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Monday, April 11, 2022

April 11, 2022: Presidential Scandals: The Corrupt Bargain

[On April 14, 1922, the Wall Street Journal published a story breaking the news of a crooked deal that became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that history and four other presidential scandals, leaving aside the Grant administration as we’ll get to them in a couple weeks and the Trump administration because ugh. Share your thoughts on these & other histories, including Grant or Trump if you’d like of course, for a scandalous crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On a scandal that reveals the fragility of our election system, and what that means in 2022.

In this post on the pivotal presidential election of 1800, I made the case for how that profoundly contested and controversial election very easily could have marked the end of the nascent American experiment—and how it fortunately and importantly did not. As I usually do when I start a post with a link to another post of mine, I’ll end this first paragraph here and ask you to check out that post and then come on back.

Welcome back! While that election of 1800 ended up reinforcing fundamental American ideas like the peaceful and orderly transfer of political power, it’s certainly fair to say that it also reveals just how fraught and fragile the electoral system was in that Early Republic period. A quarter-century later, another and even more contested and controversial election, the presidential election of 1824, drove home that point and then some. That excellent educational resource highlights the main elements to this scandalous election: due to a variety of factors, the election came down to a group of candidates from the same political party, the Democratic-Republicans; one of them, Andrew Jackson, received a plurality (but not a majority) of both the popular and electoral votes; but when the election was thus thrown to the House of Representatives (per the Constitution), another candidate, John Quincy Adams, was elected to the presidency, possibly due (in the “Corrupt Bargain” narrative advanced by Jackson and his supporters, at least) to Adams’ close relationship with Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Whatever precisely took place in the House, that narrative became a defining one over the next four years, contributing directly to Jackson’s successful presidential challenge in 1828.

It’s that final note that I would say offers a potential and problematic warning for politics and elections in our own contemporary moment. I want to say this as clearly as I possibly can: the election of 1824 was unquestionably controversial, and even if it was on the up-and-up relied on a highly unusual and quite strange Constitutional quirk to decide the victor; the election of 2020, on the other hand, was ultimately quite straightforward, with one candidate receiving a clear majority of both the popular and electoral votes. Yet in the 18 months since that election, the losing candidate—one who I would argue bears a striking resemblance to Andrew Jackson in some clear and disturbing ways (although there are those historians who disagree)—and his supporters have been just as consistent in advancing their own narrative of corruption and cheating and a fraudulent election and president that need challenging. Whatever did or didn’t happen in 1824, after all, it was the next four years’ worth of “Corrupt Bargain” narratives that really influenced the 1828 election—making clear just how fully we have to push back on our 2022 version of that narrative.

Next scandal tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Takes on this scandal or other ideas you’d share for the weekend post?

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