Introduction

Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828 by an electoral coalition still angry about the results of the election of 1824. In that election, Jackson had earned a plurality of Electoral College votes but not a majority, and the election went to the House of Representatives under the Twelfth Amendment (Resolution Rejecting the 12th Amendment). Led by Henry Clay, the Kentucky delegation chose John Quincy Adams even though he was from Massachusetts and Jackson was from neighboring Tennessee. This choice prevailed in the House at large, and when Adams became president, he then named Clay as his Secretary of State. At the time, this was the office regarded as the stepping-stone to the presidency, because Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had served as Secretary of State before becoming president. Jackson and his supporters labeled the nomination of Clay a “corrupt bargain,” and they argued for reforms to presidential selection.

In his first annual message (now known as a “state of the union” address), Jackson recommended direct election of the president as well as term limits for federal officeholders. In 1826, Congress had debated amending the Constitution with respect to presidential selection, but the advocates for change could not win the necessary supermajority. Jackson’s proposals went nowhere, but they illustrate his understanding of presidential power and anticipate arguments in the twentieth century.


Source: James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897. Volume II. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896), 442-43, 447-49.


Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives:

It affords me pleasure to tender my friendly greetings to you on the occasion of your assembling at the seat of Government to enter upon the important duties to which you have been called by the voice of our countrymen. The task devolves on me, under a provision of the Constitution, to present to you, as the Federal Legislature of twenty-four sovereign States and 12,000,000 happy people, a view of our affairs, and to propose such measures as in the discharge of my official functions have suggested themselves as necessary to promote the objects of our Union.

In communicating with you for the first time it is to me a source of unfeigned satisfaction, calling for mutual gratulation[1] and devout thanks to a benign Providence, that we are at peace with all of mankind, and that our country exhibits the most cheering evidence of general welfare and progressive improvement. Turning our eyes to other nations, our great desire is to see our brethren of the human race secured in the blessings enjoyed by ourselves, and advancing in knowledge, in freedom, and in social happiness.

Our foreign relations, although in their general character pacific and friendly, present subjects of difference between us and other powers of deep interest as well to the country at large as to many of our citizens. To effect an adjustment of these shall continue to be the object of my earnest endeavors, and notwithstanding the difficulties of the task, I do not allow myself to apprehend unfavorable results. Blessed as our country is with everything which constitutes national strength, she is fully adequate to the maintenance of all her interests. In discharging the responsible trust confided to the Executive in this respect it is my settled purpose to ask nothing that is not clearly right and to submit to nothing that is wrong; and I flatter myself that, supported by the other branches of government and by the intelligence and patriotism of the people, we shall be able, under the protection of Providence, to cause all our just rights to be respected….

I consider it one of the most urgent of my duties to bring to your attention the propriety of amending that part of our Constitution which relates to the election of President and Vice-President. Our system of government was by its framers deemed an experiment, and they therefore consistently provided a mode of remedying its defects.

To the people belongs the right of electing their Chief Magistrate; it was never designed that their choice should in any case be defeated, either by the intervention of electoral colleges or by the agency confided, under certain contingencies, to the House of Representatives. Experience proves that in proportion as agents to execute the will of the people are multiplied there is danger of their wishes being frustrated. Some may be unfaithful; all are liable to err. So far, therefore, as the people can with convenience speak, it is safer for them to express their own will.

The number of aspirants to the Presidency and the diversity of the interests which may influence their claims leave little reason to expect a choice in the first instance, and in that event the election must devolve on the House of Representatives, where it is obvious the will of the people may not be always ascertained, or, if ascertained, may not be regarded. From the mode of voting by States the choice is made by twenty-four votes, and it may often occur that one of these will be controlled by an individual Representative. Honors and offices are at the disposal of the successful candidate. Repeated ballotings may make it apparent that a single individual holds the cast in his hand. May he not be tempted to name his reward? But even without corruption, supposing the probity of the Representative to be proof against the powerful motives by which it may be assailed, the will of the people is still constantly liable to be misrepresented. One may err from ignorance of the wishes of his constituents; another from a conviction that it is his duty to be governed by his own judgement of the fitness of the candidates; finally, although all were inflexibly honest, all accurately informed of the wishes of their constituents, yet under the present mode of election a minority may often elect a President, and when this happens it may reasonably be expected that efforts will be made on the part of the majority to rectify this injurious operation of their institutions. But although no evil of this character should result from such a perversion of the first principle of our system – that the majority is to govern – it must be very certain that a President elected by a minority cannot enjoy the confidence necessary to the successful discharge of his duties.

In this as in all other matters of public concern, policy requires that as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will. Let us, then, endeavor so to amend our system that the office of Chief Magistrate may not be conferred upon any citizen but in pursuance of a fair expression of the will of the majority.

I would therefore recommend such an amendment of the Constitution as may remove all intermediate agency in the elections of the President and Vice-President. The mode may be so regulated as to preserve to each State its present relative weight in the election, and a failure in the first attempt may be provided for by confining the second to a choice between the two highest candidates. In connection with such an amendment it would seem advisable to limit the service of Chief Magistrate to a single term of either four or six years. If, however, it should not be adopted, it is worthy of consideration whether a provision disqualifying for office the Representatives in Congress on whom such an election may have devolved would not be proper.

While members of Congress can be constitutionally appointed to offices of trust and profit it will be the practice, even under the most conscientious adherence to duty, to select them for such stations as they are believed to be better qualified to fill than other citizens; but the purity of our government would doubtless be promoted by their exclusion from all appointments in the gift of the President, in whose election they may have been officially concerned. The nature of the judicial office and the necessity of securing in the cabinet and in diplomatic stations of the highest rank the best talents and political experience should, perhaps, except these from the exclusion.

There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties. Their integrity may be proof against improper considerations immediately addressed to themselves, but they are apt to acquire a habit of looking with indifference upon the public interests and of tolerating conduct from which an unpracticed man would revolt. Office is considered as a species of property, and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people. Corruption in some and in others a perversion of correct feelings and principles divert government from its legitimate ends and make it an engine for the support of the few at the expense of the many. The duties of all public officers are, or at least admit of being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance; and I cannot [but] believe that more is lost by the long continuance of men in office than is generally to be gained by their experience. I submit, therefore, to your consideration whether the efficiency of the government would not be promoted and official industry and integrity better secured by a general extension of the law which limits appointments to four years.[2]

In a country where offices are created solely for the benefit of the people no one man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another. Offices were not established to give support to particular men at the public expense. No individual wrong is, therefore, done by removal, since neither appointment to nor continuance in office is matter of right. The incumbent became an officer with a view to public benefits, and when these require his removal they are not to be sacrificed to private interests. It is the people, and they alone, who have a right to complain when a bad officer is substituted for a good one. He who is removed has the same means of obtaining a living that are enjoyed by the millions who never held office. The proposed limitation would destroy the idea of property now so generally connected with official station, and although individual distress may be sometimes produced, it would, by promoting that rotation which constitutes a leading principle in the republican creed, give healthful action to the system.

Study Questions

A. How does Jackson’s proposal for direct election of the president correspond with the larger aims of Jackson’s political coalition? The proposal did not become part of the Constitution. What might have been the concerns of those against the idea?

B. How would Jackson’s proposal alter the logic of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 68? How might the Delaware legislature of 1804 respond to Jackson’s proposal?

Footnotes

  1. happiness and/or satisfaction at one’s circumstance
  2. See Federalist Nos. 57 and 72 (Document 1) for the case against term limits for the House and president.