When critiquing Edward Larson’s history of the politics of the early years of the nation’s founding, describing the positives and the negatives of Larson’s study is a little depressing. The reason is that the book’s attributes are also its problem. A Magnificent Catastrophe is an appropriate title for Larson’s description of the election of 1800, a political contest the pitted two of the nation’s most esteemed figures against each other, with the fate of the United States literally at stake. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were giants of history; the United States would not exist without their efforts. The “catastrophe,” however, was the precedent that historic election set for the future of politics in the newly-formed democracy. Jefferson’s deeply-held concerns regarding the diffusion of political power – he continued to be wary of the consolidation of power in the executive branch, fearing a return to a tyrannical form of government – and about the concentration of wealth among urban business and political elites, influenced his perceptions of the agendas of his political rivals (including his former friend as colleague Adams). All of this is well and good, as differences of opinion freely expressed within the context of republicanism are an essential element of democracy. Where Larson’s narrative becomes – and remains –disturbing, however, is in the morally questionable nature of elective politics. Presaging the evolution of those politics, Larson includes a quote from a letter Jefferson wrote to his daughter:
“Despite his personal distaste for campaigning, Jefferson supported Republican polemicists, distributed partisan literature, and wrote a steady stream of highly political letters. ‘Politics are such a torment that I would advise everyone I love not to mix with them,’ he wrote to his daughter Martha early in 1800, yet he was already deeply engaged in the presidential campaign.”
Larson’s study is a highly informative and entertaining depiction of that crucial period in American history. That is its positive. Its negative, however, lies in its depiction of elective politics as an inherently ugly business. Having spent the better part of my adult life working for members of the U.S. Congress, and lamenting the inevitability of political intrusions in the formulation and conduct of public policy, and the distastefulness of campaign seasons, this educator can fully sympathize with Larson’s cynical emphasis on the details of the processes he describes. It was unattractive then, and it’s unattractive today.