The United States Constitution

A forum for discussing the meaning of the United States Constitution for our political process.

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Location: Middleton, Massachusetts, United States

I am concerned about the direction of the United States economy and politics, and about our declining influence in the world. I feel we are losing our moral and ethical bearings.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Election of 1824 - When (Some of) The Candidates Decided the Outcome

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Picture this:  an election where there was only one party, but with four main candidates all from that party.  The people in 3/4 of the states get to vote for Presidential electors who are supposed to vote for the candidate of their choice.  In the other 1/4 of the states, no elections are held for President because the legislature gets to pick the electors.  None of the 4 candidates gets a majority of the vote, which throws the election into the House of Representatives.  In a back room deal, the candidate who received the most popular votes in the states where elections were held for President is frozen out by the other 3 candidates, who choose one of their own as President, with the understanding that he appoint another of them as Secretary of State  That's roughly what happened in the Election of 1824, an election which ranks with the elections of 1800, 1876, and 2000, as examples of why our Presidential election process is, and has always been, seriously flawed. 

In 1824, there was only one national political party, called the Democratic-Republicans, which was the legacy of Jefferson's Republican party.  The other political party, the Federalists, had been discredited by their opposition to the War of 1812.  By 1816, they had disappeared, so that James Monroe, had an easy time becoming our fifth President.  In the Election of 1816, Monroe, President Madison's Secretary of State, received 183 electoral votes to 34 electoral votes for his Federalist opponent, Rufus King.  In the Election of 1820, Monroe received every electoral vote except one.  Monroe's Presidency was called the era of good feelings because of the lack of controversy surrounding his election.

Monroe had opposed the ratification of the Constitution, joining the Virginia anti-Federalists.   He certainly wasn't alone in Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry also had opposed ratification, believing that the Constitution gave too much power to the central government.  Yet, like Jefferson, he ended up expanding Federal power as President.  Monroe's contribution was the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, in which he declared that the United States would take action against any European power that attempted to colonize the Americas (including Latin America). Certainly this was a bold step, a young country flexing its muscle.

By 1824, the President and both houses of Congress were all members of the same party.  No matter - the Era of Good Feelings came to an abrupt end as a result of this tumultuous election.  The winner of the popular vote (in those states where a Presidential vote was conducted) was Andrew Jackson, the war hero from Tennessee.  Most of the standard textbooks cite Jackson's rise to national prominence as a result of the Battle of New Orleans, a battle which took place after the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, was signed, and so was totally unnecessary.  His record after that is not emphasized so much, or is omitted, as it is in the official White House biography of Jackson.  Most of his military activity during (and after) the War of 1812 was centered around a different enterprise:  fighting the Indian tribes.   Jackson's traditional nickname is Old Hickory.  From the Indian point of view, he has a different nickname - Sharp Knife - because of his viciousness and cruelty during the so-called Indian wars.  During the War of 1812, commanding the Tennessee militia during the Creek War, he took on the Creek Indians and defeated them at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  His main accomplishment as an Indian fighter occurred during the First Seminole War, in which he conquered Florida.  Indeed, after the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, in which Spain ceded Florida to the United States, Jackson became military governor of Florida in 1821, starting a regime which can be described as Indian ethnic cleansing.  It was for these activities, more than the Battle of New Orleans, that gave Jackson his popularity in the Election of 1824.

The other potential candidates were John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, the Secretary of State; William H. Crawford of Georgia, the Secretary of the Treasury; Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Speaker of the House; and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the Secretary of War.  Crawford received the nomination of the caucus in Washington, but it was sparsely attended and was widely attacked as undemocratic. In 1823, Crawford suffered a stroke. Even though he recovered in 1824, this crippled his bid for the presidency.  Calhoun initially was a serious candidate for the presidency, but he opted instead to seek the Vice Presidency and backed Jackson after seeing the popularity of Crawford in the South. Both Adams' and Jackson's supporters backed Calhoun, giving him an easy majority.  Remember, the 12th Amendment mandated separate voting for President and Vice President, so that made Calhoun a shoo-in for Vice President.

Since no candidate for President received a majority, the 12th Amendment mandated that the election be decided by the House of Representatives among the candidates (Jackson, Adams, and Crawford) receiving top 3 electoral votes.  Clay, who received the 4th highest number of electoral votes, was not among those to be considered.  However, he was Speaker of the House, and so had considerable influence.  Adams' victory shocked Jackson, who expected that, as the winner of a plurality of both the popular and electoral votes, he should have been elected President. When President Adams appointed Clay his Secretary of State, essentially declaring him heir to the Presidency—Adams and his three predecessors had all served as Secretary of State—Jackson and his followers accused Adams and Clay of striking a "corrupt bargain". The Jacksonians would campaign on this claim for the next four years, ultimately leading to Jackson's victory in the Adams-Jackson rematch in 1828.

After John Quincy Adams was defeated (he was so embittered against Jackson that he refused to attend Jackson's inauguration, just as his father, John Adams, refused to attend Jefferson's inauguration in 1801), he ran for Governor of Massachusetts and lost, and then became a representative from Massachusetts from 1831 until his death in 1848.  His character became a cameo role in the Stephen Spielberg movie, Amistad, because he represented the mutineers before the Supreme Court and won their freedom.  Henry Clay, try as he might, never became President but had one of the most distinguished careers in the history of the House of Representatives.  He authored both the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, attempting to hold North and South together over the question of slavery.  In spite of his efforts, the country was ripped apart by the issue, triggering the Civil War and southern secession after the election of Lincoln in 1860.


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