Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Pivotal Moments in American History)

Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Pivotal Moments in American History)

John Ferling

Language: English

Pages: 283


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

It was a contest of titans: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two heroes of the Revolutionary era, once intimate friends, now icy antagonists locked in a fierce battle for the future of the United States. The election of 1800 was a thunderous clash of a campaign that climaxed in a deadlock in the Electoral College and led to a crisis in which the young republic teetered on the edge of collapse.

Adams vs. Jefferson is the gripping account of a turning point in American history, a dramatic struggle between two parties with profoundly different visions of how the nation should be governed. The Federalists, led by Adams, were conservatives who favored a strong central government. The Republicans, led by Jefferson, were more egalitarian and believed that the Federalists had betrayed the Revolution of 1776 and were backsliding toward monarchy. The campaign itself was a barroom brawl every bit as ruthless as any modern contest, with mud-slinging, scare tactics, and backstabbing. The low point came when Alexander Hamilton printed a devastating attack on Adams, the head of his own party, in "fifty-four pages of unremitting vilification." The stalemate in the Electoral College dragged on through dozens of ballots. Tensions ran so high that the Republicans threatened civil war if the Federalists denied Jefferson the presidency. Finally a secret deal that changed a single vote gave Jefferson the White House. A devastated Adams left Washington before dawn on Inauguration Day, too embittered even to shake his rival's hand.

With magisterial command, Ferling brings to life both the outsize personalities and the hotly contested political questions at stake. He shows not just why this moment was a milestone in U.S. history, but how strongly the issues--and the passions--of 1800 resonate with our own time.











to Jefferson in January, his first correspondence with the Virginian in years. He envied Jefferson’s retirement, he began, then unctuously exclaimed that he too planned to leave public life when his term expired in fourteen months. It is unlikely that Jefferson believed this tripe.3 Although he said nothing about the coming election, Adams coyly dilated on the “foul Fiend” of electoral degeneracy, and went on to descant on how he and Jefferson would be able to close their careers with their

Federalist electors from other sections withheld their second vote from Adams, Pinckney’s total would surpass that of Adams. If Pinckney’s total also eclipsed that of Jefferson, he would be the second president of the United States. The temptations, and the stakes, were enormous, and for many it was too much not to presume that Hamilton was pulling strings to persuade South Carolina’s electors not to vote for Adams. The belief that hanky-panky was being practiced was so widespread that when a

do: purge his cabinet of its renegade elements. He was waiting for the right moment to act, knowing that it was too risky to strike before the Federalists nominated their candidates for president in 1800.2 Meanwhile, Jefferson rejoiced in the belief that the Federalist Party had at last crested and now was ebbing. A “wonderful & rapid change is taking place,”especially in the middle Atlantic states, where the “tide is now turning,”he exulted. Jefferson attributed the woes of his opponents to a

head was filled with a “stock of visionary nonsense.” To put Jefferson in charge, said a Federalist, would be akin to “scattering poison into the ailments of life,” as it would be deadly to the American body politic. For one Federalist scribbler after another, Exhibit A of Jeffersonian wrongheadedness was the so-called Mazzei Letter. In 1796 Jefferson had written a lengthy letter to Philip Mazzei, a former neighbor in Virginia who had moved to Italy. Much of the mis- t h e c a m pa i g n o f 1

Congress into a special session.5 This seemed a patently unconstitutional procedure, or at the very least a step that would have required an exceedingly broad interpretation of that document. Jefferson ignored Madison’s brainstorm. However, if a president was not selected by noon on March 4, when Adams’ term ended, the country would be without a chief executive for nine months, until the recently elected Congress convened—as was prescribed by the Constitution—near the end of the year.

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