Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism

by Susan Dunn

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 2004
ISBN: 0-618-13164-7
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

A ripping tale of political intrigue, slander, mayhem, mudslinging, and powdered wigs.

Elect a Republican, thundered a Connecticut paper in the fall of 1800, and “the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” The Republicanism in question was that of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who, writes Dunn (Humanities/Williams Coll.; Sister Revolutions, 1999), “offered voters a forceful platform and an aggressive agenda for change” in the place of the scandal-plagued Federalist administration of John Adams—resisting, for instance, the Sedition Act of 1798, an Ashcroftian piece of legislation “designed to smother opposition to the Federalist regime.” In the election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr earned an equal number of electoral votes ahead of Adams and Charles Pinckney. (In those days, each party fielded two candidates, with the winner named president and the runner-up vice president.) If the Federalists were able to extend the deadlock beyond the end of Adams’s term, then the country would be without a president, opening the way to a coup, or so Jefferson feared. The Federalists insisted that the Republicans’ victory would not have come about without the so-called three-quarters vote of the nation’s slaves. (See Garry Wills’s “Negro President,” 2003.) Indeed, Dunn observes, without that vote Adams would probably have won, but Adams instead blamed his loss on an earlier split with his erstwhile Federalist ally Alexander Hamilton. To secure victory, Jefferson had to win a second vote in Congress, which he accomplished with the defection of a single Federalist legislator. Whereas, in his upcoming Adams vs. Jefferson (see below), John Ferling sees this as a dark plot, Dunn views that outcome as a triumph of the political process, proof that the nation “was sufficiently unified in citizens’ commitment to the Constitution to permit organized opposition to the party in power.”

In other words, a second revolution instead of civil war. A well-made, always interesting study in the complex politics of the early Republic.