Edward Larson: Fascinating account of dirty politics among our Founding Fathers

Historians in the News

If presidential politics seem nasty today, with personal attacks often taking precedence over substantive issues, blame the election of 1800.

Out the window went the young nation's dignified unanimity of the George Washington years. In came vitriol and attack politics as Thomas Jefferson faced John Adams. And the contest was decided by just three electoral votes -- still the closest election in American history.

That fascinating election is brought vibrantly to life by Edward J. Larson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, in "A Magnificent Catastrophe" (Free Press, 276 pages, $27).

Larson's lively approach is signaled in the opening lines of his book describing the Founding Fathers: "They could write like angels and scheme like demons."

One of the surprising elements of the landmark 1800 election turns out to be that neither Jefferson nor Adams actually campaigned for office. That left the election wide open for combative smear campaigns in the rollicking partisan press that makes today's media seem tame by comparison.

Another fascinating element of the story is that the campaign's brutal tone ended what once had been a close friendship between Adams and Jefferson. A grinding personal rivalry took its place.

Finally, the 1800 election resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr that threw the election out of the electoral college and into the House of Representatives. There, 34 rounds of seesaw balloting went back and forth between Jefferson, Burr and Adams, with backdoor scheming of Olympian dimensions, before Jefferson finally emerged triumphant.

Larson, who used to spend part of his time along Puget Sound, has since moved on to dual professorships in Georgia and California. His dramatic new book seems destined to earn him even more readers in a country that, in recent years, seems to have an unquenchable appetite for true tales of the Founding Fathers.
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