Andrew Jackson was one of four presidential candidates in 1824.
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.
Assign roles to student volunteers to read aloud the transcript, "The Election of the President in the House," (see Pages 1–3 of the Master PDF), based on entries from the Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 1825, and the Register of Debates for Feb. 9, 1825, both available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory.
What had been the outcome of the general election? Why was the election in the House of Representatives? Identify the ways the House followed the procedures specified in the Constitution, especially Amendment XII (Congress had set the date for the election in the House; the electoral ballots were read before a joint session; each state got only one vote in the House). What impressions of the House election did students get from the transcript?
Review with the class the Constitutional provisions relevant to the 1824 Presidential election—Article 2, Section 1, #2 and Amendment XII (Manner of Choosing a President and Vice-President), available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Avalon Project.
Students with a special interest in how our system of presidential elections—and especially the electoral college—developed can start their research with Alexander Hamilton's Federalist No. 68. Hamilton states that:
It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided (that is, the president). This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture … an intermediate body of electors …
Check for understanding: Under what circumstances does an election go to the House of Representatives? Could that happen today? In the 2000 election, Governor George W. Bush became president with 271 electoral votes. Vice President Al Gore had 266 electoral votes. If a third-party candidate had won Connecticut's eight votes instead of Vice President Gore, would the election have gone into the House of Representatives? If a third-party candidate had won Colorado's eight votes instead of Governor Bush, would the election have gone into the House of Representatives? (NOTE TO THE TEACHER: This is a mathematical question unrelated to any issues arising out of the 2000 campaign. Those issues should be avoided here.)
Students should be able to respond effectively to the following questions:
Pose these questions to the class for discussion. When an election ends up in the House, does that tend to strengthen or weaken the power of the people in the selection of a president? Does the two-party system help to prevent the presidential election from ending up in the House of Representatives? If so, does that mean the two-party system gives more power to the people?
Following class discussion of the questions raised in the assessment section, ask students to write editorials (150-200 words) supporting or attacking the resolution: The United States Constitution should be amended to limit to two the number of political parties allowed to participate in national elections.
Classes desiring more information on the election of 1824 can read the background material from the introduction to the Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom, ending with the sentence, "While he was never able to prove any actual bribery or corruption occurred, the accusation endured and influenced the next election, as well as Clay's political career."
For more on today's election process, consult resources such as Presidential Election Laws and Electoral College on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom. For more detail on the role of Congress, consult Overview of Electoral College Procedure and the Role of Congress on the House of Representatives website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Congress Link.
1 class periods