Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: The Election Is in the House: Was There a Corrupt Bargain?

A We The People Resource

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The Lesson

Introduction

Henry Clay did not win the 1824 presidential election

Henry Clay did not win the 1824 presidential election, but proved an influential dealmaker in the final outcome.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The presidential election of 1824 represents a watershed in American politics. The collapse of the Federalist Party and the illness of the "official candidate" of the Democratic-Republicans led to a slate of candidates who were all Democratic-Republicans. This led to the end of the Congressional Caucus system for nominating candidates, and eventually, the development of a new two-party system in the United States. In the election, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of both the popular and electoral vote. But John Quincy Adams became president. Four crucial elements of our election system were highlighted in the election of 1824: the nomination of candidates, the popular election of electors, the Electoral College, and the election of the president in the House when no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College.

Guiding Questions

  • How did John Quincy Adams win election in 1824?

Learning Objectives

  • Take a stand, supported by evidence, on whether there was a "corrupt bargain" between Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams.

Background

The election in the House of Representatives took place on February 9, 1825. Shortly thereafter, Adams announced that Henry Clay would be his nominee for Secretary of State. John Quincy Adams became president on March 3, 1825. There was an immediate accusation that some kind of deal had been struck, a so-called "corrupt bargain." On March 5, 1825, President Adams Nominated Henry Clay for Secretary of State (account available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory). Had Adams specifically promised Clay appointment as Secretary of State in exchange for his support? (NOTE: At that time, the position of Secretary of State was considered the best stepping-stone to the presidency.)

No "smoking gun" to prove or disprove the accusations of a "corrupt bargain" has ever been found. Well-respected modern historians disagree on the matter.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • In this lesson, students will look at a variety of evidence to see if it indicates whether there was a "corrupt bargain" in John Quincy Adams's victory in the presidential election. Considering that there is no agreement among historians about the "corrupt bargain," all student conclusions should be accepted as long as reasonable evidence is offered to support ideas.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Was There a Corrupt Bargain?

Begin by sharing these very brief accounts: In John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), Paul C. Nagel writes:

It was, however, in selecting his own successor at the State department that Adams undid his strategy for nonpartisanship and national unity. He asked Henry Clay, to whom he owed his election, to serve as secretary of state. The offer was extended after the House had elected Adams-not before as is often alleged.

In The Life of Andrew Jackson (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), Robert Remini writes that:

The fateful decision came on January 9, 1825. A meeting was arranged between Adams and Clay for an evening's conversation. "Mr. Clay came at six," Adams confided to his journal, "and spent the evening with me in a long conversation." In the course of the conversation Clay asked the New Englander "to satisfy him with regard to some principles of great public importance, but without any personal considerations for himself." Nothing crude or vulgar, like declaring the terms of a political deal, passed their lips. No need. Both men understood one another's purposes. Surely they both realized that in exchange for House support Adams would designate Clay as his secretary of state.

The Campaign and Election of 1824, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President, describes events this way:

Jackson could barely contain his fury at having lost the election in what he claimed was a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay to overturn the will of the people. To most Jacksonian supporters it looked as if congressional leaders had conspired to revive the caucus system, whereby Congress greatly influenced—if not determined—the selection of the president. Jackson laid the blame on Clay, telling anyone who would listen that the Speaker had approached him with the offer of a deal: Clay would support Jackson in return for Jackson's appointment of Clay as secretary of state. When Jackson refused, Clay made the deal with Adams instead. In Jackson's words, Clay had sold his influence in a "corrupt bargain."

Clay denied the charges, and while there certainly had been some behind-the-scene maneuvering by Clay to push the vote to Adams, it most likely reflected Clay's genuine doubts about Jackson's qualifications as a president. In assessing the odds of successfully forwarding his own political agenda, Clay questioned Jackson's commitment to the American System of internal improvements. On the other hand, Clay knew that Adams had supported it consistently over the years … Enraged, Jackson resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate and vowed to win the presidency in 1828 as an outsider to Washington politics.

What evidence do historians use to determine what actually happened in events of the past? Share as many of the following documents as desired with the whole class or with students working in small groups and allow them to decide. Does the circumstantial evidence indicate there was or was not a "bargain"? Or is the data insufficient to enable a conclusion? If a bargain had been struck, what criteria should be used to determine whether that bargain was in fact "corrupt"?

  • Clay's confirmation was contested in the Senate, with a third of the Senate voting not to confirm. The final tally was 27 for and 14 against. The following documents from the EDSITEment resource American Memory relate to Clay's appointment:
  • An Eyewitness Account of the Voting in the House of Representatives, starting with the words "But it was not very honourable to human nature to see Clay" (account available on the website of the White House Historical Association, a link from the EDSITEment resource Explore DC). This account was written by Margaret Bayard Smith, who, it should be noted, was a supporter of William Crawford.
  • Andrew Jackson's reaction to the announcement of Clay's appointment:
    • "The people [have] been cheated. Corruptions and intrigues at Washington ... defeated the will of the people."
      —Cited in the Society section of the essay Andrew Jackson: Champion of the Kingly Commons on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies at the University of Virginia
    • "So you see, the Judas of the West [Clay] has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. His end will be the same. Was there ever witnessed such a bare faced corruption in any country before?"
      —Andrew Jackson to William B. Lewis, February 14, 1825
    • "This, to my mind, is the most open, daring corruption that has ever shown itself under our government, and if not checked by the people, will lead to open direct bribery… Mr. Clay is prostrate here in the minds of all honest and honorable men."
      —Andrew Jackson to George Wilson, February 20, 1825
  • Henry Clay vigorously defended himself in Congress against the "corrupt bargain" allegations, which were already circulating prior to the final vote in the House; his statement was entered in the official record.
    • Clay Defends Himself in Congress on the EDSITEment resource American Memory (starts with "The SPEAKER rose, and observed, that he requested the indulgence of the House for a few moments, while he asked its attention to a subject in which he felt himself deeply concerned").
  • John Calhoun, who became Vice President in 1825, wrote some letters relating to the election of 1824. Here is the transcript of one such letter, entitled "Calhoun Letter," (see Page 16 of the Master PDF).
  • It was the intention of the Founding Fathers that the time between the election and the final determination of the result in any instance where the vote would end up in the House would be brief to discourage backroom deals. Yet the election of 1824 was not settled until February of 1825. Discussions about how to conduct the election in the House dragged on. Was this a reflection of concern for detail in a matter of such importance, or was this part of a concerted effort to stall the proceedings until deals could be made?

Assessment

Students should be able to respond effectively to the following:

  • What bias might be contained in any of the accounts above? Can you identify instances of bias?
  • If there were a "corrupt bargain," would it make sense that there is no "smoking gun"? If General Jackson and his handlers concocted the notion of a "corrupt bargain," would it make sense that there is no "smoking gun"?
  • Are there issue-based reasons why Henry Clay would be more likely to support Adams than Jackson?
  • On the basis of his qualifications alone, was Henry Clay a reasonable choice to be Secretary of State?

Ask students to take a stand in writing. Is there enough evidence to determine whether there was a "corrupt bargain"? If yes, then which evidence is most compelling?

Based on the documents students have examined in this lesson, ask them to compile a list of questions they should consider in the process of determining whether Adams and Clay made a "corrupt bargain." Use the list of questions provided in the assessment section to supplement the list created by the students. Once the students have explored the various angles that should be examined, assign them the job of judging the case. It might be helpful to prepare a list of the questions they decide are most critical and distribute this for them to use as they draft their opinions. In addition, remind students that they need to take a clear position and explain how the evidence supports their conclusion.

Extending The Lesson

  • Using the Interactive Election Results activity on Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, available via a link from the EDSITEment resource Explore DC, students can work alone or in small groups to attempt to uncover any patterns that would reveal or disprove corrupt dealings. If desired, students can use the chart "1824: The Electoral Vote and the House Vote," (see Page 17 of the Master PDF), to organize the data.
    • What can be learned about the election of 1824 from an analysis of the election and House data?
    • Was there a regional pattern in the election results?
    • Is there a pattern in the changes from the electoral votes to the votes in the House?
    • Are there any other interesting patterns uncovered by an analysis of the data? For example, in 1824 the electors were chosen by popular vote in every state except Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont. Did Jackson tend to win the electoral votes more consistently in states where electors were chosen by popular election?
    • Did the Representatives of the states in which Jackson won the highest percentage of the popular vote tend to vote for Jackson in the House?
    • To what extent were regional differences a reflection of regional interests as shown by the popular vote? By the vote taken in the House of Representatives?
    • Do the data tend to prove or disprove the notion that there was a "corrupt bargain"?
  • Students interested in reading some scholarly analyses of the election of 1824 can consult the relevant essays in H-Pol's Online Seminar: The Presidential Nominating Process, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies at the University of Virginia.
  • Students interested in learning more about the issues in the debate over the Electoral College—a debate that was heatedly renewed during the controversy over the election of 2000—can begin their research by consulting Electoral College Debate, an exhibit of Famous Trials, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • MMS (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
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