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A "Foul, Corrupt Bargain": February 9, 1825

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Unlike the election of 1820, where Monroe ran basically unopposed, in 1824 four candidates, all Republicans, vied for the presidency. The Era of Good Feelings was over; each candidate represented a particular interest or faction competing to dominate the republic. John Quincy Adams represented New England interests and the remnants of the old Federalist Party. William H. Crawford was the candidate favored by Congress. Then there was Henry Clay, who might have stood for the West and South had not Tennessee nominated General Andrew Jackson, war hero and the model of the self-made man.

John Quincy Adams in 1818

Jackson appealed to the western pioneer. Born in a log cabin on the Carolina frontier, General Andy had climbed and fought his way out of poverty to become a war hero, a rough-hewn (from hickory, it was said) Tennessee gentleman, and the owner of a plantation complete with slaves. He was the symbol of success to the hard-scrabble western farmer and frontiersman. If Andy Jackson could rise in the world, why, so could any hard-working man with gumption! As a member of Congress from Tennessee in 1796–97, he had been an opponent of President Washington. Elected to the Senate in 1797, he resigned a year later and served as a state supreme court judge in Tennessee until 1804. A violent, quarrelsome man, Jackson carried two bullets in his body gotten in duels, the second in a tavern in Nashville where, after being shot, he fell down a flight of steps.

In the election of 1824, Jackson carried New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and most of the South and West, winning 99 electoral votes. John Quincy Adams — a round, balding, reserved man — came in second, with 84 electoral votes, while Crawford and Clay finished third and fourth. Because no candidate received a clear majority (51 percent) of the 261 electoral votes, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, where Clay gave his support to Adams and so assured his election to the presidency.

Andrew Jackson

Foul! Corrupt Bargain! cried Jackson and his supporters. Adams, they said, took the election by bribery, a claim seemingly justified by the new president’s appointment of Clay as his secretary of state. No sooner was the election of 1824 over than Jackson and his supporters began campaigning for 1828. Two Jackson men, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and Martin Van Buren of New York, led a relentless political war against the new president, accusing him of corruption and claiming that the people had been robbed of their rightful president — Andrew Jackson.

Van Buren later admitted privately that the charge of corruption was spurious. Adams was one of the last representatives of classical republican probity. On taking office, he not only refused to indulge in the “spoils system,” removing political opponents from appointed offices, but even gave appointments to Jackson men. Adams was a thoroughgoing nationalist, a proponent of federally funded internal improvements and even scientific expeditions. He wanted to make Washington the national center of research and learning; but his efforts in this, and in trying to establish a naval academy, were thwarted by Congress at every turn.

A pro-Jackson political cartoon from the election of 1824

Adams was a republican dinosaur in a new, democratic age. Changes were altering the complexion of America. In 1825, the Erie Canal was completed, joining Lake Erie with New York City and making New York the most populous city in the union. However, this canal would soon be obsolete; for outside Quincy, Massachusetts (the president’s birthplace), a horse-drawn carriage on rails had been built — the first instance of the railroads that would shortly span the country. Democracy, the rule of the common man, was everywhere in the air; the voice of republicanism with its “natural aristocracy” was drowned out by a discordant clamor about the rights of the people.

Jackson led a party of men who had themselves risen from the bottom of society. They wanted to give the common man his chance to rise, unhindered by the pretensions of aristocracy, natural or otherwise. They were not the party of the downtrodden but of the poor who wanted to rise in society. They called for the removal of property qualifications in voting, and a universal suffrage for all free white males. They favored free public education. Jackson and his boys spoke the language of the common man, painting all issues in thick strokes of black and white. Often unscrupulous politicians among Jackson’s followers and allies used such tactics to appeal to the baser instincts of the masses, encouraging narrowness and bigotry against those who were not of the white and Protestant majority. Other Jacksonians, though, were honestly moved by an ardent zeal for equality.

The demise of republicanism in the United States was symbolized by the deaths of two of its champions — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Though once bitter political enemies, Jefferson and Adams had reconciled later in life and for years had been carrying on a correspondence. Now, on July 4, 1826 — the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — both stood at the verge of death. Jefferson lay in a coma at his home at Monticello, attended by a young kinsman. At midnight of July 3–4, the old statesman awoke, and turning to his kinsman asked: “Is this the fourth?” When the young man nodded, yes, Jefferson breathed a sigh of contentment and fell again into unconsciousness. At noon he passed from this life. At the same hour, hundreds of miles north, in Quincy, Massachusetts, the dying Adams was awakened by a cannon blast and a shout from the public square. When a speaker delivering an oration in honor of the Fourth proclaimed the words, “Independence forever!” Adams turned to his attendant, a granddaughter, who bent her ear to hear his whispered words. The old patriot gasped, and breathed, “Thomas — Jefferson — still — surv — ” and said no more. That evening, the second President of the United States quietly passed away.

A Pro-Jackson Campaign Song

“The Hunters of Kentucky” reminded voters of Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans in 1814 — one of the events that had made him a national hero.

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