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 allow popular voting for the presidency only after the Civil War.  On a few occasions states would later select electors through the legislature rather than by popular vote, but not often (Nevada did so in 1864, Florida did so in 1868, and Colorado did the same in 1876, in each case because its state government was created (or reconstituted) too late in the year to allow for a proper vote, and in 1848 Massachusetts did so because three parties split the vote so that none won an absolute majority).


*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% were involved.


*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 over.


*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 electoral votes:


     *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 unpopularity.


     *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 13%).


*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 American history.


*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 rivals).


*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 it.


*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 Democratic-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 (criticised by his opponents as ‘lighthouses of the skies'), 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 was becoming more and more of a Southern sectionalist, vigourously opposed this ‘Tariff of Abominations.’


*In South Carolina, flags were flown at half mast.  Southerners said ‘let the New England beware how she imitates the Old.’  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.



This page last updated 17 August, 2018.
Powered by Hot Air