The Corrupt Bargain of 1825

Today is the anniversary of a largely forgotten episode that reminds us how the U.S. has always struggled with messy politics and ambiguous or flawed electoral rules.

It was on this day in 1825 that the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams to be president, after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes in the previous year’s presidential election.

There had been four candidates on the ballot: Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford. Pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, only the top three candidates in the electoral vote were admitted as candidates, eliminating Henry Clay.

Many were surprised that Adams was elected over Jackson, who still had the most electoral votes. The representatives of all the states that had gone for Clay in the Electoral College supported Adams.

Clay was the Speaker of the House and arguably the most powerful person in Congress. It was widely believed he used his influenced to convince Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State (then and now considered the most prestigious and influential office after the presidency itself). Jackson’s supporters denounced this as a “corrupt bargain” and launched a four-year campaign of revenge, claiming that the people had been cheated of their choice.

In a now familiar refrain, these “Jacksonians” attacked the Adams administration at every turn as illegitimate and tainted by elitism and corruption.

More to the point, as the son of the second president, John Adams, the election of John Quincy to only the sixth presidential office began a discussion about political dynasties that recently came up with the Bush and Clinton candidacies.