An American Editor

February 7, 2011

On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe

The politics of 2010-2011 is simply history repeating itself. The presidential election campaign of 1799-1800 is nearly a twin of the politics of today. The lack of comity shown today by the right, especially the pundits on Fox network, is similar to that of the Federalists and the Republicans in the 1800 campaign.

Today we revere Thomas Jefferson. But to read the Federalist newspapers, broadsheets, and pamphlets of the 1800 campaign, Jefferson was everything we despise — he was a deist rather than a Christian; he was a “Jacobin”; he was the white Barack Obama.

The story of the campaign, the struggle between Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson for political supremacy is the subject of Edward Larson’s A Magnificient Catastrophe (2007). The election of 1800 was so bitter that it ended with Jefferson and Burr tied in electoral votes (in those days electoral ballots were not separately cast for president and vice-president), leading to the election having to be decided in the Congress. It took numerous ballots over many days and weeks before a moderate Federalist cast a deciding vote in favor of Jefferson.

Larson’s book is the story of the campaign, the bitterness and acrimony between the key players, and, ultimately the congressional balloting. It is the story of Hamilton’s and the High Federalists plotting against their own candidate, John Adams, who was running for reelection, having defeated Jefferson in 1796, and trying to swing the election any which way except toward Jefferson.

A Magnificient Catastrophe should be read for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the story of a presidential election that was decided by Congress and thus of historical interest. It should also be read to gain an understanding of how American politics and Americans haven’t changed in 200 years. We need only substitute labels, Republican for Federalist and Democrat for Jeffersonian Republicans, and the campaign of 1799-1800 is magically transformed into politics of 2010-2011.

Today we call Jefferson a great man and a founding father; in 1800 he was called a traitor. Today we have “news” organizations and commentators who fabricate “facts” just like was done in 1800.

For those interested in where we have been, where we are now, and where we are likely to be in the presidential campaign of 2012 (and probably campaigns well beyond), A Magnificent Catastrophe is the place to begin. A well-written, concise look at an ever-recurring political scene, A Magnificient Catastrophe should be on every American’s must-read list. Perhaps if we understand where we came from and with hindsight see the excesses, we will gain the fortitude to change our current political stalemate.


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