The Conception of the Democratic Party

A Foot Race. Political Cartoon of the Election of 1824.

Following the Election of 1824, newly elected President John Quincy Adams went into the White House with a great deal of hope for the future. He was a lifelong student of Cicero and “envisioned the American republic as the culmination of the history of human progress and the realization of the potential of human nature.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 245. In fact, historians have remarked that Quincy Adams was the “most learned president between [Thomas] Jefferson and [Woodrow] Wilson.” Id.

President Adams did would not admit that President James Monroe’s Era of Good Feelings must come to an end, and he noted in his inaugural address that it was beneficial that the “baneful weed of party strife was uprooted.” Id. at 246 quoting John Quincy Adams, “Inaugural Address,” Presidential Messages, II, 296, 297. President Adams hoped to create a nonpartisan administration. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 246.

This idealistic wish would not come to fruition. As explained in the Election of 1824, Quincy Adams partnered with Henry Clay, agreeing to appoint Clay as Secretary of State in exchange for Clay’s support in the House of Representatives putting Adams in the White House. Andrew Jackson rallied disappointed Americans, publicly characterizing the election of 1824 as a “corrupt bargain.” Id. at 247. This would prove to be “one of the most effective political weapons” in the history of America, as it haunted both Adams and Clay. Id.

Even President Adams’ vice president, John Calhoun, felt alienated by Jackson’s political maneuver, combined with President Adams’ actions shortly after taking office. Id. at 249-50. Calhoun underwent what he called a “‘breathtaking reinvention’ of his political self, from nationalist to particularist.” Id. at 250 quoting John Larson, Internal Improvement (Chapel Hill, 2001), 176.

By June of 1826, Calhoun offered Jackson his support for a presidential bid in 1828. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 250. Calhoun and Jackson agreed that Calhoun would be Jackson’s running mate in the election of 1828, and Martin Van Buren, the political magician, brokered this agreement. Id. at 251. William Crawford’s supporters also gravitated toward Jackson, building Jackson’s strength for mounting a challenge to President Adams. Id. Then, in October 1825, just 19 months into President Adams’ term, the Tennessee legislature “nominated Jackson for president” for the election of 1828. Id.

After Jackson’s public declaration of the corrupt bargain, and Adams grasping to maintain support, the Republican Party was quite clearly split. Jefferson’s Republican Party was fundamentally fractured between those who supported Jackson and those who supported President Adams. Id. This would be the conception of the Democratic Party, as Jackson had gathered the consensus to create a lasting division in the Republican Party, and this consensus would lead Jackson to enjoy political success for years to come.

Jackson’s clever soundbite of characterizing the election of 1824 as a corrupt bargain between Clay and Adams undoubtedly influenced the American public’s perception of President Adams’ administration, and it also came at a time where deep division existed amongst Republicans. This was already clear from the election of 1824, which had to be resolved in the House of Representatives.

Nonetheless, it was clear just months into Adams’ presidency that America’s politics would not be dominated by one party. His hope for eliminating party strife was crushed. Party strife was only escalating in the wake of the election of 1824 and it would ultimately lead to Jackson and his supporters creating a new political party: the Democrats.

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