"Ferling at his best. It would be hard to find a better guide to the complexities of this very complex election, and Ferling is particularly good at showing just how many contingencies there were.... Useful and lucid."--Herbert Sloan, American Historical Review
Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800by John Ferling
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It was a contest of titans: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two heroes of the Revolutionary era, once intimate friends, now icy antagonists locked in a fierce battle for the future of the United States. The election of 1800 was a thunderous clash of a campaign that climaxed in a deadlock in the Electoral College and led to a crisis in which the young republic teetered on the edge of collapse. Adams vs. Jefferson is the gripping account of a turning point in American history, a dramatic struggle between two parties with profoundly different visions of how the nation should be governed. The Federalists, led by Adams, were conservatives who favored a strong central government. The Republicans, led by Jefferson, were more egalitarian and believed that the Federalists had betrayed the Revolution of 1776 and were backsliding toward monarchy. The campaign itself was a barroom brawl every bit as ruthless as any modern contest, with mud-slinging, scare tactics, and backstabbing. The low point came when Alexander Hamilton printed a devastating attack on Adams, the head of his own party, in "fifty-four pages of unremitting vilification." The stalemate in the Electoral College dragged on through dozens of ballots. Tensions ran so high that the Republicans threatened civil war if the Federalists denied Jefferson the presidency. Finally a secret deal that changed a single vote gave Jefferson the White House. A devastated Adams left Washington before dawn on Inauguration Day, too embittered even to shake his rival's hand. With magisterial command, Ferling brings to life both the outsize personalities and the hotly contested political questions at stake. He shows not just why this moment was a milestone in U.S. history, but how strongly the issues--and the passions--of 1800 resonate with our own time.
Meet the Author
John Ferling is Professor of History at the State University of West Georgia. A leading authority on American Revolutionary history, he has appeared in many documentaries and has written numerous books, including John Adams: A Life, The First of Men: A Life of George Washington, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson in the American Revolution, and the award-winning A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic.
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I agree with the first reviewer in this series. Ferling does disappointly unfairly represent Adams. Adams worked diligently to keep the U.S. out of war, either with England or France, especially of course France. McCullough makes that point very clearly and strongly. Ferling presents the idea the U.S. didn't go to war with France as almost accidental. Jefferson continue to favor the French Revolution even during the Reign of Terror, although his public pronouncements on this matter were more discreet. Perhaps equally important in looking at the failings in this book is the treatment Ferling gives to Hamilton. Hamilton is portrayed merely as a politically ambitious, power-hungry individual. While he may have had some personal ambitions, Chernow made it clear that Hamilton was working with a strong philosophy of creating a national government and an economically strong country, two points Jefferson cared little about. If it were left to Jefferson, of course, there would have been a series of small countries, e.g., Virginia, and not the United States. Even Lincoln had to ignore Jefferson's views during the Civil War to keep the Union. Ferling's book would have made a great polemic on Jefferson's behalf during the election, but, unfortunately, it is not well-balanced, or thorough, history.
While Ferling's other works are exceptional, it's apparent he lets his favoritism of Jefferson cloud his writing an accurate portrayal of the election of 1800. John Adams is extremely misrepresented from start to finish. Ferling paints him as a party man, and the head of the Federalist Party. Truly, Adams never thought of himself as being in a political party, and certainly not the head of a party. His record as president is fiercely independent, but Ferling only mentions this and fails to highlight it. Also, Jefferson is portrayed as going to great lengths to keep up a friendship with Adams; Adams is coldly represented with wanting nothing to do with it. This is not the case. Jefferson spread numerous lies about Adams, defaming a man who had the strongest character of anyone ever in the United States. But Ferling fails to highlight this. Finally, Ferling leaves the reader with the impression Adams was thought inferior and quite worthless as a leader, and Jefferson hailed a hero who shaped U.S. Democracy. While some parts of the country did believe this, there was also another half of the country that hailed Adams equal to Washington and the most important of Presidents. There was a part of the country that hailed Adams as the one who kept the U.S. democratic in it's shakiest moments, allowing Jefferson to lead a free nation. There was a part of the country that regarded Adams as the most important person in the United States. Ferling only tells the reader a section of the country's view; the view that Jefferson was great and was the reason we have the democracy we have today. Ferling seems to want you to believe that Adams did not favor freedom for all, equality, or governance by the people. In truth though, Adams favored freedom as much as Jefferson, believed people were equal more than Jefferson, and never once believed the United States should not be ruled by the people. It was Adams, Ferling fails to mention, that added the 4th part of the Alien and Sedition Acts so if the Acts were misused, they would run out with the Presidential term. It was Adams who feared the Acts, which in principal were good for the country, keeping journalists honest, would be misused. It is not worth reading this book, unless you want to get a feel for the slander told in the Republican Press around the election of 1800. The truth of the situation is sorely lacking in this book, a major, major disappointment for Ferling.
As the headline suggests, I greatly enjoyed this book. Adams vs. Jefferson offers a fantastic study on the colorful characters and heated (and sometimes comical) feuds that led up to one of the most significant events in America's history. Perhaps this book's greatest strength is it's ability to take an event that occurred over 200 years ago and still make it captivating to audiences today. By switching off between the lives of Adams and Jefferson throughout the book Ferling makes sure the reader continuously feels refreshed with each turn of the page. I strongly recommend this book to those with a knack for history, politics, or both.