America survived 1824. It can survive 2020

With the contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump being cast as a battle for the soul of the nation, apocalyptic predictions come easily. There is loose talk of civil war and violence in the streets. “We still do not know who is the winner of the presidential election. But we do know who is the loser: the United States of America,” says New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman sombrely.

This underestimates the resilience of America. Since 1900, this country has survived two world wars, the Vietnam War, numerous smaller wars, the Great Depression, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the attempted assassination of George Wallace and Ronald Reagan, 9/11, and countless national disasters.

Every crisis is different. And every time there’s a crisis, America is different. So there’s no room for complacency. But Americans ought to start from the assumption that their democracy is resilient enough to survive either Trump or Biden, with all their faults. The end is not nigh.

A survey of American history is enough to show that political crises have a way of working themselves out with time.

The most controversial election in US history was the election of 1824 which saw John Quincy Adams become president. You will hear more about it in days to come if Trump and Biden are tied, 269-269, in the Electoral College. While this is unlikely, it is possible apparently, if Biden loses Arizona, Nevada and Georgia while winning North Carolina and one electoral vote from Maine. In that case, as in 1824, the election will be decided in the House of Representatives.

And, as in 1824, it will be an incendiary occasion.

Despite enormous differences in the electoral politics, the election of 1824 has some parallels to today’s situation. A portrait of Andrew Jackson hangs behind President Trump’s desk in the Oval Office. The New York billionaire sees himself as inheriting the mantle of the uncouth military hero from Tennessee.

Here is what happened and how it turned out.

There were four candidates in the election, which ran from October 26 to December 1. By today’s standards, voter turn-out was not very impressive. In Pennsylvania, which was one of the largest states, with a million people, only 47,000 men (all men) voted. Jackson received a plurality of the popular vote, 41 percent; John Quincy Adams, 31 percent; William Crawford, 11 percent; and Henry Clay, 13 percent. However, because of the peculiarities of the American system, Clay came fourth in electoral college votes.

No one had reached the 131 votes needed to become president, so the House of Representatives would have to choose from amongst the top three. Clay was excluded. But Clay, the Speaker of the House, was a powerful politician, one of the greatest of the 19th Century, and his support would be needed to win. Crawford was sick and obviously not a realistic candidate. Jackson’s supporters expected him to cruise home. After all, he had won 99 votes in the Electoral College to Adams’s 84. Jackson was from the west, like Clay, who was from Kentucky, and should easily rely upon support from Clay.

It didn’t happen.

First of all, although Clay held his cards close to his chest, he detested Jackson. "I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy,” he wrote in a personal letter.

Furthermore, Adams promised Clay the position of Secretary of State if he were to win. Since President Thomas Jefferson, President James Madison, President James Monroe and Adams himself had all been Secretaries of State, this was a coveted position which augured well for Clay’s career. Clay began doing the numbers.

Jackson arrived in Washington confident of 12 votes, one short of the 13 needed to win in the “contingent election”. But unknown to him, Clay had slyly organised 12 votes for Adams. And he knew where he could get the 13th – in the New York delegation. Unlike the electoral College, each state only has one vote in a contingent election. The New York delegation was tied. Clay and his allies browbeat the half-senile General Van Rensselaer into switching to Adams. He painted a dark picture of national chaos if Jackson were elected.

On February 9, 1825, Van Rensselaer voted for Adams, tipping New York into the Adams camp. The delegations to the contingent election voted -- and Adams emerged with 13 votes, Jackson seven and Crawford four.

The Speaker of the House rose and declared: “John Quincy Adams, having a majority of the votes of these United States is duly elected President of the same.”

Forevermore in American history, this was labelled the “corrupt bargain”. Jackson’s supporters were outraged. But there was no blood on the streets. Instead they set about plotting to put their hero in the White House in the next election. Which they did in 1828 and 1832 (when Jackson faced Clay and whupped him). There was turmoil, but not chaos.

Without underestimating the issues at stake in 2020, America is great enough to survive a bad president -- whoever that will be next year.


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