The year the House chose

After Joe Biden earned a comfortable 306 electoral vote majority in last month’s presidential election, some supporters of Donald Trump mused about the possibility of declaring the election invalid because of supposed fraud and somehow sending the choice for president to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Constitution indeed provides that method for a particular election situation. But it’s only if no candidate receives a vote majority in the Electoral College.

If that happens, the House chooses a winner from among the top three electoral vote-getters.

That’s not the circumstance this year between Biden and Trump.

But one time in American history, the president was chosen by the House. That was nearly two centuries ago, in the presidential election of 1824. Up to that time it was the most hotly contested presidential race in America, and remains one of the most bitter in our history.

By that time, about 50 years after the birth of the nation, the two-party system that sprang up shortly after the ratification of the Constitution had been reduced to a single party: the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalist Party, which had been led by George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, had withered away.

The Democratic-Republicans, however, were not free of division. In fact, in the 1824 election there were five serious candidates for the presidency.

William H. Crawford of Georgia, a former U.S. senator, secretary of war and secretary of the treasury, was selected by party leaders in Congress as the “official” candidate of the party. But that mattered little to the voting populace of the United States.

Various factions supported four other candidates.

These were Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, hero of the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812; John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, current secretary of state and son of former President John Adams; Henry Clay of Kentucky, speaker of the U.S. House; and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, current secretary of war and a former U.S. representative.

(All five candidates are namesakes of Iowa counties.)

Eleven new states had been added to the 13 in the original union by 1824, bringing the total to 24. Consequently, the total number of electoral votes had grown to 261. An electoral vote majority required at least 131.

But none of the five candidates secured that total.

Jackson received 99 electoral votes and 43 percent of the popular vote to lead both categories. Adams had 84 electoral votes and 30 percent of the popular vote. Crawford had 41 electoral votes and finished fourth in the popular vote. Clay had only 37 electoral votes and finished third in the popular vote. Calhoun got no electoral votes.

So, as required by the Constitution, the choice moved to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

By late 1824, William Crawford, who received the third highest electoral vote total, had been paralyzed and nearly blinded by a stroke, so the election in the House was effectively a choice between Jackson and Adams. 

Jackson, a strong but courtly personality, refrained from lobbying the House for his election. His home in Tennessee was some distance from Washington. But the same was not true with Adams.

Adams met privately with Clay, and shortly thereafter Clay went to work on Adams’ behalf. 

Both men were of the “nationalist” wing of the Democratic-Republicans, desiring federal funding of economic projects like roads and canals and active national financial involvement in the life of the United States. Jackson, on the other hand, favored strong states’ rights and weaker federal government powers.

Clay had a deserved reputation as a deal-maker, and his apparent arrangement with Adams bore that out. 

Looking back at the previous five administrations, it’s evident what Clay had in mind. 

Washington was succeeded as president by John Adams, who was Washington’s vice president. But in each of the following administrations, the successor to the presidency had been the current president’s secretary of state. Thomas Jefferson was Adams’, James Madison was Jefferson’s, and James Monroe was Madison’s. 

John Quincy Adams was Monroe’s secretary of state as well.

The pattern had been well developed. If Quincy Adams were to become president, there was a strong possibility that his secretary of state would succeed him in the presidency.

Guess who that might be.

Shortly after the Adams-Clay meeting, Speaker Clay started using his potent gifts of persuasion in the House. 

Under the Constitution, when the House is called on to choose a president, it’s not one member one vote. It’s one state one vote. Each state, regardless of population and size of its House delegation, gets a single vote for president.

That’s why some present-day Republicans wanted the election thrown into the House. Most individual state delegations there have a Republican majority, even though most House members are Democrats.

Clay cobbled together a coalition of Ohio Valley and New England states for Adams. Even though his own Kentucky state legislature instructed Clay to support Jackson, Clay ignored that direction and swung the Kentucky delegation to Adams.

When the vote was taken, Adams received 13 votes out of 24, a bare majority. Jackson got seven and Crawford four. 

Adams, who had received only 32 percent of the national popular vote and 30 percent of the electoral vote, was declared to be our sixth president.

Shortly thereafter he announced Clay as his secretary of state.

The arrangement was in the great American tradition of political hardball.

A national uproar followed immediately. Jackson stormed, “The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. . . . Was there ever witnessed such a bare-faced corruption in any country before?”

Jackson’s next campaign began immediately, and it was successful.

He overwhelmingly defeated Adams’ re-election hopes in 1828, and Clay’s well-laid plan failed.

Jackson succeeded Adams and served two terms as president, turning the office over to Martin Van Buren with the 1836 election.

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