A Most Contentious Presidential Election

Although John Quincy Adams should have been the heir apparent to the presidency as James Monroe's secretary of state, the year 1824 was a political turning point in which none of the old rules applied. Four other men also wanted to be President, each with substantial regional backing. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina had served as secretary of war in the Monroe administration and had support from slave owners in the South but he needed support from outside the region to be a viable candidate. The politically ambitious and able William H. Crawford of Georgia enjoyed the support of party regulars in Congress—especially Senator Martin Van Buren of New York—as well as substantial footing in Georgia. Crawford had served as secretary of war and of the treasury in the two previous administrations. His main drawback stemmed from his explosive temper, which had alienated a number of fellow political leaders including President Monroe. The two men had almost engaged in a fistfight in a cabinet meeting before Crawford gathered his wits enough to apologize. Thereafter, the two men seldom spoke to one another.

The most visible candidate was House Speaker Henry Clay. A leading War Hawk during the War of 1812, Clay had a power base in Kentucky, was a gifted public speaker, and had support for his so-called American System of protective tariffs and federally sponsored internal improvements. His high-profile advocacy of these issues made him a familiar name in much of the country. Although he was well known, his clear identification with the war and nationalism weakened his roots in the South, which was beginning to fear supporting anyone for President who was not a slave owner or a supporter of states' rights.

Then there was General Andrew Jackson from Tennessee, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson's reputation as an Indian fighter and western expansionist, owing to his military escapades in Spanish Florida (see Jackson biography, Life Before the Presidency section), gave him national standing above all other candidates. It also helped that Jackson could enter the race as an outsider, a defender of the Republic who had risked his life in service of his nation. In fact, his supporters talked about him as another George Washington. Few experienced politicians, however, expected Jackson to win if any of the opposing candidates could broker a cross-regional coalition that would unite either the West or the South with New England or the mid-Atlantic States.

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