John Wilson

A Magnificent Catastrophe

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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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