John Quincy Adams - The corrupt bargain

The charge of "corrupt bargain" began to be heard throughout the land as soon as Clay let it be known early in 1825 that he was supporting Adams for the presidency. What was earlier a murmur became a roar when Adams proffered, and Clay accepted, the position of secretary of state in Adams' cabinet. In a rage at the outcome of the House's "election," Jackson said of Clay that "the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver," and in Clay's home state he charged that "the people [had] been cheated," their will defeated by "corruptions and intrigues at Washington." The following year Clay engaged in a duel with Senator John Randolph of Virginia, putting a bullet through that erratic man's cloak after the Virginian had publicly denounced the "stinking" corruption and bargain between the "puritan and the black leg."

Nothing Adams or Clay might do or say thereafter ever removed completely the taint resulting from the incessant braying of "corruption" by their enemies. Jackson was understandably upset at faring so poorly in the House after getting the substantial popular vote he did. But if a substantial plurality were sufficient to election, the Constitution would have so indicated. The lower house of Congress had every right to consider the runoff as a brand new election and to choose, as it did, the man widely regarded as the best and most responsible candidate. Neither Jackson nor his allies were able, then or afterward, to offer a scintilla of evidence backing up their charge of a bargain.

Adams had every right to appoint the gifted and experienced Kentuckian to the State Department, just as Clay had every right to support Adams and to try to influence others to follow suit. Thomas Hart Benton and Francis P. Blair, ardent Jacksonians both, testified that Clay, to their personal knowledge, had indicated his preference for Adams over Jackson well before the matter was placed before the House. Clay had differed with Jackson over matters of policy and principle and had understandable reason to oppose a natural rival, popular with the same sectional constituency as the Kentuckian.

It is not at all certain either that the Jacksonians fully believed the charge or that they were as horrified as they pretended to be over a pragmatic arrangement of the sort many of them had themselves entered into. What is more clear is that they derived great political capital out of the charge. There is much evidence indicating that Adams' opponents would have opposed his administration and the measures it proposed no matter how it was installed or whom it named secretary of state. But with the appointment of Clay, supporters of Jackson, Calhoun, and Crawford had a marvelous pretext for mounting what was to be four years of incessant opposition to the Adams administration and all its works. John Quincy Adams had glaring faults as a political leader in an increasingly democratic and materialistic republic, but in view of the unyielding nature of his enemies, their cleverness in entering into their own dubious bargains in order to unify and solidify their opposition to him, and the broad geographical and financial support they were able to muster, it is doubtful that his administration would have been a success or he him. self reelected no matter how admirable his political program or how consummate his political skills.

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