Return of the Two-Party System: 1824–1828
From 1800 to 1824, the Republican Party faced little political
opposition and fostered a spirit of political unity and cooperation.
The election of 1824, however, marked a return to factional politics.
In the 1820s, voter participation rose dramatically.
By 1820, most states had eliminated wealth-based voting requirements,
so that all free white males could vote. In some northern states,
free black men could vote as well. The voting procedure also changed:
secret written ballots replaced voting aloud, which stopped social
superiors from influencing their inferiors at polling time. In addition,
many appointive offices became elective, and the process by which state
legislatures chose Electoral College members gave way to popular
election. The democratic and egalitarian spirit of the time has
prompted many historians to call the 1820s “the age of the common
man.” Women and most blacks, however, were still barred from political involvement.
During the 1820s, the U.S. electorate expanded,
increasing popular participation in politics.
The Election of 1824: First Modern Election
Greater popular involvement in politics, along with party
in-fighting, fragmented the Republican Party. Before the election
of 1824, party leaders chose a single presidential candidate to
represent the party in a centralized nomination system known as
the congressional caucus. In the election of 1824,
however, many states allowed their citizens to vote directly for
presidential candidates, so that instead of one candidate representing
the Republicans, five Republican candidates emerged to compete for
the presidency. These candidates highlighted the divisions within
American society and within the crumbling Republican coalition. John
Quincy Adams (John Adams’ son) was New England’s choice for president. John
C. Calhoun and William Crawford vied for the South’s support,
and Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson came
out of the West, the former appealing to merchants and manufacturers
and the latter to more rural groups. The Republican Party leaders
in the congressional caucus chose Crawford as the party’s official
candidate, but it was clear that the caucus no longer spoke for
the party as a whole. Because of the demise of the congressional
caucus system, the 1824 election is called the first modern election:
it was the first election in which party leaders no longer had exclusive
control over the nomination process.
Andrew Jackson won more popular and electoral votes than
any other candidate, but he did not win a majority, so the election
was thrown into the House of Representatives. Clay, the Speaker
of the House, backed Adams for the presidency and helped ensure Adams’s
victory. In return, Adams rewarded Clay by making him secretary
of state. Jackson and his supporters saw this backroom deal-making
as a political conspiracy and denounced it as a “corrupt bargain.”
Adams in Office
Adams’ presidency was shadowed by an uncooperative Congress.
Unlike Adams, who advocated a loose reading of the Constitution,
most in Congress were strict constructionists, favoring states’
rights over central power. Congress thus rejected all of Adams’s
proposals for federally funded internal improvements, a national
system of roads and canals, higher tariffs, and federal schools.
That Adams was considered unpleasant and refused to engage in political
maneuvering—trading favors and distributing patronage—did not win him
any support, either.
The Democratic Party
The factions within the Republican Party that arose in
1824 became the foundation of a new political party. Jackson’s supporters,
led by Martin Van Buren and John C. Calhoun (who
was also Adams’ vice president), rallied together and formed what
became known as the Democratic Party. Angered over
Jackson’s loss in 1824, Democrats chose to nominate Jackson for
president in 1828. The opposition, now known as the National
Republican Party, supported Adams for re-election.
Democrats portrayed Jackson as a hero of the common man
and states’ rights, and Adams as an aloof aristocrat. This campaign
tactic worked. Jackson swept 56 percent of the popular vote. Just
as important, the election returns revealed the nation’s growing
sectionalism: Adams won much of the New England vote, while Jackson
carried the South and Southwest.
The new two-party system reflected a sectional
split within the United States. The South and West supported Jackson’s
Democrats, while the North sided with Adams and the National Republicans.