Centenary Lessons for 2024
For all the Left’s shrill rhetoric about thwarted popular majorities, the Electoral College and contingent House votes substantiate a foundational constitutional tenet—federalism.
The 2024 election is a centennial echo of presidential contests in 1824 and 1924. Presidents John Quincy Adams and Calvin Coolidge should inspire modern conservatives and the unique circumstances of their respective electoral triumphs should steel America Firsters for the opportunities and challenges that will accompany the pending rematch between Joseph Biden and Donald Trump.
In January 1924, Calvin Coolidge had been president for four months after the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding in August 1923. Over the next eleven months, Coolidge would enact a prototype “America First” agenda that set the stage for an electoral landslide and the prosperity, peace, and solidarity that followed.
Of equal importance, Coolidge, assisted by a Republican Congress, succeeded in upholding smaller government, balanced budgets, lower taxes, sensible tariffs, and bounded immigration, as well as articulating faith in the American Creed. Over the next six months, Coolidge signed legislation establishing restrictive immigration quotas and substantially reducing income tax rates. Foreign policy successes included staying out of the League of Nations, finalizing Germany’s reparations plan and withdrawing marines from the Dominican Republic. By June 1924, Coolidge secured the confidence of the Republican Party’s traditionalist and progressive wings, winning the nomination resoundingly on the first ballot.
In contrast, the Democratic Party, still recovering from the exhausting moralism of Woodrow Wilson and the massive repudiation of 1920, was bitterly divided. Subject to a far greater traditionalist-progressive schism and polarized over Prohibition, the ascent of the Klan, and an urban–rural divide, the party’s convention lasted sixteen days. The first ballot ended inconclusively; eventually, delegates turned to John W. Davis, whose last election had been for Congress eleven years earlier, on the hundred and third ballot.
Davis was eminently qualified; he was a renowned lawyer and trusted public servant, having been Solicitor General and Ambassador to Great Britain during the Wilson Administration. Afterward, Davis joined a prominent Wall Street law firm. Albeit a compromise nominee, Davis was a thoroughgoing conservative.
Presented with two conservatives, disaffected voters rallied to Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette, a leading progressive. During the Wilson and Harding administrations, LaFollette emerged as a steadfast critic of corporations and unflinching proponent of farmers and labor. LaFollette resurrected the Progressive Party and launched an independent candidacy.
Nevertheless, Coolidge was the prohibitive favorite. The economy was booming (“Coolidge prosperity”) and the president’s minimalist approach served the country well. Davis waged a dignified campaign, but he couldn’t overcome the party’s divisions that begat his nomination and had no disagreements to distinguish himself from Coolidge. Moreover, “Silent Cal’s” absence from the campaign trail deprived the fearsome lawyer of a case to argue. LaFollette undertook a vigorous campaign, but could not gain support beyond his scattered and regional constituency.
On Election Day, Coolidge triumphed with decisive popular and Electoral College majorities—54 percent and 382 votes—dwarfing Davis’s 29 percent and 136 votes and LaFollette’s 16.6 percent and 13 votes. Plausibly, one can assert conservatism’s victory was universal by winning over eighty percent of the vote and all states save LaFollette’s Wisconsin.
The contest of 1924 was the rare earnest and drama-free election; that of a hundred years earlier was decidedly different.
In January 1824, President James Monroe entered the last year of his second term—the “Era of Good Feelings” as described by historians. Despite an economic contraction in 1819, harmful to small farmer and businessmen interests, and the first crisis over slavery in 1820, deleterious to national unity, Monroe ran unopposed and won all Electoral College votes save one. Personal ambitions and emergent disagreements, however, overturned this unanimity and precipitated one of the nation’s most contentious elections ever.
Four distinguished Americans sought the presidency in 1824: two cabinet members—William Crawford and John Quincy Adams—proponents of the prevailing Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian consensus and their respective regions, New York and New England; House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, author of the compromise that defused the slavery crisis and an avowed economic nationalist; lastly, General Andrew Jackson, the undaunted champion of the economically disadvantaged throughout the South and West.
In November, Jackson won the popular vote and Electoral College votes, but only with pluralities. In such an outcome, the decision moves to the House of Representatives and the subsequent contingent election is confined to the top three vote winners—Jackson, Adams, and Crawford, in this case.
Crawford’s chances faded amid health concerns, and Jackson and Adams emerged as the principal contenders.
As speaker, Clay held tremendous influence over the outcome. Awarding the election of Jackson would honor the plurality of Americans who voted for him, but Clay was politically aligned with Adams. Facilitating Adams’s election risked discounting—and antagonizing—Jackson’s supporters.
In a contingent election, each state has one vote. In the subsequent House proceedings, Clay’s support ensured Adams won on the first ballot. Adams reciprocated by appointing him Secretary of State in his administration. Whether the appointment consummated a quid pro quo is unknown, but its occurrence only enraged Jackson. Alleging a “corrupt bargain,” Jackson immediately began preparing for a second presidential bid four years later.
Quincy’s victory marked the last presidential election to end with a vote in the House. The extraordinary finish spotlighted the potential incongruity between popular votes and electoral outcomes and presaged the discontent that marked the 2000 and 2016 elections—and may again in 2024.
Presently, former President Donald Trump is polling very competitively with President Joe Biden in the states that decided the election in 2016 and 2020. Nevertheless, the Republican coalition remains tenuous, as factions continue to insist their version of conservatism is the most authentic. Furthermore, the Republican Party has conspicuously underperformed in the past two off-year elections. Republican conservatives are either poised for a frustrating 1976 defeat or a glorious 1980 victory.
Acknowledging the continuity between Coolidge and Davis in 1924 as to the size and role of government and the American Creed, that year’s election indeed heralded the “high tide of conservatism” and validates the America First conservatism animating the Republican Party.
Furthermore, disaffection in the Democratic ranks and the presence of multiple third-party candidates present the opportunity for another America First landslide. Nevertheless, the likelihood of slim pluralities in state-by-state popular votes and the Electoral College increases.
Fortunately, 1824 substantiates the foresight of the Founding Fathers to enact constitutional mechanisms designed to fairly decide an undecided election. For all the Left’s shrill rhetoric about thwarted popular majorities, the Electoral College and contingent House votes substantiate a foundational constitutional tenet—federalism. States preceded the Constitution and, per their sovereignty, populate the nation’s legislature and select its chief executive.
The Founding Fathers’ elegant solution placed the decision in the chamber closest to the people and comprised of delegations reflecting the state’s population while it also ensured equality between the sovereign states. If concurrent popular and electoral majorities are elusive, presidential aspirants must find one in the states.
The Democratic Party’s vaunted popular majority is a chimera—lopsided victories in one or two states does not automatically translate into a mandate to impose a DEI Gleichschaltung or Green Five-Year Plans on the others.
Coolidge’s landslide reinforces this fact. As a result of LaFollette’s draw on both parties, Coolidge only won an outright majority in 22 of the 48 states. In six of those states, Coolidge’s lead was less than six points; in three of his 13 pluralities, his margin was less than seven points. Minor shifts might not have changed the outcome, but leads in thirty-five states underscore the breadth of the victory.
Without an Electoral College or contingent elections, presidential elections would be less national. Absent combinations of states’ electoral votes, the importance of small populations pivotal to winning coalitions in swing states (Arab Americans in Michigan, African Americans in Georgia, Hispanic Americans in Arizona) would be obviated. Lastly, enduring structural popular majorities in a federal republic are dangerous—witness the consequences of their existence in California (dysfunction) and Oregon (separatism).
If the 2024 election results mirror those of 1824 and the GOP House majority holds, then Republicans would be poised to win a contingent with twenty-six states. In eight Democratic-majority state delegations, however, the margin is only one seat. Of this group, multiple forecasts rate the seats tossups and if they switch to Republican, then a Trump victory is more assured and indisputable.
Whether a landslide or a contingency, a victory for America First is a victory for conservatism and the Constitution. Of course, God save the Republic if the split is ever threefold—popular, electoral, and contingent.