A Magnificent Catastrophe

by Edward J. Larson

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward Larson provides a fast-paced, rip-roaring narrative of the 1800 presidential election—arguably one of the most important in American history. At the start, Larson sets the political background against which this most fractious of elections took place.

In one corner, there was John Adams, president since 1796 and deeply unpopular. A high Federalist and staunch advocate of a strong central government, he was accused by his opponents of seeking to establish on American soil a tyranny greater than that of the British. Adams's reputation as a would-be monarch had been stained further by his authoritarian actions in office, most notoriously in the case of the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts, which Adams (reluctantly) signed into law.

But Adams was unrepentant. His opponents were utopian fanatics and dreamers who fawned over the French Revolution, despite the bloody and tyrannical turn it eventually took. Furthermore, they were shameless demagogues who pandered to the basest instincts of the mob to rally support for their dangerous policies. Adams was an unashamed elitist who saw himself as part of a natural aristocracy, born to rule.

Up against Adams was the formidable figure of Thomas Jefferson. Although he'd been Adams's vice president for the past four years, he'd been the effective leader of the Republican opposition to his own administration. He saw the Federalist platform as nothing less than a full-blown assault on the "Spirit of '76" and the radical conception of republican liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's finest achievement.

The centralizing tendencies of the Federalists were a threat to American liberty. Americans had fought a war to free themselves from tyranny, but now the Federalists wanted to establish a new one, with Adams taking the role of an American King George III. And although Jefferson was a scion of Virginia's elite plantocracy, he had a profound commitment to government "of the people," seeing in them a fundamental wisdom, a position that the Federalists regarded as sentimental pandering.

This, then, was no ordinary election. The towering, non-partisan figure of George Washington was no more, and the stage was now set for a bitter, vituperative, no-holds-barred political street fight in which every dirty trick in the book would be used by both sides. Larson goes into great detail in setting out just how dirty it got: not just the endless mudslinging and outright slander from the partisan press, but blatant attempts by the Federalists to suppress the vote in Republican-leaning areas.

Yes, there were profound issues at stake. Both sides genuinely believed that the revolution's legacy was at threat from the other. But Larson recognizes that the struggles were also deeply personal. Many of the various players at each other's throats in this unfolding drama were once friends and boon companions, comrades in arms during the intense struggle for American independence. The central relationship of the book, that between Adams and Jefferson, perfectly exemplifies this central aspect of political life at the time.

It's an old cliche to say that the past is prologue. But it certainly applies to A Magnificent Catastrophe. We tend to think of bitter partisanship in American politics as a relatively recent phenomenon, but Larson shows this not to be the case at all. The presidential election of 1800 represented an explosion of partisan tendencies that had hitherto been simmering just below the surface. Full-blown party politics had now been born, and the consequences, both good and ill, have been with us ever since.

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