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A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaignby Edward J. Larson
Synopses & Reviews
"They could write like angels and scheme like demons." So begins Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Larson's masterful account of the wild ride that was the 1800 presidential election — an election so convulsive and so momentous to the future of American democracy 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 so profoundly shaped American politics ever since. The contest featured two of our most beloved Founding Fathers, once warm friends, facing off as the heads of their two still-forming parties — the hot-tempered but sharp-minded John Adams, and the eloquent yet enigmatic Thomas Jefferson — flanked by the brilliant tacticians Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who later settled their own differences in a duel.
The country was descending into turmoil, reeling from the terrors of the French Revolution, and on the brink of war with France. Blistering accusations flew as our young nation was torn apart along party lines: Adams and his elitist Federalists would squelch liberty and impose a British-style monarchy; Jefferson and his radically democratizing Republicans would throw the country into chaos and debase the role of religion in American life. The stakes could not have been higher.
As the competition heated up, other founders joined the fray — James Madison, John Jay, James Monroe, Gouverneur Morris, George Clinton, John Marshall, Horatio Gates, and even George Washington — some of them emerging from retirement to respond to the political crisis gripping the nation and threatening its future.
Drawing on unprecedented, meticulous research of the day-to-day unfolding drama, from diaries and letters of the principal players as well as accounts in the fast-evolving partisan press, Larson vividly re-creates the mounting tension as one state after another voted and the press had the lead passing 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.
A Magnificent Catastrophe is history writing at its evocative best: the riveting story of the last great contest of the founding period.
"'In this absorbing, brisk account, Pulitzer Prize — winning historian Larson (Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion) recreates the dramatic presidential race of 1800, which, Larson says, 'stamped American democracy with its distinctive partisan character' as Republicans and Federalists battled for the presidency. Larson explains how a race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson actually ended in a tie between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. (The tie was resolved by Congress.) The bitter infighting and the sophisticated political jockeying of 1800 spelled the end of any idea that America would be governed by enlightened consensus, resulting instead in the two-party system we know today. Readers will find many similarities between the intense electioneering of Adams and Jefferson, and the heated political races of today. For instance, Larson delineates debates about security and the Alien and Sedition Acts, the complex calculus of the Electoral College and the ad hominem remarks of commentators. Larson's volume will join Susan Dunn's Jefferson's Second Revolution as an invaluable study of a crucial chapter in the lives of the founding fathers — and of the nation. First serial to American History magazine. (Sept. 18)' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Pulitzer Prize-winner Larson vividly recounts America's first overtly partisan election.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 does justice to them all and demonstrates his storytelling mastery....[A] smartly conceived, beautifully wrought campaign history, bound to entertain and inform." Kirkus Reviews
"Much of the intrigue in those days was conducted by writing letters, and Larson has relied on them heavily to tell his story." Seattle Times
"Larson takes a subject both complex and resonant and produces a fine read." Library Journal
"[A] well-written and thoroughly enjoyable examination." Booklist
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.
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