This fine book provides a detailed overview of the election of 1824, when the reigning Democratic-Republican coalition collapsed into a complex race for the presidency. Too often seen as a bizarre prelude to the populist accession of Andrew Jackson in 1828, Donald Ratcliffe demonstrates that 1824 was a fracture point, exposing the conflicting social and ideological forces that shaped antebellum America.
Part One examines the four chief contenders for the presidency and their sources of regional and ideological support (the fifth horse in the race, John C. Calhoun, dropped out early and settled for the vice presidency). Ratcliffe’s attention to the politics of slavery and his command of state-level politics make for a persuasive revision of a well-known narrative. The official candidate of the Republican congressional caucus, William Crawford, had strong support in Virginia, where slaveholders turned hard toward states’ rights after the Missouri Crisis and the Panic of 1819. Kentucky’s Henry Clay helped Missouri enter the Union as a slave state, and westerners north and south supported his call for an “American System” of federally sponsored internal improvements. But Virginia conservatives were wary of Clay, as well as of Andrew Jackson, whom they feared as a military leader likely to embrace broad construction and federal power. These [End Page 283] divisions in southern ranks opened the door for a northern candidate to win the presidency. Jackson’s past campaigns against Britain and Native Americans won him support among western settlers, while Pennsylvania democrats embraced Jackson and his military glory to fight state-level battles. But John Quincy Adams had countervailing support in New England, New York, and parts of the old Northwest, where many voters refused to elect another slaveholding president. Ratcliffe builds a compelling case for the persistence of northern antislavery politics after the Missouri Crisis. His composite portrait of 1824 describes a nation far more riven by sectional division over slavery than previous historians have allowed.
Part Two tells the story of the election. When no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College, the contest moved to the House, where Adams prevailed despite finishing second to Jackson in the electoral vote. Clay and his supporters backed Adams in what Jacksonians termed a “corrupt bargain”; Ratcliffe more accurately describes the Adams-Clay alliance as the origin of the Whig Party, binding together advocates of Clay’s American System and northern antislavery voters. Traditionally, historians have argued that Jackson won the popular vote in 1824, thus rendering Adams’s presidency an aberration without a mandate. But as Ratcliffe provocatively asserts, “In no way was Jackson the clear choice of the people in 1824” (p. 3). Jackson did prevail in states where electors were chosen by popular vote, but Adams had the edge in states where the legislature decided the electoral vote, including New York, the largest state in the Union. Adams owed his New York victory to a popular movement against Martin Van Buren, who had engineered the legislative selection of electors in order to keep the state in Crawford’s column. Adams partisans fought back against Van Buren’s attempt to perpetuate the Democratic-Republican coalition and suppress sectional dissent. Ratcliffe estimates that Adams would have received 40 percent of the popular vote in New York. In this counterfactual, Adams, not Jackson, was the people’s top choice.
Scholars will quibble with this calculation as well as other details [End Page 284] in the book, but there is little doubt that Ratcliffe’s work serves as a thorough introduction to the election of 1824. Even more important, his analysis should force historians to rethink long-held assumptions about the rise of American democracy.
PADRAIG RILEY is the author of Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (2015).