A Magnificent Catastrophe

by Edward J. Larson

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Does A Magnificent Catastrophe cover historical or contemporary views?

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One of Edward J. Larson's principal objectives in A Magnificent Catastrophe is to demonstrate that the election of 1800 was more like contemporary political campaigns than most people would believe. When we compare modern politicians to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, founders of the Republic and intellectual giants, it is tempting to think that they must have conducted their political campaigns in a much more principled and gentlemanly manner than is customary today. Larson shows that nothing could be further from the truth. The election of 1800 was characterized by vicious smear campaigns, personal attacks, and rampant hypocrisy. The mudslinging journalist James Thomson Callender published a series of particularly scurrilous broadsides against Adams, describing him as a "hideous hermaphroditical character." Adams, in his turn, smeared Jefferson as a traitor.

It is by demonstrating the similarities between the 1800 election and contemporary politics, and showing how Adams and Jefferson's campaigns set the standard for political chicanery, that Larson adopts a predominantly historical viewpoint. He shows admiration for the two candidates, but it is the qualified admiration of a historian evaluating their actions in context. While it is only with hindsight that we can see how vital this election was, and how it played a key role in determining how future elections would be fought, Larson does provide a strong sense of how Americans must have viewed the conduct of the candidates at the time. This was the first seriously contested presidential election in history, and the first one fought after the death of George Washington. Washington's personal prestige was a moderating influence on American politics until 1799. While no one in 1800 could have predicted how political campaigning would develop based on the tactics employed by Adams and Jefferson, Larson provides a clear picture of the way the two candidates must have appeared to their contemporaries.

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In his 2007 study of the 1800 US presidential election, Edward Larson has the advantage of two centuries of hindsight. Larson primarily immerses himself in the records of the time, drawing extensively on primary sources (some previously published) as well as on published materials and electioneering memorabilia. When Larson presents a point of view that is based primarily on his twenty-first-century perspective, he acknowledges that he is doing so. One important aspect of his hindsight is evaluating how the events of the late 1700s leading up to that election have continued to influence electoral politics, especially in presidential elections, up to the present time.

One important feature that Larson stresses is that, up until 1800, the brand-new country had only had two presidents. The processes of electing the president were changing constantly as the nation learned from its previous experiences. The two primary candidates each represented a radically different perspective. Larson is able to show how those diametrically opposed views continued to influence US politics, later contributing to the Civil War. At the time, however, the ideas of federalism and states’ rights were not linked to specific geographic areas, as they would be later in the 1800s: the South did not focus on slavery as a key state’s right. The North largely stood for national unity and a strong federal government; this concept was represented by President Adams, who was from Massachusetts and was a staunch federalist. The South tended to emphasize states’ rights and opposed further centralization. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who had become vice president when he came in second in 1796, was an equally vocal opponent of excessive central control.

The change in electoral procedure was acknowledged as important at the time because the election results and resulting dissent within the White House had clearly shown that it was not viable to have the “loser” assume a key role. In this regard, the contemporary point of view, which created a new party-based system of campaigning, is crucial to understanding the procedures that were followed. Although some of the language and negative campaigning might seem mild today, the 1800 campaign was the first time such negativity was deliberately used. The candidates “could write like angels and scheme like demons.” Larson also shows how different areas organized their campaigns, such as creating a central office with a dedicated staff, as New York City did under Aaron Burr’s guidance.

Another important turning point was the formation of the electoral colleges, as different states had different rules for choosing electors. Here again, the changes stemmed from perceptions of problems in the previous elections, but the impact of the changes still has repercussions today. Two different methods then used included having the entire state choose its electors and having different districts within a state each choose their own.

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