Corrupt Bargain? 1824, John Quincy Adams’s election as president in the House and Henry Clay’s Secretary of State Reward
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
A month ago, I embarked on writing a short On This Day in History for February 9, 1825, the day the House of Representatives voted to elect Secretary of State John Quincy Adams president with the engineering of Speaker of the House and Kingmaker Henry Clay. Some topics, however, are impossible to write shortly and succinctly without being drawn in and carried away. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and doyen Robert Remini remarked in his abridged The Life of Andrew Jackson in 1987, “When I first undertook this project I had intended to write a complete life in one volume. But it did not work out that way. One volume grew to a second and a third, and I might have gone on to produce a fourth had my editor, not intervened in the nick of time.” (Remini, ix) When I first started this article, it was meant to be a modest 1,000–2,000 short essay that ballooned to over 16,000 words, which would be longer if I just kept on writing and did not know “when to fold them,” as another gambler Kenny Rogers so aptly put it. While the 1828 campaign that elected Jackson to the presidency is deemed the start of the Democratic revolution, 1824 is significant as the catalyst for the revolution, the decline of King Caucus nominations and the last campaign without political parties.
At the center of the 1824 campaign was Speaker of the House Henry Clay, statesman, orator a magnetic larger than life figure, a gambler, who took a gamble and ruined his future presidential prospects. I first wrote about Clay in 2008, “On This Day in History… February 7, 1839, Henry Clay declares I had rather be right than president,” on the History News Network, which I expanded this year. Clay’s dreams of the presidency were not thwarted in 1839; they were in 1825 when rumors of a corrupt bargain over his support of Adams in the House vote. Those rumors popped up for the rest of his political career when he ran in 1832, attempted to garner the nomination in 1840, and when he was a nominee in 1844. I have previously examined the elections Clays ran when I contributed the overviews to the 2011 revised version History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008 edited Gil Troy, and originally edited by famed historians Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel. However, I never looked at the 1824 election to this extent with its “colorful personalities,” as Remini called the candidates, its intrigues and corruption.
Clay’s popularity among historians has been resurgent with four major publications by preeminent historians in the past decade with two books published in the past year alone adding to the most significant recent volume Remini’s 1991 book Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. In 2010, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler’s Henry Clay: The Essential American was published and in 2015 Harlow G. Unger’s Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman. In 2018, Kentucky state historian James C. Klotter’s Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President was published, having a thesis that looks at Clay in a positive light and completely refutes any charge of a corrupt bargain. The most recent publication was by bestselling historian H. W. Brands Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants, also takes a positive view of Clay.
The 1824 election was only the second election where none of the candidates received a plurality of Electoral College votes. In 1824, war hero General Andrew Jackson lead the popular vote and had the most Electoral votes followed by Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford and former Speaker of the House Henry Clay came in fourth and therefore based on the Twelfth Amendment shut out of the House vote between the top three candidates. Reelected as Speaker, if Clay could not be president he could be president-maker, chose the candidate that was the less of the three evils and those one candidate who would preserve his American System legislative program and would be the easiest to succeed to the presidency. Clay chose Adams, scared of Jackson as a military chieftain, who repeatedly showed his temper in his decisions in war. Clay served Adams the House vote and Adams offered him the post of Secretary of State leading to Jackson to cry corrupt bargain and calling Clay “the Judas of the West.”
Historians have since been trying to determine was there a corrupt bargain? Explicit or implied? Did it even matter when Washington was all-corrupt and dealing making was commonplace? At the center, is the question, when did Clay decide to support Adams? Did Clay decide as he claims to support Adams in October 1824 before leaving his Ashland plantation in Kentucky to return to Washington? Or did Clay make his decision in December 1824, while friend Robert Letcher scouted for Clay in a series of meetings with Adam? Or was it the most damning, on a cold January 9, 1825, evening, when Clay and Adams met and hammered out a deal where Clay promised his support and they discussed the “future,” Clay’s future? No matter what, it looked bad for Adams and Clay when on February 12; Adams offered Clay the Secretary of State post, the traditional stepping-stone to the presidency. Whether there was a deal or not, Jackson’s fury charged the two with complicity, because in his mind he could not imagine they had not made a deal to deny him the presidency.
The charge led to a democratic revolution in 1828, the birth of the modern party-system, the Democratic Party, and an emphasis on direct voting by the public of electors giving the public more power to decide their president. The charge also led to the downfall of Adams’s presidency, as Jackson began his assault and 1828 campaign from the moment of Adams inauguration on March 4, 1825. The charge would forever haunt Clay’s political future. Clay wanted more than anything else in life to be president despite his later claims in 1839 that he “would rather be right than president.” The great compromiser Clay would be the first powerful Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, a US Senator, and a three-time presidential candidate but never president.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, March 7, 2019
On this day in history… March 7, 1825, President John Quincy Adams appoints Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay as Secretary of State after Clay delivers presidency for Adams in House vote in what Jacksonians accused of being a corrupt bargain. In the 1824 election, after voters went to the polls from late October to early December none of the candidates received a majority of Electoral College votes. General Andrew Jackson led in the popular vote and had a plurality of the Electoral College votes but not a majority, Secretary of State Adams came in second and Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford was in third, while Clay came in fourth. Under the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives decided the election with the top three candidates.
After much politicking and lobbying by the Adams, Jackson and Crawford campaigns and their advisors on February 9, 1825, the House voted. Speaker of the House Clay supported Adams over Jackson and helped deliver states that supported Clay and Jackson in the election to Adams in the House vote. Adams won a majority on the first ballot. This election was the first time the popular vote became an issue. There was, however, no true popular vote with six states having their legislatures pick the electors, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont. Some states, however, the electors were chosen by districts including Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, and Tennessee. (Remini, 81)
Jacksonians charged there was a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay after Adams named Clay Secretary of State shortly after the House vote. Clay, a presidential candidate in 1824 failed to make the top three after candidate deal making denied him the coveted chance in the House vote, giving him the opportunity to serve as “president-maker.” (Klotter, 119) Although historians will never be certain of a corrupt bargain, Clay did meet with Adams on January 9, 1825, and agreed to throw support behind the Secretary of State from Massachusetts, however, Clay longed opposed General Jackson and what he perceived as abuses of power, and consistently claimed he decided on Adams as soon as his presidential chances collapsed. Clay chose to support Adams a month before the House vote based on their political compatibility, while support for Clay’s American System legislative program was paramount to his decision. On February 12, Adams offered Clay the position of Secretary of State, and three days after Adams’s inauguration on March 7, the Senate confirmed clay to the post with a vote of 17 to 10 proving how controversial the appointment was at the time.
The candidates’ personality and character took center stage in the campaign. As Daniel Walker Howe indicates in his book, What Hath God Wrought The Transformation of America, 1815–1848, “The presidential campaign of 1824 reflected a clash of personal ambitions, to which issues of region, class, and political philosophy were secondary.” (Howe, 203) Historian Robert Remini writing in the second volume of his sweeping biography of Andrew Jackson Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom, 1822–1832 seems to believe both character and the issues mattered. Remini notes, “Clearly the election of 1824 involved colorful personalities and could ignite a mob with the mere mention of their names. But this election also involved issues.” (Remini, 76) Historian Donald John Ratcliffe in his book The One-party Presidential Contest: Adams, Jackson, and 1824’s Five-horse Race puts the election in a larger context. Ratcliffe argues, “the political confusion that marked the 1824 election was the essential first stage in the most complete voter realignment in United States political history, even it initially had the appearance of just a contest of fascinating characters.” (Ratcliffe, 6)
The main issues of the campaign Remini argues were “Liberty, public virtue, and centralized power in the federal government.” Remini notes, “Many historians have mistakenly insisted that the principles had nothing to do with the contest. They regard it simply as a campaign of personality. But they fail to understand the grave concern entertained by many men of the 1820s over corrupt conditions within their society and the danger this corruption constituted to their liberty and republican system. Certainly strong personalities participated. That is beyond dispute. Actually, the election of 1824 contained a healthy mix of both personalities and issues. (Remini, 80)
Public corruption became the overriding theme of the 1824 campaign. Jackson believed that Adams and Clay made a corrupt bargain an insisted that they were subverting the will of the people. “American Presidential Elections Series” editors Michael Nelson and John M. McCardell, Jr. writing in Ratcliffe’s book The One-party Presidential Contest: Adams, Jackson, and 1824’s Five-horse Race indicate, “Both candidates [Jackson and Adams] attempted to persuade Clay and his supporters. In the end, a ‘corrupt bargain,’ in which Clay (‘the Judas of the West’ in colorful Jackson formulation) gains the secretaryship of state in return for supporting Adams, almost immediately launches the campaign of 1828 and renders the New Englander, like his father before him, a one-term president.” (Ratcliffe, ix)
For the first time in a nation were six of the states still did not have direct voting for president the popular vote became an issue. As the Congressional Quarterly notes in Presidential Elections, 1789–2000 “The events of 1824 kindled the flame of popular democracy.” (CQ, 25) Jackson started a democratic revolution with his call of corruption, would lead into the 1828 election with the birth of the Democratic Party and his election triumph. However, deals and alliances were common in Washington politics and none of the candidates were above implied deals that would benefit their political ambitions and futures believing it was for a higher purpose the good of the country.
The 1824 Presidential Campaign
President James Monroe wanted his Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford of Georgia to succeed him in the 1824 election. Crawford also had the support of former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Crawford’s support extended to New York and New York Senator Martin Van Buren’s Bucktail Republican Party. In September 1823, Crawford suffered a debilitating stroke, eight weeks later; he recovered partially but remained feeble. Doctors inadvertently disabled him more with the medicine and treatments they prescribed leaving Crawford mostly blind and “partially paralyzed.” (Klotter, 96) On February 14, 1824, the Congressional caucus nominated William Crawford for President and former Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin for vice-president. The nomination was decried as “undemocratic, dictatorial, unconstitutional, and unrepresentative” because only a third of the members 66 out of 261 attended and voted. The caucus members were all Crawford supporters trying to revive his candidacy but instead faced a backlash with Adams calling Crawford “forlorn hope.” (Klotter, 97)
The Baltimore Morning Chronicle newspaper attacked the nomination, writing, “The poor little political bird of ominous note and plumage, denominated a CAUCUS, was hatched at Washington on Saturday last… The sickly thing is to be fed, cherished, pampered for a week when it is fondly hoped it will be enabled to cry the name of Crawford, Crawford, Crawford.” (Boller, 33) In 1824, Crawford would suffer a relapse most likely another stroke making him a “living death,” with memory and speaking problems. Mostly the public knew nothing of Crawford’s health problems and stayed in the race. Klotter points out, “Even among the informed, not many knew exactly what had occurred.” (Klotter, 96) Soon, however, there were concerns about his actual health and that affected support for his candidacy.
The backlash against Crawford’s nomination marked the end of the Congressional Caucus (King Caucus) method of nominating candidates. Primarily local conventions and state legislatures nominated the rest of the candidates as they also passed resolutions against King Caucus and control of the nominating process by Washington politicians. As historian Paul F. Boller recounts in his book Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush, “Adams was nominated by the legislatures of most of the New England states, Jackson by the Tennessee legislature and numerous conventions in various parts of the country, and Henry Clay by the Kentucky legislature and several other state legislatures.” (Boller, 34)
Although it was a four-way race all the candidates identified as Democratic-Republicans, the party system would only emerge with Jackson’s campaign in 1828. Monroe Secretary of State Adams was the favorite of New England but could not garner support in the west. Adams believed the tradition of the Secretary of State rising to the presidency would continue with him. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler in their book, Henry Clay: The Essential American explain Adams “labored under the handicap that many people did not much like him. Even those that did, after a fashion could muster little enthusiasm for a man who seldom smiled and often snarled.” (Heidler, 157)
In Kentucky, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, the architect of the American System and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the local favorite. Although Clay had served as Speaker of the House, at that point no speaker had been considered for the presidency, however, as Heidler explains, “No Speaker before the Civil War would use effectively the precedents set by Clay to manage the House of Representatives or wield his level of influence over legislation and policy… Nobody doubted that Henry Clay was presidential timber.” (Heidler, 153) At first, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun tried for the presidency. Calhoun was Yale-educated and married his first cousin once removed, a wealthy, beautiful heiress, despite his success at only 41 years-old he not liked, he was considered “insincere and humorless.” (Heidler, 158) As Klotter notes, “Many political observers — perhaps including Calhoun himself — were not certain of what he was, what he believed, or what he sought.” (Klotter, 99) When he could not get support from his home state of South Carolina, he began his ultimately successful push for the Vice Presidency.
In the western states War of 1812 and Seminole War hero General Andrew Jackson garnered support from his native Tennessee capturing the nomination from its legislature as early as July 1822. Jackson also was elected as a newly minted Senator in the Eighteenth Congress. Jackson’s supporters called him, “The soldier, the statesman, and the honest man; he deliberates, he decides, and he acts; he is calm in deliberation, cautious in decision, efficient in action.” (Boller, 34) Jackson had the advantage of being the war hero of the Battle of New Orleans and a political outsider, which “appealed to the disaffected and disenchanted.” His military exploits made him a larger than life personage than any of the legislatures or cabinet members running for office. As Klotter points out, “Jackson appeared aggressively masculine. That worked well in much of America.” (Klotter, 106)
Jackson did not actively campaign for president, but he wrote letters clarifying his positions in a document called the Letters of Wyoming and he had “political operatives” conduct his campaign. Jackson was aware of deficiencies and let his “advisors shape” his campaign. (Klotter, 106) During the 1824 campaign, Senator John Eaton and William B. Lewis managed the image projected to the public through pamphlets and letters in pro-Jackson papers. As Remini explains, “The Letters of Wyoming forcefully reasserted the ideology of republicanism, the ideology which posited the belief in the perpetual struggle between liberty and power and between the respective instruments of support, virtue and corruption. (Remini, 76) Jackson’s campaign hailed him as “the embodiment of the ideals that motivated the Founding Fathers.” (Remini, 77) Jackson had fought in the Revolutionary War as a soldier boy and his handlers exploited this connection. Jackson’s public statements and letters encouraged a new democratic kind of grassroots campaigning. Jackson, known as “Old Hickory” was the most liked of the candidates, as Heidler explains, “Jackson had become a national symbol of all that was right or could be right about America. He was astonishing popular with the public.” (Heidler, 159)
Jackson had his deficiencies; he had a “bad temper” that was “made doubly dangerous by a touchy sense of personal honor.” (Heidler, 160) Heidler points out, “The American people did not care. That kind popularity sooner or later assumes its own dynamic and generates its own magnetism.” (Heidler, 160) Although an aristocrat, landowner, and businessman, Jackson was depicted as pro-democracy and sympathetic to the plight of the worker. (Klotter, 106) Jackson also became a symbol of democracy and universal suffrage and was able to appeal eastward to Pennsylvania. After Calhoun dropped out, Jackson was the beneficiary in the south of his support leaving in the cold. Soon Jackson rose to become the front-runner in the election.
As far back as 1821, Adams wrote in his diary he believed the 1824 presidential election would be decided in the House. By 1824, Clay too came to realize that none of the candidates would be able to achieve an Electoral College majority and realized the power he wielded in the House where the election would be decided, as Heidler indicates utilizing it would be “irresistible.” As 1824 went on the campaign became a contest between Jackson in the West and Adams in New England, neither could alter support in the other’s local. Clay only hoped to finish in the top three, with Crawford’s declining health, it seemed likely. Klotter, however, finds that Clay was too hopeful about his prospects, writing, “Clay had reason to believe that, like the Kentucky thoroughbreds, he could come off pace from behind and win. But there were also a few other runners in the starting gate, and he had to keep a wary eye on them as well.” (Klotter, 98)
Candidate Personality, Deal Making and Alliances
By January 1824, Crawford’s camp first asked Adams and then twice asked Clay to be the vice presidential nominee but he refused both times even though the pathway would bring him to the presidency. In October 1824, Clay told a friend in Ohio he was taking the high ground and was refusing any compromising in the campaign. Clay expressed, I have felt it my duty to abstain from every species of compromitment; to reject every overture looking to arrangements or compromises; and to preserve my perfect freedom of action, whether I am elected or not. Of one thing you and the rest of my friends may be perfectly assured, that if I am elected, I shall enter upon the office without one solitary promise or pledge to any man to redeem; and if I am not elected, I will at least preserve unsullied that public integrity and those principles which my friends have supposed me to possess.” (Klotter, 113, Hammond, 37) The irony that but three months later Clay would be accused of a corrupt bargain with Adams in his role as House speaker and election decision maker. Clay would declare his high moral principles as long as he believed he had the chance to become president because he thought he was the best candidate to serve in the role.
At first, Clay was not concerned about Jackson’s running and he thought he would go the way of Clinton and Calhoun, a mistake; Jackson would serve as the political downfall for Clay. Klotter seems to believe Clay thought without Jackson, he would have the South and South West, easily amassing nine states in Electoral College, all he would need for a majority in some mid-Atlantic states, which he thought was possible. As early as June 1823, a Philadelphia paper predicted Clay could win. However, as Klotter observes, Clay “misread the support for his policies and the extent of his name recognition across the nation. But most of all, he seriously misjudged the appeal of Andrew Jackson.” (Klotter, 100) After the Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson, Clay wrote of countering its “injurious effect” but after the Governor of Tennessee assured Clay Jackson only had regional appeal, Clay grew more confident. (Klotter, 100)
Clay could have garnered the support in New York he needed by adding former Senator and New York Governor DeWitt Clinton to his ticket and would have gained an edge in the fight against Martin Van Buren and “The Bucktails,” known as the “Albany Regency.” Clay responded, “I can make no promises of office, of any sort, whatever. Whatever support shall be given by me, if any must be spontaneous and unbought.” (Heidler, 171) Instead, Clay took New York Senator Nathan Sanford for his running mate and Clinton’s supporters backed Adams. Van Buren misunderstood Clay semi refusal enough to dump Albert Gallatin from Crawford’s ticket, giving the presumption Clay would take the vice presidential slot, which hurt him in the fall 1824 voting.
The campaign was “nasty” in their attacks and accusations most were far-reaching and stretching reality. Partisan presses worked for the candidates they favored. Adams was attacked for the way he dressed and that he had an English born wife, the first foreign-born potential first lady. Most of all his opponents’ camps attacked Adams’s personality he was “unyielding and compromising” even those close to him observed and disliked the trait. (Klotter, 98) Still, as Klotter points out “John Quincy Adams seemed perfectly made for the office of the presidency — except for his personality.” (Klotter, 98) Jackson was attacked for executing the mutineers in 1813 with the press calling him a murderer. (Boller, 35) Jackson had a reputation as a “duelist, gambler, cockfighter, and all around ruffian.” (Remini, 78) Although by 1824, Jackson was the frontrunner and his popularity high, a “number” of men were concerned about Jackson’s “behavior toward the law, individual rights, constitutional guarantees, and the men in authority placed over him. His entire career seemed to contradict the most basic processes for which this country stood. (Remini, 79)
Despite his own character flaws, Jackson’s campaign proved the most efficient with their attacks on the other candidates. Vying for the same region Jackson’s people readily attacked Clay’s character and morals making over assertions depicting him as “backroom dealer, drunkard, and reckless gambler,” making him appeared as “damaged goods.” (Heidler, 169) Clay was a “political broker, drank spirits and gambled” but was never the extremes Jackson’s campaign depicted him. The attacks were so rampant that it led one politician to proclaim, “Our Presidents, Secretaries, Senators, and Representatives, are all traitors and pirates, and the government of this people had been committed to the hands of public robbers.” (Boller, 35)
Although not all the states had voted by November, Jackson was leading Adams in the Electoral College votes, whereas third place was up between Crawford, Clay, and dependent on the votes in Virginia, with New York and Louisiana the last to vote. Clay did not have a particularly good relationship with Adams. They clashed when they worked on the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 as they disagreed about an issue that affected Westerners. Adams longed believed Clay ruin his reputation in the west because of the negotiations. As Adams wrote, “As to myself, Clay’s conduct has been always hostile to me, and generally insidious. From the time of the Ghent negotiations I have been in the way of his ambitions, and by himself and his subordinates he has done all in his power to put me out of it…. Clay’s conduct throughout this affair towards me has been that of an envious rival — a fellow-servant whispering tales into the ear of the common master. He has been seven years circulating this poison against me in the West.” (Brands, Adams, 26, 47)
Clay also objected that Monroe chose Adams for the State Department. As Secretary of State Adams and Clay disagreed about Spanish policy particularly, Adams exchanged relinquishing rights to Texas to obtain American control over Florida, and Adams objected to Clay wishes to “quickly recognize” South American nations. (Klotter, 97) Adams writing in his diary saw Clay as “only half-educated,” and his “morals public and private, are loose, but he has all the virtues indispensable to a modern man… and the sort of generosity which attaches individuals to his person.” (Heidler, 153) They were closer in their views of policy than their personality. As Klotter explains, “People loved Clay, but might not respect them; they respected Adams but did not love him. Individuals found Clay charismatic, but questioned his honesty; they liked Adams’s directness but hated his haughtiness. Folks enjoyed Clay’s warmth, but doubted his morals; they praised Adams’s character, but criticized his aloofness.” (Klotter, 97)
During the campaign, Adams and Clay were rumored to have made an alliance against the Bucktails to get rid Crawford and his candidacy. The People’s Party supported Adams and Clay in New York. Adams campaign manager Thurlow Weed and his Adams men struck a deal with Clay’s men to split New York’s votes and shut out Crawford, Weed wanted to sell voters on an Adams-Clay ticket. With the deal, “Adams received 25 electors, Clay 7, and Crawford 4.” (Heidler, 174) However, when the actual voting took place on December 1, Weed cheated Clay out of his votes. As Heidler recounts, “Two of Clay’s simply did not show up, and their absence allowed other electors to choose Adams men as replacements. One elector switched to Crawford, and a Clay elector switched to Jackson, rendering a final count of Adams 26, Crawford 5, Clay 4, Jackson 1.” (Heidler, 174)
Afterward, Weed lied about his agreement with Clay people saying it was dependent on Louisiana who voted after New York going for Clay. Weed claimed that “left our friends free to vote for Mr. Adams.” (Remini, 81) Clay’s people called it a “betrayal.” (Klotter, 117) Klotter comments, “Later, a Clay advocate explained the switch in votes as due to ‘corrupt bribery,’ while a biographer in the same era attributed the defeat to ‘bad faith…treachery.’” (Klotter, 117) As historian Robert Remini observes, “Trickery, intrigue, and probably fraud determined the outcome. The election in this state alone provided a massive demonstration of the corruption eroding the American political system.” (Remini, 81)
With New York’s vote, Crawford was in third place and Clay pushed to fourth and out of the running in the House. Weed wanted New York and wanted Crawford in the House vote because Adams would have the advantage. As Heidler points out, Weed “having accomplished his objective, had blithely cast off the Kentuckian… Clay’s people had been simply bamboozled.” (Heidler, 174) Virginia, but the legislature voted for Crawford, and in Louisiana, where Clay had the support he lost the votes based on rumors. In Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, rumors that Clay joined Crawford’s ticket, or was deathly sick or dropped out of the race helped Jackson. The rumors that Clay was dropping out of the race commenced as early as March 1824 and were in overdrive by September and October.
With the rumors, Clay supporters looked to other candidates. Clay lacked a supportive newspaper in the east, those papers were the source of many of the rumors including a Massachusetts paper that published a story right before the election that Clay wanted the vice presidency, other just claimed he withdrew, and he had no voice to counter the accusations in the area. (Klotter, 114) Louisiana was Clay’s last hope, in 1823, the legislative caucus went for Clay and in 1824; he received the assurances of Governor Thomas B. Robertson and then the governor-elect. The same rumors plagued Clay in Louisiana and a possible Adams and Jackson agreement ended Clay’s chances to be thrown into the House vote. Historian Robert Remini believes that the Jackson men and Adams men made a deal to lock Clay out of Louisiana where he would have surely won the votes. (Remini, 82) A week before Christmas, Louisiana’s vote came in, Jackson received three votes and Adams received two in Louisiana.
Voting was held from late October to early December 1824, where no fixed date was set to vote across the country. The method of voting influenced the voting hindering the candidates, voters could hear about whether a candidate was winning or losing swaying the decision on who they would support. The voting was also not uniform with six states having their state legislatures choosing electors and the remaining by popular vote. Along with lack of uniformity with the vote, not all the candidates had their names on the ballots of every state their appearance was mostly regional. In 1824, only 350,000 votes were cast, with “one-fourth of them in Ohio and Pennsylvania.” (Klotter, 115) Regional issues affected the vote and which candidate the public favored. Still, backgrounds deals featured prominently and with a few powerbrokers deciding the election. As Klotter explains, “A relatively small number people decided the election. In that atmosphere, deals and “understandings” and “arrangements were being made right and left by friends of all the candidates.” (Klotter, 115)
Clay the Kingmaker
After the votes were counted in mid-December, Jackson led Adams but did not have a majority of the Electoral College votes; Jackson was missing 32 votes to reach the 131 majorities, still, he was called the “people’s choice.” (Remini, 81, 84) The results threw the decision to the House of Representatives to decide the presidency. Clay failed to capture the third place for the House vote, which could have yielded him the presidency. Instead, Crawford by then a deathly sick invalid garnered fourth place leaving the House decision to be between Jackson and Adams. Jackson had 99 Electoral College votes and 152, 901 popular votes, and he carried Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North, and South Carolina, and the West, except Kentucky, Jackson did the best in the states that had “direct voting,” such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. (Remini, 81) Jackson received “15 Electoral College votes from North Carolina, 11 from South Carolina, 5 from Alabama and 3 from Mississippi. (Remini, 82) In the West, Jackson well-oiled campaign easily captured all of Illinois’ Electoral votes, with Adams and Clay faring well in the popular vote. (Remini, 83)
Adams had 84 Electoral College votes and 114,023 popular votes, including all 51 votes from New England and capturing Delaware where the legislature voted and the old Federalist Party still influenced. In Maryland where districts distributed Electoral College votes Adams won the popular vote by 100 votes over Jackson but Jackson captured 7 Electoral College to Adams’s 3 votes. Although closer in the Electoral College, the difference between Jackson and Adams in the popular vote was nearly 40,000 votes. Crawford came in third with 41 Electoral College votes and 46,979 popular votes. Crawford captured Virginia’s 24 Electoral College votes, 9 from his home state of Georgia and 4 from New York. (Remini, 82)
Clay ended up with only 37 Electoral College votes but a larger popular vote than Crawford did, because of the electors that were denied him he came up short in the Electoral College. Clay won his state of Kentucky taking all the Electoral College votes but Jackson shared in the popular vote because of the Relief and Anti-Relief parties and the Anti-Relief party going for Jackson. Although Clay’s men started his campaign early, his underestimation of Jackson’s influence in the West and the South was Clay’s downfall. Clay battled with Jackson to capture Ohio’s 16 Electoral College votes, where Jackson fared well with the popular vote. Thomas Hart Benton managed Clay’s campaign in Missouri and was able to garner the Speaker the state’s 3 Electoral votes. (Remini, 83) With the Twelfth Amendment invoked, the decision was in the hands of the House of Representatives and Clay. (Boller, 35)
Even before the Louisiana vote came in, the House “overwhelmingly reelected Clay” as Speaker proving, “he still wielded considerable power.” (Heidler, 176) Adams, Jackson and Crawford people wined, dined, and celebrated Clay looking for his support for their candidate ahead of the House vote. Clay enjoyed the attention, “having lost the contest, not his influence, he was placed in the extraordinary position of using that influence to choose the next president.” (Heidler, 176) While Klotter notes, Clay “shook off the defeat, looked to the future for redemption, and turned to the matter at hand — selecting a president.” As Klotter recounts, “For almost two months, then, the various candidates and their friends discussed strategy, offered options, and suggested deals,” “arrangements as they had during the campaign. Clay was like “an Eagle among the Crows.” Remini notes how Washington was entirely filled with backroom deal-making none of the camps from three candidates could claim innocence. As Remini recounts, “Once it became definite that the House of Representatives would make the final presidential selection the Washington scene erupted in rumors of intrigue, plots, deals, arrangements, and plain old vicious gossip, capital-style.” (Remini, 85)
Clay enjoyed the power his position offered him as the speaker deciding an election and toyed with the front running finalists. (Klotter, 120) In late December 1824, Clay wrote, “I enjoy the rare felicity, whilst alive, which is experienced by the dead — that of hearing every of eulogium and panegyric pronounced upon me.” (Klotter, 121) Although Clay shared animosities with each of the candidates, their behavior towards him altered his opinion. Men from all three candidates came to argue their case for their candidate. Jackson’s men stressed the importance of having the first president from the west. Crawford’s was the “only true keeper of the Republican faith. While Adams’s men appealed to Clay’s ego and vanity emphasizing Adams’s respect for Clay, saying that Adams “always had the greatest respect for you, and admiration of your talents. There is no station to which you are not equal.” (Remini, 86) All the compliments got to Clay, who wrote, “Really the friends of all the three Gentleman were so very courteous and affectionate, that I sometimes wish it was in my power to accommodate [sic] each of them.” (Klotter, 121)
At a dinner party for the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette hosted by Louis McLane, Martin Van Buren, and Stephen Van Rensselear, “Clay delighted himself in taunting the rivals.” (Remini, 86) Adams and Jackson were sitting by the fire with an empty chair between them. Clay watching them decided to make then uncomfortable telling the room as he sat down. “Well gentleman, since you are both so near the chair and neither can occupy it, I will slip in between you and take it myself!” Everyone in attendance saw the humor and roared with laughter but to Adams and Jackson, it was no laughing matter. Remini observes, “Clay “savored every delicious moment of his king-making role.” (Remini, 85)
Clay enjoyed the attention and although early on he knew whom he would most likely support, he kept his decision quiet for as long as he could. Advocates for the candidates continued to woo Clay and his friends. Remini recounts, “Clay enjoyed the attention and favor of every manager and political broker in Washington” but believes Clay’s “influence was exaggerated.” (Remini, 86) Klotter points out, “If Clay did little to encourage some of that with certain candidates, neither did he discourage it. It all became part of a new political game in town and he enjoyed playing a central role.” (Klotter, 123) Clay kept his decision to himself to keep the adoration going as long as possible because as soon as his choice became clear, “major criticism would fall on him from the other two candidates, no matter how he decided.” (Klotter, 123) Early on Jackson heard rumors “that Mr Clay is trying to wield his influence with Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois in favor of Adams.” (Remini, 85)
Most historians point out that Clay made his decision about Adams before the election results came in officially and before he left Kentucky to return to Washington. Historians pointing outs Clay’s disdain for Jackson’s military exploits and abuses as the primary reason he could not support him no matter the prize, while Adams was the only logical choice. Historians acknowledge Clay’s ambitions and desires for the presidency but do not claim he specifically sought out making a deal to support a candidate he paid the highest price that is the Secretary of State the stepping stone to the presidency. Remini, however, believes Clay was guilty of the charges thrown to him that willing looked to be offered the Secretary of State post. Remini points out, “Yet Clay wanted assurances. He wanted the inside track to the presidency. He needed to know that the next President would name him his secretary of state. And if Jackson could not give those assurances that he would look elsewhere.” (Remini, 86)
Jackson would have given Clay the secretary of state post if he would have delivered him the votes but Jackson wanted to remain above the fray and as the leading candidate would never have made that kind of agreement beforehand. Despite their contentious history, Remini believes that Jackson might have buried the hatchet with Clay. Remini writes, “Considering the number of old feuds Old Hickory had laid to rest in the last year and his frequent and relatively pleasant social meetings with Clay it is not impossible that a Jackson-Clay alliance could have been struck.” (Remini, 86) Clay, however, could not get over Jackson being a “military chieftain” a danger to the democratic tradition of “Washington, Jefferson and Madison.” Clay was risking facing suspicion by “rejecting” Jackson, who was the popular choice of the people. As Remini indicates, “To reject that decision — which the House had the constitutional right to do — risked popular resentment and invited suspicions of wrongdoing. In view of Washington’s present reputation for corruption, the rejection of Jackson was certain to be seen in that light.” (Remini, 87)
On December 17, 1824, Clay friend and fellow Kentuckian Congressman and later governor Robert P. Letcher, known as “Black Bob” began visiting Adams leading Adams, Jackson, and Crawford camps to believe Letcher was fishing to see what Adams was willing to give in exchange for Clay’s support. Letcher got Adams’ attention when he indicated that Kentucky was considering voting for Jackson. Adams was uncomfortable but did not want to lose Kentucky. Adams recalled in his diary, “Letcher wished to know what my sentiments towards Clay were, and I told him without disguise that I harbored no hostility against him; that whatever of difference there had been between us had arisen altogether from him, and not from me.” Letcher responded that Clay held no “ill feelings” toward Adams either, with Adams recounting, “He was sure Clay felt now no hostility to me. He had spoken respectfully of me, and was a man of sincerity.” (Klotter, 124, Adams, 447)
Clay wanted Letcher to visit not only to determine “obliquely” if Adams would put him in the administration and whether there would be “prominent share” for Clay’s friends but also to gauge his political views on specific issues and his personal opinion of Clay. As Adams deduced in his diary, “The drift of all Letcher’s discourse was much the same as Wyer had told me, that Clay would willingly support me if he could thereby serve himself, and the substance of his meaning was, that if Clay’s friends could know that he would have a prominent share in the Administration, that might induce them to vote for me, even in the face of instructions.” (Adams, 447)
Clay needed a good personal relationship with the incoming president for his legislative program to succeed. The campaign had been nasty and Clay needed to assure that was no more animosity. As Heidler explains, “If Clay’s programs were to prosper during an Adams administration, he needed a personal as well as a political reconciliation with the peppery little man from Massachusetts.” (Heidler, 180) Adams, however, was uncertain if Clay sanctioned the meeting, since, “Letcher did not profess to have any authority from Clay for what he said and he made no definite propositions. He spoke of his interview with me as altogether confidential, and in my answers to him I spoke in mere general terms.” (Adams, 447, Brands)
At a second meeting a week later, Adams determined that Letcher’s goal was about securing support for Adams on the first ballot and avoiding the controversy of 1800 with Thomas Jefferson and his father John Adams. Adams wrote in his diary, “The object appeared to me to be to convince me of the importance of obtaining an election in the House of Representatives at the first ballot.” (Brands, Adams, 452) On New Year’s Day 1825 at a White House reception, Letcher asked Adams if he was returning to the State Department. Later the two met where Letcher asked Adams if he was interested in meeting Clay. Adams responded, “I told him I would very readily, whenever it might suit the convenience of Mr. Clay.” (Brands, Adams) At the dinner for the Marquis de LaFayette, Clay and Adams spoke briefly. Adams recounted, Clay “told me that he should be glad to have with me soon some confidential conversation upon public affairs. I said I should be happy to have it whenever it might suit his convenience.” (Brands, Adams, 457)
On January 8, Clay sent a note to meet with Adams asking for a “confidential conversation.” (Klotter, 125) Clay claimed after the returns from Illinois, Indiana came in against him, and while he was still at home in Kentucky he decided to support Adams, after his defeat in New York supposedly Clay was confident of his choice. Heidler is not certain if the story was meant to take away from the meeting Clay had with Adams on January 8. As Heidler explains, “If true, the chronology is a powerful defense against the charge that Clay held out his support for the highest bidder, an auction for which Crawford did not the assets and Jackson the stomach.” (Heidler, 179) Still, by mid-December, Clay was certain about supporting Adams, with Thomas Hart Benton claiming as a witness Clay told him about his decision before December 15. (Remini, 88)
Clay met with Adams on January 9, 1825, in Adams’ study at six in the evening, the three-hour meeting’s conversation will remain a historical mystery, they did not write an extended account of what they discussed, however, Adams briefly documented their meeting his diary. Heidler recounts, “Adams perfunctorily noted in his diary that the two talked about the past and future. Adams claimed they did not confer about Clay’s possible place in the new administration. Instead, Adams recounted, Clay wanted assurances that they were in accord on broad public principles, meaning the American System.” (Heidler, 180) Whether they made a bargain or not despite his Puritan ethics, Adams did not believe such agreements were immoral. Earlier in the campaign when Adams considered making an alliance with Clay as vice president, Adams wrote in his diary, “Nor is there anything in it unconstitutional, illegal or dishonorable. The friends of every one of the candidates have sought to gain strength for their favorite by coalition with the friends of others.” (Brands, Adams) Still, at their meeting, Adams specifically noted that Clay “wished me, as far as I might think proper, to satisfy him with regard to some principles of great public importance, but without any personal considerations for himself.” (Adams, Memoirs, VI, 464–65)
“Mr. Clay came at six, and spent the evening with me in a long conversation explanatory of the past and prospective of the future. He said that the time was drawing near when the choice must be made in the House of Representatives of a President from the three candidates presented by the electoral colleges; that he had been much urged and solicited with regard to the part in that transaction that he should take, and had not been five minutes landed at his lodgings before he had been applied to by a friend of Mr. Crawford’s, in a manner so gross that it had disgusted him; that some of my friends also, disclaiming, indeed, to have any authority from me, had repeatedly applied to him, directly or indirectly, urging considerations personal to himself as motives to his cause. He had thought it best to reserve for some time his determination to himself: first, to give a decent time for his own funeral solemnities as a candidate; and, secondly, to prepare and predispose all his friends to a state of neutrality between the three candidates who would be before the House, so that they might be free ultimately to take that course which might be most conducive to the public interest. The time had now come at which he might be explicit in his communication with me, and he had for that purpose asked this confidential interview. He wished me, as far as I might think proper, to satisfy him with regard to some principles of great public importance, but without any personal considerations for himself. In the question to come before the House between General Jackson, Mr. Crawford, and myself, he had no hesitation in saying that his preference would be for me.” (Adams, Memoirs, VI, 464–65)
At the meeting Clay assured Adams, he would support him in the House vote practically ensuring that the election would be decided on the first ballot. Heidler described their pact as “the biggest mistake of their careers.” (Heidler, 180) Remini concurs, writing, “The two men sat down in Adams’s library and eventually reached an agreement about their future roles.” (Remini, 88) Klotter, however, discounts that the two made an agreement or bargain, writing, “Later critics would say the two struck a bargain at that meeting. But Clay did not need such assurances, he had already made his choice and, in a sense, had no other choice, as he saw it… For the good of the nation — or at least the expected political good of both men — they reconciled.” (Klotter, 125)
Clay sided with Adams because although he agreed with Crawford’s politics and personally liked him the best, his declined health was a major impediment to Crawford ever ascending to the presidency. Clay did not find Jackson qualified enough for the presidency, “By 1822, Jackson had shown limited interest, little service, and less distinction in the political field… Jackson served “as a member of the US House for three month only and of the US Senate for a little over six months and having been appointed governor of the Florida territory for a controversial four months.” (Klotter, 101) Jackson’s personality was hardly pristine as Klotter observes Clay seemed almost seraphic by comparison.” Although Jackson’s campaign portrayed him as not “transgressed ‘a single moral principle,’” this was far from the truth. Jackson had drank and gambled, met his wife Rachel while she was still married, speculated on “questionable land dealings,” engaged in the slave trade, and “killed a man in a duel.” (Klotter, 101)
Clay knew his disapproval of Jackson would hinder his position in Kentucky and especially the west. Still as Heidler quotes, Clay “was convinced that Jacksons’s election ‘would be precedent fraught with much danger to the character and security of our institutions.’” (Heidler, 179) Clay had disdain for Jackson’s temperament and very military exploits that made him a folk hero in the country. Clay was not alone in his opinion of Jackson’s “fiery temper and displays of a vindictive rage,” which caused some people to find him overbearing and tyrannical.” Adams found Jackson, incompetent both by his ignorance and by the fury of his passions and by the fury of passions.” Clay thought Jackson would dangerous because he “always follows the lead of his passions.” Even former President Thomas Jefferson did not think Jackson was suited for the presidency, calling him “one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.” (Klotter, 102)
Clay “believed Old Hickory exhibited every characteristic that should be avoided in an elected official.” (Heidler, 179) Clay, however, underestimated Jackson, although at first he did not seem physically impressive, with his war rattled body especially with what one congressman called “the Roughest man in his Speech,” when his passion stirred particularly with “fury,” “he would become a fearsome impressive leader.” Jackson had the ability to be “shrewd” and “politically astute,” and “single-minded zeal” when his passions were stirred. Jackson was confident and confidence helped him reach his desired goals. As Klotter recounts, “Unlike Clay he would not lose sight of the prize or of the way to victory.” Jackson was devoted to his loyal friends and “he would reward such fidelity, and inspire devotion from his supporters.” When fighting his Jackson’s resolve took on a even greater force.” As Klotter describes, “In such moments, that emaciated body would stand straighter and appear like a pale, avenging ghost, riding to haunt his enemies.” (Klotter, 102)
Klotter finds that Clay and Jackson were very much alike sharing similar southern lifestyles, careers, similar characters, and political ambition, yet “in the end, both hated each other.” (Klotter, 102) Clay saw the differences in their political experience and to him they matter more than any similarities. Clay and Jackson had vastly different political views; Clay was a compromiser who looked at both sides while Jackson viewed everything as either right or wrong and valued his side the most. As Klotter explains, “To Clay that oversimplification of issues, that inability to compromise that passion made Jackson very dangerous indeed.” (Klotter, 103)
Clay and many men of the era did not want a peacetime army, they feared military might, and Clay was worried they might spout a Caeser or Napoleon Bonaparte. Clay did not want to participate in the “the election of a military chieftain.” (Heidler, 179) As Klotter concludes, “Clay had a genuine if erratically applied lifetime apprehension of military men in politics, particularly if they displayed signs of egotism and excess. In short, he feared Andrew Jackson.” (Klotter, 103) Clay’s early disdain for Jackson was not because he was worried of Jackson politically hindering his run for the presidency. Clay opposed military political leaders like Jackson, and it did not help that Jackson called Napoleon “a great & good man.” Clay found “if not curbed and controlled such a person might be dangerous to republican liberty and national independence.” (Klotter, 104)
Not only was Jackson a ‘military chieftain’ whose Florida tenure had raised the specter of Caesar.” Clay found Jackson showed an “appalling disregard” for American and international law with his actions by “occupying” New Orleans and “attacking Spain” and killing foreign nationals “without trials.” Clay did not “believe that killing 2500 Englishmen at N. Orleans qualifies for various and complicated duties of the Chief Magistry.” (Heidler, 179) Jackson behaved brutally in the battles that made him an American hero. During the Battle of Horseshoe, Jackson killed “eight hundred Red Stick men, women, and children.” During the First Seminole War in 1818 Jackson “invaded Spanish Florida” without government approval. Clay also disliked Jackson’s temper during his tenure as the territorial governor of Florida, where he “illegally convened a court-martial to try two British subjects for aiding Indians, and executed them both.” (Heidler, 179, Klotter, 104)
Clay had enough and in 1819 spoke on the House floor about censuring Jackson for disregard to the Constitution, the speech forever put Clay in Jackson’s contempt. Clay said, “fault was on their side” for capturing Indian leaders and hanging them without a trial. Clay acknowledged that in the Indian Wars the natives readily used “the tomahawk and the scalping knife,” “But I love my countries and its constitution; I love liberty and safety, and I fear military despotism more.” (Klotter, 104) Clay admitted the two British subjects might have been guilty but needed to be tried in civil courts with a “legal constituted trial… not a tyrannical execution.” Clay warned, “Do not let the passions of the moment or the sympathies for the result cause the nation to forget fundamental principles. No army commander should have such power over the life and death of civilians.” (Klotter, 105) Clay admitted Jackson had “pure and patriotic motives.” (Klotter, 105)
Clay was not the only sharing the view that Jackson was a military chieftain, Albert Gallatin, Crawford’s vice president running mate. Gallatin took issue with Jackson’s letter to Monroe calling for the “hanging of the leaders of the Hartford Convention.” (Remini, 79) Gallatin called Jackson, “the conquerer, the hero, and the “military chieftain.” Gallatin wrote, “Gen. Jackson has expressed a greater & a bolder disregard of the first principles of liberty that I have ever known to be entertained by any American.” (Remini, 79) Gallatin found that Jackson had “the most dangerous opinions on the subject of military & executive power,” and “when he thought it useful to the public, he has not hesitated to transcend the law & the legal authority vested in him.” Referring to Jackson as a tyrant, he warned how military leaders look to become political leaders and the people become “dazzled by military glory” and they “sacrifice their ‘rights & liberties to the shrine of that glory.’” Gallatin found “Without ‘any personal disrespect or want of gratitude’ to General Jackson for his great services to the nation ‘it is to me incomprehensible that he can be supported by… real friends of liberty.” (Remini, 79, 80)
Clay preached as he spoke that “America must hold the high ground in that ‘great moral battle’ for human rights and virtue, justice and a ‘greatness of the soul’ must guide the country’s actions.” Clay said that Americans might “prefer instead to honor the hero,” however, that would lead to “the triumph of the military over the civil laws, over the constitution, over the liberties of people.” Clay concluded, “Remember that Greece had her Alexander, Rome her Caeser, England her Cromwell, France her Bonaparte, and, that, if we would escape the rock on which they split, we must avoid their errors.” (Klotter, 105) Clay received applause the censure never passed but he received Jackson’s ire and in 1823 when “Jackson’s friends” reached out to him, Clay believed Jackson “has buried the hatchet and we are again on good terms.” Klotter notes “A wiser Clay would have realized that Jackson rarely buried the hatchet with an opponent he so disliked — unless it was in that person’s body.” (Klotter, 105)
A month before the House vote, in January 1825, Clay wrote a letter to Francis Brooke, calling Jackson a military chieftain. Clay wrote, “As a friend of liberty, and to the permanence of our institutions, I cannot consent, in this early stage of their existence, by contributing to the elevation of a military chieftain, to give the strongest guaranty that this republic will march in the fatal road which has conducted every other republic to ruin.” Clay allowed Brooke to leak his letter and the National Intelligencer published it. The letter’s publication incensed Jackson as Brands recounted, “From that moment Jackson conceived a hatred for Clay he would carry to the end of his life.” (Brands)
In contrast, Clay thought Adams was best suited to be president because according to Boller his “talents, energies, and long public service.” (Boller, 36) Both shared similar political views, Adams was tolerant of Clay’s American System legislation, which emphasized transportation infrastructure, a central bank, and protective tariffs. Clay knew that both Jackson and Crawford supported limited government and would not enact his American System. Clay still had presidential aspirations and thought Adams would be less of a threat to his plans than Jackson would. As Heidler notes, to Clay, “in the balance of the three, Adams was simply the least of the evils.” (Heidler, 179) Klotter concurs, “It was a match made neither in Heaven or Hell but, rather, was one of expediency and principle, cemented in Washington politics.” (Klotter, 124) Despite the risks of the ire going against the popular will of the people, Clay was more than willing to take that chance for what he thought was right for both him and the nation in the long run. Remini finds it was in Clay’s nature, “More than anything else Henry Clay loved to gamble. He took risks. He chanced all on a single throw of the dice. Reckless, intoxicated by his sense of personal power, and obvious to cautious warnings from friends, he presumed he could channel the election in any direction he chose and get away with it.” (Remini, 87)
Clay supports Adams
As early as October 1824, Clay was spouting about his potential support for Adams, even before he returned to Washington for the Congressional session. According to Klotter, there were a half a dozen men that claimed in writing that Clay told them either he would not support Jackson in the vote or would support Adams. Among the witnesses, “included a Kentucky congressman, a respected doctor, Thomas Hart Benton, and the almost irreproachable John J. Crittenden.” (Klotter, 124) After Clay returned to Washington he told a host of others about his intentions including “Lafayette, a Virginia Senator, and a Louisiana lawmaker.” (Klotter, 124) Before Clay informed Adams about his support, Clay already told his confident Francis Preston Blair on January 8, 1825. (Klotter, 125) Clay made his intentions clear long before official word trickled out about Clay’s support. Both Jackson and Crawford camps “feigned” shock which Klotter called a “political tactic,” since they heard about Clay’s intentions although they might have believed Clay might change his mind.
Soon after the Clay-Adams meeting, Clay began backing up the votes. Although Clay was the speaker, he still had to convince the states to vote in Adams’s favor. Adams only had six states in New England; Clay hoped to persuade the three states that voted for him to vote Adams, although he was worried about Missouri. Clay had to focus on the four states that had divided votes between Adams and Jackson and Crawford — “Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, and New York.” Adams needed all four to win or else it would go to a second ballot and Clay would not be able to control the outcome of “deadlocked” vote where the states might look to Jackson or Craw ford as compromise candidates. As Klotter explains, “The Speaker’s skills would be tested and the fate of the presidency and the nation depended on the outcome.” (Klotter, 125)
When Jackson’s camp heard about Clay’s “politicking,” they figured he was backing Adams. Jackson was suspicious of Clay and Adams and even Crawford were working against his election before Clay’s meeting with Adams pledging support. The Jackson camp went about to try to counter Clay. Two weeks later Clay heard the Kentucky legislature informed the state delegation to vote for Jackson, which was “a heavy blow for Clay.” (Klotter, 126) Clay in swift maneuvers brokered an agreement, advising the congressmen to vote based on the will of people and their vote rather than on the instruction of the appointed senators and to vote their conscience “as their final guide.” (Klotter, 126) Letcher also assured the Kentuckians that Adams promised recognition to the state and possibly Clay. On January 24, the Kentucky state delegation announced they would support Adams, although Adams did not receive a single vote in the state.
On January 24, Clay also announced his support for Adams. (Heidler, 181) Soon after Ohio also shifted their support away from Jackson to Adams, putting Jackson’s camp in a frenzy. Clay used his influence to sway both states where he won the Electoral College votes to vote as he wished. Clay targeted two congressmen, who were the lone representatives of their state and could tip the vote in Adams’ favor, Daniel Pope Cook of Illinois and John Scott of Missouri. Cook wanted to vote for Adams but Illinois went for Jackson. Thomas Hart Benton wanted Scott to vote for Jackson but because of Clay’s help to secure Missouri’s entry to the Union with the Missouri Compromise Scott pledged his allegiance to Clay. Clay was able to persuade both congressmen to vote for Adams and Adams rewarded them both. (Heidler, 182)
As the speaker, Clay took the brunt of the criticism for supporting Adams and swaying the House vote but he was not the only one in Congress engineering and politicking for Adams. Daniel Webster worked for Adams and securing Federalist interests in the next administration. Adams promised Webster not to “purge” the Federalists, and Webster used that to woo the Maryland delegation to vote for Adams rather than Jackson. Clay worked to use his influence on the Missouri and Louisiana delegation, while Adams did his own political maneuvering to convince his friend Daniel Pope Cook to have the Illinois delegation vote for him rather than Jackson.
After Clay announced his support, it was “like a thunderclap” and “all kinds of political hell broke loose.” (Remini, 89, Klotter, 126) The newspapers around the country and especially in the south and west criticized and vilified Clay’s support of Adams over westerner Jackson while in the north they defended his support of native son Adams. Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina remarked, “We are all in commotion about the monstrous union between Clay & Adams, for the purpose of depriving Jackson of the votes of the Western states where nine-tenths of the people are decidedly in his favor.” (Remini, 89) Hayne was not the only calling it a monstrous union or coalition as it was more politely referred. Senator Martin Van Buren was “outraged” and he told a Kentucky Congressman, “in voting for Adams, ‘you sign Mr. Clay’s political death warrant.’” (Unger, 239) Clay was convincing the Western states that supported Jackson to abandon their popular vote in entirety and vote in the house for Adams. Remini called it “theft, pure and simple… Could they not see this? It would strike everyone as a “deal”; it would confirm every suspicion of intrigue; it would prove that corrupt politicians in Washington were not above denying the people’s right to determine the chief magistrate.” (Remini, 89) Clay was committing political suicide.
To Jackson, his political handlers deal-making seemed was justified because he had won the popular vote and had a plurality in the Electoral College. Remini, however, finds that Jackson wanted to remain above the fray and did not continue to make his own alliance. (Remini, 90) Jackson might have thought Clay corrupt over his deal with Adams with the New York vote but he did the same to shut out Clay in Louisiana. Jackson called the reverse course with Kentucky, “corruption and sale of public office,” and the coalition between Clay and Adams “treachery and duplicity,” and the “devil’s bargain.” (Klotter, 128, Remini, 91, Traub, 307) In the weeks before the House, Jackson injured himself at his plantation, Hermitage, was hemorrhaging and confined to his bed. Since Jackson was so sick it is questionable if he would have done more to secure the House votes and fight against Clay’s decision to support Adams, as Remini indicates, Jackson was “removed totally from the mounting political turmoil.” (Remini, 91) While Clay, Adams, and Webster maneuvered for votes, Remini points out, “Jackson lay on his bed politically bleeding to death.” (Remini, 92)
As the Jackson and Crawford camps raged and accused Clay and Adams of a bargain, the men from both candidates tried to engineer a similar arrangement to have their candidate win. As Kotter recounts, “While Jackson’s political handlers had been pretty much the same thing as had the other camps — probing alliances, seeking deals, arranging for votes — Andrew Jackson remained either ignorant of those actions or, more likely, had chosen to interpret them in a different light than more neutral observers would.” (Klotter, 127) Jackson’s men attempted to convince Jackson to align politically with Crawford to gain enough votes to win. Radical, Samuel Swartwout of New York engineered the attempted “reconciliation.” Jackson’s wife Rachel even visited Mrs. Crawford as an overture for rapprochement.
Klotter believes a misunderstanding led Jackson to cry a charge of a corrupt bargain between Clay and Adams with an exchange of the Secretary of State post for the presidency. James Buchanan first told Jackson about a conversation he had with Clay, where he went as an “emissary” asking Clay if he would accept the Secretary of State post in exchange for his supporting Jackson, saying that “the Jackson camp would not go out of the room for a secretary of state, as he looked at Clay.” Clay laughed off the suggestion as he long time decided against supporting Jackson and responded that Buchanan was the only one worthy of a cabinet post in the room. Buchanan left and told Jackson about the exchange; Jackson perceived that Buchanan told him about the Adams camp offering Clay the Secretary of State post for his support in the House vote. Buchanan asked Jackson if he would make the same offer, to which Jackson responded, “I would see the earth open & swallow both Mr. Clay and his friends, and myself with them.” (Klotter, 128)
Remini recounted that story differently, Buchanan heard that Clay’s friends were concerned Jackson intended to “punish” Clay and his friends if elected and “exclude” Clay and them from the cabinet. Buchanan felt the need to tell both Eaton and Jackson that he was worried the rumor might make Clay support Adams. (Remini, 88) Buchanan was known for fidgeting when nervous kept winking his eye when retelling the story to Jackson. Buchanan told Jackson, “Clay’s friends gave assurances that they would ‘end the presidential election within the hour’ if the General would first declare his intention of dismissing Adams as Secretary of State.” (Remini, 88) Jackson believed according to Remini, “Clay obviously wanted to become secretary of state in return for his support and Buchanan had been sent to sound him out with winks and blinks. Actually, Clay never authorized anyone to approach Buchanan, nor had he proposed a deal.” (Remini, 88)
Buchanan’s description and Jackson’s misunderstanding fueled the rumors of a corrupt bargain. As Klotter recounted, “Jackson apparently heard what he expected to hear, not what Buchanan actually told him. It confirmed his conspiracy theories that his enemies sought to thwart the will of the people.” (Klotter, 128) Buchanan never told Jackson Clay asked for the cabinet post only that he offered it. Jackson, however, refused to believe that timeline of events based on his long dislike of Clay, he assumed the Speaker came to barter votes for a cabinet post and when Buchanan refused, Clay made the agreement with Adams. However, Jackson later admitted Buchanan “never gave any exonerating testimony in their [sic] favor.” (Klotter, 129) Jackson saw the Kentucky delegation’s decision to support Adams as proof of a bargain between Clay and Adams and sought to punish and embarrass the two political parties hoping to discredit the political reputation, with the goal that the House would go and vote based on the election’s popular vote.
Jackson decided to plant a letter by a Congressman accusing Clay and Adams of a disgraceful transaction… a bargain.” (Klotter, 129) On January 28 (25 or 29 depending on the historian), 1825, the Philadelphia paper the Columbian Observer published an anonymous letter entitled, “to the extent that they concerned the course of conduct of H. Clay,” that accused Clay of approaching both Adams and Jackson looking to exchange his House support for a post as Secretary of State in either administration. The letter made sure to say the Jackson camp was beyond reproach, writing, “None of the friends of Jackson would descend to such mean bargain and sale.” (Klotter, 129) The letter said Clay made an agreement with Adams and they had proof that they want to “subvert the will of the people.”
The letter to the editor read:
Dear sir: I take up my pen to inform you of one of the most disgraceful transactions that ever covered with infamy the Republicans ranks… For some time past the friends of Clay have hinted that they, like the Swiss, would fight for those who would pay best. Overtures were said to have been made by friends of Adams to the friends of Clay, offering him the appointment of secretary of state for his aid to elect Adams. And the friends of Clay gave this information to the friends of Jackson and hinted that if the friends of Jackson would offer the same price they would close with him…. None of the friends of Jackson would descend to such mean bargain and sale…. I was of the opinion, when I first heard of this transaction, that men professing any honorable principle could not or would not, be transferred, like a planter does his negroes or the farmer his team and horses…. It is now ascertained to a certainty that Henry Clay has transferred his interest to John Quincy Adams. As a consideration of this abandonment of duty to his constituents, it is said and believed, should this unhappy coalition prevail, Clay is to be appointed secretary of state. (Brands)
Other papers followed suit and published the letter. When the letter was published in the Washington National Intelligencer, Clay fired back with a card and essentially challenged his accuser to a duel, calling them “a base and infamous calumniator, a dastard, and a liar,” and claiming he will “deal” with them according to “laws which govern and regulate men of honor.” Clay wrote, “If it be genuine, I pronounce the member, whoever he may be, a base and infamous calumniator, a dastard and a liar; and if he unveil himself and avow his name I will hold him responsible, as I here admit myself to be, to all the laws which govern and regulate the conduct of men of honor.” (Brands) With the letter, the Jackson camp wanted to let the public know about Clay’s actions, proof seemed secondary. As Remini indicates, “True or not, it seemed so obvious that no one needed proof. Almost everybody believed it. The fact of the “union’s” existed was proof enough.” (Remini, 90) Remini called the Jacksonians “the most violent “& implacable.” (Remini, 91)
Afterward, Congressman George Kremer of Pennsylvania came forward; Clay knew Kremer as a Jackson supporter was a front. Kremer was an eccentric and to duel him “would have seriously damaged Clay’s reputation.” (Remini, 90) Still, Kremer responded ready to duel Clay, writing, George Kremer holds himself ready to prove, to the satisfaction of unprejudiced minds, enough to satisfy them of the accuracy of the statements which are contained in that letter.” (Brands) Adams noted Kremer “scarcely knew whether he had written the letter or not,” while Kremer later admitted he did not write the letter. Kremer’s involvement seemed to discredit the whole accusation. (Remini, 90) Clay believed Jackson advisor John Eaton was responsible for the letter and since he had been seen with Kremer the night before the letter was published but Eaton dodged responding about it. (Klotter, 129, 130)
Instead of a duel, Clay ordered a Congressional investigation to “redeemed his honor.” On February 3, took to the House floor addressing the letter published National Intelligencer by “a member of this House from Pennsylvania” … containing serious and injurious imputations. According to Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 1824–1825, Clay “hoped that he should be allowed, respectfully, to solicit, in behalf of himself, an inquiry into the truth of the charges to which he referred.” The Journal recounted, “The House…appeared to him…was the proper place to institute the inquiry, in order that, if guilty, here the proper punishment might be applied, and if innocent, that here his character and conduct may be vindicated.” Clay “hoped that he should be allowed, respectfully, to solicit, in behalf of himself, an inquiry into the truth of the charges to which he referred.”
Kremer fell apart during the probe, his accusations filled with inconsistencies and no evidence. Kremer refused to testify calling it “a personal matter,” which he wrote, “under the conviction of its truth.” Kremer made himself the victim claimed he was a “humble member” of “the Congress,” that was “unexpected[ly] attacked by the “powerful Speaker.” (Klotter, 130) The probe could not find any evidence to contradict Clay’s denial and issued their report on the House Election Day February 9. Still, the Jackson did what they wanted damage Clay’s credibility and put the seeds in the public’s mind of a corrupt bargain. (Heidler, 182) Clay felt the backlash from not only Jackson supporters but from Crawford supporters, and even friends. Newspapers around the country published the letter, Clay’s response and other attacks on Clay. The Jackson and Crawford camps were using it all to their advantage; referring to Clay’s support for Adams as “the unnatural and the most corrupt coalition” saying Clay “sold himself to Mr. Adams.” Clay called it “intimation” on two fronts Crawford, Jackson, also Calhoun, and Clinton, who “want to remove me as an obstacle to their [future] election,” but Clay declared, “Such intimation would not work.” (Klotter, 131) Brands concludes, Clay’s “opponents hoped to accomplish one of two things: to keep him out of the Adams cabinet or to tarnish him if he accepted an Adams offer.” (Brands)
Adams may have not generally objected to making deals as a candidate and remained vague in his diary about his meeting with Clay and the Jacksonians attacked Clay for supporting Adams in the House crying corruption, Clay insisted of his honesty and denied knowing about Adams’s potential choices for his cabinet. Before the House vote, Clay firmly writes in letters to Francis P. Blair about his honesty and not knowing whom Adams intends to install in his cabinet. On January 29, 1825, Clay wrote Blair, “The friends of — have turned upon me, and with the most amiable unanimity agree to vituperate me…. The knaves can not comprehend how a man can be honest. They can not conceive that I should have solemnly interrogated my conscience and asked it to tell me seriously what I ought to do.” (Clay, 108) On February 4, 1825, Clay went further when asking Blair about the Cabinet, showing he did not barter a cabinet post for his support of Adams. Clay wrote, “I observe what you kindly tell me about the future Cabinet. My dear sir, I want no office. When have I shown avidity for office? If Mr. Adams is elected, I know not who will be his Cabinet. I know not whether I shall be offered a place in it or not. If there should be an offer, I shall decide upon it… according to my sense of duty…” Clay’s repeated claims of ignorance would not be enough to ward off the onslaught of charges.
Clay’s announcement and political maneuvering for Adams were destroying his reputation, instead of setting himself for the presidency; Clay was ruining his political future. Louis McLane called it “irretrievable ruin in his inevitable fate.” In Washington, they were calling the coalition between Adams and Clay “so unnatural & prosperous that the report of no committees, nay all the waters of the sweet Heavens cannot remove the iota of corruption.” (Remini, 90)
House Votes Adams
On February 9, 1825, at noon, in a joint session of Congress, the Senate and the House counted the Electoral College votes. There was a snowstorm but still, Americans came to witness history including “foreign ambassadors, governors, judges and distinguished persons.” (Remini, 92) After they counted the votes, the president of Senate pro tem John Gaillard declared Calhoun elected as Vice President and announced that since none of the candidates received a majority of the Electoral College votes, the House has to vote to determine who would be president from the top three candidates. After two hours of ballot counting, the senators left for the House to conduct their historic vote. Speaker Clay took roll call as the representatives sat with their state delegations positioned from North to South.
The House with all its representatives present except for one from Virginia proceeded to vote. Each state had a box to put their ballots and a representative bought to Daniel Webster and John Randolph who were to count the votes from the twenty-four boxes. Thirteen states were needed for a candidate to be elected. Nobody in the House thought they would reach the majority for any candidate on the first ballot though they did believe Adams would lead with twelve states. Unlike the Electoral College were the number of votes depended on the population, in the House vote each state only had one vote making them all of equal value.
With Clay’s maneuvering, Louisiana and Maryland went to Adams, with twelve states secured New York was the deciding state, with votes split between Adams and Crawford. Van Buren lobbied the states’ representatives to vote for Crawford and deny Adams the presidency. New York’s 34 votes were split, 17 votes for Adams, 14 for Crawford, 2 for Jackson but 18 were needed for a majority. There was one hold out, the wealthy heir Stephen Van Rensselaer, who mostly avoided controversy but was being courted on both sides for his vote for president. Van Buren and Louis McLane of Delaware lodged with Van Rennselear and constantly pressured him to vote for Crawford at any moment possible. When Clay found out about Van Rennselear voting for Crawford he and Daniel Webster took Van Rennselaer to the “Speaker’s Room” there Clay lied and told him “the good of the country depended on a decisive first ballot.” (Heidler, 184) Webster used Adams’s promise about the Federalist to try to convince New York Congressman Stephen Van Rensselaer to support Adams. (Remini, 92)
When the votes were counted “Thirteen states voted for Adams, seven for Jackson, and four for Crawford.” (Boller, 36) Speaker Clay declared Adams the winner. As Klotter explains, Clay capitalized on individual feelings, on personal contacts, and on power politics… he knew when to push, and he played that political game perfectly. ” (Klotter, 132, 133) Van Buren, who lost out in influencing Van Rennselear later said, Van Rennselear prayed to God to guide him in his vote, and looked down to see an Adams ballot. After the vote, Van Rennselear said, “he acted according to his sense of duty to the country.” (Heidler, 184)
A committee notified Adams of the decision. Adams, however, in his response regretted that the vote was not based on the popular vote of the citizens. “In this state of things, could my refusal to accept the trust thus delegated to me, give an immediate opportunity to the people to form and to express, with a nearer approach to unanimity, the object of their preference, I should not hesitate to decline the acceptance of this eminent charge; and to submit the decision of this momentous question again to their determination. But the constitution itself has not so disposed of the contingency which would arise in the event of my refusal. I shall, therefore, repair to the post assigned me by the call of my country, signified through her constitutional organs.” (American Whig Review Volume 1, 549) Privately, Adams admitted to his diary he was overjoyed, writing, “May the blessing of God rest upon the event of this day!” (Heidler, 184)
At first, Jackson did show he was bitter about his loss, at the reception in Adams honor he “bowed” and “extended his hand” to Adams to “congratulate” him on his victory. (Heidler, 184) Jackson and his camp were livid at Clay’s maneuvering with the vote garnering Adams six more states than he won, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio, which went to Clay in the general election and three of Jackson’s Maryland, Louisiana, and Illinois. Fueling Jackson’s cries of corruption was Adams offer and Clay’s acceptance to the Secretary of State post.
Three days after the House vote Adams met with Clay and offered him the Secretary of State post. Adams decided early on to nominate Clay, Clay was reluctant to accept the post fearing how it would appear after the accusations. Klotter notes, “Clay faced one of the most important political decisions of his life, a defining moment for his later electoral hopes.” (Klotter, 133) Clay in a quandary examined that he could face criticism if he did not accept the post as much as if he did. Clay believed he needed to look out for the interests of the West if he did not accept it would appear he “lacked confidence in the government he had supported,” while his critics would believe it’s because of their accusations and they would win. (Klotter, 133)
Clay found himself in a lose-lose situation, and he very much wanted to be president, Secretary of State was the stepping stone to the presidency, how could he refuse that opportunity? Clay worried about losing the power he had as the Speaker of the House but believed he was gaining the power to “shape foreign policy.” He had been told that there were only two Americans worthy of the post he and Clinton. Clay sought advice; John J. Crittenden’s response had the greatest impression on Clay. Crittenden told Clay that his “honor has been challenged” and he “should not back down,” and that “all will be quieted in the moment.” (Klotter, 134)
Clay received both solicited and unsolicited advice after the offer became public which was divided between accepting and refusing the post. Some thought it would be better if Clay refused, it would be the best way to refute the accusation. In a letter to Francis Brooke, Clay wrote, “Conscious of my own purity of intentions, I ought not to give weight of a feather to Mr. Kremer’s affair.” (Brands) In the end, Clay decided to accept the post feeling a refusal would only fuel the rumors and he could not let the Jacksonians win. Clay determined “they would abuse me at any rate.” As Heidler indicate, Clay decided, “He would not be intimated by idle gossip.” (Heidler, 184) Clay notified Adams he would accept the nomination for Secretary of State.
The news of Clay being set to become Adams’ Secretary of State only fueled the cries of corruption from Jackson and his supporters, as Heidler called it a “firestorm,” while Klotter called it “a political controversy engulfed the nation.” (Klotter, 134) A furious Jackson called it a “monstrous union.” Jackson remarked on the Clay-Adams deal to William B. Lewis on February 14, “So you see the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. His end will be the same. Was there ever such a barefaced corruption in any Country before?” (Heidler, 184, Boller, 37) While on February 20, Jackson wrote to George Wilson, “This, to my mind, is the most open, daring corruption that has ever shown itself under our government, and if not checked by the people, will lead to open direct bribery in less than twenty years. For what is this barter of office for votes but bribery.” (Heiskell, Seiver, 608)
While there was little proof of an agreement between Adams and Clay, the mere fact that Clay was accepting the Secretary of State post was enough for the Jacksonians and most of Washington. A “pro-Jackson paper proclaimed Clay “DIED-politically,” on the day of the House vote because “he fell victim to cunning, fraud, and intrigue.” (Heidler, 184) Another pro-Jackson paper wrote, “Expired at Washington on the 9th of February, of poison administered by the assassin hands of John Quincy Adams, the usurper, and Henry Clay, the virtue, liberty and independence of the United States.” (Heidler, 185)
Historian Harlow Giles Unger in his biography John Quincy Adams recounts, “Few members of the Washington political scene doubted that John Quincy had promised tacitly or otherwise to reward Clay for his support and knowing how Clay lusted for the presidency, all assumed that John Quincy would appoint him secretary of state, the stepladder to the presidency for two decades. Rumors of ‘bargain & sale’ swept across the political landscape, with some Jackson supporters growling about possible civil war and secession in the West.” (Unger, 238) Jackson remarked, “Intrigue, corruption, and sale of public office is the rumor of the day. How humiliating to the American character that its high functionaries should conduct themselves as to become liable to the interpretation of bargain & sale of the constitutional rights of the people! I envy not the man who may climb into the presidential chair in any other way, but by the suffrage of the people. The great whore of Babylon being prostrated, by the fall of the caucus, the liberty of our country is safe, “& will be perpetuated, I have the proud consolation to believe, that my name aided in its downfall.” (Remini, 87)
Even before Adams’s inauguration, a Nashville paper announced that Jackson would run for president again in 1828 challenging Adams. The Jacksonians’ cries of “Corrupt Bargain” advanced the democratic revolution that would bring them to power four years later and popularize campaigning. The corrupt bargain would be the central campaign issue in 1828 and uniting Jackson supporters by creating a new political party the Democratic Party. Jackson’s “outrage” went beyond just Adams and Clay’s actions to concern for democracy. Jackson wrote, “I weep for the liberty of my country. The rights of the people of the West have been bartered for promises of office… The voice of the people of the West have been disregarded, and demagogues barter them as sheep in the shambles for their own views and personal aggrandizement.” (Unger 238)
Their criticism was two-pronged they accused Adams and Clay of creating a dynasty calling them “the upholders of corruption and the enemies freedom.” The Jacksonians also reminded the public that Adams and Clay went against the popular vote and “will of the people, and deprived the electorate of their rightful choice for president.” (Klotter, 135) They pointed out that Jackson won 41 percent of the popular vote, while Adams had 31 percent, Clay 13 percent, and Crawford 11 percent. As Klotter indicates Adams and Clay combined had more Electoral College and popular vote percentage than Jackson. Clay did not think much of the accusation, “noting that if the people’s will was that Jackson to be president, they would have voted him into office outright.” (Klotter, 135) At a time when six states had their legislatures vote for the electors, there was no real popular vote.
Clay saw himself at the center of the storm the villain in the whole affair, “Immediately After my vote, a rancorous war was commenced against me, and all the barking dogs let loose upon me.” (Klotter, 134) Although the Jacksonians based their charge on sentiment more than evidence it resonated with the public. Klotter points out, “For many voters, it tarred Clay’s character in such a way that the stain could never be erased in Clay’s lifetime.” (Klotter, 134) The attacks were on Clay’s entire character, where they called him “an immoral man, a womanizer, a gambler, ‘a colossal cheat,’ a duelist, a blasphemer, a slanderer, and a slaveholder or antislavery man.” Klotter recounts, “Clay, in their presentation of him, favored a central government over the rights of the states, the rich over the poor, one section over another. The Great Pacificator would easily compromise his principles, they argued, for the sake of the office.” (Klotter, 136)
While the Jacksonians attacked Clay, he remained silent in his anger and denial, and he would remain quiet about the accusation if Jackson would not have written a letter that was published before Adams officially nominated Clay for Secretary of State. In a letter to New York politician Samuel Swartwout dated February 23, 1825, Jackson wrote, “Mr Clay has never yet risked himself for his country. He has never sacrificed his repose, nor made an effort to repel an invading foe; of course his conscience assured him it was altogether wrong in any other man to lead his countrymen to battle and victory.” Jackson made sure to indicate he did not seek any agreements, writing, “No one beheld me seeking, through art or management, to entice any Representative in Congress from a conscientious responsibility of his own, or the wishes of his constituents. No midnight taper burnt by me; no secret conclaves were held, nor cabals entered into to persuade anyone to a violation of pledges given, or of instructions received. Byrne no plans were concerted to impair the pure principles of our republican institutions, nor to prostrate that fundamental maxim which maintains the supremacy of the people’s will.” (Clay, 215)
After Jackson’s letter Clay felt the need to fire back on March 26, 1825, Clay delivered his “Address to the People of the Congressional District.” Clay responded that Jacksonians were “‘sunbeams’ of kindness” with until he announced his support for Adams. Clay recounted he made his decision about Adams before leaving Kentucky to Washington because he did not believe “military idolatry” was for the “public good.” Of Jackson, Clay said, “In his elevation to this office, too, I thought 1 perceived the establishment of a fearful precedent; and I am mistaken in all the warnings of instructive history, if I erred in my judgment. Undoubtedly there are other and many dangers to public liberty, besides that which proceeds from military idolatry ; but I have yet to acquire the knowledge of it, if there be one more perilous, or more frequent.” (Clay, 397) While Clay rationalized his choosing Adams, “I saw in his election the establishment of no dangerous example. I saw in it, on the contrary, only conformity to the safe precedents which had been established in the instances of Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Madison, and Mr. Monroe, who had respectively filled the same office from which he was to be translated.” (Clay, 398)
Although Clay knew his district wanted a western president, he made his decision what for the “common good” of the “whole nation.” When the Kentucky Legislature directed a Jackson vote, he “found” it was “incompatible with my best judgment.” The voters chose him to decide what is best and he did if they disagree they can make it known at the next election. Clay argued, “Our object was not to impair but to preserve from all danger, the purity of oar republican institutions. And how I prostrated the maxim which maintains the supremacy of the people’s will, I am entirely at a loss to comprehend. The illusions of the General’s imagination deceive him. The people of the United States had never decided the election in his favor. If the people had willed his election, he would have been elected. It was because they had not willed his election, nor that of any other candidate, that the duty of making a choice devolved on the House of Representatives.” (Clay, 408) Clay concluded addressing Jackson’s charge, “I entered into no cabals; I held no secret enclaves; I enticed no man to violate pledges given or instructions received.” (Klotter, 138, Clay 416)
Although Clay was lauded for his “masterful address” and “triumphant refutation of vile slanders,” the sting of the “Corrupt Bargain” label haunted Adams’ presidency and Clay’s tenure at the State Department and his political future and later presidential aspirations, the charge would prove detrimental to Clay’s American System. (Klotter, 138) Remini writing in his 1988 biography of Andrew Jackson, The Life of Andrew Jackson indicates just much how Clay destroyed his political future for what his greed to be a step away from the presidency. Remini recounts, “Five days after election, President-elect Adams offered the ‘gamester’ from Kentucky the post of Secretary of State. Adams had no choice in making the offer, but Clay should have rejected it. He was too good a politician not to see the danger. He knew the risk in accepting. He had heard all the rumors of a corrupt bargain. But like a gambler, he decided to chance on it, He wanted the office with a passion because it historically led straight to the presidency. For a week, he deliberated. He agonized. Then despite the clear signals of what would happen, despite his own awareness of the risk, he accepted the offer. And in that moment he destroyed forever his presidential chances.” (Remini, 155)
Historians agree Clay’s “gravest error” was not supporting Adams but accepting the Secretary of State position. Merrill Peterson noted it was “the worst error of his political life.” The editor of Clay’s published papers and addresses called the decision “a political millstone that Clay carried top his grave.” (Klotter, 139) Still, despite Clay’s decision, he was still able to rebound and have a political career including two more runs for the presidency, although the reason he lost the presidency might have been because of the tarnish of accepting the Secretary of State post and the question of whether there was a bargain between him and Adams. Clay was the top choice for Secretary of State no matter who won the won the election, although with the animosity between Jackson and Clay that might not have been the case had Jackson won the election. In 1825, Adams said, “the charge was totally unfounded.” (Klotter, 139)
Early historians seem to agree with certainty with Adams’s statement taking it was the truth. Carl Schurz in the Life of Henry Clay, wrote, “But Clay lived to appreciate the wonderful vitality of a well — managed political lie. Nobody believes that lie now. But it defeated his dearest ambitions, and darkened the rest of his public life. It kept him refuting and explaining, explaining and refuting, year after year ; yet still thousands of simple-minded citizens would continue honestly to believe that Henry Clay was a great knave, who had defeated the will of the people by bargain and corruption, and cheated the old hero of New Orleans out of his rights.” (Schurz, 256, 257)
Recently, historians’ viewpoint on whether there was a corrupt bargain differed depending on if they were writing a biography on Andrew Jackson or Henry Clay; these historians were more sympathetic to their subject side on the issue. Historians have questioned more whether there had been a corrupt bargain or just an understanding between Adams and Clay in order to defeat Jackson. Jackson historian Robert Remini is the most skeptical about the long-held belief there was no bargain. In his 1989 biography, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union Remini left a door open to the possibility, writing, “Was there a corrupt bargain between Clay and Adams? Probably not, although absolute proof does not exist and most likely never will.” (Remini, 270) Remini in his 1981 book, Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Freedom, 1822–1832 made a bold assumption, he went as far to argue that Adams and Clay did not need to make an actual bargain because their action implied they made an agreement. Remini wrote, “Nothing crude or vulgar, like declaring the terms of a political deal, passed their lips. No need. Both men understood one another’s purposes. Both men knew what was expected of them when their conversation about the past and future ended. Surely they both realized that in exchange for House support Adams would designate Clay as his secretary of state.” (Remini, 89) Remini is probably the only historian to go so far in his accusation.
Robert Seager in his journal article, “Henry Clay and the Politics of Compromise and Non-Compromise” also had doubts, and thought with Clay accepting the secretary of state post it “appeared” as “corrupt bargain.” Seager noted, “Actually, the evidence shows also there was no bargain, corrupt or otherwise. For political reasons of his own, Clay threw his support to Adams; and for political reasons important to Adams, Clay was offered the senior position in his cabinet. Both men understood that the post of secretary of state was traditionally the final stepping-stone to the White House.” According to Seager since the secretary of state post was the major stepping to the presidency, Clay gave the appearance of an agreement between him and Adams. Seager continues, “The point to remember is that no one forced Clay to accept Adams’s offer. It takes two to bargain. Thus, when Clay did accept, it certainly gave the appearance of a deal based on considerations of succession. How an otherwise sophisticated politician like Clay could believe that his acceptance of the State Department post could give any impression of a “corrupt bargain” with Adams has bewildered historians ever since.”
Seager does not believe that Clay’s explanation for accepting the post was to show his confidence in Adams’s administration was insufficient to ward off the rumors and allegations of a corrupt bargain. As Seager explains, “Clay’s disingenuous explanation… that he really had no choice but to accept direct responsibility for helping make that administration a success. Hence he took the job. It was not a persuasive explanation.” Although many historians see that the Jackson camp and Jackson made the charges of a corrupt bargain because Clay accepted the secretary of state post, Seager argues that Clay’s lack of explanation led to the Jacksonians to believe there was a corrupt bargain.” Seager concludes the corrupt bargain “charge was a major factor in Adams’s defeat in 1828 and in Clay’s defeats in 1832 and 1844. It was a political millstone that Clay carried to the grave.” (Seager, 9–10)
Recently, some historians are less certain about the possibility of a bargain but in the end, do not believe there was any between Adams and Clay, their reasons vary. Sean Wilentz in his 2006 book The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln believes deals were being made rampantly but not between Adams and Clay. Wilentz notes, “During the weeks leading up to the House vote, Adams and his lieutenants had given what they discreetly called ‘assurances’ to various potential supporters in Congress. Among the least questionable of these understandings was reached with Clay. Both Adams and Clay were too sophisticated to strike any explicit bargain, either during their private meeting on January or any other time. None was needed. Clay brought with Congressional influence, charm and geographical balance, all things that the New Englander required.” (Wilentz, 255)
Historian James Traub in his 2016 biography John Quincy Adams, Militant Spirit also finds Clay’s appointment as implied proof of the charge. Traub indicates, Adams “replaced himself at the State Department with Clay. That, of course, was a fresh provocation, and the worst of all. Clay’s appointment was taken as proof of the ‘corrupt bargain.’ Congress mounted an investigation of the charge, though it had ended in anticlimax when the anonymous author, revealed as a gadfly Pennsylvania congressman, George Kremer, refused to testify. But feelings ran high, and Clay was confirmed by a vote of only 17 to 10. And Andrew Jackson himself made sure to keep the story alive.” (Traub, 317)
Jon Meacham in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House blames the lack of a deal on ignorance, writing, “It is much more likely that Adams were politically stupid rather than politically corrupt.” (Meacham, 388) Meacham firmly believes there was no bargain and Jackson manufactured it all simply because Clay elevated Adams to the presidency through his power as Speaker and then accepted the Secretary of State post. Meacham writes, “That the election unfolded according to the letter of the law of the Constitution did not matter to Jackson. The way he saw it, the son of a president, Adams had struck a deal with the Speaker of the House, Clay, to elevate Adams then Secretary of State to the presidency. Though much may have been implied between them, the likely truth is that Clay and Adams did not reach an explicit deal. Clay’s antipathy for Jackson was already consuming, and so the Kentuckian’s decision to support Adams made the most political logic; for Adams, Clay, as a prominent and skillful lawmaker from an important state, was an obvious choice for Secretary of State. No explanation would satisfy Jackson, however; he thought the country was watching the founding of a dynastic line that could perpetuate itself despite the wishes of the people. (Meacham, 45)
Historian H.W. Brands indicated in his recent book Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants, he too does not think that there was a corrupt bargain. As soon as Clay knew he was out of the running for the House vote he also knew the only candidate he could support was Adams. As Brands explains, “The electoral votes hadn’t been officially tallied before Clay began working to keep Jackson out of the White House out of the White House and get Adams. His conscience rested easy in his doing so, for he judged Adams more qualified than Jackson to be president. His ambition seconded the decision, for Adams would be a less challenging act to follow in the White House than Jackson. Clay’s hopes of becoming president had been deferred, not eliminated.” (Brands)
Kentucky State Historian James C. Klotter is one of the most recent historians to weigh in on the nearly two-hundred-year-old controversy in his 2018 book Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President. Klotter does not believe there was a corrupt bargain, explain, “The fact that Clay asked the opinion of others before accepting the offer supports the idea that it certainly was not a fait accompli. Simply stated, no “corrupt bargain” of buying the presidency by an offer of office took place…. Clay and Adams later needed no formal, stated agreement; they understood the stakes of the game, the reward of success, and the costs of failure.” (Klotter, 140)
In 1844, while Clay was the Whig nominee for president, James Buchanan wrote Robert Letcher, still lamenting Clay’s error from twenty years earlier. Buchanan wrote, “To be sure there was nothing criminal in it; but it was worse as Tallyrand would have said it, it was a great blunder.” (Klotter, 139) Towards the ends of his life, Clay made a “frank confession,” he finally realized the hard he caused his political career by accepting the position and falling into Jackson’s charges of a corrupt bargain. Clay admitted the biggest mistake he made was taking on the Secretary of State post, “By doing so I injured both him [Adams] and myself, and I often painfully felt that I had seriously impaired my own capacity of public usefulness.” (Heidler, 185)
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Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,”and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.