This review appears in the September 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign
by Edward J. Larson
(Free Press, 352 pages, $15 paper)
Imagine that in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, President George W. Bush was directing the government to arrest, convict, and imprison his critics. Imagine that John Kerry was paying a scandalmonger to dig up dirt on Tom DeLay. Imagine further that John McCain was working secretly against Bush’s re-election, that DeLay was plotting to replace Bush with Dick Cheney as president, and that John Edwards was conspiring to be elected president instead of Kerry.
Unimaginable, surely. But 204 years earlier in the presidential election of 1800, that’s roughly what took place. The perpetrators were the statesmen who now are virtually deified as the Founding Fathers. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and just about everyone else on the political scene were performing in a dastardly manner that Bush, Kerry, Cheney et al. would never have contemplated two centuries later.
It is all laid out in A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by historian Edward J. Larson, the acclaimed 2007 book now available in paperback (Free Press). The 1800 election is celebrated for establishing the precedent of the American presidency changing hands, from Federalists to what were then called Republicans, without bloodshed. But Larson’s gripping account exposes what was not only a really close call, but also no model of governmental decorum and ethics.
I am frequently asked, by mail and on the lecture circuit, how it is that our country has fallen so low in recent years from the heights of our noble past into a dismal swamp of bitter partisanship. I reply that bitter partisanship is very much in the American tradition, and that perhaps today’s politicians are more courteous than their predecessors. I well remember my first Washington summer in 1957 when I heard Sen. Robert Kerr, on the Senate floor, call Sen. Homer Capehart “a rancid tub of ignorance” to his face. It was a little extreme but not so much out of character that anyone created the kind of fuss it would stir today.
When I read the paperback of A Magnificent Catastrophe, it became clear the politics of mutual destruction began long before Kerr and Capehart. Lately I have been referring questioners to Larson’s book, which reveals how the Founding Fathers actually played the game and what is in our country’s political DNA.
AS THE ELECTION of 1800 approached, Federalists commonly stigmatized the rival Republicans (forerunners of today’s Democrats) as “Jacobins” to associate them with the French Revolution, and Republicans called Federalists “monarchists” to associate them with England. Thomas Jefferson, the Republican vice president, publicly accused his 1800 presidential rival John Adams, the Federalist president, of “political heresies.” The outspoken First Lady Abigail Adams wondered whether God would protect America if it elected Jefferson, “who makes no pretension to the belief of an all wise and supreme governor of the world.”
John Adams, who of late has enjoyed a warm and fuzzy renaissance thanks to David McCullough’s biography and HBO’s docudrama, was not content with mere words. Republican journalists were thrown in prison under terms of Adams’s Sedition Act. Connecticut publisher Charles Holt was jailed and his newspaper shut down for much of the 1800 campaign. Pennsylvania printer Thomas Cooper was jailed for six months.
Jefferson hired the scandalmonger James Thomson Callender, who had uncovered sexual and financial improprieties by Federalist Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, to print “vitriolic assaults” on Adams. (Callender, because of a dispute over payments due him, later turned on Jefferson during his presidency and exposed his fathering of a son by the slave Sally Hemings. In 1803, Callender’s body was found floating in the James River.)
For the 21st-century reader, however, even these personal smears are eclipsed in the pattern of deceit and duplicity practiced by our Founding Fathers during a 16-month battle over selecting federal electors that amounted to a long primary season. Larson reports that Hamilton, the leader of the High Federalists, “told friends as this campaign got underway that he could no longer support” the re-election of Federalist John Adams. That began Hamilton’s efforts to elect instead Adams’s vice presidential running mate, Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. “I will never more be responsible,” said Hamilton in a letter to the High Federalist House Speaker Theodore Sedgwick, “for [Adams] by my direct support even though the consequence should be the election of Jefferson.”
Hamilton was taking advantage of a constitutional flaw (corrected after this election). Each member of the Electoral College had two votes, but could not designate which vote was for president and which for vice president. Thus, Hamilton was trying to get enough Federalist electors to “drop” Adams so that Pinckney would end up with more votes and be elected president.
Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s bitter rival in New York politics and Jefferson’s running mate, was playing similar tricks on the Republican side. Called by Jefferson “a crooked gun…whose aim or stroke you could never be sure of,” Burr was manipulating the Electoral College. He misrepresented the northern electors as voting for Jefferson and Pinckney, so that southern electors would not have to drop Burr’s name and could vote for both Jefferson and Burr and still elect Jefferson president.
Just as Burr had calculated, he and Jefferson tied, each with 73 electoral votes, sending the election to the House of Representatives. Once in the House, Burr hoped to win over enough Federalist Congressmen to be elected president. Federalist Speaker Sedgwick called Burr “a profligate without character and without property — bankrupt in both.” Nevertheless, Sedgwick preferred Burr to Jefferson on religious grounds: “He is not under the direction of Virginia Jacobins. He is not a declared infidel.”
ALEXANDER HAMILTON was one Federalist who entertained no such mitigating views, calling Burr “the most unfit man in the U.S. for the office of president. Disgrace abroad, ruin at home are the probable fruits of his elevation.” (This passion four years later produced a bloody duel that destroyed Burr’s political prospects and ended Hamilton’s life.). Hamilton made those comments to 33-year-old Federalist Congressman James Bayard, who controlled Delaware’s vote as the state’s only House member and had suggested Burr “is willing to consider the Federalists as his friends and to accept the office of President as his gift.”
That was the line taken by other Federalists in the House. The six states whose House delegations were dominated by Federalists all voted for Burr. Jefferson carried eight states, with the remaining two states split and therefore not voting. So Jefferson was one short of the nine states needed for election.
The deadlock lasted for four days and 33 ballots, and endangered the peaceful transfer of power. When Federalists began to talk of an “interim” appointed president (who would be a Federalist), Jefferson threatened Adams with “resistance by force and incalculable consequences.”
Young Congressman Bayard had tried to pull a handful of Republican Congressmen to swing three states for Burr, but failed. He then decided to abandon Burr, handing Delaware and the presidency to Jefferson. Did he do so to avert a constitutional crisis? In truth, Jefferson agreed to retain two federal port collectors sponsored by Bayard. “You are safe,” Bayard wrote to one of them.
The federal union had averted an early crisis, but not everybody was happy. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband: “‘What an inconsistency,’ said a lady to me today, ‘the bells of Christ Church ringing peals of rejoicing for an infidel president!'” We do have a long tradition of finding it easier to be partisan than conciliatory.