The Election of 1824 Was Decided in the House of Representatives

The controversial election was denounced as "The Corrupt Bargain."

The candidates in the 1824 US presidential election take part in a foot race toward the White House, watched by cheering crowds. A cartoon by David Claypoole Johnson.
The candidates in the 1824 US presidential election take part in a foot race toward the White House, watched by cheering crowds. A cartoon by David Claypoole Johnson.

MPI/Getty Images

The election of 1824 involved three major figures in American history and was decided in the House of Representatives. One man won, one helped him win, and one stormed out of Washington denouncing the entire affair as “the corrupt bargain.” Until the disputed election of 2000, the dubious election of 1824 was the most controversial election in American history.

The Background to the 1824 Election

In the 1820s, the United States was in a relatively settled period. The War of 1812 was fading into the past, and the Missouri Compromise in 1821 had put the contentious issue of slavery aside, where it would essentially remain until the 1850s.

A pattern of two-term presidents had developed in the early 1800s:

As Monroe’s second term reached its final year, several major candidates were intent on running in 1824.

The Candidates in the Election of 1824

John Quincy Adams: In 1824, the son of the second president had served as the secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe since 1817. And the secretary of state was considered the obvious path to the presidency, as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had all held the position.

Adams, by even his own admission, was considered to have an unexciting personality. But his long career of public service made him very well qualified for the job of chief executive.

Engraved portrait of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Andrew Jackson: Following his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 General Andrew Jackson became a larger-than-life American hero. He was elected as a senator from Tennessee in 1823 and immediately began positioning himself to run for president.

The main concerns people had about Jackson was that he was self-educated and possessed a fiery temperament. He had killed men in duels and had been wounded by gunfire in various confrontations.

Andrew Jackson circa 1825
Andrew Jackson circa 1825. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Henry Clay: As Speaker of the House, Henry Clay was a dominating political figure of the day. He had pushed the Missouri Compromise through Congress, and that landmark legislation had, at least for a time, settled the issue of slavery.

Clay had a potential advantage if several candidates ran and none of them received a majority of votes of the electoral college. If that happened, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives, where Clay wielded great power.

An election decided in the House of Representatives would be unlikely in the modern era. But Americans in the 1820s didn't consider it outlandish, as it had already happened: the election of 1800, which was won by Thomas Jefferson, had been decided in the House of Representatives.

Henry Clay
Henry Clay. LIbrary of Congress/Getty Images

William H. Crawford: Though mostly forgotten today, William H. Crawford of Georgia was a powerful political figure, having served as a senator, and as secretary of the treasury under James Madison. He was considered a strong candidate for president, but suffered a stroke in 1823 that rendered him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Despite that, some politicians still supported his candidacy.

Election Day 1824 Did Not Settle Things

In that era, the candidates did not campaign themselves. The actual campaigning was left to managers and surrogates, and throughout the year various partisans spoke and wrote in favor of the candidates.

When the votes were tallied from across the nation, Andrew Jackson had won a plurality of the popular as well as the electoral vote. In the electoral college tabulations, John Quincy Adams came in second, Crawford third, and Henry Clay finished fourth.

Incidentally, while Jackson won the popular vote that was counted, some states at that time picked electors in the state legislature and thus did not tally a popular vote for president.

No One Met the Constitutional Requirement for Victory

The US Constitution dictates that a candidate needs to win a majority in the electoral college, and no one met that standard. So the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives.

In an odd twist, the one man who would have a huge advantage in that venue, the Speaker of the House Henry Clay, was automatically eliminated. The Constitution said only the top three candidates could be considered.

Henry Clay Supported John Quincy Adams, Became Secretary of State

In early January 1824, John Quincy Adams invited Henry Clay to visit him at his residence and the two men spoke for several hours. It is unknown whether they reached some sort of deal, but suspicions were widespread.

On February 9, 1825, the House of Representatives held its election, in which each state delegation would get one vote. Henry Clay had made it known that he was supporting Adams, and thanks to his influence, Adams won the vote and was thus elected president.

The Election of 1824 Was Known as "The Corrupt Bargain"

Andrew Jackson, already famous for his temper, was furious. And when John Quincy Adams named Henry Clay to be his secretary of state, Jackson denounced the election as "the corrupt bargain." Many assumed Clay sold his influence to Adams so he could be secretary of state and thus increase his own chance of being president someday.

Andrew Jackson was so wildly angry about what he considered manipulations in Washington that he resigned his Senate seat. He returned to Tennessee and began planning the campaign that would make him president four years later. The 1828 campaign between Jackson and John Quincy Adams was perhaps the dirtiest campaign ever, as wild accusations were thrown about by each side.

Jackson would serve two terms as president, and would begin the era of strong political parties in America.

As for John Quincy Adams, he served four years as president before being defeated by Jackson when he ran for reelection in 1828. Adams then retired briefly to Massachusetts. He ran for the House of Representatives in 1830, won the election, and would ultimately serve 17 years in Congress, becoming a strong advocate against slavery.

Adams always said being a congressman was more gratifying than being president. And Adams actually died in the US Capitol, having suffered a stroke in the building in February 1848.

Henry Clay ran for president again, losing to Jackson in 1832 and to James Knox Polk in 1844. And while he never gained the nation's highest office, he remained a major figure in national politics until his death in 1852.