What the 1824 election can teach us about 2016

Photo by Michael Stravato / Shelby Tauber

The 2016 election is seemingly without precedent. Insurgent campaigns doing battle against the establishment for control — not of the center, but of the margins. Red-hot rhetoric being tossed around with abandon, and mud-slinging so dirty and sloppy it would make a swine blush. And that was just the primaries! Yet as we all shuddered through the Summer of Slander and now into the fall, it's important to remember that our politics has always been a contact sport.

The candidates have beat and pilloried one another with innuendo, mud, slander, gossip — and sometimes even a little truth. But think of how odd it would be if, after all that, neither one of our major candidates gets a majority of electoral votes? It's happened before.

The Framers of our Constitution thought that outside of George Washington, who was elected unanimously, we would almost never be able to agree on a president. So they conceived the 12th Amendment as a way to pass the buck from the voters to Congress. 2016 is starting to look a little bit like the fateful election of 1824 — the first, last and only time that the U.S. House of Representatives decided the presidency.

The election of 1824, for an open presidency after James Monroe had served two terms, saw Gen. Andrew Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, squaring off against John Quincy Adams, son of a former president. There was only one small problem with the Jackson-Adams match: Both men belonged to the same party.

The Democratic-Republicans were the dominant party of this stretch of American history, but its different factions couldn't agree upon a candidate. Hence the campaigns of both Adams and Jackson, as well as the other three serious contenders: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, Speaker of the House Henry Clay and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun — not to mention the Secretary of the Navy, Smith Thompson, who made a brief appearance as a fourth candidate.

With an eye-popping six candidates, the general election of 1824 started off looking like the 2016 GOP Primary. Beginning with an early bang in 1823, the favored frontrunner, Crawford, suffered a stroke and was removed from consideration. Calhoun was prescient enough to remove himself from consideration, opting instead to run for vice president (at the time, this position was elected independently), which he won handily.

And then there were four. Can you imagine if our current crop of candidates also included Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus?

It's little wonder that in 1824 no one candidate managed to capture the necessary Electoral College majority to win the presidency outright. Even though all the candidates were from the same party and running against each other, Andrew Jackson came the closest winning a sizable plurality of both the popular vote and Electoral College votes, with Adams in second place.

So it was off to a meeting of the House of Representatives, where each states' delegation had to come to a consensus. Unlike the Electoral College, the states' delegations are all equal in their voting power when deciding the presidency. In today's terms, this means Wyoming would have as much of a say in determining who became president as Texas.

In 1824, it meant that the anti-slavery states were pitted against pro-slavery states, and that the settled East was pitted against the Wild West. Today's political divides seem quaint and dainty by comparison.

As the clock ticked passed midnight on Dec. 31, 1824, no candidate was able to get a majority vote. Jackson was the favorite to win — but he still had Adams to contend with besides the other candidates. Secretary Crawford was still being considered despite his ailments. In fourth place was the House Speaker Henry Clay.

Clay was most closely aligned with Adams' politics, and he despised Jackson. Clay threw his support behind John Quincy Adams — some would say out of spite, others would say because of an agreement for him to become Secretary of State — giving Adams a majority of delegations and the presidency. This would become the first time that a candidate who won the popular vote and a plurality of the Electoral College was denied the White House.

Can you imagine if this happened today? What would happen if Libertarian Gary Johnson was elected president by the House of Representatives because Paul Ryan threw his support behind him in exchange for a deal that would make him the vice president, denying Clinton and Trump a shot at their shared ultimate goal? What would it do to our politics? To our sense of democracy? I don't know, but I'm really glad it's not 1824.

Our politics demands a clear choice — no matter how odious we might find it to be. Both parties have made their choice. Now it's time for us to make ours. We need a clear winner come November because the alternative is just too dangerous.

Mustafa Tameez

Political consultant