A Magnificent Catastrophe

Book by Edward J. Larson

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on October 18, 2007.

One of the most startling things we learn from history is how little we've learned -- and how often that failure to learn causes history to repeat itself. The election of 2008 may well -- depending on who is the Democratic nominee -- end up being a startling replay of the election of 1800. In that election, Thomas Jefferson, who along with James Madison founded what is today's modern Democratic Party (known then as the Republican Party), challenged sitting president and ardent conservative Federalist (what today would be called "Republican") John Adams.

In the first chapter, Larson provides the lay of the political landscape, startlingly similar to that of today's debates between conservatives and liberals:

The differences dividing Adams and Jefferson reflected a deepening ideological rift that divided mainstream Americans into factions. ... Adams and those calling themselves Federalists saw a strong central government led by a powerful president as vital for a prosperous, secure nation. Extremists in this camp, like Alexander Hamilton, who favored transferring virtually all power to the national government and consolidating it in a strong executive and aristocratic Senate, became known as the ultra or High Federalists. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton had unabashedly depicted the monarchical British government as "the best in the world" and famously proposed life tenure for the United States President and senators.
Jefferson and his emerging Republican [today called Democratic] faction viewed such thinking as inimical to freedom. A devotee of enlightenment science, which emphasized reason and natural law over revelation and authoritarian regimes, Jefferson trusted popular rule and distrusted elite institutions. Indeed, like French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jefferson instinctively revered man in nature. "Those who labor in the earth," such as farmers and frontiersmen, possess "substantial and genuine virtue," he wrote in his 1787 book, Notes on the State of Virginia. "The will of the majority, the natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of men," Jefferson affirmed three years later. He instinctively favored the people over any institution.

In contrast, Adams and the Federalists tended to distrust the common people and instead to place their faith in the empowerment of what they saw as a natural aristocracy, though one that should be restrained by civil institutions such as those provided by a written constitution with checks and balances. "The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God, and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true," Hamilton reportedly told the Constitutional Convention regarding a popularly elected legislature. "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first [or upper house] a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second [or lower house]."

Although more moderate in his Federalism than Hamilton, but still unlike the [Democratic] Republican Jefferson, Adams thought that every nation needed a single, strong leader who could rise above and control self-interested factions of all classes and types. Neither an aristocratic Senate nor a democratic House of Representatives would safeguard individual rights, he believed. Indeed, Adams once complained to Jefferson about "the avarice, the unbounded ambition, [and] the unfeeling cruelty of a majority of those (in all nations) who are allowed an aristocratic influence; and ... the stupidity with which the more numerous multitude not only become their dupes but even love to be taken in by their tricks." Only a disinterested chief executive -- the fabled philosopher-king of old -- would protect liberty and justice for all. Adams thus combined a Calvinist view of humanity's innate sinfulness with an Old Testament faith that a Moses-like leader could guide even such a fallen people through the wilderness into the promised land of freedom.

Due to these beliefs, Adams supported a strong American presidency.

And, as president, Adams had acted much like the kings of old. Through the "XYZ Affair," in which he alleged that foreign agents were attempting to solicit bribes to swing French foreign policy, Adams whipped up a nationwide fear of a foreign power. He used this and the threat of other terrors -- including the assertion of cells of foreign agents within our own nation -- to push through Congress by a single vote the Alien & Sedition Acts, which he then used to imprison dozens of his political "enemies" -- particularly the editors and publishers of newspapers who were friendly to Jefferson's party and hostile to Adams's. He even threw into prison a member of the House of Representatives, Vermont's independent-minded Matthew Lyon (the first occupant of the House seat now-Senator Bernie Sanders would occupy for nearly two decades in the recent past), who then ran for re-election from an unheated jail cell in Vergennes, Vermont and won re-election.
Jefferson, who was Adams's estranged Vice President (the president and vice-president were the top-two vote getters in the Electoral College, and did not run together on a ticket like today), was so horrified by the Alien & Sedition Acts that he left town the day Adams signed them. When he won the election of 1800, he allowed them to expire (the day before he was inaugurated) and then issued formal apologies and, in some cases, reparations, to the journalists he freed.

But all of that is background and side-story to the front-and-center focus of this brilliant book, which is the election of 1800. Using the election -- with a thousand fascinating details (I've dog-eared and highlighted at least 100 of the 300+ pages in this book!) -- Larson brings alive the issues of that day, which are startlingly consistent with the issues of this day. From the role of religion in government (and vice versa) to the power of the presidency to issues of privacy and free speech to fears of terrorism and foreign wars, the election of 1800 was such an overlay with today that one is inclined to believe that at least a few of the characters in this book have fully and perhaps even consciously reincarnated to play out their identical roles in today's election. From the stalwart New York liberal George Clinton to the conservative marionette John Adams (and his team), you won't be able to stop turning the pages of this incredible tale.

Larson, who won the Pulitzer prize for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, writes like James Michener. Yet this is not fiction, and it deserves to bring Larson a second Pulitzer. This is one of the most readable, vital, fascinating, and rip-roaring books of the past decade, and -- while he makes not a single reference to modern politics and is scrupulously non-partisan -- brings alive today's politics in a way that is rich in historical context.

In the battle for the presidency in the election of 1800, Larson writes:

"[Jefferson's Democratic] Republicans pounded the Federalists' record of high taxes, rising national debt, a standing army and excessive navy, hostilities with France, and repressive domestic policies. They condemned the Sedition Act as unconstitutional and warned of monarchies afoot.

"The measures of the present [Adams] administration were conceived in wisdom and executed with firmness, uprightness, and ability ... to ensure justice from abroad and tranquility at home," replied Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, a Maryland native who participated in local debates on behalf of his cousin, a Federalist candidate for elector. Appealing to moderates, Chase's cousin, the candidate, praised Adams as "a tried, firm, dedicated patriot [who will] resist the influence of party and will pursue that line of conduct which will best support the rights and liberties of the people." Times are good, various Federalists declared. "You may be certain never to be more happy than you have been under Mr. Adams's administration," one partisan declared.

Not so, a Republican statement countered. "If ever an occasion justified public addresses and individual exertions to rouse the people to a sense of duty, the present is undoubtedly such an occasion," it claimed. "You will plainly see and feel that your present rulers have exercised unauthorized powers and undue influence over you."

There were even members of Adams's Federalist Party who were trying to suppress the vote in Jefferson-leaning [Democratic] Republican areas. This, Larson notes, "nicely reinforced the image of Federalists as monarchists. 'The right of election is the very essence of our constitution,' one [Democratic] Republican candidate declared. 'Yet ... there are men among us who, to answer party purposes, are mediating a plan to deprive us of it.'" Shades of Florida and Ohio ...

A Magnificent Catastrophe provides one of the finest insights ever written into the history of the founding -- and sometimes faltering -- first steps of our modern democratic republic. Absorbing its story is an essential step toward a deeper and broader understanding of America and the issues being raised in the election of 2008. And it's a damn good read!

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