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A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign
Synopses & Reviews
Magnificent Catastrophe tells the story of the most perverse, bizarre, nail-biting, and influential election battle ever in US history — America's first true presidential campaign, and a contest so important to the future of the country that Jefferson referred to it as "the second American Revolution" because the outcome resolved so much unfinished business about just what kind of government we would have. This election in many ways determined just how democratic a country we would be.
George Washington had been a non-contested favorite for president and had never campaigned for the job. In 1796, the first election after Washington announced he would not run for a third term, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off as the leading contenders, but carried on Washington's tradition of not actively campaigning. Adams beat Jefferson by just three electoral votes, and the stage was set for viscious battle next time. In the 1800 rematch between Adams and Jefferson — and the newly forming parties that each represented — the gloves came off with both sides launching into hard-core campaiging for the first time. All the tricks and tactics of partisan warfare that have become the hallmark of American elections were born. Before this election, the parties were merely informal networks and presidential administrations were bipartisan; after this election, the two-party system had been set in stone and all of the regrettable effects of bitter partisanship the Founders had warned of, and tried so hard to fend off, had been set in motion. This election shaped all future lines of battle in American politics.
The book tells the story of that tumultuous, year-long campaign, vividly conveying the heady and overheated spirit of the times and bringing the personalities of the leading players vividly to life. It was an election even closer and more contentious than Bush v. Gore, with a remarkable larger-than-life cast of characters and stunning twists of fate. The vitriol thrown back and forth during this election makes today's shenanigans seem like child's play. And the stakes were momentous, with profoundly different visions for the future of the American government at play. This is at heart the story of two great men — Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, once fast friends who had become bitter enemies wrestling for control of the country's future — and of two notoriously clever schemers — Alexander Hamilton on the one side and Aaron Burr on the other, whose brilliant but unprincipled machinations behind-the-scenes to serve their own purposes turned this epic battle into a wild ride right down to the closest finish possible: a tie.
During the course of the battle, the Republicans accused Adams and the Federalists of subverting the country's hard-won democracy and planning to establish a military dictatorship or monarchy. The Federalists accused Jefferson and his party of wildly excessive democratic radicalism that would unleash a violent reign of terror on the US like that which had so shockingly broken out in France after their revolution. Just when Adams most needed Hamilton's brilliant scheming to work for him, Hamilton turned on Adams. Meanwhile the wildly ambitious Burr schemed his way not only into being nominated to run along with Jefferson for the Republicans, but to end up with the same number of votes as Jefferson. Because at this time there was no formal designation of candidates for president versus vice president, that meant the battle ended in a tie, with Jefferson and Burr both beating out Adams. And though the Republicans had clearly intended Jefferson to be their presidential pick, Burr had the shocking audacity to hold out for being named president. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, for the first and only time, and by the narrowest of votes, Jefferson prevailed over Burr. In the wake of the momentous battle, after serving one term as Vice President, Burr was forced into political exile; Adams and the elitist anti-democratic Federalist plan for the country had been defeated, and Jefferson's Republican vision of expanded democracy won the day.
"John Dossett lends a melodious and erudite tone to this book about the most disastrous presidential election in American history: the 1800 contest between incumbent John Adams and his polymath v-p, populist Thomas Jefferson. Dossett's Jefferson speaks with a slow, suave Virginia drawl, his elegant voice bathing in the rich words that flowed from the founder's pen. His Adams sounds blunt, curmudgeonly and judgmental — as Larson often portrays him. The abridgment narrows the focus of the 1800 election to a horse race between these two very different men, who saw their friendship torn asunder and, many years after the election, pieced together again. Despite the abridgment's careful editing, the audio still has to contend with the weighty and unexciting technical details of backroom politicking and electioneering that shaped the ballot's outcome. But there's plenty to maintain the listener's interest — including slave rebellions, sexual scandals, backstabbing and festering hatred between Alexander Hamilton and the scheming Aaron Burr. History lovers will enjoy this dramatic rendition of one of America's most turbulent political moments. Simultaneous release with the Free Press hardcover (Reviews, May 21). (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In the bestselling tradition of John Adams and 1776
Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Larson's masterful account revisits the wild ride that was the 1800 presidential election — an election so convulsive and so momentous that Thomas Jefferson would later dub it "America's second revolution." This was America's first true presidential campaign, giving birth to our two-party system and indelibly etching the lines of partisanship that have shaped American politics ever since. Once warm friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson faced off as the heads of their two still-forming parties flanked by the brilliant tacticians Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who settled their own differences in a duel.
Drawing on unprecedented, meticulous research of the day to day unfolding drama, Larson vividly recreates the mounting tension as each state voted and the lead passed back and forth. The outcome remained shrouded in doubt long after the voting ended, and as Inauguration Day approached, Congress met in closed session to resolve the crisis. In its first great electoral challenge, our fragile experiment in constitutional democracy hung in the balance.
About the Author
Edward J. Larson is the author of seven books and the recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. His other books include Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory; Evolution's Workshop; God and Science on the Galapagos Islands; and Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution. Larson has also written over one hundred articles, most of which address topics of law, science, or politics from an historical perspective, which have appeared in such varied journals as The Atlantic, Nature, Scientific American, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, and Virginia Law Review. He is a professor of history and law at Pepperdine University and lives in Georgia and California.John Dossett has starred on Broadway in The Constant Wife, Democracy, Gypsy (Tony nominee), and Ragtime. Off-Broadway, he has appeared in Dinner at Eight, Hello Again, and on television in LawandOrder and HBO's John Adams. John has read extensively for SimonandSchuster Audio.
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