Everything that makes American politics the best outdoor sport ever shows up in the presidential election of 1800 and has been replicated, to greater or lesser degree, in every election since.

Here we have hyper-partisanship, personal rancor, attack ads, slanted media coverage, over-the-top accusations against one candidate and ferocious counter-attacks from the other. There is backroom political intrigue, shameless machinations, political betrayal, slander, party campaign committees, and prison terms for anti-administration newspaper editors (okay, we don’t do that anymore).

We owe all this to Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Aaron Burr (a cipher in American history). The era of “disinterested” citizen service to the nation, largely a wistful fantasy of George Washington, formally ended with the great man’s death in 1799.

The next year saw the first “real” political campaign in our young nation’s history, and the ferocity was so shocking not a few suggested it would be America’s last election. That’s the tale told in MagnificentCatastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson.

I know, yes, the book appeared back in 2007, but I live under a rock, emerging but infrequently and only just found it.

Larson is a history and law professor at Pepperdine and this was, so far as I can tell, his first entry into early U.S. political history. Most of his work, according to the jacket cover, recounts the history of evolution as it has wound its way through American culture. More specifically, he traces the battle it spawned, popularly characterized in the media as science vs. religion. His 1998 Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion won a Pulitzer and a First Things review (the man does like subtitles).

Yet even this book recounting the electoral crisis of 1800 has a partial focus on science vs. religion and the extent to which both intruded into the election. Jefferson represented Enlightenment reasoning. This meant, suggested his more extreme opponents (including Abigail Adams), he was a godless Jacobin deist who endorsed the French Terrors. Adams was solidly Protestant, but his “thinking leaned too much toward monarchism for Jefferson to stomach.” The campaign framed itself as a battle for the nation’s religious and political soul.

The question hanging on the election was whether the nation would descend into godlessness and social chaos like France under Republican Jefferson, or reassert the solid Federalist virtues of Adams grounded in God and order. It was all gross caricature, of course. The amazing thing is how widely it was regarded as absolute truth by partisans. “For both sides,” notes Larson, “freedom (as they conceived it) hung in the balance. One election took on extraordinary meaning. Partisans worried that it might be the young republic’s last.”

Although Adams ran as Jefferson’s opponent in the general election, because electoral votes for president and vice president were not listed on separate ballots, running-mates Jefferson and Burr each received the same number of electoral votes for president, tossing the election into the House of Representatives where members cast one vote by state delegation. (That quirk in the Constitution was fixed by the 12th Amendment.)

Burr could have immediately withdrawn his name, but did not. Some Federalists voted for him, despising Jefferson. Hamilton, a firm Federalist, urged Jefferson’s election, despising Burr. It required an exhausting thirty-five ballots in the House to elect Jefferson president, ten state delegations voting for Jefferson, four for Burr, and two so divided they could not cast a ballot.

The election was part of the continuing contest between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the Constitution. Neither Adams nor Jefferson was part of the Constitutional Convention. Both nonetheless endorsed its ratification, Jefferson more tepidly than Adams. Adams, in Larson’s telling, wanted a strong central government under a powerful president able to “secure [the] nation from a multitude of weak, wrangling states.” Jefferson “saw representative democracy and states’ rights” as the surest means to safe guard “against the potential corruption and tyranny of a powerful executive.”

There is much from this period to remind us that the debate over the nature of American government has been going on since the beginning. We still debate “weak” central government vs. “strong” central government. The Federalists won ratification of the Constitution, but their victory did not settle the argument. The themes sounded two hundred fourteen years ago still ring. This remains an enduring—and I would argue healthy—political divide in American life.

Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, was published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here

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