The Presidential Election of 1800 in A Magnificent Catastrophe

A Magnificent Catastrophe was written by Edward J. Larson. In the book, Larson retells the story of the presidential election of 1800 between sitting president, John Adams, and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The book takes you on a journey back in time to when both Adams and Jefferson worked together to as members of the Second Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence. As the story unfolds, we see that these one time friends became bitter, political rivals. We can also see the manifestation of the two-party system we see in modern United States politics. Considered America’s “first presidential campaign”, A Magnificent Catastrophe shows how Jefferson and Adams turned the race for president into an often dirty, partisan battle that divided the country, and laid the foundation for what the nation would experience in future elections (Larson, 2008). The election of 1800 gave a new and defining face to American politics. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington was unanimously elected as the president by the Electoral College. After serving for eight years, Washington stepped down, Adams was elected president with the highest number of votes from the Electoral College, and Jefferson, who received the second-highest number of votes, was elected vice president.

Adams and Jefferson came from two different political parties. John Adams was a Federalist, while Thomas Jefferson was a Republican. They would be the only two people to hold these offices as members of rival parties. Federalists supported England, industrial development, a standing army, increased taxes, and a strong central government. Republicans supported France, a limited national government, low taxes, and farming. As their campaigns for president continued, more differences would come to light creating even more animosity between the parties and candidates. Both parties would resort to using fear tactics and rhetoric to gain the necessary votes needed to secure their candidates election to the presidency. Alexander Hamilton would become critical to the Federalist party. He was a very well respected politician, and used his influence and standing to secure as many votes as possible for Adams. He even went as far as to try and change the way states elected their electors, in order to lock in a majority of votes for Adams. He also tried to get more votes for Pinckney, Adams’ running mate, to oust Adams out of office altogether. Aaron Burr would become an essential part of the Republican campaign to get Jefferson elected. Burr and Hamilton would remain bitter enemies until Burr would take Hamilton’s life in a duel in 1804. As Larson tells the story of the historic election, we see the reliance of fear tactics, rhetoric, and mass media from both parties.

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The election will end in a tie, but not between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The tie is between Jefferson and Burr. Congress would decide the fate of the candidates by casting the tie breaking vote. Alexander Hamilton once again played an important role in the election of the president. This time, it was to secure the votes needed for his Federalist party rival, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was victorious in his election bid, and become inaugurated as the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801. As an avid reader and lover of history, I thought Edward Larson did a lot of things right in the book. Larson was able to weave so much history into the pages of the book, that you felt thrust back in time. I love that he set the scene for all of the major events leading up to Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration by using an abundance of detail. Every major player on the political scene at the time of our nation’s founding was written into Larson’s narrative. Larson gives a lot of background information on each person he introduces into the story, so that the reader knows exactly how the person fits in, his relationship to others, and why his role was important to the campaign and other events unfolding at the time. The details Larson gives helps the reader to have a complete picture of the state of the nation and politics at the time. Larson does a tremendous job of adequately covering the election of 1800 and its impact on the American political system.

The problem with using so much detail and information is that the reader can easily become confused and lost. I feel like Larson went off on a few tangents here and there that were completely unnecessary. While reading the book it sometimes felt like Larson was telling a story within a story. This seems to happen every time someone new is introduced, or a major event has taken place. The one that irritated me the most was when Larson went off on several rabbit trails while writing about George Washington and his death in chapter 2. He starts the chapter off in the days leading up to Washington’s death. The reader then finds himself thrown back into a very detailed retelling of the election in 1796, back to Washington, then another story about Hamilton, etc. It can make it very difficult to keep up with. It feels like the story is being told out-of-order, and his rambling at times get annoying. This book does a great job of providing the reader with all of the background information one needs, in order to have a deep and thorough understanding of our current political system. Larson seems to be writing to an audience who has no prior knowledge of not only the election of 1800, but the history of American politics in general. His use of so many facts, dates, events, and people may be intimidating for someone who doesn’t love history, or doesn’t have an interest in the political system. At the same time, it’s those very details that make the book such a worthwhile read, especially for someone lacks knowledge of the event.

Another thing that I loved about the book, is that Larson does a very good job at explaining the values that both the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties held dear. Not only does he explain where they stood on the issues at the time, but why they felt the way they did. From international alliances to slavery, the reader knows exactly how the country was divided through Larson’s narrative. Larson does a good job of showing how passionately each party fought to save the country they loved, as they each believed that if the other party won, America would cease to exist. This helped me to understand why, so soon after gaining independence, a two-party political system was needed. Even though the names of the parties have since changed, you can still see the same values, wants, and desires for America in these parties today. The book will definitely take the reader on an emotional journey. From reading the words written into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to the deaths of the Founding Fathers, you will feel a range of emotions.

While I was reading, I felt a tremendous amount of pride for the bravery of our forefathers who fought so hard for a better way of life for their families, as well as my own. I was angry when the issue of slavery was discussed as not only a political issue at the time, but also in terms of the founding documents and the equality and freedoms for all they were supposed to represent. Immigration issues even make their way into the book, and that left me feeling a bit disgusted. It was, however, interesting to see that issue from the lens of the past as well as the present. Finally, the tremendous sadness I felt when Washington, Adams, and Jefferson pass away could only be countered by the knowledge of what extraordinary men they were, and all that they had accomplished in their lives. The rivalry that Adams and Jefferson had know most of their adult lives would even find its way into their deaths with Adams saying, “Thomas Jefferson survives”, as some of his final words. Little did he know that Jefferson had beaten him in death also, passing away five hours prior (Larson, 2008).

A Magnificent Catastrophe covers a historical view of politics in the early years of America. You can see the evolution of a two-party system of politics, as well as the distinct partisan lines that these two parties used to shape American politics. That being said, it is fascinating to see the parallels of the candidates campaigns back then with the campaigns we see being run today. The election of 1800 forever changed the face of politics in America. Everything we know to be true of elections in the 21st century is because of the election held so long ago between Adams and Jefferson. To see the events unfold through Larson’s storytelling, left me with so many “ah ha” moments. To see exactly how, why and when the two different sides organized themselves into political parties and rivals had me geeking out. You get to see that rhetoric and fear tactics are not a contemporary political ploy, but they were used by the Founding Fathers as well. Larson shows you exactly how the press began to be used in campaigning, how they remain to important to politics today.

Adams was the first person to actually go out on the campaign trail. To see where all of the things we know to be true of contemporary politics began, is an amazing thing. Even though the book tells the story of a historical event, anyone who reads the book will be able to see the parallels between the past and the present. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has even the slightest interest in politics or history. Larson doesn’t just rap off a bunch of facts, he tells a story. He paints a picture of the who and the why. The book is emotional and exciting. It provides the background information for how politics became such a hot topic, and why as Americans we are so passionate about our beliefs and what we think is right for the country. We see how each party’s beliefs contradict that of the others, and why that was so impactful then as it is in current politics. Through Larson’s explanation the reader will be able to see why partisan politics will always be a catastrophe for America and the future of this country. Being on opposite ends of the political spectrum tore apart families and friends then, as it does now. Every four years, it divides the country today as it did then. Reading the book will help you understand how the fight over political beliefs began, and how it has forever changed American democracy.

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The Presidential Election of 1800 in A Magnificent Catastrophe. (2022, Aug 31). Retrieved from