Pulitzer Prize–winner Larson (Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, 2004, etc.) vividly recounts America’s first overtly partisan election.
In 1799, the single man capable of papering over the young republic’s widening political divisions died in retirement at Mount Vernon. There had been no open campaign to succeed Washington in 1796 when the electoral provisions of the untested Constitution uncomfortably yoked Federalist President John Adams to Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, the acknowledged leader of the opposition Republicans. Now, the two prepared to face off in what became, and remains, the most vituperative and dramatic of all U.S. elections. Through newspapers, letters and speeches, Republicans hammered Federalists for offenses amounting to a betrayal of the revolution: their sponsorship of the Alien and Sedition Acts, their support of a standing army, their too-friendly disposition toward organized religion and their dangerous sympathies for monarchy. In turn, Federalists, badly split over Adams’s leadership, assailed Republicans for their godlessness and blind devotion to liberty at the expense of the public order and national defense, issues brought into high relief by the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. The colorful cast of Founders included Madison, Jay, Pinckney, Monroe and Samuel Adams; the behind-the-scenes machinations of High Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton and Republican organizer Aaron Burr were especially dramatic. Larson (History/Univ. of Georgia and Pepperdine Univ.) does justice to them all and demonstrates his storytelling mastery by lucidly recounting the political histories and procedures unique to each state and deftly delineating the issues that dominated the national debate. Astonishingly, the hard-fought, bitterly personal campaign resulted in an Electoral College tie between Jefferson and running-mate Burr, whose maddening refusal to defer to the Sage of Monticello encouraged Federalist mischief. It required 35 Congressional ballots before Jefferson finally prevailed.
Smartly conceived, beautifully wrought campaign history, bound to entertain and inform.