The Ugly Election That Birthed Modern American Politics

One of the most bitterly fought elections in U.S. history saw a split electoral college and the winner decided by “corrupt bargain.”

Before the election of 1824, the United States was at the tail end of the so-called Era of Good Feelings, a time when political partisanship was low and one party, the Democratic-Republicans, dominated U.S. national politics. The election of 1824 ended that era. Clashing interests on protectionism and trade, as well as sharply divided views on the role of government and America’s place in the larger world, created lasting schisms. By declining to give the nod to a designated successor, President James Monroe allowed a wide-open campaign to develop. Four men—John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson—sought the presidency. The ensuing battles would transform politics, leading to a new democratic culture as well as to the Democratic Party.

The America of 1824 was recognizably a republic, in the sense that ultimate sovereignty lay with the people, but much less so a democracy, in which the people engage directly in the political process. Of the twenty-four states, six left the choice of president to the legislature, which chose the state’s presidential electors. In the others, legislators set the terms of the statewide or district-by-district ballot that determined the outcome.

A presidential race was not a popularity contest, as it soon would become; a candidate succeeded by appealing to other professional politicians as much as to ordinary citizens. And the appeal itself remained oblique to the point of coyness. A presidential candidate of 1824 could no more afford to be seen openly campaigning than a candidate for the papacy can today.

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