The 1824 election was one for the books and a real chance for the constitution be put into to the test.
Going into the election the country had only one organized party, the Democratic-Republican Party. This created the a vacuum within the party for control in the white house resulting in a divided party behind four different candidates. John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay.
To understand this election is is helpful to understand the evolution of how the process to which we elected presidents has changed. The 1824 election fell into the transition from one system of electing to another.
During the first days of the Constitution the elector votes in each state were voted on and decided by state legislators; who in turn send their electoral votes to the nations capital to be counted with all the other states; but the people of america were buzzing with the idea of having the electoral votes in each state be chosen by the people. By 1824 18 of the 24 states had adopted this system.
Also, before this time Presidents did not step forward as candidates but waited for colleagues to put their name forward as a candidate. But this practice was becoming old fashioned as the game in Washington DC was changing.
No candidate had ever connected with the people as effectively as Andrew Jackson. Jackson chose to stay with tradition in not promoting himself as a candidate, but he remained very popular with the public as he shared in their history of humble beginnings, frontier survival and leadership, as well as military experience and success. His very intense and direct demeanor made him a natural leader of ordinary men, gaining their trust and respect all in one swoop.
He was the common man who was ascending into greatness, and building this new idea of the American Dream proving that any man no matter your beginnings can achieve what they put their mind to in America. (We will get more into this idea later)
But this election was not without its brutal personal attacks and is to this day known as one of the most intense. One of the main attacks against Andrew Jackson was the accusation that he and his wife, Rachel, were adulterers because Rachel was not divorced from her first husband, Lewis Robards, before marrying Andrew. (Another topic for another time) But this accusation was very hard on Jackson and especially Rachel.
With divisions running high the election results came in:
Andrew Jackson led the way with 99 Electoral votes and the most votes in the popular vote but failed to reach the majority required 131 electoral votes. According to the 12th amendment of the constitution if no candidate gets the majority the decision is left to the House of Representatives. They could choose from the choice of the top three candidates of which were Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and William H. Crawford. With Henry Clay dropping out of the race he was able to swing Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri behind John Quincy Adams. With these three states behind the ten Adams already had, Adams was able to walk away with a victory despite the popular vote belonging Jackson.
Many political leaders of the day were shocked at Clay's backing of Adams but it made more sense then people realized. The only connection Clay had to Jackson was the fact that they were both from the west but Adams and Clay shared similar ideologies such as nationalism and promoting economic development. But more importantly Clay thought Adams in the White House was a lot more tolerable than a "military hero with a record of defying civilian authority [who was a] dangerously inappropriate choice for president."
Following this election Jackson would have to wait 4 more years to try again.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 208-210.