The Dodgy US Presidential Election of 1824

03 November 2016

History

The 2016 contest for the US presidency, fought between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, is commonly held to be one of the most bitter and acrimonious American political campaigns in their history. Though as you can imagine, bitter and acrimonious US presidential elections are not in the least bit new in American history. Here’s one.

Donald Trump has suggested that if he loses this election that it will have been due to a rigged system. Well the election of 1824 had the whiff of a rigged result. This letter a few years after the event included in American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History from William H. Harrison to William Creighton Jr. discusses the allegations of a dodgy deal that fixed the election in favour of the eventual winner.

If you go back to 1824 there are parallels with the 2016 race – the legacy of an economic depression with the financial Panic of 1819 and cultural division with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that temporarily halted tension over the spread of Slavery in the west of the United States. Into this unsettled climate were three main candidates from the “establishment”: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford and Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky. Then there was the “insurgent” candidate: Andrew Jackson, a general famous for his exploits in the War of 1812 and a man with very rough and rowdy supporters. In the election, Jackson won the most popular votes and the most electoral college votes (allocated state by state and the votes that really decide the outcome) but as no candidate won a majority of the electoral college, the election was to be decided in the House of Representatives. The top three went into this new ballot and Henry Clay dropped out. Jackson fully expected to be elected president by the house given his popular and electoral college lead but in the event and to Jackson’s surprise and dismay it was John Quincy Adams who was made president by the House. How did this happen?

There is a suspicion that a “corrupt bargain” was done between Clay and Adams that Clay would use his influence in the House of Representatives to get Adams elected in return for office in the new government. Lo and behold Clay was made Secretary of State in the new administration.William H. Harrison to William Creighton, Jr.  4 November, 1827. 
Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This letter suggests that Clay wanted Harrison, then a Senator, to call a commission of enquiry into his conduct relating to the election of Adams if aspersions were made in the Senate about what he had done. Presumably to clear his name of any impropriety. In an interesting glimpse into the practicalities of political assembly, Harrison says he did not hear a speech by one Senator clearly to judge whether accusations were made strongly enough – he was sitting at the back. However, it’s interesting to see from this letter that Clay felt confident enough in his innocence to ask for an enquiry – or alternatively, confident enough in his deception and his chances of getting away with it.

As regards the presidency, four years later Andrew Jackson did triumph over John Quincy Adams to become president. As for the author of this letter, he would also go on to become president in 1841 but only lasted a matter of weeks before succumbing to pneumonia – often thought to be caused by chill he received on his inauguration day.

So if anyone’s thinking that elections used to be nobler affairs in the past, peruse the documents in American History, 1493-1945 to disabuse yourself of this notion. And remember, if you think it could get bad after this one, remember that the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln inspired such vitriol and division that half the country seceded and 700,000 died in a Civil War.


Join Dr Michael Cullinane, Programme Director (History) at the University of Northumbria, to discuss the social attitudes, economics and tactics of presidential elections throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in our U.S. election webinar on Wednesday 9th November. Register here.

American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Felix Barnes

Felix Barnes

I have been an editor at Adam Matthew since September 2013. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with some fascinating collections including Global Commodities, the Foreign Office Files for China, American History, 1493-1945, Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters, Socialism on Film and J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America.

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