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The Tumultuous Election of 1800

by John Ferling

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-19-516771-6
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

For those still pondering the presidential election of 2000, and looking that of 2004 in the eye, comes this knotty tale from the days of the Founders.

“Politicians then, as now, were driven by personal ambition,” writes Revolutionary-era historian Ferling (Setting the World Ablaze, 2000, etc.). “They used the same tactics as today, sometimes taking the high road, but often traveling the low road, which led them to ridicule and even smear their foes, to search for scandal in the behavior of their adversaries, and to play on raw emotions.” In 1800, for instance, Federalists branded Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson “a howling atheist,” while Republicans questioned Federalist candidate John Adams’s war record; so hot did the battle grow that propagandists even turned on their own candidates, as did Alexander Hamilton when, for reasons that are still murky, he published a vicious attack on Adams, “upon whom he heaped all the blame for the erosion of his political fortunes.” Hamilton may have had reason to be ticked off, for the trusted aide of George Washington and Revolutionary War hero found no place on the Federalist ticket, pushed aside in favor of the democracy-loathing Charles Pinckney, of whom “no one ever claimed that his was a charismatic persona.” Jefferson and fellow Republican Aaron Burr (who, Virginia Republicans divined, “was not passionately committed to any political principle”) handily won the electoral race against Jefferson’s one-time friend Adams (they broke, Ferling writes, over a misinterpreted inscription in a copy of The Rights of Man). But Jefferson had also to win in Congress, where the race was much closer. Ferling argues that he did so by brokering a deal with the Federalists, an arrangement that would explain why, “despite having fought against the Hamiltonian system for nearly a decade, Jefferson acquiesced to it once in office” and made other concessions to his political enemies. Whereas in Jefferson’s Second Revolution (see above), Susan Dunn takes a benign view of whatever the arrangement amounted to, Ferling is clearly uncomfortable with the back-room dealing. Otherwise, the two authors complement each other nicely.

A well-written look at the enigmatic politics and personalities of the early Republic.