[75 years ago this week, Dewey didn’t defeat Truman—but the 1948 election was close and contested enough that one newspaper famously reported he did. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that election and a few other hotly contested ones (not including 2020, because it really wasn’t), leading up to a special Guest Post from an FSU alum and talented young journalist who would never get it so wrong!]
In yesterday’s 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 references to another post of mine, I’ll end this first paragraph here and ask you to check out that post (if you didn’t read it yesterday, of course) 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 three years 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 2023 version of that narrative.
Next contested election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?