Study Guide

A Magnificent Catastrophe

by Edward J. Larson

A Magnificent Catastrophe Analysis

A Magnificent Catastrophe (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been close collaborators and friends during the American Revolution, but in 1800 each headed opposing political parties. In 1776, both urged the Continental Congress to declare independence, and Adams served with Jefferson on the committee to write the Declaration of Independence, suggesting improvements to Jefferson’s draft. As American diplomats in Europe after the peace, they supported each other’s efforts, and the two families grew close. Abigail Adams aided Jefferson’s daughter while Jefferson introduced young John Quincy Adams to the niceties of European diplomacy. Absent from the 1789 Constitutional Convention while serving in Europe, each supported the new Constitution with reservations; as Adams phrased it, he feared the rise of an aristocracy while Jefferson worried about the possibility of monarchy.

By 1800, what had seemed differences in emphasis had become unbridgeable chasms. The divergence began during George Washington’s presidency, when Secretary of State Jefferson objected to the domestic policies of Secretary of Treasury Hamilton, which Jefferson thought favored wealthy, urban investors to the detriment of rural Americans. As Edward J. Larson points out, disagreements over domestic policy became highly emotional when they intersected with different reactions to the French Revolution. To Jeffersonians, it was a continuation and validation of the American Revolution as a world-altering event. Those who became the Federalists shuddered at French Revolutionary excesses, blaming extreme democracy. With one group favoring France in the European wars and the other England, each could accuse the other of treasonable conduct that threatened the survival of American independence.

Emotions became even more intemperate in 1798 when French depredations against American ships and requests that U.S. negotiators bribe their French counterparts led to an undeclared war with France. Congress appropriated funds to build warships. It increased the size of the army; George Washington accepted command and chose Hamilton as his deputy, putting him in charge. In the name of national security, a Sedition Act made criticism of the government and its officials a crime, but prosecution of opposition newspaper editors backfired, creating in the eyes of their supporters honorable martyrs for freedom of the press. In the 1798 election, war fever elected a large Federalist majority to the House of Representatives. Larson stresses that partisans on each side insisted the public faced a choice between order and liberty.

When news of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’etat reached the United States early in 1800, as Americans began to think about the coming presidential election, it confirmed prejudices on each side. Federalists, Larson notes, viewed the development as proving the weakness of excessive democracy; Jeffersonians stressed the dangers of a standing army, implicitly pointing to Hamilton’s command of the U.S. Army.

Adams and Jefferson had been the leading candidates in 1796 when Washington retired. Adams received 71 votes from the 139 electors, Jefferson 68. Under the original Constitution, which did not separate votes for vice president from presidential votes, Jefferson became vice president. Hamilton, who thoroughly disliked Adams, covertly tried to sabotage his candidacy by urging electors to withhold votes for Adams, thereby putting his running mate, Thomas Pinckney, in the presidential chair. The plot backfired when New Englanders, angered over news of his plan, dumped Pinckney, permitting Jefferson to come in second. Parties were still evolving, and one elector in both Virginia and North Carolina deviated from otherwise solid Jeffersonian blocs by voting for Adams. Larson points out that Jefferson would have won if he had received the two votes, a possibility noted by his partisans, who determined to prevent such defections in the future.

Larson goes into great detail describing the variety of ways states organized in 1800. Republicans in Virginia created state and local campaign committees, the first signs of true party organization; similar groups appeared in Maryland and New Jersey.

In ten states, legislatures chose the electors. Of five states permitting voter choice, three (North...

(The entire section is 1759 words.)

A Magnificent Catastrophe Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The American Scholar 76, no. 4 (Fall, 2007): 129-131.

Booklist 103, no. 21 (July 1, 2007): 24.

The Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 2007, p. 14.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 957 (October 5, 2007): 75.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 12 (June 15, 2007): 593.

Library Journal 132, no. 12 (July 15, 2007): 103-104.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (December 16, 2007): 28.

The New Yorker 83, no. 27 (September 17, 2007): 94-98.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 21 (May 21, 2007): 43-44.