The election of 1800 has received a lot of attention since the Bush-Gore deadlock of 2000. James Roger Sharp's book is a strong addition to this literature. Although the title indicates otherwise, Sharp focuses more on the context of the election than the contest itself. He reminds readers of the newness of the Constitution and of government institutions, emphasizes that no one was sure whether or for how long the Republic would survive, and shows how Federalist and Republican coalitions had emerged in this milieu. Although sometimes referred to as parties, these groups argued that their raison d'etre was to protect the legacy of the Revolution, the Constitution, and the Republic itself from the dangerous illegitimacy of the other. Such a position made 1800 more than just an election. Political maneuvering threatened to hijack the process. A tie between Republican candidates in the electoral college led to intrigue on an alarming scale (Federalists, after all, controlled the Congress in which the election would be decided). Militias threatened to mobilize in support of their candidate. In short, argues Sharp, 1800 and its aftermath stands alongside 1860 as one of the most potent political and constitutional crises in American history. [End Page 213]
Sharp explores particularly the problems of the late 1790s. He explains how the XYZ Affair, the quasi-war with France, the direct tax of 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and Fries's Rebellion widened the political gap between Federalists and Republicans. He also makes clear that these issues, along with rumors of a Republican military assault on the federal government, deeply affected the relationship between Federalists. Personal animosities further influenced Federalist divisions. Quite simply, President John Adams and Alexander Hamilton despised one another, and their antagonism shook the entire coalition. By 1800, when Adams sought a separate peace with France despite Hamilton's desires for military glory, an unbridgeable gulf between Federalist factions had become fixed.
Sharp's focus on dissension in the Federalist ranks reminds us of its importance to the motivations of several players in the drama. At times, however, it threatens to overwhelm the narrative. It almost seems that the Federalist breakdown accounted for the crisis of 1800. And a curious side effect is that Aaron Burr is never fully fleshed out, while a less-than-nuanced Thomas Jefferson shows up only at key moments. Moreover, because it follows events from the perspective of those at the highest end of the political spectrum, readers do not get a sense of ordinary Americans and how their public activity set the parameters of debate. Even if Federalists seemed to have hegemonic control in 1798-99, the politics of the street would indicate that Jefferson was right in his assessment that time was on the side of the Republicans.
More broadly, Sharp describes Republicanism and Federalism as sectional movements rather than as groups coalescing around different notions of constitutionalism. In such a formulation, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions are indicative of an extreme southern position of states' rights. Nullification and secession were not just southern, however, as Hamilton's concern over a New England departure in 1791, New England responses to the 1808 embargo, and the Hartford Convention of 1814 make clear. Certainly, there is a strong current of "southern rights," but in this period people were [End Page 214] more attuned to the future of the Republic. As such, coalitions were not merely sectional. Sharp's evidence reflects this point. His report of voting maneuvering for the purposes of making New England Federalist in 1800, for example, shows widespread Republicanism. Similarly, his descriptions of Virginia and South Carolina Federalism suggest the need for more nuanced analysis. The "dangerous sectionalism" of the 1800 electoral tally is actually far more ambiguous than it would appear (p. 126).
In-depth explanations of these issues, of course, would require more detail than could fit into a synthetic account of the causes and consequences of the election of 1800. Without...