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The first partisan election
on October 10, 2007
If one thinks back just a few years to the election of 2000 and finds it unusual to a nail-biting degree, read Edward Larson's terrific new book, "A Magnificent Catastrophe" to see what a real cliffhanger can be. The election of 1800, the first truly partisan national election in the United States, is brilliantly captured by Larson and his sense of drama is impeccable.
The cast of characters are many, including the tempestuous incumbent president, John Adams, his bitter rival (the Republican Thomas Jefferson) and others who figured prominently in the outcome. Alexander Hamilton was chief among them, plotting along the way to boost Federalist candidates, as well as his own national prominence. Aaron Burr, whose presence was both a boon and a disadvantage, appears well into things late in the book. He connives as much as Hamilton and it is a fitting set-up to their duel a few years later. Of all these players, Larson's book really centers mostly on Adams...being the current president, his administration was on the line and he had the most to lose. Yet, with these personalities that the author captures so vividly, it is the process of the election that makes this book stand out. From the maneuvering by Republicans in New York in the spring of 1800, Larson takes the reader through each and every phase of the "campaign"...and campaign it really did become as President Adams, Harry Truman-style when faced with an uphill election battle, made a swing through several states that would be in play later in the year.
What is amazing and ironic is the parallel between that year and today's elections. Religion played an important part in 1800 with Jefferson being branded as an "infidel". In a quote that practically leaps off the page, Massachusetts Federalist Congressman Harrison Otis, warning of Aaron Burr's possible winning the presidency, said of Burr, he "would start a foreign war to consolidate his power". (shades of the twenty-first century!)
As the balloting continued through the fall of 1800, both sides took stock. The antiquated system of the day (which was modified with the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804) struggled along but the December outcome only clouded the results further and Larson's description of the deadlock, broken only two weeks before the inauguration date, is one of the many high points of the book. It may be that this was the only presidential election where a small state like Delaware could have had such a large say in deciding the election.
I highly recommend "A Magnificent Catastrophe" for its' thoroughness, historical accuracy and crisp narrative. Edward Larson has provided readers with a wonderful account of that particular time, the politics associated with it and the similitudes to today's issues and political motivations. In a chilling portent of things to come, Thomas Jefferson commented that the primary threat of government corruption lay in an all-powerful presidency immune from the checks and balances of congressional and state authority. Those sentiments ring true as we find things were not all that different two hundred years ago than they are today.