Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was removed from office on Oct. 3 by a motion to vacate proposed by Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida. The final vote stood at 216 for removal and 210 for retention. McCarthy’s removal stands as the first and only time that a speaker of the House of Representatives was removed from office.
Yet, this was not the first time that there was a motion to vacate. The first motion to vacate the speakership happened in 1910 during Joseph Cannon’s tenure as speaker. Cannon proposed the motion to vacate as part of a plan to prove that he still had the support of the Republican Caucus; the final vote stood at 155 for retention and 96 for removal.
His plan was successful as Cannon suspected Republicans feared losing the speakership to Democrats more than his own popularity within the Republican Caucus. With the removal of McCarthy, the fragmented nature of the Republican party is on display. The current situation echoes back to the political situation in Washington, D.C., in the 1820s.
Beginning in 1824, there was a clear fragmentation in the party between Andrew Jackson’s faction and Henry Clay’s faction. A similar fragmentation is visible in the Republican party currently. The separation between the Freedom Caucus and the mainline Republican Caucus is evident the party is split.
The biggest political event of the 1820s was the election of 1824, perhaps one of this country’s most important elections. That year there were five candidates for the office of president — John Quincy Adams, son of second President John Adams and secretary of state under the Monroe Administration; John C. Calhoun, secretary of war under the Monroe Administration and former representative from South Carolina; Henry Clay, representative from Kentucky and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives; William Crawford, secretary of the treasury during the Monroe Administration; and Andrew Jackson, senator for Tennessee and former military general.
Due to the number of candidates, a majority in the electoral college was not reached; under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution the office of the president was to be elected by the U.S. House of Representatives. Here is where the famous corrupt bargain comes about.
Jackson won the popular vote in the election, but Henry Clay did not want to see his rival become president. He pushed members of Congress to vote for Adams instead, which made John Quincy Adams the 6th president of the United States. John C. Calhoun was elected vice president by a comfortable majority in the popular vote and in the electoral college.
In recent years, we have seen candidates win the popular vote and not the electoral college; the election of 2016 is an example of this. The political infighting that was present in the election of 1824 is evident today. The fragmented Republican Party is struggling to find a candidate ahead of the 2024 election. Yet, there could be a return to common man politics with a figure like Jackson winning the popular vote but the political establishment using procedure to override the popular vote.
The election of 1824 might not have been such a one-off event as historians often depict it. The near future could see similar elections. President Adams then appointed Clay to the office of secretary of state. At that time, the holder of the office of secretary of state was viewed as the favored successor to the current administration.
Jackson accused Clay of striking a corrupt bargain with Adams to get him elected. Jackson also accused Clay of using Adams to secure his own future political ambitions. Clay and Adams both publicly denied that this happened.
It is also important to remember that all these candidates were part of the same political party — the Democratic Republicans. Jackson was furious at the results of the election, and he launched a series of vicious attacks on the Adams administration. Eventually, he won the office of president in the election of 1828.
Some might say that McCarthy struck a bargain with Gaetz to win his election to the office of speaker in January 2023. Regardless of whether McCarthy was justified in working with the Democrats to create the continuous resolution, creating disharmony within the party only causes the public to lose faith in its elected leadership.
The office of speaker has always had a great influence on the American government; demonstrated by Henry Clay in 1824. Gaetz’s actions and words unfortunately look like the attacks Andrew Jackson launched in the Senate in 1824. Abusing the powers of office only serves to damage the integrity of an individual’s office. Congress should heed the examples of the 1820s as they meet to select McCarthy’s successor in the coming weeks.