Another lively look back at the newborn US by a historical novelist who respects both his disciplines.
Thomas Jefferson called it the Second Revolution—that period during which the new nation fought desperately to remain a democracy. The year is 1800; Jefferson has just thwarted John Adams’s bid for a second term in an election notable for its ideological bitterness. The two-party system grew out of it; class warfare took a great leap forward because of it. The Republicans, led by Jefferson and James Madison, passionate about the idea of government by ordinary people, find themselves in a death struggle with their former brothers in arms—the war against England had, after all, ended only 17 years earlier. Say “ordinary people” to the Federalists, led by Hamilton and Adams, and you evoke that fearsome French rabble making profligate use of the guillotine at the expense of extraordinary people not unlike the Federalists. As in the earlier novels of this series (Eagle’s Cry, 2000, etc.), Nevin’s characters are a judicious mix of the fictitious and the real, but none are more appealing than delicious, unabashedly ambitious Dolley Madison. She wants Jimmy Madison, her overworked, under-valued husband, to succeed Jefferson and doesn’t much care who knows it. But Burr, the incumbent vice-president, matches her in ambition, outstrips her—and virtually everyone else—in ruthlessness, and wants the presidency for himself, convinced it’s the greatness for which he was born. If stout-hearted Dolley is the heroine, Burr is the villain, but an endlessly complex one. Though fatally flawed, he’s charming, elegant, charismatic, basically good-hearted, a fearless risk-taker whose behavior is frequently admirable but who willfully, single-handedly almost destroys his country.
Nevin loves his political details—perhaps a bit more than most readers will—but this is vivid storytelling about a time as turbulent as it is generally neglected.