Thurlow Weed was born on November 15, 1797, the son of Joel and Mary (Elis) Weed, in Cairo, Greene County, NY where his grandfather settled after the Revolutionary War. His father was a farmer who was apparently hard working but never prosperous, occasionally spending time in jail for debt.
In 1799, the family moved to Catskill where young Weed received a small amount of schooling. His first job was pumping a blacksmith’s bellows while the blacksmith formed heated iron. He made six cents per day. At nine, he got a job as a cabin boy on a Hudson River sloop.
In 1808, the family moved to Cortland County where his father tried to operate a farm. Young Thurlow said that he rarely owned a pair of shoes and remembered tying pieces of rug to his feet when he went out in the snow to chop firewood. Thurlow loved to read, but on the rare occasion when he could borrow a book, he had trouble finding time to read, since his family was too poor to buy candles and he had to work all day.
In 1809, the family moved to Onondaga County where Weed was apprenticed to a printer. Except for a few months in the military during the War of 1812, Weed spent most of the next few years working in various printing shops, eventually taking a job with Webster & Skinner, publishers of the Albany Gazette. In 1816, he worked for Jesse Buel, publisher of the Albany Argus and obtained a job as foreman of the Albany Register in 1817, when he was 20 years old.
At the Albany Register, Weed began to try his hand at writing news and editorials. He wrote several editorials supporting DeWitt Clinton and endorsing Clinton’s proposal to construct the Erie Canal. On April 26th, 1818, Weed married Catherine Ostrander of Cooperstown.
During the next several years, Weed tried to start his own publications at Norwich and Manlius but was not successful and wound up at the Rochester Telegraph where he wrote editorials supporting John Quincy Adams. In 1823, the Rochester Telegraph was the first newspaper in the country to support Adams. In 1824, Weed campaigned actively for Adams for President and DeWitt Clinton for governor of New York, both of whom were successful. Weed, in fact, may have been an important factor in the election of Adams.
The Election of Adams
In 1824, New York’s electoral votes were determined by the State Legislature. Democrat Martin Van Buren and his “Albany Regency” controlled the New York Senate and part of the Assembly. They supported Democratic candidate Andrew Jackson, but Jackson was almost unknown in New York.
Three Whig candidates: Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and William H. Crawford dominated New York. Van Buren’s strategy was to throw New York’s electoral votes to the weakest Whig candidate, Crawford, thus helping Jackson.
When the New York State Senate voted – the chamber was then controlled by Van Buren’s Democrats – they endorsed Crawford and gave him 25 delegates, but smartly threw 7 delegates to Clay. In the State Assembly, where Whigs supported Adams, Van Buren threw his support to Adams as well, giving him all 32 delegates but creating an uproar when it became clear what he was doing.
Since the two houses were now divided, a run-off vote was held in a joint session of the State Legislature. With Crawford and Clay delegates on one ballot (the Senate ballot) and all Adams delegates on the other (the Assembly ballot), Van Buren knew that supporters of both Crawford and Clay would vote for the Senate ballot. Even though Clay would only get seven delegates if they won, it would be better than none. The strongest Whig candidate, Adams, running alone on the other ballot would thus lose, getting no delegates.
Seeing what was happening, Weed, together with Henry Wheaton and James Tallmadge called a secret meeting of Adams and Clay supporters. They got seven of the Adams delegates that had been named on the Assembly ballot to pledge to vote for Clay and the seven Clay delegates on the Senate ballot to switch to Adams.
Weed spent the day Sunday at the presses at the Albany Daily Advertiser printing the new ballot so that voters would understand the change. The new ballot showed 25 Crawford and 7 Adams electors on one line (Senate) and 25 Adams electors and 7 Clay electors on the other line (Assembly). Thus legislators favoring both Clay and Adams would vote for the second line (Assembly).
All of the Clay and Adams supporters thus voted for the new ticket and Crawford received none. However there were four more delegates to be decided the next day and they were given to Crawford.
This difference proved to be enough to place Whig candidate John Quincy Adams second to Democrat Andrew Jackson in the national vote, but Jackson was denied a majority of the electoral vote, throwing the Presidential election into the House of Representatives.
In the House, vote was by state, each state had one vote, and was limited to the top three finishers. Thus Jackson with 99 electoral votes (153,544 popular votes), Adams with 84 electoral votes (108,740), and Crawford with 41 (46,618) were involved in a run-off. To receive a state’s vote a majority of congressmen from that state must vote for a single candidate. The first candidate to receive 13 states would win.
In what was later referred to as a “corrupt bargain,” Clay, who was now excluded, threw his support to Adams in return for a promise to be appointed Secretary of State. That gave Adams his own six New England states, four Clay states, and Illinois and Maryland for a total of 12. Jackson who had received the largest popular vote and the largest electoral vote now had seven states and Crawford had four. Undecided was New York.
New York had 34 electoral votes so a tie would be 17-17; a majority 18-16. The winner of New York’s vote would need a majority 18 votes. Adams had 17, Crawford had 14, Jackson had 2, 1 was undecided – Albany’s Congressman Stephen Van Rensselaer III.
Van Rensselaer had been one of the leaders of the Federalist Party since his brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton and father-in-law Philip Schuyler died, but the Federalist Party was dying out and Federalists were joining the Whig Party. Van Rensselaer had been aligned with the Whigs on most issues and his retention of any remaining Federalist office holders in Albany depended on his support of a victorious Whig candidate, Adams or Crawford.
While there was never any love lost between the English of Boston and the Dutch of Albany since the English had seized New Netherland, the Van Rensselaers hated the Adamses of Boston even more after Samuel Adams and John Adams had been instrumental in withholding troops needed to defend Albany after the invasion by Burgoyne in the Revolutionary War, forcing the removal of General Philip Schuyler as commander of the Northern Department. Once Samuel Adams’ friend Horatio Gates was appointed commander, troops from the New England States flowed freely into Saratoga.
John Adams and Stephen Van Rensselaer’s brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton also did not get along. In the first Presidential election John Adams ran on the same ticket with George Washington. Since the candidate receiving the most electoral votes would be President and the candidate receiving the second most would be Vice President, Hamilton purposely withheld Federalist votes to be sure Adams came in second. When John Adams ran for President with Pinckney as his Vice Presidential mate, Hamilton directed Federalist electors to vote equally for both candidates, trying to make a tie. Adams resented the power of the much younger Hamilton and started referring to him as “his puppyhood.”
As Van Rensselaer walked through the snow to the capital that morning, Whig House Speaker Henry Clay and Daniel Webster buttonholed him at the door to the Capitol. Clay and Webster hammered Van Rensselaer to vote for John Quincy Adams. They assured him that all of his Federalist appointments would be retained. They told him that a stalemate in the House of Representatives could create havoc in the country.
They told him that by not voting for Adams the vote may go to Jackson who opposed all those programs the Federalists and Whigs supported. Van Rensselaer understood all these things but would make no commitment. He also knew that he hated Adams. They promised Van Rensselaer the chairmanship of a committee.
The Democrats used Van Buren, another member of Albany’s Dutch elite, to try to influence Van Rensselaer to cast his vote for Jackson. But Van Buren was much younger, more aggressive and, as a Democrat, philosophically separated from the older patrician. Van Rensselaer was noncommittal to Van Buren.
According to Martin Van Buren, Van Rensselaer went to his seat and when the vote began, he closed his eyes and said a prayer for guidance. When he opened his eyes he saw a ballot marked for Adams and felt that this was a divine sign sent to him. He picked up the ballot and cast it for Adams carrying the election and making John Quincy Adams the 6th President of the United States.
However Democrat Van Buren was not a close friend with Federalist/Whig Stephen Van Rensselaer and this story is probably not true. It’s far more likely that the committee chairmanship did the trick.
Van Rensselaer was appointed chairman of the committee supervising the construction and maintenance of the President’s House. His animosity with Adams surfaced in his report to Congress when an annoyed President Adams informed him that “the billiard table had not, and would not, be paid for with public funds.” Van Rensselaer kept close watch on all expenses for Adam’s President’s House for the next four years.
Adams would be the first President elected without receiving a majority of either the electoral vote or the popular vote. His election had come down to one vote – Albany’s Stephen Van Rensselaer III.
Illustrations, from above: a young Thurlow Weed; a pro-Jackson political cartoon showing the populist candidate standing tall among the dogs (curs) representing his political foes and their newspaper backers (1824); Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson; Stephen Van Rensselaer III (from the National Portrait Gallery); and the Electoral College vote in 1824 election.