A HOUSE DIVIDED – Then and Now

The political headlines are all pretty much the same. The fiscal cliff is looming and congress is at a stalemate.  Lest we start to think this is a new phenomenon, consider an earlier election cycle.

December 1 is an interesting day in American political history. It is a day we can reflect on how far technology has brought us and how little our politics have changed. In our last election in November 2012, most of us started our day believing that the presidential race was a toss-up.  We were mentally gearing up for a replay of the 2000 election which has ended in a near draw that was not resolved until December 12, 2000 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Florida court’s order of a manual recount of votes was unconstitutional. Given the pretty contentious nature of the 2012 election, a similar sort of drama seemed to be highly possible. We were surprised when the outcome of the election was pretty well known by the early evening on election day. We have technology and changes in election procedures to thank for reporting the decision so quickly.

In the election of 1824, the accounting and reporting of votes was not even completed until December 1, 1824. That election featured four main candidates all from the Democratic-Republican party.  The party’s standard bearer was William H Crawford who had been Secretary of State under James Madison. Unfortunately, Crawford had suffered a stroke during the campaign period and when the results were reported, the leading vote getter was Andrew Jackson. Jackson had won 99 electoral votes and 131 votes were required to win the election. John Quincy Adams had won 84 electoral votes, Crawford received 41 votes and Henry Clay brought up the rear with 37 electoral college votes.

With no electoral college winner, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives for decision. The House of Representatives could only consider three candidates according to the rules laid out in the 12th amendment. While Andrew Jackson might have looked to have the inside track as the leading vote getter, he had a powerful opponent in Henry Clay who, as the fourth finisher could not be considered for the presidency. Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams after a private meeting between the two men in January 1825 and on February 9, 1825 John Quincy Adams was elected president by the House of Representatives.

Andrew Jackson supporters cried foul and there was a widespread belief that Clay had traded his support to gain his own nomination as Secretary of State. When Adams did nominate Clay for the position, his election became known widely as “the corrupt bargain.” There does not seem to be any real evidence that there was a bargain between the two men and Clay was known to have supported Adams even before the presidential election. Nevertheless, the charge of collusion was repeated often enough to follow Adams throughout his presidency and his opponents in Congress opposed virtually everything he attempted to accomplish. Adams was voted out of office in the election of 1828 which was regarded as one of the dirtiest presidential campaigns in US history.  

One byproduct of Adam’s tenure as president and the subsequent campaign of 1828 is the creation of the modern party system in the US. Adams and the other candidates had campaigned as “Democratic Republicans” in 1824, but during Adams presidency had begun to fear the term “national Republicans” while his opponents had shortened up their handle to “Democrats.”

Nearly 200 years later and it seems nothing much changes around Washington, D.C.

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