Online College Courses for Credit

The Sectional Crisis and the ʺCorrupt Bargainʺ of 1824

The Sectional Crisis and the ʺCorrupt Bargainʺ of 1824

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Recognize the significance of major political events in the 1820s.

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

37 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

299 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 32 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


what's covered
Victory in the War of 1812, western expansion, the market revolution, political dominance by the Democratic-Republicans, and an upsurge in political participation by white males all contributed to an “Era of Good Feelings” in the United States. But underneath the surface, Americans remained divided along economic, racial, and gender lines. Most importantly, the question of admitting Missouri into the Union as a slave state threatened to divide the United States along sectional lines.

This tutorial examines the divisions that affected American politics and, by the mid-1820s, threatened to paralyze the system altogether. The challenge that faced American politicians during this period was to devise a political system around which Americans could organize in support of specific ideals and platforms, rather than organize according to section.

Our discussion breaks down as follows:
  1. The Missouri Crisis
  2. The Missouri Compromise
  3. A New Style of Politics
  4. The Electoral Crisis of 1824

1. The Missouri Crisis

Another stage of western expansion occurred when the settlers of Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood. Missouri Territory had been organized out of the massive Louisiana Purchase that Thomas Jefferson orchestrated in 1803. By 1818, tens of thousands of settlers had flocked to the territory, including slaveholders who brought over 10,000 slaves with them. When the status of Missouri was taken up by the U.S. House of Representatives in early 1819, its admission to the Union would be no easy matter, since it brought to the surface a violent debate over whether slavery could expand into a new state.

American politicians had sought to avoid the issue of slavery ever since the 1787 Constitutional Convention, when delegates arrived at the Three-Fifths Compromise.

term to know
Three-Fifths Compromise
The counting of each slave as three-fifths of a white person when determining population for the purposes of representation and taxation in Congress.

In short, the compromise ensured that the free population of a state, along with 60 percent of its enslaved population, would be counted when determining the number of that state’s members in the House of Representatives. A concession to southern slave states — which featured large slave populations — the Three-Fifths Compromise inflated the political influence of southern states in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. From the perspective of representatives from northern states — where racial slavery had gradually become absent — the admission of Missouri as a slave state would threaten the tenuous balance between free and slave states in the Senate. Northern politicians were particularly concerned that the South’s interests in protecting slavery would result in the creation of a southern voting bloc in Congress that would overwhelm northern, “free” states.

did you know
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, many northern states implemented plans for gradual emancipation. By the 1820s, racial slavery was absent in the North.

The debate over representation shifted quickly to the morality of slavery itself when New York representative James Tallmadge — a Democratic-Republican who opposed slavery — attempted to introduce a provision to the Missouri statehood bill known as the Tallmadge Amendment.

term to know
Tallmadge Amendment
Proposal by James Tallmadge that provided for the admission of Missouri as a free state, on the condition that the introduction of additional slaves to Missouri was prohibited and that the children of slaves already in Missouri be emancipated at age 25.

The amendment sparked two years’ worth of controversy, during which time the unity of the Democratic-Republican party ruptured along sectional lines.

Northern representatives supported the Tallmadge Amendment, denouncing slavery as immoral and against the nation’s founding principles of equality and liberty. Southerners in Congress rejected the amendment as an attempt to gradually abolish slavery — not just in Missouri but throughout the Union — by violating the property rights of slaveholders, and their freedom to take their property wherever they wished.

Despite opposition from southern representatives, the Tallmadge Amendment passed the House of Representatives. The amendment died in the Senate, however, leaving the fate of Missouri up in the air amidst threats of party division and calls of disunion.

2. The Missouri Compromise

Democratic-Republican Party leadership — most notably President James Monroe, Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois — interpreted the Tallmadge amendment as a threat to party unity. They worked behind the scenes to ensure that Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state.

did you know
Senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois, who proposed the Missouri Compromise in the Senate, owned “indentured” workers, which was a euphemism that Illinois employed to get around the anti-slavery provision in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

What came to be known as the Missouri Compromise consisted of three parts:

  1. Maine, which up to this point had been part of Massachusetts, would enter the Union as a free state.
  2. Missouri would be admitted to the Union as a slave state.
  3. To prevent similar conflicts each time a territory applied for statehood, a line coinciding with the southern border of Missouri (at latitude 36° 30') was drawn across the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. Slavery could exist south of the line but was forbidden north of it (with the exception of Missouri).

Image of Missouri Compromise

term to know
Missouri Compromise
An agreement reached in Congress in 1820 that allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, brought Maine into the Union as a free state, and prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of 36° 30' latitude.

Although the compromise quelled the issue of Missouri statehood, it did not quell the debate over slavery in the United States, especially in the western territories. Such a debate led many, including Thomas Jefferson, to fear for the future of the republic.

Thomas Jefferson expressed such concern in a letter to John Holmes on April 22, 1820, shortly after the Missouri Compromise was enacted. A selection from his letter is provided below:

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Holmes

“This momentous question [over slavery in Missouri], like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper….

I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ‘76, to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it….”
think about it
How would you characterize Jefferson’s reaction to the Missouri crisis? What do you think he means by writing that the Missouri Compromise is “a reprieve only, not a final sentence?”
did you know
The original state constitution of Missouri protected slavery and prohibited free blacks from settling in the state.

3. A New Style of Politics

The expansion of the franchise among white males — combined with the political paralysis and sectional divides that the Democratic-Republicans experienced during the Missouri crisis — contributed to a new style of political party organization. This process was most evident in New York, under the leadership of Senator Martin Van Buren.

Van Buren was indicative of the new form of American democracy that was taking hold by the early 19th century. Rather than an intellectual or a member of the elite, which typically characterized the Founding Fathers (and the first six presidents), Van Buren came from a modest background and was the son of a tavern keeper. In addition, unlike George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whom Americans celebrated for their virtue or intellect, Van Buren’s significance lay in his skill as a political operative.

During the 1820s, Van Buren’s Democratic-Republican faction, known as “Bucktails,” gained political power by cultivating the loyalty of a majority, rather than by catering to an elite family or renowned figure.

did you know
“Factions” were groups within the larger Democratic-Republican Party. Van Buren’s faction was known as “Bucktails” because members wore a deer’s tail on their hats when attending political meetings.

One of the Bucktails’ most significant political achievements in New York came in organizing a convention to revise the state constitution in 1821. Here, the Bucktails successfully pushed through an amendment that did away with the property qualification for voting, giving all white males in the state the right to vote.

At the same time that the Bucktails catered to white voters by eliminating the property qualification, they played to white voters’ racist sentiments by enacting a significant property qualification for black voters. African-Americans had to have a net worth of $250 to be eligible to vote.

The Bucktails also altered the process involved with appointing local officials such as sheriffs and county clerks. Under the original constitution, a Council of Appointments selected these officials. The Bucktails replaced this process with a system of direct elections, which meant thousands of jobs immediately became available to candidates who had the support of the majority. In practice, Van Buren’s faction could nominate and support candidates for these offices, based on their loyalty to the party.

In this way, Van Buren helped create the foundations of a political machine, one in which his faction maintained key alliances with other New York politicians, and rewarded the loyalty of disciplined party members. Not only did it help transform New York politics, Van Buren’s tactics introduced a new term to American political nomenclature: the spoils system.

term to know
Spoils System
A staple of machine politics, in which a political figure rewards allies and party members with political appointments.

Van Buren also had larger plans. Like many of his colleagues in Congress, he was concerned with how quickly the political system fell along sectional lines during the Missouri crisis, and he believed that a new party system could prevent such conflict in the future. Whereas the Founding Fathers interpreted political parties as factions that catered to specific interests, Van Buren believed that parties could be used as tools in favor of the public interest. Competition among party members could provide voters with a choice. Likewise, parties could create coalitions that transcended section, thus preventing a breakdown in the political system as had almost occurred during the Missouri crisis.

In his book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1846, historian Daniel Walker Howe uses the following sentence to summarize Martin Van Buren’s political tactics: "His career represented not the triumph of the common man over aristocracy but the invention of machine politics." Based on your reading of this and previous tutorials on American politics, do you agree or disagree with Howe’s claim? What evidence would you use to support your response?

4. The Electoral Crisis of 1824

The fact that the American political system became paralyzed once again during the presidential election of 1824 reinforced Van Buren’s concerns. The election of 1824 showed that a one-party system (the Democratic-Republicans) was no longer sustainable. At a time when the people were taking a keener interest in politics, the election also revealed frustrations with the Electoral College, which the Founders had implemented to suppress the will of the people.

The gradual disappearance of property qualifications for voting among white males contributed to tens of thousands of new voters in the 1824 election. With the arrival of these new voters, the traditional system of having members of Congress form a caucus to determine who would run for president no longer worked. These voters had local and sectional interests, and they voted on them accordingly. For the first time in American history, the popular vote mattered in a presidential election.


For the 1824 election, electors for the Electoral College were chosen by popular vote in 18 states, while the six remaining states used the older system in which state legislatures chose electors.

With the caucus system under attack, the presidential election of 1824 featured four presidential candidates, all of whom ran as Democratic-Republicans, and most of whom could claim only sectional support. The crowded field included:

  • William H. Crawford (Georgia), a slaveholder whom the Congressional caucus nominated for the presidency; for the most part, he represented southern Democratic-Republicans on a limited government, states’ rights platform.
  • Henry Clay (Kentucky), the Speaker of the House of Representatives who had support from much of the western states; he favored an active federal government committed to internal improvements, such as roads and canals, to bolster national economic development and settlement of the West.
  • John Quincy Adams (Massachusetts), the son of the second president, John Adams, whose support was concentrated in the Northeast.
  • Andrew Jackson (Tennessee), who could claim national support and recognition because of the popularity that followed his military conduct during the War of 1812, especially at the Battle of New Orleans.

The two most popular presidential candidates in the election of 1824 were Andrew Jackson (a), who won the popular vote but failed to secure the requisite number of votes in the Electoral College, and John Quincy Adams (b), who emerged victorious after a contentious vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jackson won the popular vote, receiving over 153,000 votes. The Electoral College was another matter, however. Given the number of candidates in the field, no one received a majority of the electoral votes (see map below).

Image of electoral map

Of the 261 electoral votes up for grabs, the successful candidate needed to secure 131 or more votes to secure the presidency. Jackson carried the most states, but received only 99 electoral votes. Adams, with much of his support centered in the Northeast, won 84. Crawford and Clay received 41 and 37 electoral votes, respectively.

Given the stalemate in the Electoral College, the election fell to the House of Representatives, per the requirements of the Twelfth Amendment.

did you know
The Twelfth Amendment, which was ratified shortly after the contested election of 1800, required electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president. Furthermore, in the event that no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College, the election went to the House of Representatives, where each state would provide one vote.

Since the Twelfth Amendment also stipulated that the House would consider only the top three candidates for president, Henry Clay, who had received the fewest electoral votes, was automatically eliminated. However, as Speaker of the House, Clay went on to play a tremendous role in deciding the election.

Clay believed that Adams was the best qualified presidential candidate and he saw Jackson, who hailed from neighboring Tennessee and a fellow westerner, as a rival who might prevent himself from ascending to the presidency someday. For these reasons, Clay worked within the House to secure the presidency for Adams. Upon winning the House vote, Adams promptly appointed Clay as Secretary of State.

did you know
In the House vote, 13 states voted for Adams, seven voted for Jackson, and only four states voted for Crawford.

Jackson and his supporters cried foul. To them, the election of Adams reeked of anti-democratic corruption. So too did the appointment of Clay as secretary of state. All said, the affair seemed a "corrupt bargain," in which Clay and Adams exchanged votes for a public appointment while ignoring the popular vote.

term to know
“Corrupt Bargain”
The term that Andrew Jackson’s supporters applied to John Quincy Adams’s election in 1824, which had occurred through the machinations of Henry Clay in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Such a bargain seemed to embody everything that an emerging American democracy, based on the will of the people and majority rule, was now against. Everywhere, Jackson’s supporters vowed revenge against the anti-majoritarian result of 1824.


It’s clear that Andrew Jackson’s supporters criticized the outcome of the 1824 election. But place yourself in the position of someone who supported John Quincy Adams. How would you have defended the election’s outcome?
The Missouri crisis and the electoral crisis of 1824 revealed that American politicians had to respond to the sectional and democratic shifts that permeated the United States following the War of 1812. Party leaders, such as Martin Van Buren, recognized the need for a new political system that could prevent future divisions between North and South. The labeling of the election of 1824 as a “corrupt bargain,” meanwhile, revealed that politicians might have to accommodate democratic impulses that were spreading throughout the nation. By the end of the decade, it would become clear that both trends lay the foundation for the emergence of a new national figure: Andrew Jackson.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Electoral College Map,1824, PD,, Derived from Openstax tutorial 10.1 Some sections edited or removed for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial 11.2 Some sections edited or removed for brevity. Howe, D. W. (2009). What hath God wrought: the transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press.

Terms to Know
Corrupt Bargain

The term that Andrew Jackson’s supporters applied to John Quincy Adams’s election in 1824, which had occurred through the machinations of Henry Clay in the U.S. House of Representatives

Missouri Compromise

An agreement reached in Congress in 1820 that allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, brought Maine into the Union as a free state, and prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of 36° 30' latitude

Spoils System

The political system of rewarding friends and supporters with political appointments

Tallmadge Amendment

An amendment (which did not pass) proposed by representative James Tallmadge in 1819 that called for Missouri to be admitted as a free state and for all slaves there to be gradually emancipated

Three-Fifths Compromise

The counting of each slave as three-fifths of a white person when determining population for the purposes of representation and taxation in Congress

People to Know
Andrew Jackson

7th president of the United States headed the Democratic Party and symbolized the democratic impulses of the early 19th century

Henry Clay

American statesman who advocated for the American System and brokered the Missouri Compromise and oversaw the House of Representatives during the Election of 1824

Martin van Buren

Senator from New York who spearheaded a new style of political party organization in the early 19th century

Dates to Know

The Three-Fifths Compromise is negotiated at the Constitutional Convention.


The United States purchases the Louisiana territory from France in the Louisiana Purchase.


Missouri petitions for statehood; the Tallmadge Amendment introduced.


The Missouri Compromise is negotiated in Congress.


The "Era of Good Feelings" ends; The Election of 1824 is decided in the House of Representatives; John Quincy Adams is elected president; Andrew Jackson decries a "Corrupt Bargain".