How Andrew Jackson Lost an Election and Won the White House

CAmerican history is not filled with stories of stolen elections. Only three candidates—Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump—have been associated with such claims. In Nixon’s case, rumors of voting irregularities in the 1960 race against John F. Kennedy prompted many of his supporters—including president Eisenhower—to demand recounts in Texas and Illinois. Nixon refused, however, insisting it would “tear the country to pieces,” and later writing, “I could think of no worse example for nations abroad, who for the first time were trying to put free electoral procedures into effect, than that of the United States wrangling over the results of our presidential election, and even suggesting that the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box.”

Trump and Jackson are the only two presidents who challenge their legitimacy. Old Hickory as Jackson was known won the plurality of electoral votes, but not the majority, in a race that featured four candidates. In the House of Representatives, an election contingent was held (each state could cast one vote), in which John Quincy Adams outdistanced William Crawford (Secretary of Treasury William Crawford)

Even before the House met, Jackson, sensing the possibility of defeat, had written to a colleague alleging “intrigue” and “abuses” by designing politicians. He believed these partisans were suspicious of west populism and wanted to end his (as Tennessean), attempt to be the first President to not hail from either Virginia or Massachusetts. Insisting that an East Coast “combination” conspired to swing the election toward Adams, he swore the day after learning of his defeat, “The People of the west have been disregarded, and demagogues barter them as sheep in the shambles.”

Jackson’s insistence on a stolen election energized his already considerable political support. One Jacksonian argued that a series of “corrupt bargains” brought Adams to the presidency and this claim became, over the next four years, the rallying cry of the new administration’s critics.

Actually, the claim of theft is devoid of credibility. Nearly 60% of the electorate voted for Jackson’s opponents, while the Twelfth Amendment simply asserts that when the House selects the president “a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice”—and does not stipulate that the candidate with the most popular or electoral votes should receive any advantage.

Jackson was convinced for his entire life that he’d been robbed. In a widely circulated correspondence, Jackson attacked both the Adams government and the agile wirepullers he thought had betrayed the people. In one communication he contended that “liberty never was in greater danger. . . . Let corrupt patronage be the means of transmitting the Presidency . . and we shall soon consider the form of electing by the people a mere farce.”

Jackson won the presidency in 1828, and was reelected in 1832. But it was his 1824 campaign that secured his place in power, which predated his historic victory at Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Even though he was a short-serving senator and House member, Jackson presented himself as an outsider who is eager to fight against the arrogant coastal aristocracy. The results of the contingent House election only burnished his credentials as the candidate that the circa 1820s “deep state” had wished to destroy.

In Trump’s case it is yet unclear how much fruit this latest charge of ballot-fixing will bear. What role might it play in flipping the House and Senate in this year’s elections? Will it have a decisive role in the decision of who will take office January 20, 2025. Observing Jackson’s inauguration in the late winter of 1829, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster mused in some amazement over the stolen election claim and the storm it had raised. “I never saw anything thing like it before,” he wrote a relative. “Persons have come 500 miles to see Genl Jackson; & they really seem to think that the Country is rescued from some dreadful danger.”

Trump embraced Jackson, a fellow populist who was opposed to the liberal elites, while he was president. But the strongest tie between the two might be their shared sense of conspiracy—and the insight that such allegations have the power, in a divided country, to move the political needle.

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