Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling

The final selection for my reading on the John Adams era is Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.  This may be a surprise to most Americans, but 2016 was not the first controversial election in the history of the United States.  The fourth election for a Chief Executive was nothing short of crazy.  The outcome of the election led to the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, becoming President by the Legislative Branch.  I would be willing to wager not many Americans realize it took 36 separate votes by Congress to arrive at this decision.

John Ferling, is the author of Adams vs. Jefferson, and a leading historian on the American Revolution.  Earlier this month, I reviewed his book John Adams: A Life (review here), which proved to be an excellent read.  I know Ferling is an expert of Adams’s life and is a thorough research based on his work on Adams.  Ferling has written multiple volumes on the Founding Fathers to include The Ascent of George Washington which I plan to read later.

Ferling hooks the reader into the story quickly via the use of outstanding information on the lives of each candidate.  The author provides background on Adams and Jefferson, which is mainly common knowledge, but a good refresher.  I learned the most from the history about Charles Pinckney and Aaron Burr.  Pinckney is not a well-known patriot, but did participate in the Revolutionary War and in South Carolina politics.  Aaron Burr is a fascinating character, primarily known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.  Burr was very active in colonial politics, more notorious than well liked, and he played a bigger role in America’s earlier history than I was aware of.

Ferling moves from historical backgrounds on the four candidates to focusing on the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  This aspect of the book is important because it provides perspective on two of the primary participants in the revolution against the British.  Adams was considered the Voice of the Revolution, while Jefferson was the Pen.  The two were aligned in the split from Great Britain and became fast friends during diplomatic duty in France.  However, Ferling illustrates the damage politics can inflict upon friends, when penning a section on the breakdown of their relationship.  Jefferson seems shocked once Adams is accused of being a monarchist and they split apart based on ideology.

The writer then flashes back to the evolution of political parties prior to the election of 1796.  The two-party system was born in this time prior to the beginning of the 19th Century.  The main split was between supporters of Jefferson, a proponent of a weak central government, and Alexander Hamilton’s followers, who advocated a strong national government.  Whether he completely agreed with all of Hamilton’s viewpoints, Adams believed in a robust central government that did not necessarily need a King, but a powerful chief executive.  The Federalist party won a majority of Congressional seats in 1796 and Adams was elected by a small electoral college margin over Jefferson, who served as Vice-President.

The major foreign issue that hurt Adams while president was the war between Britain and France.  The Federalist party wanted to build a strong relationship with the former mother country.  Conversely, the Republicans favored the French who assisted America in its revolution and were undergoing their won change in government.  The support for England versus France split the country in half, many wanting war with France.  When Adams negotiated a peace settlement with France, against the wishes of the Federalist party, he lost their support.  Making matters worse on the domestic front, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which horrified Jefferson and the Republicans.

Ferling provided this information as a backdrop to the election of 1800.  The elections in those days did not have the same amount of campaigning as today.  Three of the four candidates did not actively recruit votes.  Only Burr worked on securing support in the electoral college.  When the final votes were tallied, Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 votes apiece.  The election was decided in Congress with Jefferson winning and Burr becoming Vice President.

I was unsure of what to expect when I began the book.  Since Ferling previously wrote a biography of Adams, my preconceived notion was that the work would be biased towards Adams over his opponents.  However, Ferling did not show favoritism to any character.  The book is well written and flowed smoothly without jumping from topic to topic.  The background provided by the author before the election took place, the events around the election, and the election of Jefferson was simply masterful.  I highly recommend this book to all Americans.  I believe that in 2107, there is a notion that politics has become more divided, when in reality, it has been so for over 200 years.

Overall- 4 Stars


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