The Presidential Election of 1824: The Republican Contenders

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Why was the election of 1824 considered a watershed moment in the history of America? Who were the Republican contenders for this election, what were their credentials, and how did it change the political framework of the country? Read on to find the answers to these questions.

An image of Andrew Jackson greeted by townsfolk.
Andrew Jackson, known as the Hero of New Orleans, had little administrative experience compared to his rivals. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In 1824, the Republican supremacy that had been in force since the 1800s continued to dominate, and the Republicans were the only active party during these times. The Hartford Convention had been a political suicide committed by the Federalists which isolated them and brought an end to their political dominance.

The Caucus System of Nominating a Presidential Candidate

The Republicans followed the caucus system of nominating their presidential candidate. The caucus functioned on the assumption that enough consensus existed to ensure adherence to the decisions taken within the party.

This process was further simplified by the Republican presidents of the past, who simply sent the name of the secretary of state as the next presidential candidate. For instance, Jefferson put forward his secretary of state, James Madison, to the caucus, who in turn put forward the name of his secretary of state, James Monroe. Thus, the practice of choosing a successor had turned into a mere formality. 

Yet when James Munroe’s second term as the President ended in 1824, it seemed that this routine would not work this time around. The Republican Party seemed to be splitting into two factions: the National Republicans and the old Democratic-Republicans.

Learn more about National Republican follies.

John Quincy Adams, the National Republican Sympathizer

The dilemma of the 1824 election started with John Quincy Adams, President Munroe’s secretary. It was well known that Adams’ sympathies were with National Republicans. Hence, his nomination would create a ruckus in the caucus and could even put an end to the caucus system.

Map depicting the results of the Republican candidates in the 1824  election.
Andrew Jackson swept the election in 1824 but did not achieve the required majority. (Image: AndyHogan14/Public domain)

The fact that John Quincy Adams had better exposure to the workings of the American government due to his upbringing had little effect on the Republicans. As his father, John Adams, had been the last of the Federalist presidents, it was also difficult to change the perception among the Republicans that John Quincy Adams was, after all, a Federalist.

Adams’ own distinguished career as a diplomat also did not matter much and he always looked like a Federalist to the Republicans. In addition, he faced opposition from Henry Clay, another ambitious Republican who enjoyed undeniable power as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Learn more about the disastrous War of 1812.

Henry Clay and His Contradictions as a Republican

Henry Clay, the great compromiser, political fixer, and orator, dominated the political landscape of the country during the period. Known for his ability to charm political enemies, this 47-year-old legendary statesman was one of the most powerful politicians of 1824.

Clay passionately implored for implementation of the “American System” even as old-timers were terrified by this deviation from the Republican principle. According to Clay, the American System involved the passage of protective tariffs to promote the growth of domestic industries and to encourage Americans to buy local goods.

However, spending federal money meant taxing American agriculture and in turn destabilizing the security of American agriculture. The Southern Republicans dreaded Clay’s policy because a powerful federal government could someday be given similar authority with respect to slavery that persisted in the south.

Further, Clay had questionable personal credentials, which were considered very un-Republican. Apart from being a high-stakes gambler and heavy drinker, he was also known as a notorious womanizer.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

William Crawford: The Loyal Republican

A portrait of William Crawford.
The congressional caucus nominated William Crawford for the presidential  election of 1824. (Image: John Wesley Jarvis/Public domain)

William H. Crawford, known for his principled positions, was nominated by default to the caucus on February 24, 1824. Crawford, a long-time loyalist from Georgia, had served James Madison as secretary of war and James Monroe as secretary of the treasury.

He suffered a stroke in the summer of 1823, leaving him slightly paralyzed and blind in one eye. Yet the Republicans in the Congress thought that he was a better choice compared to Adams or Clay.

This decision destroyed the caucus system completely and the other contenders started getting themselves nominated by state legislatures. While Clay started off by getting himself nominated from Missouri and Kentucky, Adams had New England and New York back him.

Learn more about the “American System”.

Andrew Jackson, the Hero of New Orleans

While the observers were still analyzing the emergence of the three Republican candidates and its impact on the election, a fourth candidate emerged in Tennessee—Andrew Jackson, the Hero of New Orleans. 

Andrew Jackson’s name had figured for the presidential candidate ever since his victory at New Orleans. However, his military credentials along with his reputation for dueling, gambling, and cockfighting made the leadership look at him with some disdain.

Jackson had little administrative experience compared to his rivals, but his military heroics far outweighed this handicap. Backed by public perception, Jackson swept the election with 152,901 popular votes and 99 electoral votes, but this did not provide the required majority.

Learn more about the politics of distrust.

Significance of Elections of 1800 and 1824

The election of 1800 was a significant moment as there was a peaceful transition of power between two radically different notions of the political makeup of the American Republic. It demonstrated the workability of a majority within a republican democracy.

Similarly, the election of 1824 was also a watershed moment in American political history. As none of the contenders attained a majority in the electoral college, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution was invoked.

However, it was doubtful if the presidential election decided in the House of Representatives would be considered legitimate. More so, there was a dangling sword as to whether the contenders would accept the results peacefully or whether it would create major gaps that would rip apart the political fabric of the country.

Common Questions about the Presidential Election of 1824: The Republican Contenders

Q: Who were the Republican contenders to the presidential election of 1824?

The four Republican candidates who contested the presidential election of 1824 were John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H Crawford, and Henry Clay.

Q: Which states legislatures backed John Quincy Adams?

William H. Crawford was nominated to the caucus on February 24, 1824, whereas John Quincy Adams had the state legislatures of New England and New York back him.

Q: Why did Henry Clay want to implement the American System?

According to Republican contender Henry Clay, the American System involved the passage of protective tariffs which would promote the growth of domestic industries and encourage Americans to buy local goods.

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