A History of the Presidency - Finding the candidates

The recruitment of presidents has changed over time. The first presidents were those who helped to found the nation. Washington's role is memorialized forever as the "Father of His Country" and as "First in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." John Adams, the second chief executive, was already known to fame as the "Atlas of Independence" for his Herculean labors in the cause of liberty during the 1770s and 1780s. Then followed a group of luminous Virginians: Jefferson, the third president, was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence; Madison, Jefferson's close friend, had earned the sobriquet "Father of the Constitution," and James Monroe (1817–1825), who had been wounded as a soldier in the War for Independence, and was said to look like George Washington, is remembered as the "last of the cocked hats"—the last president who wore the tricorne of the Revolutionary era. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all had served as secretary of state—Jefferson under Washington, Madison under Jefferson, and Monroe under Madison. Consequently, the office of secretary of state came to be regarded as preparation for the presidency and its holder as next in line to the White House.

This pattern became a factor in the election of 1824 when Monroe's second term in office was coming to an end. The three leading candidates were Andrew Jackson of Tennessee who won 99 electoral votes, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts who won 84, and Henry Clay of Kentucky who won 37. Because none of them had a majority, the House of Representatives had to select the winner. Clay was in the position of president-maker because he could choose to throw his support to either Jackson or Adams. Clay found it congenial to side with Adams, and Adams was thereupon elected. Soon afterward Adams made Clay his secretary of state. The Jackson supporters were outraged, shouting "bargain and corruption." They believed that with that appointment Adams had "paid off" Clay by putting him in succession to the presidency—in accordance with the established practice since the beginning of the office, with the single exception of John Adams's presidency.

In his inaugural address, Adams admitted: "Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence." He got little of it: Jackson's backers during the next four years waged a tireless campaign to avenge their man's defeat. Many observers could see that the nature of politics was changing. The older aristocratic view that leadership is to be found in an elite class only was beginning to be supplanted by the notion that "the people" must rule. Whereas only about 20 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls in 1824, four years later the number had quadrupled.

The Jacksonians, maintaining that they were the true successors of Jefferson, called themselves Democratic-Republicans. Soon they shortened the name to Democrats. They touted Jackson as "the people's choice" and elected him in 1828. He had once said, "I know what I am fit for. I can command a body of men in a rough way, but I am not fit to be President." Nevertheless, on his inauguration day hordes of his partisans overran the White House in their certainty that a glorious new time for the nation was at hand. John Quincy Adams, still smarting that Jackson had not called on him to pay his respects after his election, refused to attend Jackson's oath-taking. A few years later when Adams's alma mater, Harvard College, bestowed an honorary doctor of laws degree on Jackson, Adams was incensed, calling his successor "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name." Harvard's president might have been speaking for the emerging new outlook when he responded to Adams: "As the people have decided that this man knows laws enough to be their ruler, it is not for Harvard College to maintain that they are mistaken."

The age of Jackson commenced a new time in the history of the presidency, for it was in the 1830s that what we call "public opinion" began to form and to become an element in national politics. "Public opinion" was not always easy to divine, but every vote-seeker knew that somehow it was the pulse of the electorate. More and more, politicians came to respond to the views of the people and to keep a wet finger to the wind.

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