Customer Reviews: A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign
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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.
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on October 8, 2007
The contentious election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams gave form to the political life of the early Nineteenth Century and has been much told: how the emerging parties differed on issues such as the balance between security and liberty (the Alien and Sedition Acts), the foreign policy debates between those who leaned toward England and those who favored France in the continental wars that followed the French Revolution, the expansion of the army for defense, and of the taxes that paid for it, and finally the Electoral College tie between Jefferson and Burr and the political maneuvering in the House of Representatives to elect the next President.

While the issues in the election are not ignored, Larson concentrates on the conduct of the election in cities and states across the nation. America was closely divided between the two major parties --- Adams had edged Jefferson by 71 to 68 Electoral College votes in 1796 --- and the broad historical issues played out through the local tactical and strategic choices made by local participants well beyond the control of the candidates themselves

Larson traces the election in each of the battleground states as they moved through the electoral year. He shows how tactical decisions made by Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in selecting candidates for the state legislature from the Federalist stronghold of New York City (which had voted 60% federalist in the prior election) resulted in a sweep of the city for the Republican candidates, providing enough votes to give Republican control of the state legislature and, therefore, of the electors elected by the state legislature to cast New York's votes for Jefferson. Although Adams garnered more electoral votes in 1800 than in 1796 from the other states of the Union, the switch of New York was determinative, and all because of the choice of candidates for the State Legislature.

But other states could have swung the election the other way: especially Pennsylvania, Maryland and South Carolina. Even a few votes from Virginia had it continued to elect electors by district instedad of statewide, would have sufficed to reelect Adams. Larson brings us into the maneuvering in each state, and in the process illuminates the much different process by which Presidents were elected in the early days of the Republic.

He also brings us inside the ranks of the Federalist Party and to the consultations by which some (Alexander Hamilton among them) hoped to make Charles Pinckney, the Federalist candidate for Vice President, the President in place of Adams. Before the Twelfth Amendment, when electors did not cast votes separately for president and Vice President, all that was necessary was for some southern electors to vote for Pinckney but not Adams and Pinckney would finish on top. Even with New York in the Republican column, that remained a distinct possibility until finally the South Carolina legislature chose the state's electors.

Readers seeking a history of the broad trends and ideas in the election of 1800 should look elsewhere. But readers interested in seeing how the original structure of the Electoral College affected elections, and how local political actions determined national consequences will find "A Magnificent Catastrophe" a worthwhile read.
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on September 7, 2007
Larson's book is an excellent look at an amazing election. It's important to realize that partisanship was happening way back when and that the games politicians play have always been sordid. His account of Hamilton's schemes, Adams' tantrums and Burr's conniving all have resonance today -- except the names are different.
Two criticisms: First, sometimes he swamps you with detail. And, two, he should have drawn clearer parallels with the modern day.
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on February 24, 2008
Recent American history has seen some fairly contested, highly partisan Presidential elections. In 1992 we saw the most successful run by a third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1916. In 1996, we saw Republicans fresh off an historic take-over of Congress convinced they could defeat a sitting President. In 2004, the race between Bush and Kerry brought up memories of a war that had ended almost thirty years in the past. And, of course, 2000 saw the closest and most controversial Presidential election since Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden.

But nothing that we've experienced can compare to the first partisan Presidential election in American history, the election of 1800.

In A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign, Edward Larson tells the story of a campaign that changed the way we elect Presidents and changed the course of American history.

Prior to 1800, the United States had not had a contested Presidential election. George Washington ran essentially unopposed in 1788 and 1792, and could have done the same in 1796 if he had chosen to. In the campaign of 1796, the partisan alignments that Washington had resisted and naively hoped would not come about were still forming. There were two factions, for sure, but formal political parties were still a few years away. The seeds for what would happen for years later, though, were planted when the Electoral College selected a President (Adams) and Vice-President (Jefferson) from opposing factions.

By the time the election of 1800 approached, those factions had developed into true political parties. The Federalists dominated New England and much of the North, the Republicans the South. Up for play, and all important to the election of 1800 were mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania.

In a relatively short, easy to read 276 pages, Larson takes the reader form one part of the country to the other as the two parties, and the factions within them, struggle to navigate the sometimes byzantine way in which President's were picked in the late 18th century.

In addition to Adams and Jefferson, much time is spent on the role played by two bitter political rivals who would eventually end up on a dueling field overlooking Manhattan Island -- Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In 1800, Hamilton and Burr battled in the even-then rough and tumble world of New York City politics. The New York legislative elections would determine who won that state's electoral votes and Burr put together a strategy to win the city, and the state, from Hamilton. Hamilton, meanwhile, was fighting two enemies; the Republicans and John Adams who he believed had betrayed Federalist Party principles during his time in office. By October, Hamilton would openly break with Adams and back Vice-Presidential candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for President, thus guaranteeing a Federalist loss and the end of the Federalist Party.

One of the more extraordinary things about the election was the fact that neither Jefferson nor his supporters seemed to realize that Burr, through the guarantees he had exacted from them, had virtually guaranteed that the two men would end up tied in the Electoral College and the election would be thrown to the Federalist dominated House of Representative. In the end, after thirty-six ballot, the House choose Jefferson and American history was set on a new course.

Larson's book is an excellent read for anyone interested in electoral politics and American history.
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VINE VOICEon April 19, 2008
This was, given the consensus for Washington to be President, our first national election. Its result re-oriented the country in its promised direction and solidified the two party system.

Larson tells the saga of this 16 month pre-media electoral slog. The Constitution had not anticipated political parties. It called for electors (today, our vestigal electoral college) to cast the presidential ballots and left each state to determine its own election rules. The parties studied the rules, did the math, and attempted to manipulate rules, events and perceptions to change the outcome before and after the fact.

The story is reported with facts and quotes. By nature of its content, there is a lot of technical detail. Slavery, which gives the south disproportionate electoral influence due to the Constitution's specified population count, is not an issue for the participants, and perhaps not the rank and file free male voter either. It faintly emerges when the Republicans need to show their "toughness" in response to a slave revolt.

The author does a good job of cataloging, state by state, the electioneering. The actual votings, by the electors and by the the House of Representatives, could have had a more detailed and interpretive treatment.

After having recently read Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr I am sensitive to the portrayal of Burr. Larson, like others, refers to Burr's negative qualities (such as extreme ambition or untrustworthiness) without evidence. There is mention of his potential profiting from founding a NY bank, but other banks, oriented towards Hamilton, favored the American aristocrats and essentially cut out the average person in lending decisions. In the absence of hard data showing that that he profited, should he not be celebrated for this? (Did Andrew Jackson accomplish this much?)

The treatment of Hamilton differs from that in Chernov's Alexander Hamilton. To Larson he is an extremist schemer, to Chernov, an achiever, albeit an contentious one. John Adams is portrayed as learning too late that he has been used by this party's extremists. The detail in the treatment here, defines the limitations of drama, such as the recent HBO series on John Adams, in portraying this time.

To me, the book does not have a fitting title. What was catastrophic about this election? Chaos, tumult or even pandemonium are better nouns than "catastrophe" which implies ruin or destruction. One of its participants calls it a catastrophe, but was destroyed?
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VINE VOICEon October 6, 2007
Who knew history could be so much fun? Pulitzer prize winning author Edward Larson brings us all the intrigue, drama and backstabbing suspense of the 1800 presidential election that led to our two party system, and which Thomas Jefferson called, "America's second revolution." Larson is a meticulous scholar whose research brings to life this interesting and precarious time in U.S. history. Narrator John Dossett is an accomplished audiobook narrator and his experience shows. He lends the perfect amount of drama to the reading of a historical non fiction text that could be dry with the wrong narrator. As read by Dossett, A Magnificent Catastrophe proves to be a magnificent way to learn about U.S. history.
-Jessica Teel
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on December 9, 2012
If you are still upset, for any reason, about the 2012 elections, you should read this book immediately. It contains a wonderful tonic called "historical perspective" that will cure what ails you. If you think that our political climate today is especially toxic, divisive, or mean spirited, you should read it too. You will learn that most important of all lessons: that you are wrong. America is not more divided today than it has ever been. We are not even close.

Edward Larson does a good job of explaining all of the reasons that the Election of 1800 was such a disaster. It all boils down to this: the people who wrote the Constitution did not envision permanent political parties who would run candidates for public office. Men such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were suspicious of parties, and they crafted a Constitution that would minimize the possibility of permanent factions emerging. And then, two of America's most brilliant and dedicated statesmen ruined it all by creating political parties anyway. Their names? Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

From George Washington's first term in office, it was clear that there were two basic ideas about how America should work. Hamilton believed that the Constitution provided for a robust national government with near-absolute taxing powers and the ability to do anything that needed to be done to build America's economy and its infrastructure. Jefferson and Madison, on the other hand, believed that the national government should be small, that taxes should be low, that states should make most of the major decisions, and that America did not need any economic development beyond a lot of new land to farm. By 1798, those who held the first set of views were called "Federalists," while those who held the second were called "Republicans." And, before the election of 1800, both Federalists and Republicans caucused together (secretly) to select their nominees for President and Vice President. The Federalists chose the incumbent president, John Adams, and South Carolina's Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Republicans chose their hero, Thomas Jefferson, to run for President, and the New York Senator Aaron Burr to run for Vice President.

Well, sort of. As a matter of fact, there was no way under the Constitution to run candidates for President or Vice President. Presidents were chosen bv electors, rather than by popular votes, and electors where chosen however states wanted to choose them: some were appointed by state legislatures and others were elected in general plebiscites. Electors were required to cast two equal votes for President; they could not specify that one was for Vice President. Whoever got the most votes became the President, and whoever came in second became the Vice President.

What this really means, then, is that all four men--Adams, Jefferson, Pinckney, and Burr--were running for President, and they all knew it. A number of "High Federalists" (i.e. really conservative Federalists) tried to engineer a victory for Pinckney, viewing Adams as too moderate and politically unreliable--a Federalist in Name Only, or FINO, who could not be trusted to keep the forces of Republicanism at bay. They were playing a very dangerous game, though, since any vote against Adams could have the unintended consequence of electing Jefferson. Of course, nobody on either side thought that anybody other than Jefferson from the Republican side could become President--nobody, that is, except Aaron Burr, who actively schemed to make sure that no Republican voted for Jefferson but against him. He played hard for a tie, and he won, throwing the election into turmoil for months while the House of Representatives tried to come up with a President.

I learned a lot from this book about the intraparty intrigues on both sides. Much more interesting (to me, at least) was the absolute certainty on the part of both Federalists and Republicans that American democracy would be destroyed if the other side won. It all sounded so modern to me. Republicans believed that Adams and the Federalists had designs to destroy the Constitution, appoint a president-for-life, and return the nation to monarchy. Politicians and pundits argued that America was at a crossroads that would lead, if Jefferson were not elected, to the end of everything that the Constitution and the Revolution stood for. Federalists, for their part, saw Jefferson and his fellow Republicans as lawless, degraded, atheistic Jacobins (French Revolutionary rabble) bent on destroying both religion and the upper classes. Nothing, they believed, could be more important than defeating Jefferson.

As the election played out, both sides worked themselves into a frenzy of hatred and anger against the other side (sound familiar). At the same time, the High Federalists worked hard against their own ostensible candidate for President, while the second Republican on the ticket schemed to replace his boss. And he almost did. Throw into the mix a plot to disqualify Republican electors, an attempt to change the way New York's electors were chosen, a few high-profile show trials under the Alien and Sedition Acts, a slave rebellion, a secession threat secretly written by one of the candidates, a few high-profile, high-sleaze campaign books--and what do you get? Business as usual in the early American republic.

Since writing That's Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America's Right Wing, I have often been asked what the Founding Fathers would have thought about political civility in our day. They would have thought, I reply, that we have entirely too much of it.
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on June 26, 2015
John Adams is president and the federalist candidate, but so thoroughly disliked that his own party was defecting to Pinckney. Alexander Hamilton plays a big role on the federalist side, but he has already climbed to power and influence, so is not as interesting as he probably was earlier in his life. Jefferson is Democratic Republican candidate, living on his plantation at Monticello, maintaining the "natural increase" of his slaves. Both were self-serving schemers in an era when revolutionary patriotism had given way to concerns of money and station and the partisanship which continues to this day had already taken root. The constitution had already shown itself to be inadequate in such an environment, and the Twelfth Amendment would be the result.

This book is anti-climactic as early voting in New York City decided the presidential election and Larson has difficulty building interest in the rest of the campaign.
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on September 15, 2014
This book may be more than you really want to know about the birth of our political parties in 1796 and 1800, but to an American history buff, this is a fascinating look at the seminal election of 1800. If you think our politics of 2012 is rough, take a look/read of the 1800s, when no character assassination of an opponent was too mean-spirited and no newspapers were objective ... only partisan. The 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was a classic, with such rogues as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton omni- present to stoke the fires of partisanship and intrigue. Though we know the outcome of the election before we read, A MAGNIFICENT CATASTROPHE reads like a political thriller. History junkies will love this book!
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on December 9, 2007
Edward Larson's book on the election of 1800 doesn't focus as much on how Thomas Jefferson prevailed over Aaron Burr in the House of Representatives, but more on how partisan politics came out in the open during a presidential election.

Larson covers a lot of the minutiae of how people like Hamilton and Burr tried to marshal political support in each state and how each state decided to choose its slate of electors. There's a lot of backroom dealing in 1800.

The author seems to favor Jefferson's side and portrays the 3rd President as a somewhat noble figure staying outside of the fray, while incumbent president Adams is made out to be more of a reactionary and obsessed on maintaining power. If you've read Chernow's book on Hamilton or McCullough's book on John Adams, you may have a different view on those two men.
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