This is a guest post, the second in our new series, running in honor of Philip Lampi and in conjunction with the Common-Place politics issue. See the introduction for an explanation. Click the logo below to see all of the posts.
WAS ANDREW JACKSON REALLY THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE IN 1824?
by Donald J. Ratcliffe
Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford
Well, of course he was. American historical narratives have always told us so, and recent prize-winning tomes that agree on little else confirm it. Old Hickory’s fame as victor of New Orleans gave him widespread popularity, the story goes, especially with newly enfranchised voters. So when he ran for president in 1824, he came first in the Electoral College but, with four candidates in the race, did not quite win an absolute majority. When the House of Representatives broke the deadlock in favor of the second-placed man, John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s supporters screamed that the people had been cheated of their choice by “bargain and corruption” and avenged the old general with a massive victory in 1828.
But was Jackson’s “stolen” victory in 1824, the emotional heart of this tale, really quite so clear-cut? In 1884 Edward Stanwood pointed out the problem. In six states the choice of presidential electors was in the hands of the legislature and we have no direct indication of how a popular vote would have resulted. In the states where there was a popular vote, not all the candidates were on every ballot, and in some the overwhelming popularity of one candidate-not necessarily Jackson-resulted in very low turnout. All that can be reported with fair certainty is the vote in the fourteen states where there was a popular ballot, either on the district or the general-ticket system. According to Stanwood, those states gave Jackson 153,544 compared to 108,740 for his nearest rival, John Quincy Adams, who was far ahead of the other two, Henry Clay (47,136) and William Harris Crawford (46,618).
Even in these fourteen states, there is really little evidence of Jackson’s nationwide popularity in 1824. He may have won 43 percent of their popular vote, but, as Lee Benson pointed out in 1957, 42 percent of that vote came from winning four-fifths of the popular vote in just three states (Alabama, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania), which together cast 23 percent of the national vote. Local concerns explain his victories in those three states, while his success in the Carolinas followed John C. Calhoun’s decision to throw his support to Jackson in return for becoming vice-president. In other parts of the country-notably New England and New York-Jackson received negligible support in 1824, in the face of Adams’s evident popularity.
Even in some states where the electors were chosen by the people, Jackson was less popular than appears at first sight. In North Carolina, the popular contest was fought between the Caucus ticket (for Crawford) and the People’s ticket (for whoever had the best chance of beating Crawford in the Electoral College), which won by 20,145 to 15,621. The state’s electoral votes were duly cast for Jackson, and it is often assumed that they measure his popularity in that state. But in eleven counties voters followed the pre-election suggestion that they mark their ticket for electoral candidates with the name of their preferred presidential candidate. In those counties Adams men supplied about one-fourth of the People’s vote, which reconciles with contemporary estimates that about 5,000 of the 20,415 were given by friends of Adams. So we need to move 5,000 votes from the Jackson column to the Adams column.
In the case of Georgia, Philip Lampi’s research reveals a measurable popular vote on the presidential question although the decision was made by the assembly. In the election to choose the assembly, candidates were identified as friends of either Crawford or Jackson, and one ticket representing each side was run in each county. The Jackson men lost to the Georgia candidate, but still attracted (on my arithmetic) 15,478 votes, which need to be added to the Jackson column. That takes the calculation to 164,022 for Jackson to 113,740 for Adams.