Two rivals. One goal. One was labeled a hypocritical, wild-tempered elitist; the other an impractical, rabble-rousing atheist.
Their success, depending on who was doing the talking, was yoked with either political salvation or impending doom. Their colleagues were alternately earnest, backstabbing, and fickle, fueling a rancorous national debate. Loyalties shattered. Insults flew. And yet, in today”s popular imagination, both men–John Adams and Thomas Jefferson–are often linked with filmy visions of quietude, temperance, and a more dignified, staid time. It”s a wonder, when you think about it, what a few hundred years and some powdered white wigs can do.
The careening course of history and its tenuous implications fuel the narrative of “A Magnificent Catastrophe,” Edward Larson”s new history of the rough-and-tumble election of 1800. After years of what was basically one-party rule, the race of 1800 gave the nation a face-first plunge into the heat of partisan politics – a race so intense it seemed to some capable of making or breaking the fledgling nation. “For both sides,” Larson writes, “freedom (as they conceived it) hung in the balance. One election took on extraordinary meaning. Partisans worried that it might be the young republic”s last.”
Larson”s book couldn”t be better timed, given the chaos of this year”s primaries and the sure-to-be colorful election this summer and fall. And, in many ways, the election of 1800 was quite similar to this one: attack ads, religious slaps (many of which went to Jefferson, the Deist “infidel”), personal rumors, and cutthroat campaigning. Debates on the meaning of the Constitution simmered, as did hyperbole; dragged-out, state-by-state analysis reigned supreme.
A better electoral comparison to 1800, however, may be a more contentious one: the 2000 election debacle, which ended up in the Supreme Court. The election of 1800, after impressive party-based political machinations on the state level, a year of baited breath, and “a steady trickle of election returns [that] kept the nation on edge for months,” ended up in a rather deflating tie. Two Republican candidates (Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his eventual number two and self-promoter extraordinaire) split the electoral vote. It took thirty-five votes from a weary Congress to finally break in favor of Jefferson.
“A Magnificent Catastrophe” outlines the intricacies of nineteenth-century electoral politics with great detail, but its more interesting moments hint at the context in which the great contest occurred. Those who long for the purity of our “original democracy” will be reminded that, back in the day, it wasn”t always that democratic…or that pure. It was an era where federal courts collected jurors rather than chose them at random; secret, backroom caucuses ruled the day; where state election laws were changed at the last minute for party gain; where states offered funding to churches; where direct representation, in many states, did not exist; where slanted party press was the norm and freedom of the press, thanks to the Sedition Act, was seriously under fire. Elitism, Larson notes, also ran rampant. “In the minds of many, the people remained a wild card in presidential politics: That was why lawmakers in most states did not authorize them to vote for electors.”
Larson began his book with an eye on two themes: science and religion. “Coming as it did at the sunset of the Enlightenment and the dawn of the Great Revival,” he notes, “the 1800 campaign occurred at the pivot point of massive cultural forces.” And while the clash of philosophies was clearly there (and while comparing Jefferson to a heathen “Jacobin” certainly made good copy for the Federalists), the heart of the election, it seems, came down to a more subtle force: power.
“A Magnificent Catastrophe” outlines the rapid surge of party politics at the turn of the century–a development that Washington and other Framers hoped would never occur. Aaron Burr, the New Yorker who gave lifeblood to America”s first urban political machine, was an early adapter: “Party discipline, not ideological purity or sectional loyalties, should prevail in the casting of electoral votes, he argued.” As the election gained steam, partisan ranks solidified, leading many to replace principle with party pragmatism in order to gain power. The days of the disinterested public servant, as dreamed up by Washington, were short-lived, to say the least.
Larson”s book continually hints at massive overlying themes: the utility and shortcomings of political parties, the weight of religion, the meaning of the French Revolution, the shakiness of the early American republic, and, most importantly, the age-old debate between liberty and order. Each of these topics, of course, could fill their own books; unfortunately, with its brisk historical narrative, “A Magnificent Catastrophe” gives most of them a mere passing nod–and moves on through the election, all the way up to Jefferson and Adams” deaths, which occurred, remarkably, five hours apart.
As America races towards November, and gripes over our political system fill the air, Larson”s history offers highlights on just how far our democracy has come. Many popular histories of America”s founding period are laced with a quiet historical determinism: a nation bound for success; a Constitution certain to be enshrined for future generations. “A Magnificent Catastrophe” reminds readers of a young, fragile United States, and spells out what was common knowledge in 1800: American democracy is an ambitious experiment, unparalleled in the world. The cacophonous elections that we enjoy (or suffer through) every four years serve as an emblem of our nation”s strength–a strength built upon a number of magnificent catastrophes, unfolding over the past two hundred years.