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  • Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800
  • Richard Alan Ryerson (bio)
Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. By John Ferling. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 260. Illustrations. Cloth, $26.00.)

John Ferling's Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, a recent addition to Oxford's Pivotal Moments in American History series, [End Page 162] is a fairly slender volume with a broader focus than its title implies. Ferling sets the scene for America's first national electoral crisis by introducing the four major candidates in vivid portraits that follow their careers from the American Revolution to their nominations for the presidency a quarter century later. More significantly, he traces the rise of national partisanship and of a dismaying phenomenon that the Constitution's framers did not foresee: the rise of coherent national parties that ultimately determined the structure of the long presidential campaign of 1800 and its surprising resolution in February 1801.

This dramatic story opens with a clear explanation of the terms set by the Constitution's electoral college under which the elections of 1796 and 1800 were held, and then turns to the four candidates of the latter contest: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Charles Coatesworth Pinckney. A fuller discussion of the personalities and careers of Adams and Jefferson from the 1760s to the 1790s and of their long and somewhat improbable friendship follows under chapter 2's ironic, yet ultimately accurate, title, "An Affection That Can Never Die." Two more chapters explore the descent from the national unity to which the Constitution's framers aspired into the angry confrontation between Federalists and Republicans that was ready to explode as President Washington published his Farewell Address in September 1796. Ferling then revisits the personal lives of the now venerable Adams and Jefferson on the eve of the election of 1796.

In each of these early chapters Ferling's writing is clear, his explanations of a host of political issues are sound, and most important, his assessments of the abilities and character of the major contestants are, to repeat a currently notorious epithet, generally "fair and balanced." The reader of this smooth, authoritative narrative may well forget that he or she is headed toward America's first political donnybrook and imagine instead reading a concise, well-executed textbook on the politics of the 1790s. In the next four chapters, however, extending from the presidential election of 1796 through the "partisan inferno" of 1797–98 and the rising fear of the chauvinistic Alexander Hamilton ("our Bonaparte") in 1799, to the early but crucial electioneering in New York City in May 1800, the narrative force increases and political insight becomes sharper. Three complex and generally satisfying chapters—on the campaign of 1800 in several states, the tie vote in the electoral college, and the balloting by the House of Representatives to choose Jefferson as America's third president—are the heart of the book. Ferling closes with a simple [End Page 163] description of Jefferson's inauguration and a brief epilogue that sensibly, but too tentatively, addresses the old question of whether the election of 1800 was in some sense a revolution.

The strongest features of this book are its general fairness to each major electoral candidate and its clear-eyed view of their motivations. Ferling hints at his preferences among the key players. He seems to like Jefferson's political policies more than those of Adams, but appears to like Adams as much, or perhaps more, as a person. He is cooler toward Alexander Hamilton, whose intellect he admires, and coolest toward Burr, as a shallow opportunist, and Pinckney, as a bland nonentity. Only once does he gratuitously mischaracterize the words of a major player, when he says that Vice President Adams wrote to Jefferson in January 1796 to say that he envied his friend's retirement at Monticello and planned to leave office himself in 1797, adding that Jefferson probably did not believe "this tripe" (69). But Adams actually wrote, "I envy you the society of your Family, but another Year and one Month may make me the Object of Envy" (Adams to Jefferson, January 31...


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