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

A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J. Larson
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's review
Mar 05, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: united-states-history, us-politics, us-revolution-and-early-republic
Read in March, 2008

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 love about them was there from the start -- including gaming the Electoral College, negative advertising, machine politics, intra-party rivalries, and whispering campaigns that leading candidates were not quite American enough. It was also the only election to end in a tie, the first to be settled by the House of Representatives, and a major test of whether the country could change ruling parties and survive. In the history lessons I remember from school, it's that last fact that gets the emphasis -- that Jefferson's being able to assume the presidency without constitutional crisis was proof that the U.S. had a functioning democracy. Larson's point comes at that one an oblique angle; he seems to argue -- and this is especially interesting in the face of all the Founding Father celebrations published in recent years -- that American presidential politics was pretty much the same dreary spectacle 200 years ago as it is today, and the wonder of it all is that we made it this far. Larson's a lively writer as well as a careful historian, and A Magnificent Catastrophe practically becomes a page-turner as the Democratic-Republicans conduct a too-disciplined race for the White House (the cause of the tie) and Federalists scheme to stop them even as their own party begins to fall apart. A very compelling read; I'm looking forward to picking up his Pulitzer-winning book on the Scopes trial from a couple of years back.

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