No, it’s not Donald Trump. His name is Andrew Jackson, and the year is 1824.
Andrew Jackson was one of America’s first political outsiders. Born to impoverished immigrants in the backwoods of the South, he was tough, thin-skinned and fiercely confrontational—a brawling Jackson once took a musket ball in the chest before killing a rival in a duel. Resolute and strategically brilliant, Jackson rose through the ranks to become the greatest war hero of his generation. Known by his supporters as Old Hickory, Jackson stirred passions in the American people that his presidential rivals John Quincy Adams, William Crawford and Henry Clay could only dream of. Tens of thousands flocked to the charismatic outsider who positioned himself as a steadfast defender of the Republic. Jackson’s rallies dwarfed those of his rivals. Yet he had little political experience and plenty of baggage. Jackson was, his rivals believed, more of a celebrity than a serious candidate.
In many ways the general election of 1824 mirrors the Republican primary today. Following the collapse of the Federalist Party some years earlier, America was effectively under single-party rule, and all four candidates were members of the same political party, the Democratic-Republicans. In that way, 1824 was more like an extended primary campaign than a general election—a primary that would determine not just the direction of the nation, but also the fate of the party. And, as is the case in the GOP today, voters in 1824 appeared restless for change, and the most popular candidate was viewed as unacceptable by many in the party establishment.
In the election, held in December 1824, Jackson stunned his rivals to win a clear plurality in the popular vote and Electoral College. With 99 Electoral College votes to Adams’ 84, Crawford’s 41 and Clay’s 37, Jackson was short of an outright majority, but undoubtedly had the strongest claim to the White House. However, with no overall winner, the decision was put to the House of Representatives, which was then under the speakership of failed candidate Henry Clay. Clay threw his support not to Jackson but to second-placed John Quincy Adams. When Adams became America’s sixth president he returned the favor, appointing Clay his secretary of state.
To Jackson’s many detractors this was a legitimate move. The old general, who Clay referred to condescendingly as a “military chieftain”, was a polarizing figure who had fallen short of an outright majority. Adams, meanwhile, was a highly capable politician—indeed in the words of historian Daniel Feller he was “probably the most qualified man to be president the United States has ever produced.” Clay and his allies believed Adams could be a consensus choice, a man with the integrity and experience to unite the nation. A furious Jackson, however, blasted the deal as a “Corrupt Bargain.” From his perspective, Clay and Adams had conspired against him, putting their own interests above of the will of the people.
Whatever the truth, the deal backfired. The snub steeled Jackson for revenge and allowed him to paint the administration as corrupt and out of touch. What’s more, it fired up Jackson’s supporters and united a broad coalition of politicians and voters including many who had not supported him the first time round. This coalition would grow into a brand new political entity—the Democratic Party. It would also catapult Jackson to the White House just four years later, where he became one of America’s most consequential and controversial presidents. John Quincy Adams, however, would serve one unremarkable term, hamstrung by his minority status and dogged by claims of illegitimacy.
After the controversy of 1824, the election of 1828 was surely the most ill-tempered presidential campaign in history. Jackson’s supporters slammed Adams as effete and elitist. In an assault that puts Trump’s insults to shame, they claimed, falsely, that as minister to Russia, Adams procured an American virgin for the Czar. They were, in effect, calling the president a pimp. Meanwhile Adams and his allies hit back, attacking Jackson as barely literate, as a bigamist and as a murderer who had executed several of his own soldiers for minor infractions. Astonishingly, all these accusations were true, and yet—in a sign that should worry Trump’s antagonists—none of them stuck. Instead, they seemed to make Old Hickory even more popular, underscoring the fact that he was quite unlike most politicians. Jackson won the 1828 election in a landslide.
Back in 2016, and Donald Trump is well on his way to the Republican nomination, having solidified his delegate lead with clear wins in Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan, Mississippi and Hawaii. (And he’s ahead in the polls in the two big winner-take-all states of Ohio and Florida.) Yet signs suggest that some Republicans are planning to follow the Adams-Clay playbook and do all they can to deny him the nomination. Establishment favorites Mitt Romney and candidate Marco Rubio have suggested that primary voters should vote tactically to deny Trump a majority of delegates. Meanwhile, other party leaders are dreaming of a brokered convention in Cleveland in July.
At this point, the best Trump’s detractors can hope for is to deny him the 1,237 delegates needed for outright victory, and then pressure delegates to dump him and unify behind an anti-Trump at a contested convention. While such an approach is perfectly legitimate, the same was true of the disastrous deal struck between Clay and Adams in the general election in 1824. What matters is perception. An aggrieved Trump would likely—and with some justification—denounce it as a “Corrupt Bargain” for the 21st century.
The 1824 election has been called “a political turning point in which none of the old rules applied.”
According to historian Timothy Naftali, “the shift that occurs … is that the American people don’t want their representatives to choose presidents anymore. They want to choose presidents themselves.” For GOP insiders, it’s worth remembering this. Whatever you think of Trump’s politics or his temperament, like Jackson, the candidate has energized a significant section of the electorate. As Trump said in Thursday’s Republican debate, “Millions and millions of people are going out to the polls and they’re voting. … Some of these people, frankly, have never voted before.” The facts appear to bear this out with combined turnout at the Republican primaries higher than any year since 1980.
If the lessons of 1824 are to apply today, denying Trump the nomination if he remains the front-runner will likely make his supporters angrier and more determined. It might even position Trump as the leader of an even broader coalition of America’s disaffected and marginalized, as it did for Jackson—propelling him to the nomination or even the White House four years from now.