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John Wilson

A Magnificent Catastrophe

Evangelical élites could be heard in the foyers and fellowship halls, on retreats and at private gatherings, insisting that a person could not be a Christian and a Democrat.
Charles Marsh, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity

Really? I guess I don't hang out with the right people. Some of my best friends are Democrats, not to mention Books & Culture's editorial board, where Democrats are well-represented. Me, I'm a Republican Absurdist, which is handy as we enter the climactic year of the 2008 campaign. (By the way, for a take on evangelical élites that differs in some ways from Charles Marsh's, see Michael Lindsay's new book Faith in the Halls of Power, reviewed on p. 33 by Brad Wilcox.)

America's publishers, conscious as always of their civic duty, are cranking out all manner of books geared to the election cycle. There's Matt Bai's The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (Penguin Press) and Amy Sullivan's The Party Faithful: How Democrats Can Close the God Gap, due in February from Scribner. Also coming in February, and highly recommended, is Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics (Baker), by Books & Culture contributor Amy Black. There are campaign biographies galore (some of them featuring subjects who are already out of the running). There's even a book by a professor of psychology at Emory University, Drew Westen—The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs)—tracing recent Democratic failures to the party's touching but misplaced faith in rational argument. Republicans, on the other hand, have thrived because they've learned how to tap into voters' emotions.

The best book I've seen so far to prompt reflection on what we're doing as we prepare to elect a new president is Edward Larson's A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign, just published by Free Press. The campaign pitted the incumbent, John Adams, against Thomas Jefferson. George Washington had served two terms uncontested, with Adams as his vice president, and declined to consider a third term. Hence in 1796, for the first time, several candidates vied for the presidency, though they did not actively campaign to be elected. In the system in place at that time, each elector in the electoral college voted for two candidates. To win, a candidate had to receive a majority of the electors' votes. (If no candidate managed to do so, the vote went to the House.) In 1796, Adams received 71 votes from the 139 electors, giving him the presidency. Jefferson, the runner-up with 68 votes, became vice president, as the Constitution then required.

In the election of 1800, Adams represented the Federalist Party, whose guiding force was Alexander Hamilton (by then working subtly to undermine Adams, who was too moderate for Hamilton). Jefferson represented the Republicans (not to be confused with the Republican Party as it later developed; rather, Jeffersonian Republicans metamorphosed over time to become the Democratic Party). The philosophical differences between the two—the Federalists favoring a strong central government with a strong executive, the Republicans favoring a minimalist central government; the Federalists wary of the mob, the Republicans wary of dictatorial power—have led some commentators to exaggerate the stakes in this contest. The distinguished historian Jill Lepore, reviewing Larson's book in The New Yorker (September 17, 2007), describes the choice between Adams and Jefferson in 1800 as "the most important election in American history."

You don't have to buy that judgment to agree that it was an important election, not least in setting the pattern for America's distinctive party politics to the present day. Whereas John Ferling's 2004 book Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 focused on the clashing political philosophies of Federalists and Republicans, Larson—while not neglecting that theme—gives us a thorough narrative of the entire campaign. Indeed, his book is the first to do so, and we are greatly in his debt for it.

Larson, who has a law degree as well as a Ph.D. in history and holds appointments both at the University of Georgia and at Pepperdine University, is an unusually wide-ranging scholar, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods. He's also capable of prodigious hard work in the archives, having read thousands of pages of contemporary newspaper coverage of the campaign in addition to other primary sources. The result is a fast-paced chronicle that gives us the flavor of events as they unfolded, in all their messy contingency.

And what a mess it was. If in certain respects the campaign of 1800 suggests a glory that has fled (compare the field of candidates for 2008 with Adams and Jefferson!), in other respects Larson's narrative is oddly reassuring. Here was a campaign full of egregious mud-slinging on both sides, high-minded rhetoric and wily maneuvering, irony and folly and moral complexity all in a tangle, very much like American politics in the first decade of the 21st century. And here was an election that issued in a deadlock more bizarre—and potentially more destabilizing to the young nation—than Americans witnessed two hundred years later, waiting to see if their next president would be George W. Bush or Al Gore.

For the indispensable details—in particular, the role of that perplexing figure, Aaron Burr—you'll have to read Larson's book yourself. (You won't be disappointed.) But I want to highlight one of the many themes interwoven in this campaign: the rhetoric—private as well as public—employed by members of the various factions to characterize those with whom they disagreed. After unprovoked French attacks on American merchant shipping, Adams—quite reasonably, it seems—felt that a U.S. Navy was urgently needed. Republicans disagreed, but Adams had his way, and in the "Quasi-War" of 1798-99, American ships engaged the French. Larson tells us that Jefferson privately denounced Adams' policy as "insane."

This introduces a motif that runs throughout Larson's chronicle. Hamilton's father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, described Jefferson as "pervaded with the mad French philosophy." (Others called Jefferson "a howling atheist.") After Adams dismissed his secretary of war, James McHenry (who had been a tool of Hamilton), McHenry wrote in a letter to his nephew that Adams "would speak in such a manner of certain men and things as to persuade one that he was actually insane." Adams, in turn, describing the High Federalists' fury when he sought peace negotiations with France, wrote that the "rage of the Hamilton faction upon that occasion appeared to me then, and has appeared to me ever since, an absolute delirium."

When Hamilton—convinced on the eve of the election that his behind-the-scenes undermining of Adams had been ineffective—decided to publish a letter (running to 54 pages!) which would make his dissatisfaction all too apparent, one of Hamilton's friends, treasury secretary Oliver Wolcott, advised him against it: "There was no need to detail Adams's erratic character in a public letter, Wolcott added, because 'the people believe that their president is crazy.'"

Once Hamilton's letter appeared, Adams' defenders responded, among them the lexicographer Noah Webster, who wrote an open letter to Hamilton. "Occasional ill humor and hasty declarations do not equal lunacy, Webster argued," with admirable good sense—but then he went on to say to Hamilton that "Your conduct on this occasion will be deemed little short of insanity."

Finally, Larson tells us, "in the flush of victory," when the electoral deadlock was resolved and Jefferson had been inaugurated, he

depicted the prior administration as a passing aberration in America's democratic tradition caused by fear and religious obscurantism. "The frenzy … is almost extinct," he wrote on March 18 to Thomas Paine in Paris—and invited the aging revolutionary to return home. "What an effort … of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through!" Jefferson added to the noted chemist and liberal theologian Joseph Priestly. "The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations."

Does any of this rhetoric—not just Jefferson's, but on all sides—sound familiar?

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