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The term Corrupt Bargain refers to three historic incidents in American history in which political agreement was determined by congressional or presidential actions that many viewed to be corrupt from different standpoints. Two of these involved resolution of indeterminate or disputed electoral votes from the United States presidential election process, and the third involved the disputed use of a presidential pardon. In all three cases, the president so elevated served a single term, or singular vacancy, and either did not run again, or was not reelected when he ran.
In the 1824 election, no outright majority was attained and the process required resolution in the House of Representatives, whose Speaker and candidate in his own right, Henry Clay, gave his support to John Quincy Adams, and was then selected to be his Secretary of State. In the 1876 election, accusations of corruption stemmed from officials involved in counting the necessary and hotly contested electoral votes of both sides, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was elected by a congressional commission. The most recent incident widely described as a "corrupt bargain" was Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon, following the resignation of the disgraced former president. The critics claim that Ford's pardon was a quid pro quo for Nixon's resignation, which elevated Ford to the presidency.
After the votes were counted in the U.S. presidential election of 1824, no candidate had received a majority of the Presidential Electoral votes, thereby putting the outcome in the hands of the House of Representatives. To the surprise of many, the House elected John Quincy Adams over rival Andrew Jackson. It was widely believed that Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House at the time, convinced Congress to elect Adams, who then made Clay his Secretary of State. Supporters of Jackson, a Senator from Tennessee at the time, who won a plurality of those popular votes which had been counted (though not necessarily of all votes) as well as the greatest number of electoral votes, denounced this as a "corrupt bargain." The "corrupt bargain" that placed Adams in the White House and Clay in the State Department launched a four-year campaign of revenge by the friends of Andrew Jackson. Claiming the people had been cheated of their choice, Jacksonians attacked the Adams administration at every turn as illegitimate and tainted by aristocracy and corruption. Adams aided his own defeat by failing to rein in the pork barrel frenzy sparked by the General Survey Act. Jackson's attack on the national blueprint put forward by Adams and Clay won support from Old Republicans and market liberals, the latter of which increasingly argued that Congressional involvement in internal improvements was an open invitation to special interests and political logrolling.
More recently, analysis by means of game theory mathematics has proposed that, contrary to the assertions of Jackson, his supporters, and countless historians since, the results of the election were consistent with so-called "sincere voting"—that is, those Members of the House of Representatives who were unable to cast votes for their most-favored candidate apparently voted for their second- (or third-) most-favored candidate. This suggests that the result was not a consequence of any "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay, but was instead a natural consequence of an electoral field that was fundamentally divided between those who supported Jackson and those who would support anyone other than Jackson. The latter united behind Adams—who was the natural alternative to Jackson, since third place candidate William H. Crawford was in poor health and had no realistic chance of winning the House vote—and so prevailed. Clay was also from the same subdivision of the Democratic-Republican Party as Adams, making him the natural choice. The persistence of the "corrupt bargain" charge appears, therefore, to be the subject of serious dispute.
Regardless of the various theories concerning the matter, John Quincy Adams was a one-term President, and his rival, Jackson, was elected President by a large majority of the Electors in the election of 1828.
The presidential election of 1876 is sometimes considered to be a second "corrupt bargain." Three Southern states had contested vote counts, and each sent the results of two different slates of electors. Since both candidates needed those electoral votes to win the election, Congress appointed a special Electoral Commission to settle the dispute over which slates of electors to accept. After the commission awarded all the disputed electoral votes to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Congress voted to accept their report, some dissatisfied Democrats claimed that Hayes or his supporters had made a secret compromise to secure the support of some Congressional Democrats. Most of the items in this alleged "Compromise of 1877" were either never acted on (calling into question whether they were ever agreed to) or had already been the established position of Hayes from the time of his accepting the Republican nomination (hence not a sudden "compromise" at all).
The most often cited item in the "compromise" was the agreement to accept Southern "home rule," withdrawing the remaining Northern troops from Southern capitals. This would remove an important tool the federal government had used to enforce that the South would uphold the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which were intended to protect the rights of African-Americans, particularly their right to vote.
Generally, political support for maintaining these troops had dissipated during Grant's second term, and Hayes had little choice but to accept some form of "home rule." He attempted to do so, as stated in his nomination acceptance letter, by gaining promises from Southern states that they would respect the rights, and especially the voting rights, of the freedmen. On the other political side, the Democratic platform of Samuel Tilden, also promised removal of troops, but with no mention of any attempts to guarantee the freedmen's rights. For a time Hayes's approach had some success, but gradually Southern states moved to build new barriers to their right to vote.
Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon was widely described as a "corrupt bargain" by critics of the disgraced former president. These critics claimed that Ford's pardon was quid pro quo for Nixon's resignation, which elevated Ford to the presidency. The most public example of these critics was then-Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, who, as the lowest ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, was the only congressperson to explicitly ask whether the pardon was a quid pro quo. Ford cut Holtzman off, declaring, "There was no deal, period, under no circumstances."