Review

A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign

by Edward J. Larson

Reading A MAGNIFICENT CATASTROPHE is disquieting. This is not
to suggest that Edward Larson's depiction of the presidential
election of 1800 is less than an outstanding work of history.
Published in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign, it reminds
us how little the political landscape has changed in the 52
presidential campaigns that have been conducted since 1800.
Granted, the world is a far different place now than it was when
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams contested for the presidency in
1800. But the cryptic observation that "the more things change the
more they stay the same" comes to mind repeatedly as the events of
1800 are detailed in this well-researched and informative
work.

America was a young nation in 1800. The Constitution that is
revered today had been in place for slightly more than a decade.
George Washington, a man who could have been king of the United
States, had guided the country for most of its life. All of this
changed in 1796 when John Adams became president, and his political
enemy, Thomas Jefferson, became vice president. American politics
had not yet experienced the birth of political parties, and the
Electoral College elected a president and vice president
separately.

Jefferson and Adams reflected ideologies that divided Americans.
Adams believed in a strong central government that would place
power in the hands of a powerful president. Jefferson supported a
far more populist government that trusted popular rule and feared
an elite power structure. Just as in the contemporary political
scene, it was the extreme supporters of both philosophies that
shifted and shaped policy. The political disputes would turn
founding fathers from friends to enemies. Tacticians Alexander
Hamilton and Aaron Burr would become such bitter foes that their
differences would be settled by a duel.

While Americans today have become accustomed to a never-ending
political campaign, the election of 1800 was in fact a year-long
struggle for reasons unrelated to those that cause modern elections
to be conducted on a perpetual basis. In 1800 each state was free
to establish its own Election Day when they wished. Actual
elections were held from April to October. As each state
established how electors would vote for president, each candidate's
camp schemed to work behind the scenes to obtain advantage for
their candidate. Efforts were undertaken to change the manner in
which presidential electors were chosen. Should this issue sound
familiar, it is not unlike the effort being undertaken today to
allow California and other states to bring a halt to
winner-take-all votes.

Familiar themes found in the news today permeate the pages of A
MAGNIFICENT CATASTROPHE. From the Alien and Sedition Acts that
sought to stifle political dissent, to fears of terrorism and
foreign wars, to the role of religion in government, and finally to
attempts at vote suppression, those issues remain as weighty today
as in 1800. Larson's account of the debate over them strike themes
familiar to contemporary political reporting.

In the end, Thomas Jefferson was elected president neither by the
voters nor by the Electoral College. Instead, the House of
Representatives took 35 ballots over seven days in February 1800 to
finally elect Jefferson and Burr. The campaign and election were so
disastrous that Congress quickly changed the process by enacting
the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution requiring separate votes
for the two offices.

"Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it"
wrote George Santayana. A MAGNIFICENT CATASTROPHE provides readers
with many important insights into the first steps taken by our
modern republic. Just as the formative years of a child often shape
future life, the election of 1800 can provide us with a broader and
more profound understanding of America and the issues confronted by
our nation in 2008. It is fortunate that we have great teachers
such as Edward Larson to assist us in recognizing the lessons to be
learned from past political campaigns and their historical
significance as we observe the 2008 campaign.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 7, 2011

A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign
by Edward J. Larson

  • Publication Date: June 10, 2008
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • ISBN-10: 0743293177
  • ISBN-13: 9780743293174