On Feb. 9, 1825, after a tumultuous and inconclusive general election, the U.S. House of Representatives selected John Quincy Adams to be the sixth president of the United States — the only man to become president by losing both the popular vote and the electoral college vote.
During the era of George Washington, two political parties had appeared in the fledgling United States. The Federalist Party was led by Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, and the Democratic-Republican Party was led by Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state and later the third president of the United States. For various reasons tied to Federalist strength in New England, the War of 1812 pretty much destroyed that party, leaving the Democratic-Republican Party as the only nationally viable political party.
The two-term presidency of James Monroe (1817-1825) soon became known as the “Era of Good Feelings,” largely because there was no real opposition party of any strength, and on the surface Americans appeared to be united politically as never before.
The reality, however, was quite different.
Though the nation was theoretically unified politically, it did see the rise of sectionalism at this time. Though the Democratic-Republican Party held sway in all parts of the country, New Englanders, Southerners and Westerners (at the time those states west of the Appalachian Mountains) each had their own ideas about how the country should be run.
Further giving lie to the era's nickname, perhaps a dozen or more politicians, each nominally a Democratic-Republican, began to scheme for the presidency as the 1824 election approached. In his biography of the 11th president of the United States, “Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America,” historian Walter R. Borneman wrote:
“New England's favorite son was John Quincy Adams, Monroe's secretary of state. The South was divided between Georgia's William H. Crawford, the secretary of the treasury, and South Carolina's young John C. Calhoun, the secretary of war. New York favored its governor, De Witt Clinton, who had promoted the building of the Erie Canal. Kentucky championed Henry Clay, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Tennessee put forward the name of Andrew Jackson.”
The four most popular to emerge among the candidates were Adams, Jackson, Crawford and Clay, though most agreed that Calhoun would make a fine vice president. Clinton's campaign failed to pick up the steam it needed to compete with the other candidates. In the era before formal nominating procedures, each candidate ran his own campaign within the party, and there was great fear among them all that so many candidates would throw a monkey wrench into the electoral process.
The United States in 1824 boasted 24 states, creating a total of 261 votes in the electoral college. Then as now, a candidate does not become president by merely gaining the most votes in the electoral college. Rather, the candidate must command an absolute majority, more than one half of the electoral vote, in order to become president. Today the “magic number” is 270 electoral votes. In the 1824 election it was 131.
When the results were in, the War of 1812 hero Andrew Jackson gained the most electoral votes with 99 (41 percent of the popular vote), Adams came in second with 84 (30 percent of the popular vote), Crawford drew 41 (11 percent of the popular vote), and Clay garnered only 37 (13 percent of the popular vote). No candidate gained an absolute majority. The plethora of candidates had indeed turned the process on its head and the race was thrown into the House of Representatives.
The 12th Amendment to the Constitution stated that in the event of multiple candidates winning electoral votes in the general election, only the top three would be considered in the contingent election. Though Clay was placed out of the running, as speaker of the house, he still had considerable influence and considered which candidate to throw his support behind. Noting that his politics were most closely aligned with Adams, Clay ultimately decided to back the New Englander.
On Feb. 9, 1825, the vote in the House occurred. Under the provisions of the 12th Amendment, each representative within each state's delegation voted for his preferred candidate, and then once the each state's delegation had decided, the state itself cast one vote. After the tumult surrounding the election of 1800, in which the contingent election between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr produced 36 votes in the House, many were surprised when the 1824 election was settled on the first ballot.
John Quincy Adams was elected president of the United States with the support of 13 states. Jackson came in second with seven states, and Crawford won only four states. In his biography “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times,” historian H.W. Brands wrote:
“Jackson accepted the decision with outward calm. He attended a reception hosted by President Monroe for the president-elect. 'It was crowded to overflowing,' Adams wrote. 'General Jackson was there, and we shook hands. He was altogether placid and courteous.' John Eaton observed the same equanimity in Jackson. 'The old man goes quietly on, undisturbed and unmoved by the agitation around. Even enemies speak highly of his course.' "
Brands notes that Jackson, however, was incredibly angry over the outcome. Jackson had been impressed with Adams prior to the general election, at one point telling a friend, “You know my private opinion of Mr. Adams' talents, virtues, and integrity. I think him a man of the first rate mind of any in America as a civilian and a scholar, and I have never doubted of his attachment to our republican government.”
In the days following the resolution of the contingent election, Adams offered the position of secretary of state to the man he thought best qualified for the job, Henry Clay. In the early republic, the office of secretary of state, not the vice presidency, was seen as the stepping stone to the presidency. Though no prior collusion to reward Clay for his support had taken place, many believed that Adams had engaged in a quid pro quo. Tales of a “corrupt bargain” were spread about, seriously damaging Adams' ability to lead.
Jackson himself said of Adams, “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the 30 pieces of silver. His end will be the same.”
Though Adams had big plans for the country, including the creation of a national university and the use of federal money for internal infrastructure, Jackson's supporters in Congress, soon to be known simply as “Democrats,” blocked his plans at every turn.
Adams later said, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.”
Those miserable years didn't stop him from running for re-election in 1828. This time, however, it was his old foe Jackson who won the election with 178 electoral votes while Adams gained only 83.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org