’s campaign biography, her ad tells viewers to “look to the city of Washington, and let the virtuous patriots of the country weep at the spectacle.” Her ad promises that Jackson would reform this corruption.

Edward Flynn's “A Strong Diplomatic Politician” disagrees with Sam. He argues that Adams is the best equipped for the presidency. He focuses on John Quincy Adams' distinguished service. Adams was one of America’s finest Secretaries of State, and Edward highlights his many acocmplishments. Such skills, Edward implies, are what a President needs. You can read his explanation here.

It is tough to say whose argument carried the day in 1824. Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote and Electoral College. No one had a majority, however. Congress thus had to decide who would be President. There, Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House who had also received 37 electoral votes, endorsed John Quincy Adams. Clay then helped bring a number of western states into the fold, pushing Adams above Jackson.  

Jackson felt the election illegitimate. He believed John Quincy Adams and Clay had made a secret compact in which Clay would support Adams in exchange for the position of Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, Clay would be positioned as Adams’ likely successor. Jackson refused to accept defeat and began campaigning for the presidency almost immediately. In 1828, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson would face a rematch in what became one of the most vicious elections in American history. We will travel there in the next installment.

Patrick Spero is Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and History at Williams College. He may be reached at patrick.k.spero@williams.edu.

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