Lessons from History

It is often reported and lamented that today in the United States of America we are more divided than ever. We long for some long forgotten time when politics was more civil and less personal. While we do face unique political problems today, there never was a time of civil and less personal national politics. And the election of 1824 is an excellent example.

As I learned while reading the Jackson biography mentioned in a previous post, the presidential election of 1824 was extremely ugly. The two leading candidates were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Adams was serving as Secretary of State, a role many previous presidents served in prior to being elected. Jackson was the hero of the battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. These men did not like each other at all. Adams was allied to the strict and elitist version of republicanism that the first presidents had practiced. Jackson was a man of the people. Both men struck out at the other personally in the contest, even maligning members of each other’s families.

The election was complicated by two other men running for president, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. As a result, no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College votes. According to the constitution, the election was decided by the House of Representatives with each state’s delegation getting a single vote. Only the top three candidates were on the ballot, so Henry Clay was dropped.

Like Adams, Clay could not stand Jackson. It is widely thought that Clay made a deal with Adams to give him the election in exchange for being made Secretary of State. Jackson was the big winner in the popular vote with 41% to Adam’s 31%. Jackson even won 15 more votes in the Electoral College (99-84). Due to the machinations of Clay, Adams won the election and became the next president and named Clay as his Secretary of State.

This happened during a time in US history as more and more people were getting the right to vote. There was a philosophical shift toward popular rule and elections and away from powerful elites controlling them. As is often the case in transitional times, things were ugly. It is often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It certainly seems to me that our times could be considered to be rhyming with this time in history.

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