The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling
Academic historians, by definition if not common acceptance, are expert in their chosen field and period. Historians who write in their chosen field and period must then decide their market. There is no doubt John Ferling, Professor Emeritus of History at the State University of West Georgia is, as described on the book jacket, “(a) leading authority on American Revolutionary history”. It is uncertain just what market he or his publisher had in mind. However, it is not unlikely one, or both had another text in mind, like it or not. In 2001, John Adams, a “blockbuster” by David G. McCullough, reached the New York Times bestseller list and remained there over a year (Hawes). It was certainly enjoyed by mainstream readers, and was fully annotated for an academic review (McCullough, chapter notes and bibliography). To write anything of American political history of the era in the shadow of John Adams is a formidable task. Adams vs. Jefferson appears to be written in the hope of a “crossover” between academic and popular writing, and seems weaker for the effort.
Having read and enjoyed John Adams, there are some obvious comparisons. It was natural to expect Adams vs. Jefferson to be an engaging and informative book. A glance at the contents made me all the more eager to read it. While John Adams was comprehensive as to the man, Ferling set out to limit the scope to the people and machinations of the election of 1800. This was arguably the most critical time of the era, as well as exciting section of John Adams. Unfortunately, one element of Ferling’s writing style prevented me from truly enjoying his work: his use of words. By page 40, I realized I was using an electronic dictionary/thesaurus for an unknown word very often, and I thought I had a better than average vocabulary. As soon as I looked up and learned “tocsin” (Ferling, 40), I was checking “tendentious” ( 63, 75) and “limn” (90, 103, 147). There is a certain thrill to learning new vocabulary every student should feel. Then there is the sense of frustration at academic arrogance when words are used seemingly to impress the reader (“pother” (137), “myrmidons” (103), “sine die” (177)) when simpler, but no less cogent words work. Finally, there is the sense of futility when a word is used—“bloviated” (119)—that cannot easily be found. The oddity is that this is coming from an author who uses “crunch time” (63) and “blogger” (90, 149). If this book will ever cross over to mainstream reading, it will need a rather egalitarian re-write.
Vocabulary aside, Ferling has a wonderful way of setting the stage. The times come alive with his description of Adams’ carriage journey, as well as thorough and well documented biographies of the key players soon to be enmeshed in the drama. Expected and well-written, is the relationship between Jefferson and Adams, generally told through their voluminous correspondence. Of greater interest is the “biographies” of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Today we see these historical figures as somehow larger than life. These are common names to us, statues, and great men of foresight, dignity and achievement. To peers at the time, things could be quite different:
The events of that summer were something of an epiphany for Adams. He had never been comfortable with Hamilton, in whom he saw an unslakable “delirium of ambition”, and since the election of 1796 the president had believed that Hamilton “hated every man young or old who Stood in his Way” in his never-ending quest after “the highest Station in America.” …He now came to suspect that Hamilton had not only been manipulating some of his cabinet secretaries but had exploited President Washington’s as well. “Washington…was only a viceroy under Hamilton, and Hamilton was viceroy under the Tories,” Adams concluded. (114)
James Madison’s life, from the vantage point of time, is no less interesting. Perhaps for the times it was not atypical; yet with the distance of two centuries it is fascinating. He was born in 1751 in Virginia, his family one of the most prosperous in Orange County. He graduated from Princeton, intent on practicing law:
…but for three years after he was licensed to practice, he remained idle, adrift, living a purposeless life and coping with emotional woes that included hysterical, hypochondriacal fears and obsessive anxieties. The American Revolution gave meaning to his undirected existence, and he turned to politics. Luckily for him, the political system had not yet been democratized, and the first public positions he held were secured through his family’s influence. (43-4)
Other notables are also described, usually by the reflections of others. The role and character of Aaron Burr, the Pinckney brothers, Theodore Sedgwick and others in the election turmoil is easily placed in the context of modern elections—and electioneering. The seemingly outrageous campaigns of malice and innuendo so typical of modern elections would pale by comparison to the elections of the era, including that of 1800. There were no shortage of character assassinations, leaked communications, and religious fervor (151-6). Perhaps most significant was the beginning of campaign management. Today it is normal to send “…party workers into the wards to rally the voters and assist them, if need be, in getting to the polls” (130). But this was 1800, and it was Aaron Burr, who later said “We have beat you by superior management.” (131) But did Jefferson gain the presidency by “superior management” or behind-the-scenes horse-trading? Although he “deplored the carnival of ‘party intrigue and corruption’ afoot in the capital, he too knew that men of both parties were on the make” (185). The tied results had placed the election in the house, where it appeared Delaware Congressman James Bayard “had it in his ‘power to terminate the contest’” by abstaining (189). Ultimately he did abstain, perhaps in exchange for capitulations from Jefferson. Ferling does a great job of walking the reader through Bayard’s actions and repercussions.
Adams vs. Jefferson excels with Ferling’s political analysis of the election and aftermath, particularly for the student or political junkie. It is difficult to look at after-election results without a series of “what if” questions and scenarios. Adams vs. Jefferson is replete with graphs, maps, and analysis for the “what if” query (164). This is perhaps the book’s finest point, and is an excellent reference for any argument of the 1800 election. Given the competing ideologies at the time, it is difficult to imagine an America today had the outcome of the 1800 been different. Ferling’s writing style is very concise in describing how close it came, and leaves us wondering “what if” Adams had been reelected, and Jefferson retired perhaps permanently, to Monticello, or “what if” Aaron Burr had succeeded in swaying the right vote in Congress.
Overall, despite the vocabulary distraction, this is a strong text for anyone curious of the era, and a “required read” for the serious student of American History.
- Hawes Publications. “Adult New York Times Best Seller Lists, 2001, 2002”. http://www.hawes.com
- McCullough, David G. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
- Ferling, John Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.New York:Oxford University Press, 2004.