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A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign

3.84  ·  Rating Details ·  591 Ratings  ·  95 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 ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published September 18th 2007 by Free Press (first published 2007)
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Doug Clark
Nov 06, 2012 Doug Clark rated it it was amazing
Presidential elections in the United States have seemed to become angry, contentious, and bitter affairs. We only have to look at the debacle in Florida in 2000 to see the partisanship. Whether one agrees with the US Supreme Court’s actions or not, the Court did effectively determine the outcome. Was it always this way? Many would like to say, “No.” However, any in-depth study of American presidential politics would reveal that campaigns and elections are nearly always contentious and divisive ...more
Michael Austin
Nov 10, 2012 Michael Austin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
If you are still upset, for any reason, about the 2012 elections, you should read this book immediately. It contains a wonderful tonic called "historical perspective" that will cure what ails you. If you think that our political climate today is especially toxic, divisive, or mean spirited, you should read it too. You will learn that most important of all lessons: that you are wrong. America is not more divided today than it has ever been. We are not even close.

Edward Larson does a good job of e
Don Weidinger
Nov 24, 2013 Don Weidinger rated it really liked it
vanity is my cardinal vice Adams, doubted democracy could last thru Adams, sufficiency of humans for human problems, fearful of monarchy and aristocracy, Jefferson wrong on French Rev, let it go as it came sickness, strong parties may check power or not, 4 bleeds diarrhea for George, 3 day voting, who supported mob Jacobin French, aroused by individual right abuse from lethargy to vote, recession of 1797, fear of president immune of congressional and state checks and balances, rights and ...more
Sep 14, 2016 Luis rated it really liked it
Reading this will make you feel better about the current election. Barely. (Most weird/fun fact: a lame-duck president *and Senate* confirmed a Supreme Court justice after the election. Compare and contrast...)
JA VVard
Mar 08, 2016 JA VVard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great, eye-opening book! Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Justice Samuel Chase are officially on my political sh*t list.
David Montgomery
Nov 23, 2016 David Montgomery rated it it was amazing
Larson's book was published in 2007, but it's never seemed more timely.

An election that bitterly divided the American people? That ended in a disputed fashion? One marked by bitter division among party elites that helped to undermine the candidates? One ticket composed of an experienced, ideologically consistent steady hand and a cipher seen as malleable, ambitious and unreliable? Vitriolic personal attacks? Nasty, sometimes factually iffy partisan news articles being shared around the country?
Chuck Neumann
Nov 10, 2016 Chuck Neumann rated it really liked it
The book was a very detailed look at the election of 1800, a very unusual election that resulted in the House determining who was President. It was an election that made the 2016 one seem rather tame, however the comments were from others than the candidates. The book had some very interesting sections not directly involved in the election as well. I found the chapter on the death of George Washington very interesting. The split of the Hamilton federalists from President Adams was also well ...more
Apr 27, 2010 Stephen rated it liked it
Ambitious people don't always come off too well in literature, and "Magnificent Catastrophe," shows that our hallowed founding fathers were no exception.

The "Founding Fathers" are usually presented as an archetype of monolithic cohesion; high-minded patriots, with a nascent American polity's well-being the driving force behind their every action.

There is a wistful, almost universal, sentiment that says, “they just don’t make them like that anymore.”

But this book establishes that they were mon
They say not to fall in love with your characters. That usually is applied to fiction writers, but really, historians and biographers need that advice, too. Larson adores Jefferson and Adams to an eye-rolling degree, and A Magnificent Catastrophe suffers for it. He also loves minutiae, and as the audiobook is an abridged version of the text, I cannot imagine what readers of an unabridged paper copy suffered. Overall, this book was obnoxious. I made it until a little after Adams' and Jefferson's ...more
Nov 26, 2016 Clint rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating to listen to during the last days of the 2016 election and learn of the rancor and hate in the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Prior to popular voting for president, the election involved intrigue among states, electoral factions and individuals.
Oct 22, 2016 Bil rated it liked it
Finally finished this one after only 10 months! That's not an indictment of its quality by any means, sometimes stuff just falls through the cracks.
May 12, 2013 Louise rated it really liked it
This was, given the consensus for Washington to be President, our first national election. Its result re-oriented the country in its promised direction and solidified the two party system.

Larson tells the saga of this 16 month pre-media electoral slog. The Constitution had not anticipated political parties. It called for electors (today, our vestigial electoral college) to cast the presidential ballots and left each state to determine its own election rules. The parties studied the rules, did th
Ken Stemme
Sep 24, 2016 Ken Stemme rated it it was ok
Interesting but felt very repetitive.
Jonathan Desimone
Jul 05, 2016 Jonathan Desimone rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-amazon
In the spirit of full disclosure—this is a book for US history nerds. Period. If you don’t love US history, you should not read this book. But if you do, this is a well-written, short history of an amazing period in the early Republic, when you had the giants of the age shaping the traditions we take for granted today.

This was an election that was thrown into the House due to the way electoral votes were submitted at the time. Leading up to that was a huge partisan battle between the Republicans
Jun 03, 2012 Manny rated it really liked it
This book details the struggles concerning the elections of 1800. Ironically, I found many parallels with present day politics. The "Federalist" who believed in big government and central power in a sort of monarchical government against the 'republicans' or "anti-federalist" that where big supporters of the original intent of the Constitution, de-centralized government doing battle. This fits the narrative we see today where the two factions are "Big Government" Republicans and Democrats and ...more
Aug 26, 2010 Ben rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
It might take me awhile to put this book into perspective. It provides a huge insight into partisan politics, from when they began in the US. Conservative bloggers and radio personalities are so irresponsible with their "facts" and theories. The Shirley Sherrod scandal proved that they purposefully distort the truth to attack the other side. The arguement over the Muslim community center in New York was started by a crazy right wing conspiracy theorist blogger who also thinks Malcolm X is ...more
How should a political junkie to cope with his withdrawal pangs during the seven week interim between the Texas/Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries? Reading Larson is a pretty good strategy. A Magnificent Catastrophe tells the story of the 1800 election, which established the basic pattern for US presidential elections and nearly undid the country in the process. The election between Adams and Jefferson was the first to feature political parties in a leading role, and all that we've come to know and ...more
Jul 23, 2008 Jeffrey rated it really liked it
A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign

Edward Larson has followed up his Pulitzer Prize winning The Summer of the Gods, with a timely look at the first contested election in the United States history. Filled with rich detail and vigor, the book shows that our elections have always been poisonous affairs that can destroy friendships and families. The book is a perfect fit for our current election cycle.
The book chronicles the first part
Joseph McBee
Jun 01, 2014 Joseph McBee rated it really liked it
Throughout this well-written book I had the words of Ecclesiastes going through my mind; "There is nothing new under the sun."

I've often heard people complain about politics today and how it is "less civilized" that it was when our Founders were running for office. I hear--and have even said myself--that our Founders were more interested in public service than they were in gaining and retaining power.

Not so.

As this book very convincingly shows, politics has always been politics and the campaign
Bob Schmitz
Sep 27, 2011 Bob Schmitz rated it liked it
A Magnificent Catastrophe describes in excruciating detail the elections for legislators and then electors in the 1800 election vote by vote, state by state, machination by machination, slander by slander, letter by letter, between Federalists John Adams and Charles Pinckney, and Republican T. Jefferson and Arron Burr.

The book describes how Burr ran a text book, ward by ward, election campaign in NY to win the state for the Republicans. Hamilton says at one point that the stakes are so high the
Jan 15, 2012 Brian rated it it was amazing
Edward Larson provides a very detailed and in depth look at the election of 1800 and how the Congress choose a president for the first time in history and the last time where both candidates would be from the same political party. The book looks at the careers of the four contenders in the election focusing on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson but still paying significant attention to Aaron Burr and Charles Pinckney. The electioneering at the time was just getting started and it was rare to see ...more
John Wiswell
Oct 16, 2007 John Wiswell rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: History readers, political readers, biography readers who enjoy context
A superb history of the U.S.A.'s first political campaign for the presidency between Aaron Burr, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Larson's best tool is bringing up issues in relation to incidents along the campaign, such as elaborating on their religious views when they became sensationalized in the press, foreign policy during an international crisis with France and Britain, and their views on slavery when an insurrection rose up. Larson's language is succincent and comprehensible, so that if ...more
Aug 18, 2008 Tony rated it it was amazing
I hate to break out the spoilers, but in case you were concerned, Thomas Jefferson does win the presidential election of 1800. But in Edward Larson’s fantastic book, “A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800”, the author manages to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the whole race. Filled with letters and correspondences, Mr. Larson brings the reader up close and personal to the leaders of the young republic (Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Burr and Hamilton). The truly ...more
Feb 27, 2009 HBalikov rated it really liked it
Though a slow read because of the wealth of detail, it is very worthwhile. He does an excellent job of bringing together the political, historical, and cultural events that shaped the campaign and events leading up to the election. If you have devoted much time to recent campaigns, you will be aware of all the parallels among them. Some things change and some do not. The 1800 campaign may have been the most crucial in our history and what we learned in school about it was only a sip of what we ...more
Steven Peterson
Jul 03, 2009 Steven Peterson rated it really liked it
Think that 2000 featured a strange presidential election? Then, you might be interested in this book. The election of 1800 is termed, in the book's title, "A Magnificent Catastrophe." Because of a mistaken in how the Constitution stated who would be elected president, Thomas Jefferson and his vice-presidential "partner," Aaron Burr, were tied after the electoral votes were counted. Burr being Burr, he did not withdraw and allowed Congressional voting to take place (a churl, as always).

On the ot
Aug 12, 2010 Bruce rated it it was amazing
Shelves: us-history
The more things change the more they stay the same. Dr. Larson describes the Presidential Election of 1800 but does not mention how much it was like the current political climate. The party that had been in power for three presidential terms lost the popular vote yet during there lame-duck status tried to push through their programs and their people to make it difficult for the next administration. Federalists, having lost tried to co-opt Aaron Burr over Jefferson and would not compromise. It ...more
Aug 21, 2014 Eric rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It is somewhat gratifying to see that we've been arguing heatedly for two hundred years about who ought to be president, often quite boisterously, and a) are still trying to figure out how to get it right and b) haven't come apart when things haven't gone as expected. I give great credit to Larson for bringing me into the narrative of the time and having me wondering even to the last few pages who was going to win the 1800 election. Change the party names around a bit and it could have been sold ...more
Vince Ciaramella
Apr 10, 2016 Vince Ciaramella rated it liked it
Every American should read about the election of 1800. It explains so much about election process today. Mud slinging, rumors, backdoor deals...been going on since the founding of our nation.

What bugs me as as citizen is that we should have outgrown party politics but it still goes on today. We'll never have another Adams (P) / Jefferson (VP) situation again because of the 12 Amendment but you would think the greater good would be the aim but it's still Us VS Them. And with our infrastructure he
Jun 11, 2014 Dan rated it it was amazing
This book tells the amazing and incredible story of "America's First Presidential Campaign". Did you know that the election of 1800 was the first contested presidential campaign? And that Jefferson and Adams basically went from being intimate friends/collaborators on the Declaration of Independence to being bitter rivals? I had no idea.

After Washington served 8 years from 1798-1797, Adams basically walked into the presidency for his one term of 1797-1801. Jefferson was Adams' vice president and,
Rhianna Marks
Dec 22, 2013 Rhianna Marks rated it really liked it
A lot of the reviews quoted this book as being "accessible," which I would have to agree with. I don't often read political science history books, but Larson made this read enjoyable. The facts and statistics of the 1800 election, and the years of campaigning for the electoral votes, were embedded in a narrative rich with quotes and letters reflecting the American politicians personalities and wit. While at time the repetitive breakdown of the electoral votes bogs the writing down, it does well ...more
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Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian and legal scholar. He is university professor of history and holds the Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. He was formerly Herman E. Talmadge Chair of Law and Richard B. Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia.
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