In the first two decades of the 1800s, the Democratic-Republicans out-president’ed the Federalists so bad, they didn’t even exist anymore. In the Era of Good Feelings, everyone belonged to the same party. But as James Monroe’s second term was ending, it was clear that the good feelings wouldn’t last forever. That brings us to the most exciting election yet!
The Last Four Years
James Monroe didn’t have the easiest time being president. The economy was bad and Missouri’s statehood threatened the unity of the nation. But people were cool with him. After all, he was the last founding father president.
Monroe’s final “accomplishment,” and the thing he is most remembered by today, was the Monroe Doctrine. As Latin American nations started earning their independence from Spain and Portugal, Monroe felt sympathetic to their cause. He especially didn’t want to repeat the perceived mistake that early presidents had made by not supporting the French Revolution. On December 2nd, 1823, in a speech to Congress, Monroe outlined his Doctrine. He declared that the US would continue to be neutral in European wars, but that Europe should no longer occupy the Western Hemisphere, and should never recolonize American nations. The speech was written by his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (more on him soon!). They didn’t envision military action as part of the doctrine. Instead, he wanted to provide moral support for Latin America. What a good friend! Surprisingly, Russia was also one of the European nations Monroe was calling out, as they were creeping down the Pacific Coast. In the coming years, the Doctrine mostly worked because Britain supported it too. They didn’t want any new colonies on the scene to disrupt international trade. And so, the Monroe Doctrine was never misused for the rest of time!
Like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison before him, James Monroe decided not to seek a third term. It was finally time to pass the torch to the next generation. But man, kids these days can’t handle responsibility…
For the most part, politicians under the Republican label all agreed on major issues. There were some disagreements though, as the party had essentially abandoned their Jeffersonian roots and embraced some policies from the Federalists. No longer did they aim for limited government and strict Constitutional interpretation. The most progressive of these policies was the American System, championed by the Speaker of the House, Kentucky Representative Henry Clay. The main components of the system were: 1) Embrace tariffs to protect American industries, 2) Preserve the national bank, and 3) Invest in infrastructure to grow the American West. These were all huge goals in the 1820s. It was the most “big government” proposal since Hamilton. But it had a chance because there were no opposition parties.
Again, everyone is under the same party, making overall party enthusiasm pretty low. A lot of politicians considered running for the 1824 presidential elections. VP Daniel D. Tompkins was too unpopular to make a run for it. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and Secretary of Navy Smith Thompson had some support, but ultimately chose to withdraw their names, sensing the coming shit show. The Democratic-Republican party held a nominating caucus to get things started…
Alright, here we go…
The caucus nominated Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford. He was an old-school, Jeffersonian Republican, one of the few still favoring limited government. He was also the favorite of Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, though none officially endorsed him. Unfortunately for Crawford, caucuses were not taken very seriously at this point in American history. The process was seen as undemocratic. The voting population disliked the idea of a group of politicians getting together and deciding who should be president next. After all, with only one political party, the winner of the caucus was essentially guaranteed victory. The majority of the nation rejected Crawford’s nomination, mocking him as “King Caucus.” To make matters worse, Crawford suffered a stroke in September 1823, making his health another issue for his campaign.
The next most obvious pick for the job was John Quincy Adams. As you might have guessed, JQA was the son of America’s second president, John “Regular” Adams. Because of his father’s influence, JQA had a long political resume, eventually landing the gig as Monroe’s Secretary of State. He wrote the Monroe Doctrine and was a strong supporter of the American System. He drew most of his support from New England, although that alienated him from voters in the South and West.
Next up, Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Being a Kentuckian, he wanted to use the American System to benefit the West. You also might remember him as a War-Hawk Republican in the lead up to the War of 1812.
Lastly, Andrew Jackson. Originally from the Carolinas, he had a rough childhood. He almost died as a prisoner of the British during the Revolution, and became an orphan at 14. He held public office as a representative, territorial governor, and senator, but Jackson’s real claim-to-fame was as a war hero. Most notably, he successfully defended New Orleans from the British at the very end of the War of 1812. His victory inspired the patriotism that helped usher in the Era of Good Feelings. He also spent a lot of time fighting Native American tribes, specifically the Creeks and Seminoles. A lot of people would say Jackson was hot-headed. A few others might just call him a jackass. But Jackson was seen as the people’s candidate. He came from a poor background and wasn’t entrenched in the political class of the day. For better or worse, he was who most “regular” Americans identified with. His support mostly came from the South, but rural voters all over the nation were inspired by him.
Since the four candidates mostly agreed on policy, voters decided based on preference of personality. Could you imagine having so many candidates to choose from??
John C. Calhoun won for vice president, we’ll start with that. The rest of the map… well, that’s looking a little complicated.
Andrew Jackson won the most states, earning 99 electoral votes. He did best in the South, and but had big wins across the US. JQA swept New England, as expected, for 84 points. Crawford came in third, with 41. And Clay brought up the rear, with 37 points, mostly from the West.
Jackson also won the popular vote, which was slowly becoming relevant as more and more states chose their electors through actual voting (not congressional appointment). Plus, voting rights were now less dependent on land ownership. Still, this right was still limited to white men, and even then, turnout wasn’t very high.
In any case, none of that mattered for Jackson because winning the presidency requires a majority of electoral votes, not a plurality. By the rules of the 12th Amendment, the election was now to be decided by the House of Representatives. They were to choose between the three top electoral-earning candidates. This meant that Henry Clay was out. But wait… Henry Clay is SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE!!! Dun dun duuuuuun!
Clay used his power to rally the House for JQA. He saw Jackson as a jerk who didn’t have enough political experience, and Crawford’s health was too poor. Even better, JQA was an American System supporter. Clay couldn’t be president, but he had the power to pick the next one.
On February 9th, 1825, the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams as president with 13 votes (to Jackson’s 7, and Crawford’s 4). He became the sixth president and one of only two father/son presidential dynasties.
Jackson and his supporters were pissed. Jackson had won the most electoral votes AND the popular vote. Congress had just overruled the will of the people. To made matters worse, JQA appointed Clay as Secretary of State, just three days after the election. Since the VP was a relatively pointless position at the time, the Secretary of State was seen as the next-in-line to the presidency. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe (plus JQA, of course) had all served in this position before becoming president. It was clear to Jackson that Adams had made a deal with Clay, giving him the chance to be the successor. Quid pro quo! The accusation was called, “the Corrupt Bargain.” Jackson immediately started campaigning for 1828.
What Did It Say About America?
The Era of Good Feelings was officially over! As was the “first party system” of the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. Jackson was ready to form a new party! This election was the first stumbling block now that the country was out of the hands of the founding fathers. Though their candidate wasn’t a very good guy, voters were starting to have a greater voice in presidential elections.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes, but not like this! JQA had a much better vision for America than Jackson did. Unfortunately, JQA’s policy goals were stifled by the controversy of the Corrupt Bargain. (Spoiler) Jackson will have plenty of time to enact his agenda later. Whether he directly bribed Clay or not, appointing him to Secretary of State was a huge mistake.