Since Election Day, President Donald Trump has continually blamed corruption and fraud tied to mail ballots for his deficit despite absolutely no evidence of widespread fraud or corruption. Trump has clung to the idea that he won because he was ahead on election night, despite it being well reported beforehand that tallies would change. Democrats and the media have dismissed Trump’s preposterous claims. But baselessness does not mean these claims cannot have a major political impact in the future.
The election of 1824 proves it. After Andrew Jackson lost in 1824, he and his supporters spent four years blaming a corrupt bargain for his defeat and asserting that President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay could not be trusted. These charges stuck because white working-class men who had newly gained the franchise already felt alienated from politics, and Jackson had pitched himself as their voice. When two establishment politicians deprived him of the presidency, it seemed clear that they — and their champion — had been defeated by a corrupt system. The result: Jackson decisively defeated Adams in 1828.
The election of 1824 was particularly unusual. There were four candidates for the presidency — Jackson, Adams, William Crawford and Clay — but none of them received an absolute majority of electoral votes. Therefore, as stipulated by the Constitution, the House of Representatives decided — for the first and only time — who would become the sixth president of the United States.
Jackson believed that, as he had captured a plurality in both the popular and electoral college votes, the House was obliged to elevate him in accordance with the public’s wishes. Clay, however, a fierce opponent of Jackson, used his power and influence as the speaker of the House to get Adams, the candidate with the second-highest electoral college votes, elected to the White House. He persuaded the delegations from Kentucky, Ohio and Missouri — all states that voted for him to be president — to vote for Adams, despite the delegations’ sympathy for their fellow Westerner Jackson.
Immediately, rumors circulated around the Capitol that a “Corrupt Bargain” had been struck between Adams and Clay, only to be reinforced a few weeks later when Clay accepted the position of secretary of state. Unsurprisingly, Jackson believed he had been denied what was rightfully his as he had won a plurality of the people’s support. Jackson wrote to a campaign adviser soon after the House vote, “so you see the Judas of the West [Henry Clay] has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver — his end will be the same. Was there ever witnessed such a bare faced corruption in any country before.”
Despite Jackson’s claims, there is no evidence that Clay or Adams tried to defraud the electorate, either covertly or overtly — or that anything corrupt happened. Furthermore, historian Donald Ratcliffe has argued that given that only 18 out of 24 states chose their electors via popular vote, Clay’s decision to help elect Adams reflected what the popular vote would have been if all states used the mechanism of popular voting. It is, thus, highly unlikely that any electoral fraud or chicanery took place.
Yet, that didn’t stop Jackson from levying the charge. He claimed that Americans needed the “true knowledge of facts” to bring “the reign of bargain, intrigue and falsehood” to an end.
Jacksonians argued that the “Corrupt Bargain” was evidence that the core of American politics was rotten. According to voters in New York, the purported bargain “in its strongest form, imports, that at the last election, the vote of the Kentucky delegation [the deciding vote in Adams’ election in the House] was in the market, for the highest bidder.”
Pro-Jackson advocates across the nation argued that the “rights and interests of the people” had “been put in jeopardy” — as another pamphlet put it — with Jackson being the only savior who could end fraud and electoral corruption. The “Corrupt Bargain” became central to Jackson’s second bid for the presidency in 1828.
This message especially resonated with white working-class men, who in many states had only recently gained the vote and felt that “they had no political existence,” as one popular movement declared in 1820. These men were susceptible to Jackson’s false claims because he had run as the “Candidate of the people,” and when he lost thanks to two establishment politicians, it was easy to conclude that the will of the people had been trampled.
In November 1828, Jackson became the seventh president of the United States, winning 15 out of 24 states and 56.4% of the popular vote.
Jackson’s success despite no evidence to support the charge so central to his campaign poses a stark warning for Democrats today: The truth about a lack of electoral fraud and corruption won’t necessarily keep part of the American public from believing Trump got robbed. And if they do, it could foster a comeback for Trump in 2024.