8/5/11 - duels, the electoral college and politics

In today's excerpt - one of the strangest and most unsatisfying features of our Constitution is the electoral college. In 1824, this led the country to outrage at what most thought to be an underhanded presidential election. Since party nominating conventions were not yet developed, six formidable candidates competed in the general election—New England's John Quincy Adams, Georgia's William H. Crawford, South Carolina's fiery John C. Calhoun, New York's De Witt Clinton, Kentucky's Henry Clay, and Tennessee's Andrew Jackson. Even though Jackson won a plurality of popular votes, since no one won a majority of electoral votes (and in six states electors were chosen by legislatures rather than the popular vote), the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. There, powerhouse legislator Henry Clay, though he had the least electoral votes of any, schemed to give them to John Quincy Adams in exchange for a promise to be named Secretary of State, and Adams became President. Legislators and voters fumed. [Also, note below the strong American desire as late as 1824 to wage war to acquire Canada—a feat that had been unsuccessfully attempted during the War of 1812]:

"[The issue] that Polk first addressed was stoked by partisan outrage left over from the disputed presidential election. At issue was a proposed constitutional amendment either to abolish the electoral college outright and provide for a direct popular vote, or to modify the electoral college and require presidential electors to cast their vote for the candidate receiving a plurality in their district. ...

"In the Senate, Clay was under assault from Virginia's crusty John Randolph. Clay and Randolph had never seen eye to eye on even the most trivial of issues. In fact, when Clay had set about making the speakership a position of true power upon his first election to that post in 1811, he had unceremoniously ordered Randolph to remove his dog from the House floor—something no previous Speaker had dared to do. On more substantive issues, Randolph vehemently opposed the fixation of Clay and his war hawks on acquiring Canada.

"But now the feud became more personal. Randolph indulged in a rambling discourse that touched on all phases of Clay's perceived follies, but most of all upon his "corrupt bargain" with John Quincy Adams. No longer able to defend himself verbally as a member of Congress, Clay did the one thing that smacked more of Andrew Jackson than of his benefactor Adams. He promptly challenged Randolph to a duel. Randolph was only too happy to oblige.

"Never mind that by now most states, including Clay's own Ken­tucky, had outlawed dueling, or that many in Congress, and Clay himself, entertained questions about Randolph's sanity. In the end, Clay determined that "I ought not to be governed by that opinion [of Randolph's insanity] which was opposed by the recent act of my native state electing him to the Senate."

"So, on April 8, 1826, despite the entreaties of their seconds to postpone or forgo the matter, the secretary of state of the United States and Senator John Randolph of Virginia faced off at ten paces beneath a cluster of trees just across the Potomac River from Wash­ington.

"At the command of 'Fire!' both men took aim and discharged, their weapons. The ball from Clay's pistol struck the ground near Randolph; the senator's own shot hit a stump behind Clay. "Enough!" cried Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who was witness­ing the exchange and who, as first cousin to Clay's wife, had done his best to avert it. But neither combatant was satisfied. Their weapons were reloaded and again came the command, 'Fire!' Clay's ball struck almost the same spot. Randolph fired into the air. 

" 'I do not fire at you, Mr. Clay,' thundered Randolph, as he quickly advanced toward Clay with outstretched hand. Clay met his opponent halfway and shook hands. Benton and the attendant seconds breathed sigh of relief. Two days later, Clay and Randolph exchanged calling cards, a sign that social relations between the two were formally restored. Such was life in Washington in 1826. As for the electoral college, its structure was never changed, and two cen­turies later, it remains as enacted in 1804 by the Twelfth Amendment."


Walter R. Borneman


Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America


Random House


Copyright 2008 by Walter R. Borneman


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment