Two Historic Elections—One Controversial, the Other Nasty

Color print of man looking at the viewer
Henry Clay / Nathaniel Currier / 1844 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 

In the controversial election of 1824, four primary candidates vied for the presidency, none of whom received a majority of electoral votes. Andrew Jackson, the Hero of New Orleans, led with a plurality of popular and electoral votes; John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay all trailed. Invoking the Twelfth Amendment, the election would be decided by a vote in the House of Representatives. Clay was eliminated because by statute only the top three candidates could be considered. Yet Clay was pivotal; he was the Speaker of the House and wielded considerable political leverage. Philosophically his political tenets were more in line with Adams’s. Moreover, he had become Jackson’s nemesis for attacking his military record. With Clay’s influence and maneuvering, the House narrowly elected Adams president. But when Clay was named as the new secretary of state—then the proven path to the White House—Jackson and his camp cried foul. They alleged that a “corrupt bargain” had been made. “Was there ever witnessed such bare faced corruption in any country before?” wrote Jackson in a private letter. Publicly he acknowledged the decision, but he seethed with indignation for the next four years.

Print of drawing of man in frame
John Quincy Adams / William Harrison, Jr. / c. 1828 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 

In 1828 Jackson was again the most popular candidate, the one who best represented the common people. President Adams was a man of culture and learning. His visions of an America steeped in the arts and advanced sciences were lost on a nation of small farmers and tradesmen. Moreover, Adams struck many as insensitive; as one New York diarist alleged, “He wanted tact.”

Ironically for Adams, a civil man proud of his refinement, the election of 1828 was perhaps the nastiest in U.S. history. Both candidates had their character assassins, but of the two, Jackson proved to be the prime target. His past was the most controversial and the easiest to malign. The anti-Jackson press labeled him an adulterer, murderer, slave trader, and military tyrant. Given the protocol of his day, Jackson did not publicly defend himself, but his friends knew the depths of his wrath. In spite of the mudslinging, Jackson appealed to the majority of voters, who elected him decidedly for two terms.