Electoral College

The Accusation of a 'Rigged Election' Has Happened Before

By James Traub,
from The Wall Street Journal,

Andrew Jackson’s outrage over his 1824 defeat by John Quincy Adams shows the havoc that claims of a fixed election can wreak on the winner. The 'Corrupt Bargain'.

Andrew Jackson had every reason to consider himself the victor of the presidential election of 1824. In a hard-fought campaign, he had won the most popular votes and electoral votes, too. But because he didn’t gain an outright majority in the Electoral College, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, as the Constitution stipulated.

There Jackson faced his top rivals for the White House, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Treasury Secretary William Crawford. With Crawford out of contention because of an incapacitating stroke, it was plain that either Jackson or Adams would carry a majority of the 24 states that then constituted the union. The key to victory lay with the wily speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, who also had been a candidate for president but had finished well behind. After a series of discreet and carefully indirect conversations with Adams, Clay was persuaded that he would be asked to serve as secretary of state in an Adams administration, thus improving his own future presidential prospects. Clay announced his support for Adams.

Privately, Clay also appears to have persuaded the congressional delegation of his native Kentucky, as well as those of Ohio and Missouri, to throw their support to the standard-bearer of old New England. Adams carried all three states on his way to a stunning first-ballot victory in the House of Representatives. The moment Adams named Clay as his secretary of state, an enraged Jackson began claiming that the election had been rigged. Donald Trump, as we learned in the last of his debates with Hillary Clinton, is threatening to become the first presidential candidate in modern history to lose an election and call it fixed. But in the nation’s early years, when democratic norms had not yet come to be regarded as holy writ, the presidential loser could, and sometimes did, make just that claim. Mr. Trump’s goal, like Jackson’s, would not be to get the results overturned but rather to cripple a winner whom he regarded, or at least claimed to regard, as illegitimate—and to position himself as the beneficiary of that failure. Jackson’s subsequent crusade against Adams shows just how ruinous such an allegation can be.

The election of 1824 took place during a brief interval of nonpartisan politics. The Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams had disappeared, and the Democratic Party that Jackson himself would usher into being had not yet taken shape. President James Monroe called himself a “Democratic-Republican,” as did both John Quincy Adams and Jackson. On the issues, Adams and Clay were nationalists who championed an active federal government, while Crawford and Jackson, the Southerners, stood for states’ rights. But no one salient issue emerged to define the race, which in the end turned into a contest of personal popularity.

Jackson once called Clay “the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of God.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson was elected president with 56% of the popular vote and two-thirds of the electoral vote. Three times as many Americans voted as had in 1824. It was the beginning of the “Jacksonian Revolution,” a period that, according to the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., saw the rise of new classes of men, Eastern laborers as well as Western pioneers, who challenged the existing order and demanded a political system that worked on their behalf. Schlesinger’s Jackson is the great-grandfather of modern liberalism (a patrimony that the small-government Jackson would have furiously forsworn).

Democracy, after all, is not just a set of practices but a culture. It lives not only in such formal mechanisms as party and ballot but in the instincts and expectations of citizens. Objective circumstances—jobs, war, competition from abroad—shape that political culture, but so do the words and deeds of leaders.

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