Adams vs. Jefferson Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Only the last four of John Ferling's thirteen chapters in Adams vs. Jefferson deal directly with the 1800 election in the United States. The first five chapters (82 of 215 text pages), describing the evolution of national politics prior to 1796, contain little information beyond what introductory American history texts include. Ferling briefly narrates the work of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the election of George Washington, and the formation of the first federal government. He describes Alexander Hamilton's plan to organize the finances of the new nation and his famous compromise with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, locating the national capitol in the South in exchange for acceptance of Hamilton's financial program. The author notes Jefferson's disillusionment with Hamilton's activities, thinking them unduly favorable to mercantile interests.

Ferling stresses that disagreements among supporters of the new national government did not become emotionally powerful until the wars of the French Revolution became entangled in American politics. Jefferson and his admirers looked favorably on events in France, welcoming the spread of republicanism across the world, while Federalists reacted with horror to revolutionary excesses. Both sides approved neutrality when Britain and France went to war in 1793. However, to Jeffersonians the provisions of Jay's Treaty in 1794 seemed to take the side of Britain against France. Angry and horrified partisans believed their opponents flirted with treason. Federalists accused Jefferson of placing the interests of France above that of the United States, while Jeffersonian Republicans thought Hamilton and his supporters directed American policy to benefit Great Britain.

Ferling provides a useful description of the original presidential election system, which often puzzles students today. He might have clarified the reasons for its adoption by stressing the expectations of convention members. Not only did they not foresee the rise of political parties, it was also unclear to them that anyone other than George Washington could attract a majority in a huge nation with conflicting state and regional interests. Unwilling to trust direct popular election, they provided for a group of electors, equal in number to the state's representatives and senators, selected in such manner as the state directed, to cast the state's vote for president.

Each elector had two votes but could not cast both for citizens of the same state. Convention members expected that most states would have a favorite son who would get one vote from that state's electors; the electors would then be forced to look outside their own state and name another man qualified to lead the nation. If no one received a majority, the most likely outcome, the choice went to the House of Representatives. Voting by states, the House would choose the president from among the five with the highest number of votes. In effect, the Electoral College would serve as a nominating body, presenting the five best-qualified citizens of the republic to the representative for their choice.

Ferling terms this electoral procedure a calamity waiting to happen. The calamity did not occur in 1796, the first contested presidential election, but dangers lurking in the constitutional provisions became apparent. Candidates waited until September, when Washington announced his retirement, to start campaigning. Federalists backed John Adams for president and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for vice president, Republicans supported Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York. Rumors of manipulation, exploiting the double vote of the electors, surfaced almost immediately. Hamilton was suspected of trying to prevent Adams from becoming president by urging southern Federalists to vote for Pinckney, while withholding their second vote from Adams. When Burr toured New England, some believed he sought to lower Jefferson's total.

Although there was much partisan activity in every state in 1796, Ferling notes that party discipline was often absent—40 percent of the votes cast went to men not nominated by either party. Hamilton's intrigues backfired when eighteen suspicious New England Federalists rejected Pinckney, thereby vaulting Jefferson into second place and the vice presidency. The eight South Carolina electors voted as expected by the Constitutional Convention; each cast one vote for favorite-son Pinckney, then gave one vote to Jefferson.

Ferling points out that if North Carolina and Virginia had been unanimous for Jefferson, instead of one elector voting for Adams, Jefferson would have won the presidency, with 70 votes to Adams's 69, rather than the actual Adams's 71 to Jefferson's 68. The Republicans learned this lesson only too well, nearly bringing on the calamity noted by Ferling.

The election of 1800 evoked even greater political passion and more...

(The entire section is 1991 words.)