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.
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.
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.
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"?
Students should be able to respond effectively to the following:
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.
1 class periods