The stirring story of a young America’s battle to remain a democracy.
Thomas Jefferson called it “The Second Revolution,” and once again a lot of smart money was betting against it. Powerful figures—John Adams and Alexander Hamilton among them—were much unsettled by the idea of a people’s government. They looked across the ocean, noted those aristocratic heads rolling in France, and took it all to heart as a cautionary tale. The year is 1799. There’s been an election, close and bitterly fought, lost by the Federalists to the Democrats, the party of Jefferson and James Madison. But disaffected Federalists believe that there’s a chance to steal it back, if only they can pull off a coup in the Electoral College. To do that, they need the connivance of Aaron Burr, second to Jefferson on the Democratic ticket. In short, they need a betrayal. Burr, handsome, clever, and a politician of consummate skill, is not a man to stand on principle when principle stands in the way of ambition. But the plot fails. Nettled, some Federalists talk of secession—of New York and New England going it alone and forming a new monarchy. Nothing wrong with the old one, they insist, except that George III sat on the throne. Meanwhile, France, now under Napoleon, is saber-rattling: the baby American country could be the breadbasket for the French emperor’s on-again/off-again war against the hated British. As President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison, beleaguered but brilliant, beat back inimical forces, Nevin (Dream West, 1984; 1812, 1996) gives human faces to historical icons: to Jefferson and Madison, yes, but also Merriwether Lewis; Andrew Jackson and his beloved Rachel, and, most notably, to Madison's charming, courageous, incomparable Dolley.
A shade longer than need be, a bit too heavy on the intricacies of diplomatic to and fro, but again and again that seminal old struggle comes alive with all its drama, bite, and relevance.