The party is at a crossroads. Reformers and modernizers envision a party that ties an individualist mentality to a strong, centralized government. That government, in turn, will invest in transportation and finance while supporting trade and developing industry. The conservative wing, meanwhile, holds fast to parochialism and hierarchical systems of race, gender, and private property while rejecting government intervention. Suddenly, a candidate disliked by both sides has gained overwhelming popular support and now stands poised to win the presidency itself.
It is 1824, and the party of Thomas Jefferson is about to die.
There are many differences between the modern Republican Party and the Jeffersonian Republicans of the 1820s, but the crisis today’s Republicans find themselves facing would not be unfamiliar to Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. The comparison between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson – the insurgent outsiders whose presidential aspirations ripped and threaten to rip their respective parties apart – has been made before. But it’s worth examining as well the efforts made by the Jeffersonian establishment of the period to prevent Jackson from attaining the ultimate prize in American politics. As Republican stalwarts such as Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham ramp up their efforts to deny Trump a nomination he feels he has earned, pushing for a contested convention where his delegates might be freed to vote an establishment ticket, they are stoking political forces which many observers believe could threaten the very existence of the Republican Party.
The Jeffersonian Republicans came into the 1824 election as the dominant political force in the country. The only opposition, the Federalist Party, all but died after its disastrous opposition to the War of 1812 – itself a disaster, but recast as a victory in the wake of General Andrew Jackson’s inspiring post-treaty victory over the British army at New Orleans. In the eighteenth Congress, seated in 1822, the Federalists held 31 of the 185 seats in the House of Representatives, and could boast only 4 Senators out of 48. The period had been known since President James Monroe’s inauguration as the “Era of Good Feelings” since the dominance of the Jeffersonians created a relative end to party infighting.
Yet just below the surface, the Jeffersonians were far from unified. Many, like John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, saw new opportunity in the postwar world and wanted to modernize: expanding transportation and finance, knitting together the disparate regions of the rapidly growing nation. Known by some as National Republicans, they found their support among the bankers, industrialists, and farmers that would benefit from a robust network of finance and transportation that Clay called the “American System.” Opponents of this system became known as the “Old Republicans.” Waving the banner of Jefferson the agrarian, these Old Republicans saw the nationalism promoted by Clay as a potential threat to the institution of slavery in particular, and to southern power in general.
The election to choose Monroe’s successor proved to be one of the most complex and consequential in American history. There were five leading candidates, all with ties to Monroe. John Quincy Adams, a former Senator and Minister to four European nations, had been Monroe’s Secretary of State. William Crawford of Georgia, whom many Jeffersonians saw as Monroe’s most likely successor, had been Monroe’s Secretary of the Treasury. John C. Calhoun, Monroe’s Secretary of War, stood as a candidate for the presidency, though he switched to seek the vice presidency after the legislature of South Carolina – his home state – endorsed Crawford. Henry Clay, though not a member of the cabinet, served as Speaker of the House of Representatives, where he wielded tremendous power.
And then there was Andrew Jackson. The Hero of New Orleans was a political outsider. He had spent time in Congress, but not much: two stints separated by two decades, totaling just over three years. He had made a name for himself winning improbable battles with cobbled-together bands of soldiers. He was popular with the increasingly enfranchised white working class voter – the frontier farmer, the urban laborer, the yeoman southerner; in most states men lacking in property or on the margins of the new nation had only been able to vote in the last election or two. So when they gave Jackson the highest totals in both the electoral vote and the newly tracked popular vote, it was a jolt to the system of the Jeffersonians, who had expected a battle between party stalwarts like Crawford, Clay, and Adams.
Jackson seemed unstoppable in the election of 1824. While his three rivals won support in their home regions – Crawford in the Chesapeake, Clay in the West and Adams in New England – Jackson won everywhere. From the Alabama frontier to Missouri to Pennsylvania, working-class voters and small farmers saw in him someone with their background who was willing to fight for them. Unlike Clay, he opposed the banks that called in their loans and issued the scrip that they hated. He had a reputation as a fierce Indian fighter, which played well in borderlands where cotton cultivation was bursting at the seams and farmers wanted more land for new plantations. Unlike his rival Adams, he was a devout supporter of slavery and white supremacy. And for the first time, people who shared his views made up a powerful voting bloc, a fact which horrified establishment candidates. Yet the crowded candidate field prevented him from winning the presidency outright. He received 99 of a possible 261 electoral votes; that was 15 more than his closest competitor Adams, but still not a majority. The Constitution mandated that in the absence of a clear majority, the House of Representatives hold a special election to choose a winner from the three leading vote getters.
Historians still debate exactly what happened in the House. William Crawford had placed third in the Electoral College despite having suffered a stroke well before the election, but his illness meant he was not a real contender. Essentially, it was a two man race between Adams and Jackson. Henry Clay was not out of the game, however. As Speaker of the House, he held a great deal of sway over the chamber his party dominated so completely. And Henry Clay despised Jackson: despite similar backgrounds – easterners who had found power and fortune on the frontier – Clay saw Jackson as vulgar and uncouth, violent, and lacking the temperament for the presidency. The recent end of the Napoleonic Wars left some in the United States with a fear of military dictatorship disguised in the clothing of popular support, and Jackson fit that bill nicely. Jackson’s opposition to central tenets of Clay’s American System helped push Clay to support Adams, who won the House election and the presidency.
Only days after his victory, Adams named Clay as Secretary of State, the position seen as the stepping stone to the presidency in the early days of the republic. Although Clay was highly qualified for the position, Jackson’s supporters screamed of a “corrupt bargain” between the two establishment candidates to cheat Jackson of the presidency. The scandal hung over Adams’s presidency, while Andrew Jackson – with the help of New York political mastermind Martin van Buren – built a national party organization at the state level that would elect Jackson in a landslide four years later. That victory, and Jackson’s subsequent second term win over Henry Clay in 1832, made up the final nails in the coffin of a party that had seemed at its pinnacle in 1824. When that party fell, it left in its wake two new parties: Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party, and Henry Clay’s Whigs. The party of Jefferson was dead.
As talk grows of a contested 2016 convention for the Republican Party, and as Donald Trump – the insurgent businessman seen as vulgar, uncouth, and unfit for the presidency by so many in the party despite his entrenched white working class support – continues to spar with establishment leaders, it’s worth considering what would happen if the Republicans managed to wrest the nomination from its current favorite. In 1824, the insurgent was defeated but the relief was only temporary. The forces he had ridden did not vanish; instead they returned with a vengeance to destroy the party itself.
In 2016, the fate of today’s Republican Party waits to be written.