- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

Edward J. Larson, a professor of history and law at Pepperdine University, has produced a rollicking tale of political battle, subtle conspiracy and bizarre climax in the first political campaign in American history, that of 1800, following George Washington’s retirement to private life and death.

The chief actors on this stage were John Adams, the sitting president; Alexander Hamilton, self-appointed political heir of Washington and leader of the High Federalists; Thomas Jefferson, populist political philosopher, Washington’s Secretary of State and Adams’ vice president and Aaron Burr, war hero, brilliant politician, financier and lawyer, former senator from New York.

Adams was able, patriotic, notoriously thin-skinned and quick-tempered; Hamilton ambitious to the nth degree, and taken by the notion that he was the keeper of the flame for Washington. Jefferson believed in an agricultural and democratic society, minimal central government and admired the overthrow of the French royalty and the classless society that he thought he saw emerging there.

Burr’s ambition was harnessed to one of the cleverest and most resourceful minds of the time and earned him the reputation of one to be watched but not trusted. He had defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law for the U.S. Senatein 1791, then lost it in 1797, and smarted for a come-back.

Hamilton’s support for a strong central government and distrust of the masses, also backed by Adams, alarmed Madison and Jefferson. They called for a Republican party to oppose the authoritarian instincts of Adams and Hamilton. Adams had published essays in 1791 warning against unchecked democracy. Jefferson replied by endorsing Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” which alarmed Adams.

As the election of 1800 approached, the constitutional frame for the election would seem bizarre today. Electors were selected by the state legislatures and their task was to assign their votes to two candidates for president. When all the state electors voted, the candidate with the greatest number of votes would be president and the runner-up vice president, regardless of party affiliation, indeed in the election of 1796 there had been no party organizations.

Hence it was that Jefferson became Adams’ vice president. This framework remained in 1800, but now there were rival parties, Federalist and Republican. In addition the hostility between the parties had become bitter over the war at sea with France and over the creation of a reserve army of which Hamilton was the commanding general.

When Napoleon took over the leadership of France, concern over the danger of a standing army prompted Adams to disband the reserve army, which infuriated Hamilton and led him to start to plan how to dump Adams from the Federalist ticket. His plan was to run candidates for the legislature who were loyal to him, not to Adams. These were not men of stature in the estimate of observers, but might be expected to select electors who would vote for Hamilton instead of Adams.

A similar scheme was not far from Burr’s mind. New York City had just overtaken Philadelphia in population and was critical to the election of the state legislature where the presidential electors would be chosen. Months ahead of the state election Burr organized an intensive campaign in the city to elect legislators of distinction who would draw a big vote.

The city vote would dominate the legislature. He formed committees in each ward who went house to house. He spoke all over town against federal war-mongering and abuses of civil liberties by the Adams Federalists. In the result, city-wide voting gave all 13 city seats in the legislature to Republicans. An admirer wrote of Burr : “His generalship, perseverance, industry and execution exceed all description.”

In Virginia Republicans settled on a Jefferson-Burr ticket, and talked about dropping votes for Burr so that Jefferson would get a greater vote and become president, but no one wanted to be the one to do the deed. Jefferson expressed mild concern over a possible tie with Burr, but remained curiously passive and took no steps to prevent such a result.

On the Federalist side Hamilton pressed for Virginia electors to break with Adams, but the caucus agreed on a ticket of Adams and C.C. Pinckney, counting on votes being withheld from Adams so Pinckney would win.

In October, Hamilton published a shocking personal criticism of Adams, holding him unfit for office, hoping it would turn voters toward Pinckney. But this so embarrassed Pinckney that he pledged his support for Adams, so Hamilton’s malice backfired.

Meanwhile Burr pressed for votes without deferring in favor of Jefferson. A number of Federalists preferred Burr to Jefferson. This so alarmed Hamilton that he undertooka letter writing campaign to warn his party against Burr.

In the vote of the presidential electors nationwide, Burr and Jefferson tied as the top two candidates. The House of Representatives was tied up for days, bringing in cots, food, liquid refreshment, and trying one mechanism after another to break the tie, including offering votes in exchange for promises. Finally James A. Bayard of Delaware broke with Burr, fearing a failure of the election and threw in with Jefferson, making him president and Burr vice president.

Federalist congressman John Cotton Smith wrote: “Thus ended the electoral drama, with a catastrophe sufficiently bitter in its effects on the vital interests of the country … ”

The complexity of the machinations of 1800 could make for a book to glaze the eyes, but Mr. Larson weaves the malice, the humor, the tricks, the personalities and the bizarre situation so skillfully that the reader is pulled along. His command of the historical material is so complete that he can be discriminating.

Every paragraph plays a part in the tale, adds a twist that builds to the ultimate stand-off. Hamilton comes across as his own worst enemy, his judgment overpowered by vanity and frustration. It was in his power to have organized the Federalists in New York as well as Burr did the Republicans, but he failed to act soon and energetically.

Burr clearly had the intellect, energy and organizational skills that might have made him the outstanding statesman of his time, had not his reputation for ambition and underhanded dealing made him universally distrusted. Adams and Jefferson played the most straightforward hands of the four, though they were the two chief causes of the political divide that brought about the remarkable scenario. This is a book history buffs will love.

David C. Acheson is a retired foreign affairs analyst in Washington, D.C.

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