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America Afire is the powerful story of the election of 1800, arguably the most important election in America's history and certainly one of the most hotly disputed. Former allies Adams and Jefferson, president versus vice president, Federalist versus Republican, squared off in a vicious contest that resulted in broken friendships, scandals, riots, slander, and jailings in the fourth presidential election under the Constitution.
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.
Posted May 23, 2005
This book was very good, very readable, and overall enjoyable. If you're looking for a book specifically on the 1800 election, this is not your book. However, this book did do an excellent job in detailing events that led up to the dispute. The election details themselves took up maybe 10% of the book. After the election, there is a chapter on Jefferson's terms in office, followed by one of those where-are-they-now chapters. If I really knew about this history, I'd give the book 5 stars, but since I don't I give it 4. Well written, not too dry, you'll learn about the times and major events which took place.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.