UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Corrupt Bargain
*By the 1820s, a new wave of democracy was sweeping across
America. This was based on universal white manhood suffrage,
which was becoming increasingly common in America. Some
states even let all free men vote, including free blacks
(Tennessee did so until 1835). Vermont was the first state
to allow all white men to vote, beginning with its admission to
the Union in 1791. As western states were admitted, they
followed suit. After all, with western land so cheap and
easy to acquire, most men met the old property qualifications
anyway, so it seemed unnecessary to enshrine them in law.
*These westerners, newly toughened by war with Great Britain and
the Indians, had new heroes as well: frontiersmen and
military men and Indian fighters. Among these were Davy
Crockett, who would eventually be elected to Congress from
Tennessee, William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana
Territory and nicknamed 'Old Tippecanoe' for his first victory
over the Indians in the War of 1812, and Andrew Jackson, long a
political figure in Tennessee, and now a national hero after his
exploits at Horseshoe Bend, at New Orleans, and in Florida against
the Spanish and the Seminole.
*Only two men in American history have managed to have entire
concepts of government named after themselves. The first, of
course, is Mr Jefferson, and the term Jeffersonian Democracy
refers to a democratic government that does as little as possible
to interfere in the lives of the people, who are envisioned as
economically independent yeomen farmers, although a meritocratic
elite should still have the final authority. The second is
Andrew Jackson, perhaps the first great populist in American
politics. The New Democracy, also known as Jacksonian
Democracy, maintained that in a true democracy (that is, a
government of the people), the people ought to actually govern.
*In many states it became the practise to allow presidential
electors to be directly elected by the people—until this point,
state legislatures chose the electors. In 1824, 18 of 24
states chose their electors by popular votes and by 1828, however,
every state but Delaware and South Carolina chose their electors
based on a popular vote for the president. Delaware changed
in 1832, but South Carolina would not allow popular voting for the
presidency until after the Civil War.
*Aristocratic easterners looked down on the western rabble and
‘coonskin congressmen,’ and described their attempts to take over
the government as the tyranny of King Numbers—this was the tyranny
of the majority the Founding Fathers had feared. In turn,
the common people criticised ‘King Caucus,’ the personification of
the caucus system in which a political party chose a member from
its own ranks, often secretly or at least without popular voting,
to be that party’s candidate for the presidency. The popular
slogan was ‘The People Must be Heard!’
*The New Democracy was also characterised by massive voter
turnout. In 1824 about 25% of eligible voters actually took
part in the election, but in 1828 at least half participated and
by 1840 (perhaps the high-water mark of voter participation) 78%
*Popular involvement in politics was a result of the momentous
issues of the time. The Panic of 1819 and the power of the
Bank of the United States, as well as the sectional controversy
surrounding the Missouri Compromise awoke people to the power and
importance of the Federal Government. Until this time, most
people had regarded their state and local governments as far more
influential and important in their lives--it was not unknown in
America’s early history for men to turn down or resign federal
jobs in favour of jobs in their state or even county
governments. Although most people still felt greater loyalty
to their states than to the Union, they began to see the Federal
government for the powerful institution that it was.
*The first years of the 1820s had been characterised by a lack of
open political disagreement, although quite a bit went on under
the surface. Because James Monroe presided relatively
serenely over an unchallenged Republican Party composed of a
younger generation of politicians who did not challenge his
authority, this time was called the Era of Good Feelings.
With Monroe’s retirement in 1824, the time for Good Feelings was
*In 1824, many talented men ran for the presidency—and it is
notable that they did run; the old policy of ‘standing to
election’ was largely falling by the wayside, although too much
personal involvement in one’s own campaign was still seen as a bit
unseemly. John C Calhoun, Monroe’s Secretary of War briefly
ran, but soon stepped aside, and was the Vice-Presidential
candidate on two other tickets—after all, everyone was still a
Jeffersonian Republican. Of those who stayed the course,
there were four important candidates who ended up winning
*William Harris Crawford of Georgia was
Monroe's Secretary of the Treasury. He was chosen by the
Congressional Caucus as the man who ought to succeed Monroe
(according to Congress), but he was ultimately defeated by the
unpopularity of this supposedly elitist system (which collapsed
after this election) and reports of failing health following a
stroke (which rendered him nearly blind and paralysed).
*John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts was
endorsed by that state’s legislature, had been Secretary of State
for James Monroe, and was the son of a former president.
Although, like his father, he was inflexible in matters of
principles and morals, he was sufficiently in touch with the
public mood to refuse the nomination of a caucus, knowing their
*Henry Clay of Kentucky was nominated by both
Kentucky and Tennessee’s legislatures, and had been Speaker of the
House of Representatives on three different occasions. Harry
of the West ran on a programme of internal improvements and
government spending that were part of his American System.
*Andrew Jackson, the great military hero.
Old Hickory was despised by some, especially Henry Clay, for his
supposed ignorance of politics and national affairs, but this was
not entirely true. He was more a politician than a military
man, having been a territorial attorney general in the Mero
District of the Southwest Territory, Tennessee’s first
Representative in Congress and later a Senator from Tennessee, and
briefly governor of the Florida Territory. He was also the
most popular of all the candidates among the common people (and
the average voters).
*Jackson received the largest share of both the electoral and
popular votes (99 electoral votes and 153,544, or 41% of the
popular vote) and Adams followed closely with 84 electoral votes
(108,740 popular votes, or 31%). Crawford got 41 electoral
votes (46,618 popular votes, or 11%) and Clay got 37 (47,136, or
*Because there was no majority of electoral votes (which would
have required at least 131), the election was thrown to the House
of Representatives, for the second (and thus far last) time in
*It was felt by many that because Jackson had the most electoral
and popular votes that the right thing would be for the House to
select him. However, it was not that simple. Many
distrusted his wild democratic style and his western
followers. Moreover, John Quincy Adams, the apparent second
choice, found an ally.
*Speaker of the House Henry Clay made a deal, or so it was later
said, with Adams. Clay was able to use him influence in the
House to get Adams selected as president. When Adams named
his cabinet, he in turn chose Clay as his Secretary of State, the
most coveted of all posts in the executive branch (outside the
presidency itself), because it had hitherto been the most common
stepping-stone to the presidency (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and
Adams himself had all be Secretaries of State).
*Jackson and his followers accused Adams and Clay of making a
‘corrupt bargain,’ and Clay was called the ‘Judas of the
West.’ These two men, so apparently opposite, had worked
together in Ghent ten years before, and would work together
again. John Randolph, described the pair as ‘the Puritan and
the black-leg.’ Adams, of course, was the Puritan, and Clay
the black-leg (a term meaning a gambler who cheated at
cards). Clay challenged Randolph to a duel, but both
survived—like most duels simply being willing to shoot and be shot
at proved the point so that actually killing one’s opponent was
unnecessary (Burr and Hamilton had been a bit of an oddity among
political duels, although in Missouri they were frequently fatal
and were sometimes seen as a way to eliminate one's political
*In addition to these personal disagreements, Jackson’s followers,
angry at what they saw as a stolen election, began campaigning for
the 1828 election as soon as the House made its decision.
They would spend the next four years making every effort possible
to undermine and discredit Adams and his administration,
foreshadowing the later practise of continual campaigning.
*Adams was short, bald, austere, and sarcastic. He craved
regularity, arising at the same time every day, reading his Bible,
and then going skinny-dipping in the Potomac. Once a young
female reporter refused to let him get out and get his clothes
until he granted her an interview; in another instance some boys
stole his clothes and he had to send a passer-by to the White
House for another suit. He liked to sample rare wines, grow
exotic plants, and play billiards. He installed the first
pool table ever to be in the White House, and was criticised for
*Adams had been an excellent diplomat, beginning his career at the
age of ten when he was sent to Europe with a diplomatic delegation
by his father during the Revolutionary War. However, his
unswerving devotion to his principles made him an ineffective
president in many ways. He did not make many friends while
president, in large part because he did not remove from office any
existing officials who did their jobs well, and thus was unable
reward his supporters with many new positions.
*With the election of 1824 the Era of Good Feelings came to a
close. The old Jeffersonian Republican Party began to
fragment into nationalist and various sectional factions.
The most obvious alignments were those with or against Henry Clay
and his American System.
*Adams, like Clay, was a nationalist. In his first annual
message to Congress, Adams called for an expensive system of
internal improvements funded by the Federal government:
roads, canals, a national university, an astronomical observatory,
harbour improvements, and other public works. Opponents of
these plans worried that they would give the Federal government
too much power, injure states’ rights, and result in higher taxes
and certainly a higher tariff, which was the method Adams planned
to use for funding.
*Although Adams supported exploring the west, he was cautious
about settling it, and did not make land as cheap or as readily
available as many, especially western speculators like Jackson,
wanted. He also made an effort to deal fairly with the
Indians, while many westerners, especially in the South, wanted
them removed from their lands forcibly, or at least restricted to
smaller regions—at this point, many Indians still held large
pieces of land in the trans-Appalachian states. Adams tried
to protect the Indians, but was opposed by states with forceful
governors, such as Georgia.
*Although not a Federalist per se—only a few remained
loyal to that party after the Hartford Convention—Adams was a New
England man and a nationalist, and he supported a tariff, in part
to pay for his proposed internal improvements. The Tariff of
1824 raised the general tariff on imports from 23% to 37%, and
many New Englanders, especially woollen mill owners, wanted it
raised still higher.
*In a political gamble, Jacksonians in Congress presented a much
higher tariff—up to 45% in some cases—in the hopes that even New
England would have to vote against it, or that Adams would have to
veto it. Although neither Adams nor New England was happy
with this new tariff, New Englanders in Congress felt they had to
support the tariff out of the principle of protectionism, and
Adams refused to veto it, despite its unpopularity. The new
tariff became law in 1828, to the dismay of just about everyone.
*Daniel Webster, who had once opposed protective tariffs, now
supported them because so many of his constituents had gone into
protected industries. John C Calhoun of South Carolina, who
had once supported protective tariffs for the good of the country
but was becoming more and more of a Southern sectionalist,
vigourously opposed this ‘Tariff of Abominations.’
*In South Carolina, flags were flown at half mast. Not only
was the coastal south, once the richest but now the least
prosperous part of the nation, hurt by the tariff economically,
many Southerners feared that each Federal intrusion made the
national government more powerful, and that one day the national
government might act to end slavery, as the British government was
seriously considering (and would in fact do in 1834).
*Americans in general, and Southerners, especially South
Carolinians, were increasingly concerned about slavery.
Anti-slavery movements in the North were growing in numbers and
influence, and not long before, a slave revolt had been attempted
in South Carolina.
*In 1800 Denmark Vesey bought his freedom with $600 he won in a
lottery. He became a preacher, and told slaves to resist
their masters, as slavery was against the Bible and the
Declaration of Independence. In 1822 he planned a revolt
meant to seize Charleston, capture the local arsenal, kill all the
whites in town, free all the slaves, and burn the city down.
One of his co-conspirators warned local whites, however, and Vesey
and 34 other blacks were hanged.
*Fearing where the Tariff might lead, both in terms of short-term
economics and in long-term political implications, Vice-President
Calhoun anonymously published the South Carolina Exposition.
Similar to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of the previous
generation, it not only revived the notions of nullification—that
any state could declare an unconstitutional law null and void
within its borders—but argued that the Tariff of 1828 was
specifically unjust and worthy of being nullified.
*Calhoun did not mean to destroy or dismember the United
States. Rather, he hoped that nullification would allow
disparate states to remain united by allowing them to hold to
their common interests and get around the issues that separated
them. Although a noble goal, it would not work.
Although South Carolina threatened to nullify the Tariff, no other
Southern state did, despite the South’s general opposition to the
Tariff. Furthermore, after the election of 1828, the
nullifiers had a more resolute president than John Quincy Adams
with whom to contend.
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