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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Racy Look at Our First Years, and Their Climax, March 30, 2005
This review is from: Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Pivotal Moments in American History Series) (Hardcover)
This book covers much the same ground as The Age of Federalism by Elkins and McKitrick, but much more rapidly. In that earlier book no effort was spared to lay out the details of diplomacy and policy as they related to Federalism and the nascent "Republicanism". Here much the same is accomplished by focusing more on the personalities involved -- Jefferson and Adams primarily, of course, but also Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and (to a lesser extent) Burr and Pinkney. Hamilton does not come off that well, as the story is told from the points of view of Adams and Jefferson, both of whom disliked him (for quite different reasons), and feared him to a certain extent. So he seems more of a petty schemer than he really was.

Still, scheming was the order of the day -- Jefferson pursued his designs relentlessly and disingenuously. (Adams was not up to committing chicanery. Though ambitious, he was a socially clumsy intolerant moralist with an ungovernable temper.) The election of 1796 was the first real presidential contest, since Washington was not running. It was a warmup for 1800: the party lines were drawn, but party discipline was lax, so it had the awkward outcome of the prominent Federalist Adams becoming President, and the prominent Republican Jefferson Vice-President.

By 1800 the rancor between the two parties was greater than ever, and the electors were disciplined to vote as they were told by the party organizations, with the interesting result that Jefferson and Burr tied. They were both Republicans, and the leadership, expecting a few defections in the electors' 2nd votes, had expected Jefferson to win. So the election went to the House, and many ballots.

There is much here about the ways the voting went, and how each state's electors behaved. It shows rather clearly the flaws in the system, once there are parties. There is much here, too, on the political machinations of the various factions, much of it entertaining. This was a pivotal election: Jefferson won, and the Republicans had their way for a quarter century, and the Federalists just faded away. But more than that, the whole cavalcade of characters, who were consciously and unconscously setting precedents that would endure to the present day, has its own fascination.

I enjoyed the writing, and I enjoyed the narrative devices. To begin with, Ferling gives us interesting biographical sketches of the main players, taking them up to about 1789. As we know that the climax comes with the election of 1800, we can enjoy all the details and incidents of the previous years as contributing to the final event, and taking significance from that. This is a story, in other words, not just a recitation of historical fact. Moreover, it is gracefully written for a lay audience, with notes tucked at the end of the book. It is written as part of the series Pivotal Moments in American History. As that name suggests, it is not discursive, but focused. It accomplishes its object of illuminating one of those important turning points in our history fully, with interest, but with economy, too.
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Location: Austin, TX

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