Why didn't the Election of 1824 result in a military junta?
March 25, 2015 11:47 AM   Subscribe

In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson won the plurality of electoral votes. But a "corrupt bargain" was struck in the House of Representatives to hand the Presidency to John Quincy Adams. Jackson was famous for his military leadership during the War of 1812, the Creek Indian War, and for the effective annexation of Florida from Spain to the US shortly thereafter. The number of cities and streets named in his honor is fairly significant. This was a military leader with clout. So why didn't he draw upon his military popularity in order to launch a military junta and assume his defensibly "rightful" place as President?

Let's bracket "American exceptionalism" as some law of the universe in order to ask why the USA does seem to be an exception here. It seems like military leaders all over the world are often happy to use their force to "restore order" at times when government is not functioning in the manner that the military supporters desired.

I could very, very easily imagine a scenario in which "Old Hickory" calls upon his supporters to rise up and use force to take the Presidency that the plurality of Americans had decided to give to Jackson.

So why didn't this happen?
posted by jefficator to Law & Government (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Um...Because doing so would endanger the young republic? And Jackson wasn't going to do anything that would endanger the young nation.

It's one thing to have an army follow you into a "legitimate" battle, it's entirely another thing to think soldiers and citizens would support an armed takeover of the United States government. And, if he had done as you propose, that would have set a horrible, dangerous precedent...That leadership change by force is okey-doke. Jackson may have been a firebrand, but he wasn't a fool.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:07 PM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Jackson believed in the power of the ballot box to bring about change in America. He once said "The great constitutional corrective in the hands of the people against usurpation of power, or corruption by their agents is the right of suffrage; and this when used with calmness and deliberation will prove strong enough."

These are not the words of a power-hungry military strongman...for all his other faults, he was not inches away from being a dictator.
posted by inturnaround at 12:10 PM on March 25, 2015 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I'm going to suggest that you take this question to r/AskHistorians. They've had a few Jackson threads (but not this one), and they might have a larger number of Jackson scholars than you'll find here.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:11 PM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: seconding r/AskHistorians but one of the elements nobody's really mentioned yet is that you're vastly overestimating the organization, professional identity, and just plain numbers of American who would call themselves members of the military in the mid-1820s, a number that would be minute compared even to, say, South American militaries a generation later. Alongside a lingering narrative of Napoleon as betrayer of that other Revolution, like, I just don't think it would cross many supporters' minds as a plausible alternative.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 12:31 PM on March 25, 2015 [13 favorites]

There were probably 5,000 troops in the entire US Army in 1824 and there were 9 million people in the country. No numbers for such a scheme. Plus the states would have quashed it with militia.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:41 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

If Jackson believed in the constitution, then he accepted the fact that the electors in the electorial college are not bound.
posted by 724A at 1:08 PM on March 25, 2015

Besides Jackson's own firm belief in the rule of civilian law over military might, and the tiny percentage of the US population who were in the Army at that time, consider this: sure, maybe there were 5,000 troops in the US, but they were spread throughout the republic, not gathered together in one convenient grouping.

Even if you assume all 5,000 were strong Jackson supporters (which I doubt was the case), as well as assuming a strong Constitutionalist like Jackson himself would have contemplated doing such a thing, the Army's being spread out means that, with the much slower communications and travel of the day, by the time that tiny force was gathered together, there would also have been more than enough time to gather an opposing force to prevent such a takeover.
posted by easily confused at 1:21 PM on March 25, 2015

There's also the question of the relative power of the presidency in the 1820s versus that of Congress. There were enough irate Jacksonians in Congress to ensure that Adams' term of office could be hobbled politically, which it was.
posted by holgate at 1:40 PM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

He wasn't in the Army anymore by then; he was a senator starting in 1823. For him to overthrow the government, he would have had to round up some sort of army, and probably march them from Tennessee over the mountains to Washington.

Or, he could raise hell against Adams in the Senate, and spend the next 4 years building a new political party to sweep him in to power.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:17 PM on March 25, 2015

There's an interesting assumption implicit in the question that it's only natural for a military man to seize what power he can.

In reality, that sort of behavior is antithetical to professional military personnel, and is generally only seen in political upstarts who happen to have held military rank (Moammar Qaddafi was only a colonel), or during power vacuums of failed states. Having a not-easily-decided election result isn't a power vacuum so much as a system stutter.

Additionally, the very, very few instances of American (former) military officers attempting such ended in utter failure and a legacy as traitors: Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr. The risks were very high, higher even than mere death (which, after all, Jackson had faced before), and the rewards - a tenuously held office that would terminate his nation's much-vaunted ideals - low.

Even were Jackson the sort of man who would do such a thing - which he wasn't, IMO; he was a genocidal asshole, but loyal to his country and believed in working the system - even then, he'd be a fool to even consider it.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:40 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Great question; and merely by asking it you've shed light I badly needed on a thing which has amazed me for a long time: the unprecedented, and as far as I know still unequaled rowdiness of Jackson's first inauguration
The inauguration itself took place on March 4, 1829, and was the first time in which the ceremony was held on the East Portico of the United States Capitol.[1] Ten thousand people arrived in town for the ceremony, eliciting this response from Francis Scott Key: "It is beautiful; it is sublime!"[2]

By 10:00 am, the area in front of the Capitol was filled with people, and the stairs on the East Portico were blocked by a ship's cable to prevent the crowd from advancing.[3] An excited crowd of roughly 21,000 came to see the swearing-in, even if most would not be able to hear the inaugural address.[4] Jackson came on foot to the ceremony,[2] but to avoid the multitude, he used a basement door on the west front to enter the Capitol;[3] upon exiting to face the crowd, he bowed to great cheers.[1]

The scene was described by a witness:[3]
“Never can I forget the spectacle which presented itself on every side, nor the electrifying moment when the eager, expectant eyes of that vast and motley multitude caught sight of the tall and imposing form of their adored leader, as he came forth between the columns of the portico, the color of the whole mass changed, as if by miracle; all hats were off at once, and the dark tint which usually pervades a mixed map of men was turned, as by a magic wand, into the bright hue of ten thousand upturned and expectant human faces, radiant with sudden joy. The peal of shouting that arose rent the air, and seemed to shake the very ground. But when the Chief Justice took his place and commenced the brief ceremony of administering the oath of office, it quickly sank into comparative silence; and as the new President proceeded to read his inaugural address, the stillness gradually increased; but all efforts to hear him, beyond a brief space immediately around were utterly vain.”
As he had entered, Jackson left on the west front of the Capitol,[1] for the crowd had broken the ship's cable and surged forward.[3] He proceeded to mount a white horse and rode up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.[1] While this happened people were climbing in through the windows to get into the White House.
The White House was opened to all for a post-inaugural reception, and was filled by the public even before Jackson arrived on horseback.[1] Soon afterward, Jackson left by a window[1][4] or a side entrance,[5] and proceeded to Gadsby's Hotel in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. The crowd continued to descend into a drunken mob, only dispersed when bowls of liquor and punch were placed on the front lawn of the White House.[4] "I never saw such a mixture," said Joseph Story, then a justice on the Supreme Court: "The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant."[1] The White House was left a mess, including several thousand dollars worth of broken china.[5]
Jackson had an army, all right, and though not in uniform they outnumbered the actual troops by about 4 to 1 and were determined not to get fooled again -- and when they didn't get the fight they were prepared for, they took it out on the White House and the Capitol.

Any claim that Jackson did not intend such an event has to contend with the fact that Jackson chose to arrive for the inauguration at the head of a virtual monarch's progress through the countryside:
Jackson's three-week journey from Nashville, Tennessee, to Washington, D.C., first by steamboat to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then onward by carriage, was marked by large crowds greeting the president-elect.[1]
Given all this, I think Jackson did not seize power after the "corrupt compromise" mainly because his forces, though superior, were out of position.

As any good general might, he then retreated, regrouped, and waited for his moment to arrive.
posted by jamjam at 3:40 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson won the plurality of electoral votes. But a "corrupt bargain" was struck in the House of Representatives to hand the Presidency to John Quincy Adams.... So why didn't he draw upon his military popularity in order to launch a military junta and assume his defensibly "rightful" place as President?

The thing is, the Corrupt Bargain was called that by Jacksonians, but it was completely legal and within the framework of the Constitution. The Framers (some of whom were still alive at that point) explicitly vested the House of Representatives with the power to decide who would be the President if no candidate got a majority of electoral votes. So his place as President wasn't "defensibly 'rightful'" at all, and everyone knew it

There's also the question of the relative power of the presidency in the 1820s versus that of Congress.

I would suggest that it was a question of the relative power of the presidency in the 1820s versus that of the states. The Civil War firmly established the supremacy of the Federal government over the States, even collectively, but in the days before that, "the Army" consisted of a small cadre of full-time soldiers and many, many more people who were essentially "lent" to the military by the states.

If Jackson had rallied the troops, he would have first had to rally the support of several different governors and militias, rather than calling up a few key generals and mobilizing everyone under them.
posted by Etrigan at 6:48 PM on March 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Just thought I'd add a related bit of trivia. Three out of the four presidents to lose the popular vote and win the election were the only three presidents who were progeny of former presidents: John Q. Adams, Benjamin Harrison and George W. Bush.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:52 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

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