America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800

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Overview

The election of 1800 was arguably the most important in America's history. For the first time, two candidates with fundamentally different views of the country's needs opposed one another: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, revolutionary heroes and old friends who became bitter enemies over the course of one of the dirtiest and most slanderous electoral wars ever waged.

This is the extraordinary account of how American politics was born; a riveting history full of colorful ...

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Overview

The election of 1800 was arguably the most important in America's history. For the first time, two candidates with fundamentally different views of the country's needs opposed one another: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, revolutionary heroes and old friends who became bitter enemies over the course of one of the dirtiest and most slanderous electoral wars ever waged.

This is the extraordinary account of how American politics was born; a riveting history full of colorful real-life characters, remarkable events, riots, duplicities, and brazen manipulations that almost resulted in the scrapping of the Constitution.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Bookseller's Report
One imagines Harry S. Truman and Richard Nixon enjoying this robust book. Both of these avid readers of presidential history would have appreciated its vivid portrayals of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the throes of the savage election fight that destroyed their friendship. American Heritage columnist Weisberger presents the 1800 presidential election as it unfolds degenerating from an civilized exchange of position papers into a war of slanderous words. Rich in detail, American Afire tells a cautionary tale: If such great men can descend to such actions, what will we do?
From The Critics
The election of 1800, which established the party system, marked the first time that candidates—in this case, sitting president John Adams, the Federalist, and challenger Thomas Jefferson, the Republican—represented two distinctly different viewpoints. The Federalists, who were considered more conservative, stood for strong government and "social order" while the Republicans favored less government and claimed to be dedicated to the people. This book is as much a detailed recounting of the early Republic's history as it is about the election of 1800. Focusing on the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Washington administration and Adams' term as president, the author highlights many definitive moments in American history. Ultimately, according to Weisberger, the election of 1800 was pivotal because it was the first time that the nation had experienced a smooth and peaceful transition from one party to another. One comes away from the book with an enhanced appreciation for the American democratic experiment and the genius of the founding fathers.
—Glenn Speer

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Being released in time to mark the 200th anniversary of the election of 1800 won't be much of a selling point for this disappointing volume. It relates what Weisberger describes as one of the most mud slinging and divisive elections in American history: Jefferson versus Adams, two old friends pitted against each other for the highest office in the land. However, that dramatic claim is not borne out by Weisberger's account, most of which is devoted to the 13 years leading up to the election. The thread of Weisberger's narrative is the emergence of divisive factionalism--from which the framers of the Constitution believed, mistakenly, they had adequately protected the new nation. But in his attempt to follow this thread through the early years of American history, Weisberger, a columnist for American Heritage, tells readers little they didn't learn from their high school history textbooks. He begins with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, rehashing familiar details of the debates (big states threatened the small states, and the North tangled with the South over slavery). Offering a snapshot of America at 1790, Weisberger reveals little more than that the nation was "already an empire"--that is, it was geographically huge, and home to an increasingly diverse mix of religious groups, from French Huguenots to Jews to Moravians to Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Weisberger relates Aaron Burr's launching of a "well-oiled" political machine in New York and suggests that sectional discord reared its ugly head as early as the 1790s, yet never does his story really come alive. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The election of 1800 was revolutionary because it allowed for the first peaceful transfer of power under our Constitution, argues Weisberger, the author of ten books and longtime columnist for American Heritage. This exchange of power, from the Federalist to Republican party, was atypical for the dominant European powers of the time. Included here are skillful accounts of the fragile diplomatic efforts to prevent Great Britain, France, and Spain from carving up the new country and lucid narratives about the differences between New England and the South, whose interests were represented respectively by the Federalists and the Republicans (not to be confused with the later party of Lincoln). In the national election, Republican Jefferson defeated Federalist Adams but was tied by fellow Republican Aaron Burr, since the Constitution did not yet provide for separate votes for President and Vice President. A split in the Federalist Party between Adams and Alexander Hamilton, whom Adams attacked as "the most indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States," aided Jefferson. When the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, it took 36 ballots before Jefferson was finally declared the winner. This classic political drama celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Weisberger's able retelling is recommended for public and academic libraries and young adult collections.--Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Booknews
Tells the story of the election of 1800, when former allies Adams and Jefferson, president and vice president, now Federalist versus Republican, squared off in a vicious contest to win the fourth presidential election under the Constitution. The election took place in a young republic that lacked a cohesive national identity, where political parties were unforeseen and unwelcome creations. When Adams stepped down from the presidency peacefully in 1801, it was the first time in modern history that a leader had voluntarily turned over power to a political enemy. Weisberger has written more than a dozen books. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid political history of the earliest and most unstable years of the American republic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780742967458
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernard A. Weisberger is a distinguished teacher and author of American history. He has been on the faculties of the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester, is a contributing editor of American Heritage for which he wrote a regular column for ten years, has worked on television documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns, and has published some dozen and a half books as well as numerous articles and reviews. He lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Philadelphia, Summer
1787

In the summer of 1788, a classic statement in defense of the Constitution argued that a "well-constructed Union," meaning a tightly knit nation rather than the existing loose "Confederation" of states, had one powerful advantage, namely, "its tendency to break and control the violence of faction." A faction, the writer said, was a number of citizens "actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." And all "popular governments" showed an alarming "propensity to this dangerous vice."

When the Constitutional Convention ended its business on September 17, 1787, it had failed to subdue the vice, and as a result, the "violence of faction" would nearly destroy the new Union in only thirteen short years.

To say as much is not to condemn but to understand. So pervasive is our reverence for the Constitution that we easily overlook its shaky and literally sweaty origins. It is the handiwork of daily meetings among a few dozen men in heavy clothes, cooped up six days a week for most of four months in a stifling Pennsylvania State House with windows shut tight against the swarming flies of a neighboring livery stable. In a moment of enthusiasm Thomas Jefferson called them "an assembly of demigods, "no doubt thinking particularly of delegates George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. But far from carrying the stamp of divine inspiration, the "grand convention" of 1787 was bound by human limitations. Its fifty-five members shared a commitment to a stronger nation but were also pleading thespecial interests of the individual states and classes they represented. The debates, especially among a talented few, were amazingly learned and civil. But there were also moments of hot temper and sulky deadlock, and at least twice there were threatened walkouts when only compromise staved off a breakup. Three of the most active framers never did sign the finished Constitution. So the delegates were far from believing that they were setting down holy writ for the ages. Nor did their fellow Americans think so. It took three quarters of a year to win ratification of the document in the needed minimum of nine states, and that was with promises of early amendments. Even then victory was barely squeezed out in crucial Virginia and New York. The last holdout, Rhode Island, which never even took part in the convention, did not join the Union until May 1790.

The Constitution, in the 1790s, was still considered a fragile work-in-progress--more a provisional outline than a charter for the ages. It didn't yet have the emotional power to unite people automatically behind it. And it showed early signs of misjudgments and of business unfinished. First of all, since they shared a general coolness toward "democracy," the framers failed to foresee the growth of a drive toward more widespread participation in "popular governments." Second, they never anticipated that "factions" could embrace whole sections of the new Union, or that there might be large-scale permanent coalitions of "factions" in the form of political parties. And of course they could not know that the new ship of state would be launched into a wrenching tempest of international warfare caused by a French Revolution that was soon to begin.

All of these developments unleashed the passions of special interest and thwarted the hopes of immediately setting up a national government dedicated purely to the "permanent and aggregate interests of the community." One result was that the machinery of succession to the presidency would be out of date in the very first election after the most popular man in the country had stepped down from power, and seriously dysfunctional by the time of the second. The seeds of the crisis of 1800 were planted in 1787 In Philadelphia. The Constitutional Convention set the stage for the drama and introduced some of the cast. One delegate, South Carolina's Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, would become Adams's running mate. Two others would be far more significant players--James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, friends in 1787, intense foes thirteen years later. The whole story of the nation during that interval reflected their unraveling alliance. Madison was so much at the heart of the convention that he has been called the Father of the Constitution. Hamilton had only one highlighted moment, but it was enough to foreshadow a career whose impact on America's future may have been the most lasting of all.

By 1800, Madison was a chief planner for the new Republican Party, which backed Jefferson for president. It strongly supported states' rights, and history remembers Madison in part for his eloquent defense of that stance. But when he arrived in Philadelphia early in May 1787, days before the scheduled opening session, Madison was still a nationalist and with good reason. He came fresh from months in New York City as a frustrated member of the one-house Congress created by the 1781 Articles of Confederation.

The Articles proclaimed a "firm league of friendship" among thirteen explicitly sovereign states. Each one sent a delegation--chosen by its legislature--to the Confederation Congress, and each delegation, regardless of the state's size, was entitled to one vote. The league carried the name of the United States of America, but "United" was a fiction. The raising of armies, the collection of taxes, and the exercise of Congress's few powers depended entirely on the voluntary cooperation of the states. Any important decision required the concurrence of nine, a sure recipe for allowing minority obstruction. There was no likely prospect for such a "nation" to grow or be taken seriously in the world, or even stay free for long...

America Afire. Copyright © by Bernard Weisberger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 1801 1
Pt. I Discords of an Unfinished Nation
Ch. 1 Philadelphia, Summer 1787 13
Ch. 2 The Nation in 1790 29
Pt. II Personalities, Places, and Domestic Discord, 1789-1794
Ch. 3 Washington's Hopeful First Term 43
Ch. 4 The Curse of Faction 66
Ch. 5 Mr. Burr Launches a Machine 83
Ch. 6 Wedges of Sectionalism 101
Pt. III War Abroad, Politics at Home, 1793-1796
Ch. 7 Terror, Turmoil and Citizen Genet 119
Ch. 8 John Jay's Divisive Treaty, 1794-1795 138
Ch. 9 Jefferson and Adams's First Round, 1796 160
Pt. IV Toward Disunion, 1797-1800
Ch. 10 X, Y, Z, and the French Connection, 1798 173
Ch. 11 Gagging the Press, 1798 200
Pt. V Campaign and Conscience, 1800-1801
Ch. 12 The Climax and the Drawn Battle of 1800 227
Ch. 13 The Crossroads of February 1801 258
Ch. 14 The Republican President 278
Epilogue: Aftermath and Echoes 299
Notes 311
Bibliography 323
Index 327
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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
The problem in 1800 was a flaw in the Constitution's original mandate (changed after 1800) that the members of the Electoral College vote for two persons without specifying which was intended for president and which for vice president. The Founding Fathers -- and first president George Washington -- planned for a government of wise and disinterested patriots committed to national unity. But within a few years, furious disagreements about financial and foreign policies had produced two parties, Federalists and Republicans, each led by heirs of the Revolution who had become enemies through contrasting visions of the nation they had created. Federalist John Adams won in 1796, with runner-up Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, as his incongruous vice president. The election of 1800 matched them against each other again after a turbulent Adams administration featuring sedition laws, jailings, and a venomous attack on Adams from Alexander Hamilton, who had a personal feud with Adams even more rancorous than his well-known quarrels with Jefferson and Jefferson's vice president designate, Aaron Burr.

When the electoral votes were counted following a slanderous campaign, Jefferson had beaten Adams -- but he was tied with Burr. That threw the choice to the outgoing House of Representatives, still controlled by the Federalists. Federalist strategists conceived a plan to vote for Burr rather than Jefferson, producing a deadlock on March 4th, the slated Inauguration Day, and then to pass emergency legislation allowing them to keep Adams or some other Federalist as chief executive. In turn, a few leading Republicans swore not to recognize such "usurpation," perhaps even to resist it with armed force and possibly pull their states out of the still-experimental Union. Party loyalty, a potential unifying force, now threatened to shatter the untested republic through its excesses.

The climax came in five crowded February days. Roll call after sleepless roll call ended in stalemate. Then a weekend of backstage negotiations and possible secret deals broke the jam, with a Federalist surrender coming after 36 ballots. Adams peacefully exited town, turning over the reins to a popularly elected successor -- a landmark "first" in the history of modern nations. Jefferson spoke inaugural words of conciliation, avoided reprisals and recriminations, and kept some Federalist officeholders and policies even while moving the nation in a more "republican" direction. Winner and loser alike agreed to abide by the appeal to the ballot box. The center held.

America Afire follows the clashing personalities and ideas, whose echoes still linger, in colorful and striking detail.

--Bernard A. Weisberger

Bernard A. Weisberger is a longtime contributing editor to American Heritage magazine, has written more than a dozen books, and has worked on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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