This week in history: John Quincy Adams is elected president
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.
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