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Did a corrupt bargain between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay steal the presidential election and overturn the will of the people?

It was a cold and snowy morning on February 9, 1825, as New York Congressman Stephen Van Rensselaer trudged through Washington, D.C., to the Capitol building, where he was about to play a pivotal role in the fate of his nation.

A “very wealthy and very pious” man hailing from a regal Dutch family with extensive land holdings, Van Rensselaer, who was known as the “Last Patroon,” was a member of the New York Federalist elite and had served as a major general of volunteers in the War of 1812. As he entered the Capitol, the elderly—and some believed increasingly senile—congressman found himself confronted by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, two giants of the House who believed Van Rensselaer held the outcome of the 1824 presidential election in his hands.

The bitter and divisive election, which pit four of the nation’s most able statesmen—all members of the Democratic Republican Party—against one another, had failed to yield any one of them an electoral majority. Now the responsibility devolved to the House of Representatives, as mandated by the 12th Amendment, to choose one from among the top three electoral vote-getters: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and William Crawford. By all counts, none of the three had the requisite majority of state delegations to win.

Van Rensselaer had supported Crawford in the election and been strongly opposed to Adams, who had left the Federalist Party before the War of 1812. His New York delegation was split, just one vote short of giving Adams the majority, which would then hand him 13 out of 24 states and the presidency. Over the next few hours in the Capitol, Clay and Webster worked on the old man, arguing that Crawford could not win. It must be Adams or Jackson, and Adams was the only responsible choice. They used all the persuasion they could muster, playing on the veteran’s patriotism and warning against stalemate, dissolution and anarchy.

The meeting completely unnerved Van Rensselaer. As he took his seat in the House chamber, awaiting the ballot box to reach him, he felt as if the full weight of the Union rested upon his shoulders.

Monroe Leaves Office

The 1824 election signaled the end of the Era of Good Feelings, a nearly decade-long period of relative political harmony that saw the dissolution of the Federalist Party and the country firmly united behind the Democratic-Republican Party.

As the nation grew and the voting base expanded, more Americans wanted a say in how their leaders were selected. Reforms driven by war veterans, journalists, immigrants, laborers and frontier settlers cut into the influence of the old regime of well-born Eastern landowners and spelled doom for the Federalist Party, which opposed the expansion of suffrage in several states and tepidly supported America’s effort in the War of 1812. The party’s end came in 1816, when its presidential nominee, New Yorker Rufus King, was decisively defeated by Virginian James Monroe of the Democratic-Republican Party.

While Federalism vanished as a political movement, its principles endured and continued to influence national policy as Republican leaders began adopting several of the Federalists’ basic tenets. President James Madison had committed Jeffersonian heresy by backing the Second Bank of the United States and the tariff of 1816. Monroe, much to the dismay of hardline Democratic-Republicans, shifted the party to the center by signing bills for internal improvements and higher tariffs. The Panic of 1819—a financial crisis marked by bank failures, foreclosures and declines in manufacturing and agriculture—along with the controversy of Missouri’s 1820 admittance to the Union as a slave state, stirred national discontent. Openly hostile partisanship remained unusual, but in this atmosphere a controversial presidential election could prove to be a serious challenge to the durability of the republic.

Still, Monroe was reelected in 1820, winning every electoral vote but one. Monroe’s cabinet was extraordinary as the cream of America’s second generation of leaders occupied the highest positions: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Treasury Secretary William Crawford and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. With different degrees of ambition, all three men had designs on the presidency.

John Quincy Adams followed his father’s lead into public life, serving as a senator from Massachusetts and then as a minister to several nations. He was on the 1814 diplomatic mission to Ghent, Belgium, to broker peace with Great Britain, and his foreign policy experience made him a logical choice as secretary of state. Adams influenced Monroe to declare opposition to further European colonization of the New World and negotiated the purchase of Florida from Spain in 1819, which helped soothe tensions over the fact that General Andrew Jackson had seized control of the peninsula the year before. Adams wished to be president. Nevertheless, he would not ask for the office or campaign for it.

John Caldwell Calhoun, born in 1782 in South Carolina, was the youngest and most handsome of the candidates in 1824. The Scots-Irish Calhoun was first elected to the state legislature in 1807, and then the House of Representatives in 1810. In the House, he was one of the most fervent supporters of the War of 1812. In 1817, at 35, he became Monroe’s secretary of war. Calhoun’s competence and charisma made him a rising star within the party, and he was almost universally admired by radicals, nationalists and even Federalists. Adams at first assumed Calhoun would support him for president, but soon politicians in South Carolina and Pennsylvania announced their support of a Calhoun candidacy.

The third candidate from within Monroe’s cabinet, William H. Crawford, was born in Virginia in 1772. His family moved to Georgia in 1783, where he was admitted to the bar in 1799. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1807 to 1813 and then as minister to France until 1815, when President James Madison appointed him secretary of the treasury.

Had he so chosen, Crawford might have become president in 1816 but he deferred to Monroe and retained his position as treasury secretary, probably expecting to become heir to the “Virginia Dynasty” at the end of Monroe’s presidency.

Crawford secured his support within the party by distributing patronage and coaxing Western banks with deposit money from public land sales. He soon realized Adams and Calhoun would be his presidential rivals, and fiercely opposed their policies. Adams suspected Crawford of attempting to undermine the negotiations with Spain for Florida. Also, contemplating a potential Jackson candidacy, Crawford was the most vocal member of the cabinet in favor of censuring the general after his seizure of Florida.

A formidable candidate, Crawford possessed personal magnetism that attracted some of the best people of the day. He had Thomas Jefferson’s private support, and a young senator from New York, Martin Van Buren, would manage his campaign. Outside Monroe’s cabinet, two more contenders emerged: Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay.

Jackson participated in the Tennessee Constitutional Convention and served his adopted state as a judge and in the militia, then as a congressman and senator. In the War of 1812, he was commissioned a major general of U.S. volunteers, crushing the pro-British Creek Indians in 1814 and usurping most of their land. He became a national hero in the Battle of New Orleans and again took center stage in 1818 when, acting on open-ended directives from Monroe and Calhoun, he invaded Spanish Florida, attacking hostile Seminoles, executing a couple of British agents and capturing the towns of Pensacola and St. Marks to effectively end Spanish control of the territory.

Jackson was condemned publicly by Crawford and Clay and privately by Calhoun over his Florida invasion. In Congress in 1819, four motions were put forward to censure Jackson. Although all four were rejected, Jackson came to view both Crawford and Clay as corrupt, power-grubbing villains.

“I hope the western people will appreciate his conduct accordingly,” Jackson said of Clay, adding, “You will see him skinned here and I hope you will roast him in the West.”

The criticisms of Jackson’s invasion of Florida did not diminish the gratitude and love his state and the nation felt for him. On July 20, 1822, the Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson for president and then in October 1823 it elected him to the U.S. Senate.

The final candidate in the race was the passionate and charming speaker of the House, Henry Clay, born in 1777 in Virginia. As a lad in Richmond he learned “the art of declamation” by watching orators such as Patrick Henry in action. At 20 he moved to Kentucky, where he quickly earned a reputation as a persuasive and highly skilled attorney. In 1811, after serving in the Kentucky legislature and then in the U.S. Senate, Clay won election to the House of Representatives and, almost immediately, was elected speaker. Clay used his position in 1812 to push the country toward war with Great Britain, and in 1814 he joined Adams on the diplomatic mission to Ghent to end the war. Clay expected a high-level appointment as his reward, but Monroe instead selected Adams to be his secretary of state. Returning to the House of Representatives, he was determined to use his power to build opposition to the administration.

Clay became “The Great Pacificator” in 1820, when he marshaled support for the Missouri Compromise, which brought slave state Missouri and free state Maine into the Union—and probably saved the nation from dissolution. He spent the next few years building support for his “American System,” a policy that was based on internal improvements, high tariffs and a national bank.

As for his 1824 presidential strategy, Clay realized he was not strong enough in the North to beat Adams or strong enough in the South to beat Crawford. But, he believed, he didn’t need to beat either man, he just needed to finish third. If, as appeared possible, no candidate earned a majority of the electors, the decision would move to the House, which would choose a winner from among the top three candidates—and Clay ruled the House. “If I get into the House I consider my election secure,” he stated in early 1824.

A Contest for the Presidency

In the late summer of 1823, Crawford suffered a stroke “which left him helpless, speechless, nearly blind, and scarcely conscious,” and dramatically altered the presidential contest. Secluded to rest and recover as much as possible, his allies tried to downplay his affliction and kept the campaign alive. In February 1824, Crawford’s supporters attempted to trump the other candidates by calling for a congressional Democratic-Republican Party caucus to nominate the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

State legislatures, rival politicians and hostile newspapers criticized the scheduling of a caucus, arguing that too many people had too much at stake to permit an elite few to determine the next president. Of the 261 members of the House and Senate, only 66 attended the caucus. As expected, Crawford won the caucus’ presidential nomination with 64 votes. Albert Gallatin earned the vice-presidential nomination with 57 votes. Spectators in the galleries offered “faint applause and a few hisses.” Crawford received no boost from the nomination.

Meanwhile, Jackson was gaining support in Pennsylvania, the state Calhoun was counting on to serve as his anchor in the North. Momentum grew and the March 4 nominating convention in Harrisburg handed Jackson an overwhelming victory. At this point, Calhoun wisely bowed out of the race, allowing his name to be offered as a vice-presidential candidate.

Gallatin eventually was forced to withdraw his candidacy as a “great clamor” had arisen over the fact that he was Swissborn, and did not come to America until 1780.

While all of the presidential candidates were Democratic Republicans, clear policy differences existed. Crawford stood out as a small government free-trader. Jackson favored a “judicious” tariff, but opposed a national bank and most internal improvements. The other candidates were pro-tariff, pro-bank and pro-internal improvements. Ultimately, biography dominated the election: Adams, the dignified Northern statesman; Crawford, heir to the “Virginia Dynasty;” Clay, the Great Compromiser from the West; and Jackson, the war hero.

Although the nationwide electorate had expanded, its composition varied greatly by state. Still governed by its 1663 colonial charter, Rhode Island had the most restrictive voting requirement—ownership of land worth at least $134. Jackson’s Tennessee claimed the most liberal voting requirements. There a “free-holder” could vote as soon as he entered the state, men without land could vote after living in the state for six months and even free blacks could vote in that slave state.

How electoral votes were distributed also varied. Of the 24 states, only 12 chose their electors through an at-large, winner-take-all popular vote—the same method most frequently used today. Six states selected their electors via popular vote by district. Six states left the electoral decision solely to the discretion of the legislature, and two of those states, New York and Louisiana, proved key to the 1824 election results.

Even though Jackson was the Hero of New Orleans, Clay had strong support among Louisiana’s political elite. He was expected to carry the state, but when the legislature met in December, two of his supporters were absent. Then, as rumors spread that Clay had dropped out, some of his supporters cast votes for other candidates. Ultimately the state awarded three electoral votes to Jackson and two to Adams.

In New York, after much debate, compromise and bargaining, the legislature assigned 25 electors to Adams, seven to Clay and four to Crawford. But when the electors reported to cast their ballots, half of Clay’s were absent or had switched their vote to another candidate. The result was Adams 26, Crawford five, Clay four and Jackson one.

To win the general election, a candidate needed 131 electoral votes. The final electoral tally added up to a surprising result. Jackson not only won Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, as expected, but also all of the electoral votes of North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Indiana and Pennsylvania. He carried the majority of electors in Maryland, Illinois and Louisiana, as well as his one vote in New York, for a total of 99 electoral votes. Adams swept New England, dominated New York and carried minorities in Illinois, Maryland and Louisiana for 84 votes. Crawford won Georgia and Virginia, with additional votes in New York and Maryland totaling 41 electors. Clay finished fourth, winning Kentucky, Ohio and Missouri, in addition to his four New York votes, for a total of 37.

Calhoun easily won the vice presidency with 182 electoral votes, winning 14 states outright and majorities in three others. The country had elected a vice president, but not a president. It was now up to the House of Representatives.

What Happened to Henry Clay?

Clay, always an optimist, soothed his distress at his failure to win the presidency with the pride of becoming a president-maker. Supporters of other candidates, seeking Clay’s favor, boosted him with high praise. As Crawford’s illness clearly rendered him unable to serve, it came down to a choice between Jackson and Adams. Clay needed little time to decide.

Adams and Clay had had their differences, but they ultimately respected one another’s abilities. On the other hand, Clay harbored little affection for and no confidence in Jackson. He considered him a mere “military chieftain” whose accomplishment of “killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans” did not qualify him for “the various difficult and complicated duties of the chief magistrate.” Clay saw Jackson as an American Napoleon or Caesar—a phony democrat who would use his military credentials to seize control and establish a tyranny.

On January 8, 1825, Clay confided to friends his decision. The next day, he met with Adams for three hours. No one knows what truly transpired, but Adams wrote it was “to satisfy [Clay] with regard to some principles of great public importance, but without any personal considerations for himself.”

On January 24, the Kentucky delegation announced it would support Adams, even though the state legislature had “instructed” its congressmen to vote for Jackson as Adams had not received a single popular vote in the state. While he had finished third behind Jackson in the popular vote in Ohio, another Clay state, its delegation also backed Adams. Sensing what was happening the Jackson forces struck back.

On January 25, a letter in Philadelphia’s Columbian Observer from an anonymous congressman gave “a brief account of such a BARGAIN as can only be equaled by the famous Burr conspiracy of 1801.” The letter writer claimed that Adams supporters had sent a message to Clay supporters offering an appointment to secretary of state in exchange for Clay’s support in the House vote. Allegedly, Clay’s friends then took this offer to Jackson’s men, seeking a counteroffer. “But none of the friends of Jackson would descend to such mean banter and sale.”

Incensed by the charges, Clay issued a statement in the National Intelligencer on February 1: “I pronounce the member, whoever he may be a base and infamous calumniator, a dastard, and liar; and if he dare unveil himself, and avow his name, I will hold him responsible, as I here admit myself to be, to all the laws which govern and regulate men of honor.”

Two days later, Pennsylvania Congressman George Kremer stepped forward, stating he was ready to prove the truth of the accusation. However, when called to appear before an investigative committee, Kremer refused and the probe was dropped. Clay, considering Kremer a dupe under the influence of Jackson’s men, decided not to call Kremer to the field of honor.

Meanwhile, Clay and Adams continued to garner support in the House. Congressman John Scott was the only member from Missouri, a state Clay had carried decisively. Missouri Sen. Thomas Benton was a cousin-in-law and supporter of Clay, but he preferred Jackson to Adams for president, and attempted to influence Scott to support him. Scott had apparently told Benton that he would not support Adams. However, on February 5, he wrote to Benton: “Notwithstanding the conversation we had on Thursday evening and on Friday, from which you might justly conclude that I would not vote for Mr. Adams, I am now inclined to think differently, and unless some other change in my mind takes place, I shall vote for him.”

Immediately, rumors spread that Scott sought patronage for his brother, a judge in Arkansas territory whose career was in jeopardy following a notorious duel. An outraged Benton answered him on February 8: “The vote you intend thus to give is not your own—it belongs to the people of the State of Missouri. They are against Mr. Adams….Tomorrow is the day for your self-immolation. If you have an enemy, he may go and feed his eyes upon the scene; your former friend will share the afflicting spectacle.” In spite of this stinging rebuke, Scott would still vote for Adams.

Other states fell into place for Adams. In Louisiana, Clay supporters regrouped, delivering that state to Adams. Illinois’ lone, lame-duck representative, Daniel Cook, gave his support to Adams in spite of heavy pressure from Jackson supporters and implied offers to become governor of Arkansas Territory. Daniel Webster helped in Maryland, assuring Federalists that Adams would not exclude them from his administration. Consequently, the delegations of three states in which Jackson had won a majority of electors would vote for Adams.

Was it a Conspiracy?

By the time the House prepared to vote on the morning of February 9, Adams could count on 12states—one shy of victory. The New York delegation was one vote short for Adams to win and the expectation was that it would remain so. Van Rensselaer, a strong Crawford supporter, had previously given his word of honor that he would not vote for Adams, but now he wasn’t sure.

As Van Rensselaer sat in the chamber awaiting the vote, Van Buren, Crawford’s campaign manager, hovered anxiously about his seat. Clay, striding down the aisle, paused when he reached the chair of Van Rensselaer, bent down and whispered in his ear, and then took his seat.

Van Buren would later recount in his autobiography that when the voting commenced, Van Rensselaer slumped forward and closed his eyes, praying for divine guidance. Opening his eyes, he spotted a discarded ballot laying on the floor. Taking this to be the guidance he had just prayed for, he picked up the ballot, read the name and placed it in the ballot box.

When the vote was complete, Webster and John Randolph counted the ballots. Most members and observers had expected a long and drawn out process involving several ballots, similar to the 1801 experience when it required 35 votes before Jefferson finally won. However, on the first ballot, with Van Rensselaer’s vote, the New York delegation went for Adams, giving him the 13 states needed. The election denouement was shocking to all. “The cards were stacked,” Randolph bitterly remarked.

With the announcement of Adams’ victory came a sudden “burst of applause from the galleries, followed by some hissing.” Horrified, Van Rensselaer stumbled to his feet, crying “Forgive me!” A young spectator replied contemptuously, “Ask your own conscience, General, not me.”

Adams, upon learning the news, said, “May the blessing of God rest upon the event of this day.” It wasn’t the popular confirmation he had so desired, but he would seize the opportunity nonetheless.

The evening after the vote, the Monroes hosted their final reception at the White House. Along with such luminaries as the Marquis de Lafayette, Samuel Morse and the British Earl of Derby Edward Stanley, Adams, Calhoun, Webster and Clay, were all in attendance. All eyes were riveted on Jackson when he arrived. When he offered his hand to Adams in congratulations, there was a collective sigh of relief. The defeated candidate had accepted the verdict.

The good will did not last long, however. The next week, President-elect Adams announced he wanted Clay to be his secretary of state, a baffling move considering the intense scrutiny both men were under. Congressman Kremer’s accusation of a backroom deal now seemed to carry weight.

On February 14, a bitter Jackson wrote to his friend, Major William B. Lewis: “So, you see, the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. His end will be the same. Was there ever witnessed such a barefaced corruption in any country before?”

Perhaps the fact that it was so “barefaced” suggests it actually was not a corrupt bargain. Clay was a proven statesman of the highest caliber, and he and Adams shared many political views. His selection was understandable. But the circumstances were ripe for conspiracy theories.

Jackson had won the popular and electoral vote, yet another had ascended to the presidency. Something corrupt must have occurred, insisted his supporters.

The dark clouds of conspiracy never left the administration, and the disputed election severely weakened Adams, who was derisively called the “Clay President.” His “brave new proposals,” including a national bankruptcy law, a national university and a Department of the Interior, would all be defeated. A far-sighted effort on Clay’s part to nominate U.S. ministers plenipotentiary to participate in the Congress of Panama was delayed and debated at length, resulting in the ministers not reaching Panama until after the convention had adjourned.

With the disputed election, a new era of partisanship was born, causing the Democratic-Republican Party to disappear, replaced by two new political parties. The supporters of Adams and Clay would become the National Republicans, and the supporters of Jackson, Crawford and Calhoun—who as vice president was embarrassed to be associated with the Adams Administration— would become the Democrats.

Van Rensselaer continued in the House until 1829. He founded the Rensselaer School in 1824 in Troy, N.Y., and continued to contribute to New York society until he died in 1839.

Remarkably Jackson, who was quick to anger, quick to draw conclusions and unyielding in his beliefs, accepted his defeat and was determined to correct it through the electoral process. He resigned his Senate seat in October 1825 and was almost immediately again nominated for president by the Tennessee legislature. He and his supporters knew that the next election would leave no room for “corrupt bargains.”

With his bitter loss in the tainted 1824 election, Jackson had become a symbol of the popular will struggling against elitist power brokers and gave rise to a new era of democratic development and growing respect for the common man that would forever bear his name. By 1828, both he and the popular will could no longer be denied. And, in the end, Clay was wrong about Jackson, who turned out to be no Caesar or Napoleon, no “military chieftain,” but rather a true American democrat.