The Antecedent #7: A House Divided


Amidst the financial and political disarray of the Continental Congress, the early statesmen of the United States crafted a new government with two seemingly contradictory ideals: a strong federal government capable of competing with the global powers of Europe and a government flexible (and liberal) enough to meet the diverse needs of the constituent colonies turned states.

The Founders imagined a government whose politicians served only the needs of the republic, without political faction. Before the end of Washington’s second term, it became obvious that the nation needed an opposition party to keep the government honest (I mean, look how well no opposition is serving the United States today!) and attendant to the needs of the few.

For the first few elections, the Federalist Party served this function. By Thomas Jefferson’s second term, circumstance and political chicanery had effectively relegated the Federalist Party to local (rather than national) standing. By James Monroe’s second term the Republicans were the only party in town. This was the so-called Era of Good Feelings. This was the beginning of the end of a seemingly civilized era of electioneering. (The early American elections were anything but “civilized.” It was just that with larger-than-life characters as Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, the early elections seemed more pre-ordained. Removed from the generation that wrought the American Revolution, the presidential elections were muddier. More complicated.)

American government, as designed, derives stability from the inherent nature of its constituents: ambitious men and women will naturally gravitate to opposite poles in attempt to curry favor with the voters, making change difficult (and when such change seems necessary, frustrating). In the absence of political opposition, the Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson fractured as its cadre of capable politicians sought nuanced platforms and jockeyed for position in a narrowly defined line of political succession.

Traditionally the path to the Executive wound through the State Department. As the co-architect of foreign policy, the Secretary of State was the logical person to assume the presidency; Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all served as the Secretary of State. With no clear successor to James Monroe appointed by Thomas Jefferson the leading Republicans of the day lobbied for the position of Secretary of State before Monroe ever took office! John Quincy Adams had been a career diplomat from his teen years, spoke several languages and had lived much of his youth in the courts of England, France, Holland and Russia. He was the most experienced and obvious candidate for the job if not the most personable and well-liked.

The election of 1824 was the first in American history where the candidates for the presidency actively campaigned. In elections past, the candidate (as much as possible) tried to make it look as though their call to office was just that: a humble request from the citizenry. Obviously there was a great deal of campaigning done in the backgrounds, but in public, candidates tried to avoid groveling before the electorate. In 1824 this was no longer the case. While candidates may have played coy, it was well known that their shenanigans were all done as part of a mad dash to office. There were even campaign managers: Andrew Jackson’s campaign manager earned the nickname “Little Wizard” for his skills in organizing support (said manager was future president Martin Van Buren).

Under the Constitution, if no one candidate for president has a majority of electoral votes the election is decided in the House of Representatives (for the top three vote getters). Other than the sticky issue involving the election of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr (since sorted out by the 12th Amendment whereupon the Vice-President was no longer the candidate receiving the second most votes), this had worked smoothly up to the election of 1824.

Months before the election, all of the candidates realized that the likelihood of an election in the House was pretty high. They sought alliances and bargains to place their candidacy at the forefront. William H. Crawford held a nominating caucus (generally where the party would nominate their candidate) to give his campaign a veneer of gravitas. No other candidate participated. John Quincy Adams tried to derail Andrew Jackson’s populist campaign by throwing a party in his honor and persuading the general to create an Adams/Jackson ticket. Jackson’s ambition prevented it. Henry Clay used his seat as the House Speaker to badger popular support from all the states’ delegations, but fell second in most places. All failed. The election was sent to the House.

In the House, each state’s delegation received one vote. They were not obliged to vote according to popular will, free instead to vote for the candidate who they though would best serve the nation (which to some cynics might translate to: “the candidate who would deliver to them the largest amount of pork” [“pork” being the cynic’s word for thinly veiled bribery]).

When the election was sent to the House of Representatives, the campaign for president effectively began anew. With rejected candidate and House Speaker Henry Clay presiding over the affair, the candidates (minus Crawford, who was still incapacitated with the after effects of a stroke) presented their cases to body of the House.

Though John Quincy Adams was second in electoral voting and second in the popular vote he was selected for the office of the president in one ballot, receiving exactly the majority needed to end voting.

After it was revealed that Adams had met extensively with close friends of House Speaker (and that Clay would serve in Adams’ cabinet) supporters of Andrew Jackson declared the election a corrupt bargain.

John Quincy Adams was faced with a party in tatters and strong political opposition. Without the lock-step support of the Republican party, he met resistance with every move he made. All of his political moves were countered by a host of bitter political rivals eager to avenge their so-called slights. His presidency limped to its inevitable defeat in 1828 much to Adams’ own relief.

And politics in the United States were never again the same.

Bryant Paul Johnson

Bryant Paul Johnson was born in Boston, grew up on Cape Cod, educated in Montreal and now lives in Northampton.

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