"A Foot Race": Explanatory notes by Daniel Peart

This cartoon portrays the presidential election of 1824 as a foot race. On the left, candidates John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson (left to right) sprint for the finish line. On the right, the fourth candidate Henry Clay has pulled up short and stands, hand on head, exclaiming, ‘D--n it I cant save my distance – so I may as well draw up.’ A supporter, in riding clothes, consoles him, ‘Well dont distress yourself – there’ll be some scrubbing by & by & then you’ll have a chance.’ If no candidate could win an outright majority in the Electoral College, a likely occurrence with so many in contention, then the Constitution dictated that the election be decided in the House of Representatives, where Speaker of the House Clay would have significant influence.

The cheering spectators offer their own comments on the presidential race. A westerner, complete with stovepipe hat and power horn, hollers ‘Hurra for our Jacks-son,’ while former President John Adams responds ‘Hurra for our son Jack.’ On the inside line, Crawford has knocked off-balance a well-dressed man who cries out ‘Oh! my honour’, and a member of the crowd retorts ‘It serves you right you stupid NINNY-AN so it does, for trying to stop him.’ This is a satirical allusion to the efforts of Senator Ninian Edwards to derail Crawford’s presidential campaign by charging him with engaging in malfeasance as Secretary of the Treasury. Alongside, a man in coachman’s livery proclaims ‘That inne-track fellow goes so well; that I think he must have got the better of the bots [boss?],’ which may be a reference to the efforts of a minority of Republican Congressmen to boost Crawford’s chances by nominating him in caucus. His companion replies, ‘Like enough; but betwixt you & I--I dont think he'll ever get the better of the QUINSY.’ In the centre of the picture, a raggedly dressed Irishman declares, ‘Blast my eyes if I don’t venter a small horn of rotgut on that bald filly in the middle [Adams],’ and his wager is accepted by a scholarly gentleman who announces, ‘D--n my wig if I dont bet you.’ Betting on elections, and of course on horse races, was common in antebellum America. Next comes a Frenchmen, who comments, ‘Ah hah! Mon's Neddy I tink dat kick on de back of you side is worse den have no dinner de fourt of july’. This is another reference to the dispute between Crawford and Edwards; when several supporters of the Secretary of the Treasury refused to invite the Senator to a Fourth of July dinner that they were organising, John Quincy Adams and a number of other prominent politicians also declined to attend in protest. Affairs such as this perfectly illustrate the personal nature of politics in the Early Republic.

As is typical of the period, the cartoon is full of small details, many of which are bewildering to a modern audience. For example, it is not readily apparent what is the significance of the argument between two men in the background, one of whom declares, ‘The foremost fellow shows fine bottom’, while the other demurs ‘Ay, but the hindmost has the best bone.’ Nevertheless, the overall message of the cartoon is clear. Overlooking the whole scene is the ‘PRESIDENTIAL CHAIR’, with a purse of ‘$25,000 per Annum’, and the Capitol building looms in the distance. Although not as overtly critical as some commentators, the cartoonist neatly illustrates the contemporary perception that the nature of presidential elections was changing, as the disinterested and virtuous conduct of the Founding Fathers gave way to electioneering and ambition.

This print probably appeared late in the campaign, as an impression held in the New York Public Library contains the copyright mark ‘Entered… Oct. 6, 1824.’ By December 1824, it was clear that Clay would receive the least votes in the Electoral College, and therefore would be eliminated from contention as the Constitution ordained that only the top three candidates could proceed. When it came to the House vote in February 1825, the influential Speaker of the House threw his support to Adams, who was elected on the first ballot by the bare minimum of thirteen states, despite having trailed Jackson in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Jackson was outraged, and the stage was set for the development of a national two-party system.

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