The First Electoral College Dispute and Old Man Eloquent

John Quincy Adams MemeThe First Electoral College Dispute and Old Man Eloquent – By Daniel W. Sheridan (Twitter: @DanielWSheridan)

It was on this day, February 9, 1825, after an Electoral College dispute, the House of Representatives, following the rules laid down in the Constitution, elects John Quincy Adams as the fifth President of the United States. Here’s the story:

Over 355-thousand people voted in the election of 1824. In those days elections took weeks. There were four candidates: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William Henry Crawford. Jackson won the popular vote by more than 10-percent and had the most electoral votes. But since there was no majority, the vote went to the House of Representatives.

It was on this day, February 9, 1825, that the House of Representatives, following the rules laid down in the Constitution, elects John Quincy Adams the fifth President of the United States.

The Electoral College was put in place because the Founders didn’t think the common person would know enough about a candidate to directly elect him, so they devised a system where the people’s choice would be filtered through certain men who had the confidence of the people – this is the Electoral College. If this system didn’t produce a winner, however, the Constitution mandates that the vote goes to the House of Representatives. As a result, the people would now be TWICE removed from the process.

John Quincy Adams was elected in this manner. Partisans claimed that political elites in the House chose the President. Under the circumstances, only looking on the surface, one can understand how people came to the conclusion something dishonest was going on. Here’s why:

Henry Clay is the Speaker of the House. Clay hated Jackson because he accused Clay’s fellow Kentuckians of being cowardly during the battle of New Orleans. Now Clay, as speaker, has Jackson’s fate in his hands. Clay successfully swayed enough members of the House to cast their vote for Adams. After Adams was elected, Clay was chosen as Secretary of State. Jackson and his supporters were enraged and claimed the two struck a “corrupt bargain.”

I think to properly judge John Quincy Adams, however, we must consider his subsequent career. There’s no proof of a “corrupt bargain.” Partisan political insinuation isn’t proof. An accused man’s subsequent behavior, however, speaks volumes, as we shall see.

President Adams, because of the manner of his election and the accusations of corruption, had a tumultuous time his four years in office. Adams had big plans as President, but Congress put a kibosh on most of them. President Adams wanted to explore the west. He also wanted to implement a type of “new deal” by committing the Federal Government to build new stone roads and canals in order to connect the states. During his administration the Erie Canal opened in 1825. The following year the first railroad of the United States was completed. President Adams dreamed of creating a National University, a National Astronomical Observatory, and wanted to use the resources of the Federal Government to promote scientific advancements.

Congress, however, wouldn’t cooperate claiming the President’s plans were unconstitutional. But it seems that many Congressmen, because of the lingering bitterness from the last election, objected because of personal and partisan motives, not Constitutional principles. Adams lost re-election.

What John Quincy did next, in my opinion, vindicates him. Many believe that once a person has served as President any other job is “beneath” him. John Quincy Adams didn’t think so. Two years after he lost the election Adams returned to Congress where he remained for the next sixteen years. There John Quincy took the lead in the fight against slavery and was outspoken against secret societies. Even in his advanced age he was so skillful and energetic in debate that people started calling him, “the old man eloquent.” His fame as the champion of popular rights increased with every year.

John Quincy Adams fought for these rights till his dying day, literally! He suffered a stroke while on the house floor and lingered in and out of consciousness for two more days. His last words were,

“This is the last of earth; I am content.”

Time has been on John Quincy Adams’ side. He wasn’t liked by many his contemporaries, but the principles he stood for are those many stand for today.

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