Scholar sheds light on 1800's confusing election

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20 2008 12:03 a.m. MST

As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, it seems a good time to look back — even as far as 1800 when two of the most eminent founding fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, opposed each other for the presidency.

Edward J. Larson, a prolific scholar who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 book on the Scopes Trial, "Summer for the Gods," has written what will probably be considered the definitive book on that election — "A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign."

A professor of law and history at Pepperdine University, Larson considers the history of science to be his specialty. During a phone interview from his home in Malibu, he was low key about winning the Pulitzer, saying "Prizes are chance events" and "I have my own internal standards."

Larson has always cultivated an intense interest in Adams and Jefferson, and one of the "episodes" he is fond of teaching his university students is the election of 1800. Not long ago, he realized that no historian had "unpacked the election on a blow-by-blow basis. You have lots of books about the formation of the party system, but not about the detail of the election itself."

In fact, critically acclaimed historians like Joseph Ellis, whose biography of Jefferson, "American Sphinx" has been widely accepted, and David McCullough's popular biography of John Adams "entirely skip the election of 1800."

So Larson patterned his own book after the format of the legendary Theodore (Teddy) White, author of "The Making of the President, 1960." "Every one of my chapters covers two months, much like White did. I wanted to let the reader get the excitement of who is going to win — because nobody knew."

As Larson researched, he read the historical newspapers (especially the "flagship papers" — the "Aurora" and the "Gazette" of Pennsylvania) every day and "they helped the letters between politicians make sense. In May, no one knew who was going to win. You can watch the projected vote talleys build from each state. In December, it seemed that Adams had won. Then it seemed Charles Pinckney, the Federalist running with Adams, had won. The book was a delight to write," said Larson.

Larson treats the actual mechanics of the election, which most scholars have avoided because of its complexity. It was complicated by the electoral college and the fact that two Federalists, Adams and Pinckney, and two Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, were running. It was possible that one of the candidates intended for the vice presidency — Pinckney or Burr — could be elected president.

"This episode takes a lot of time to understand," said Larson, who spent two years researching it, one year in intensive writing and nine months revising and editing the manuscript for publication.

"I'm a compulsive researcher," said Larson. "Once I get going, I continue working through the night. But these founding fathers were incredibly bright people. They'd pulled together during the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention — but by 1800 they realized they'd made some mistakes. The Constitution didn't talk about the electoral college or political parties."

Thus, the founders feared that all their hard work was in jeopardy and that "the republic was at stake. They looked at France and saw how democracy had failed after their revolution — and people like Alexander Hamilton wanted a monarchy."

The process, said Larson, turned into "hardball politics" whereas these people were used to debating constitutional issues. "The founders believed in their heart of hearts that partisan political parties would destroy the republic. From 1800 on, it was just the opposite. Now parties represent the foundation of our system and we are almost unique. It has its pluses and minuses."

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