My husband occasionally watches some of the coverage of the presidential campaign (for a few minutes, anyway, before he gets annoyed and turns it off). As I listen to the pundits argue over each other, I can’t help thinking about another contentious election in American history–the one mentioned in A Permanent Home, the election of 1824.
The more I think about it, the more I see similarities between that election of 1824 and our current election, nearly 200 years later. If you’re familiar with American history, you’ll remember the election of 1824 as one in which the presidency was decided by the House of Representatives, making John Quincy Adams the sixth president. As with our current election, there were regional and class differences that fed the rivalry between the candidates, who included a very popular but marginally qualified celebrity. And while the outcome of the current election remains to be seen, we’ve already heard rumblings that there could be controversy similar to what happened in 1824.
First I’ll set the stage for the comparison. The political system that seen the young country through its first 30 years was undergoing significant changes. Suffrage laws were being relaxed to allow any white man the right to vote, whether or not he owned property. The Virginia Dynasty that had dominated the presidency was coming to an end as James Monroe left office, and the once-strong Federalist party was so weakened after the War of 1812 that it was no longer a force in American politics. Unlike in previous presidential campaigns, candidates for president were nominated by state legislatures rather than by a party caucus; the only candidate nominated by the Democratic-Republican caucus was William Crawford, which actually may have been a liability in his campaign (Feller). Other nominees were John Quincy Adams, nominated by the Massachusetts legislature; Henry Clay, nominated by the Kentucky legislature; and Andrew Jackson, who had been nominated in 1822 by the Tennessee legislature.
I’m no political historian, but it appears to me the four-candidate race in 1824 was a reflection of key regional differences in the country. Adams was the candidate of the Northeast, which had a long history of influence in governmental and political affairs. Clay was the candidate of the Ohio Valley, and Jackson was the candidate for the West and the South, with the exception of Virginia, which favored Crawford (Miller Center). These regional divisions are echoed in today’s electoral projection maps. Look at the CNN map from October 28:
With an understanding that there are twice as many states now as there were in 1824, we can see Hillary Clinton is leading in the same area (and similar areas) that favored John Quincy Adams. Donald Trump is leading in a swath of red cutting across the center of the country – the same Southern and Western states that were Jackson’s base. The division on the map in 1824 was mainly over the issue of slavery with some westward expansion thrown in; I won’t pretend to be able to explain the divisions in today’s map (partly because I’m no political scientist and partly because this post is going to be long enough, anyway).
Although regional issues played a role in determining the nominees for president, I had difficulty finding any information about specific issues in the 1824 campaign. Likely that is because, as one source put it, the campaign “became a contest of individuals rather than of issues or parties” (Milkis & Nelson). Sound familiar? Again, I see strong parallels to today’s candidates. Hillary Clinton is similar to John Quincy Adams – a political elite with experience in both the Senate and as Secretary of State (Hogan). Adams and Clinton even have similar personalities. Adams once described himself as “reserved, cold, forbidding, and austere”; Clinton is seen as “distant and impersonal” to the point that her enemies label her a “robot” (Milkis & Nelson; Sherman, “Clinton”).
The other leading candidate in the 1824 race was Andrew Jackson, and I see parallels between him and current candidate Donald Trump. Both men were well-known to the general public for their exploits – Trump as a business mogul and TV reality star, Jackson as an Indian fighter and the war hero who won the Battle of New Orleans in January, 1815. Neither man had any significant governmental experience. As Feller notes, “Jackson had scanty qualifications as a statesman, with only brief and undistinguished service in Congress and as a territorial governor…Jackson had never held a Cabinet post or even been abroad. He spoke no foreign languages and even wrote English roughly” (“Campaigns”). In terms of personality, Jackson was “strong-willed and sharp-tempered,” a man who “personalized disputes and demonized opponents” (Feller,” Life”). He left a legacy as president in which he “wielded executive powers vigorously, defying Congress, vetoing more bills than all his predecessors combined, and frequently reshuffling his cabinet” (Feller, “Life”).
Trump appears to have the same kind of personality. His behavior in his television career and on the campaign trail have shown him to be ambitious and bold, with little regard for input and feedback from others, even those on his own team (Sherman, “Trump”). A psychologist doing a personality profile on the basis of observed behavior said people like Trump who are high in boldness can be “difficult to work with because they feel entitled to special treatment, ignore their critics, and intimidate others” (Sherman, “Trump”).
Neither Trump nor Jackson fit the mold expected for presidential candidates, and because of that, both were discounted early in the race. As Feller notes, “Many political professionals…did not take Jackson’s candidacy entirely seriously at first. The returns showed their mistake. He proved to be the only aspirant with a truly national popular following” (“Campaigns”). Jackson took advantage of the fact that about three-fourths of the members of the Electoral College would now be chosen by popular vote rather than state legislature and adopted a strategy of appealing directly to voters. As one source said, Jackson “was the first presidential candidate in American history to really sell himself as a man of the people, and the people loved him for it” (Swint). One collector of rare coins posted images of a series of campaign tokens with Jackson’s likeness on one side and one of three slogans on the other: “Hero of New Orleans,” “The Nation’s Pride,” and “The Nation’s Good” (Jones). Those nationalistic appeals sound similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
The outcome of this year’s election remains to be seen at this point, of course. But with all these similarities, it makes me wonder if we might be heading toward an ending like the 1824 election had. Jackson won both the popular vote (with 43%) and had the most votes in the Electoral College with 99 (Independence Hall). Adams was second, with 30% of the popular vote and 84 electoral votes, while Crawford was third and Clay a distant fourth place (Independence Hall). Although Jackson had the most votes, he didn’t have the majority of electors needed to win outright. As specified in the relatively new 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the election went to the House of Representatives, where Adams was elected as president on the first ballot taken. Jackson, of course, felt he’d been robbed, especially after Clay, who was Speaker of the House at the time, was named Secretary of State in Adams’ new administration. Although historians generally agree there was no collusion in the deal, Jackson immediately dubbed the results of the election the “Corrupt Bargain,” which became the rallying cry for his campaign for president in 1828, one of the dirtiest and most acrimonious campaigns in American history. Let’s hope that’s where the similarities end.
CNN. (2016, Oct. 28). Electoral College Map. 270 to Win. Retrieved from http://www.270towin.com/2016-election-forecast-predictions/.
Feller, D. (n.d.) Andrew Jackson: Campaigns and Elections. Miller Center of Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://millercenter.org/president/biography/jackson-campaigns-and-elections.
Feller, D. (n.d.) Andrew Jackson: Life in Brief. Miller Center of Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://millercenter.org/president/biography/jackson-life-in-brief.
Hogan, M.A. (n.d.) John Quincy Adams: Life before the Presidency. Miller Center of Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://millercenter.org/president/biography/jqadams-life-before-the-presidency.
Independence Hall Association (2016). The 1824 Election and the “Corrupt Bargain.” U.S. History.org. Retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/us/23d.asp.
Jones, B. (2012, Dec. 29). Three 1824 Andre Jackson Presidential Campaign Tokens. Collectors Society. Retrieved from http://boards.collectors-society.com/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=6261297.
Milkis, S.M., & Nelson, M. (2016). The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2014, 7th ed. Los Angeles: Sage.
Sherman, R.A. (2015, Sep 17). The Personality of Donald Trump. Psychology Today [online]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-situation-lab/201610/the-personality-donald-trump.
Sherman, R.A. (2016, Oct. 3). The Personality of Hillary Clinton. Psychology Today [online]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-situation-lab/201610/the-personality-hillary-clinton.
Swint, K. (2008, Aug. 22). The Founding Fathers’ Dirty Campaign. CNN Living. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/08/22/mf.campaign.slurs.slogans/