A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J. Larson
The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign

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"They could write like angels and scheme like demons." So begins Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Larson's masterful account of the wild ride that was the 1800 presidential election—an election so convulsive and so momentous to the future of American democracy that Thomas Jefferson would later dub it "America's second revolution."

This was America's first true presidential campaign, giving birth to our two-party system and indelibly etching the lines of partisanship that have so profoundly shaped American politics ever since. The contest featured two of our most beloved Founding Fathers, once warm friends, facing off as the heads of their two still-forming parties—the hot-tempered but sharp-minded John Adams, and the eloquent yet enigmatic Thomas Jefferson—flanked by the brilliant tacticians Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who later settled their own differences in a duel.

The country was descending into turmoil, reeling from the terrors of the French Revolution, and on the brink of war with France. Blistering accusations flew as our young nation was torn apart along party lines: Adams and his elitist Federalists would squelch liberty and impose a British-style monarchy; Jefferson and his radically democratizing Republicans would throw the country into chaos and debase the role of religion in American life. The stakes could not have been higher.

As the competition heated up, other founders joined the fray—James Madison, John Jay, James Monroe, Gouverneur Morris, George Clinton, John Marshall, Horatio Gates, and even George Washington—some of them emerging from retirement to respond to the political crisis gripping the nation and threatening its future.

Drawing on unprecedented, meticulous research of the day-to-day unfolding drama, from diaries and letters of the principal players as well as accounts in the fast-evolving partisan press, Larson vividly re-creates the mounting tension as one state after another voted and the press had the lead passing back and forth. The outcome remained shrouded in doubt long after the voting ended, and as Inauguration Day approached, Congress met in closed session to resolve the crisis. In its first great electoral challenge, our fragile experiment in constitutional democracy hung in the balance.

A Magnificent Catastrophe is history writing at its evocative best: the riveting story of the last great contest of the founding period.

About Edward J. Larson

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EDWARD J. LARSON is Russell Professor of History and Talmadge Professor of Law at the University of Georgia. He is the recipient of multiple awards for teaching and writing, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. His most recent book is Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands. His articles have appeared in dozens of journals including The Atlantic Monthly, Nature, The Nation, and Scientific American.From the Hardcover edition.
Published September 18, 2007 by Free Press. 352 pages
Genres: History, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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In turn, Federalists, badly split over Adams’s leadership, assailed Republicans for their godlessness and blind devotion to liberty at the expense of the public order and national defense, issues brought into high relief by the bloody excesses of the French Revolution.

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The New York Times

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Politics are such a torment that I would advise every one I love not to mix with them.” That’s what Thomas Jefferson wrote to his daughter Martha during the 1800 presidential campaign.

Dec 16 2007 | Read Full Review of A Magnificent Catastrophe: Th...

Publishers Weekly

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In this absorbing, brisk account, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Larson (Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion ) recreates the dramatic presidential race of 1800, which, Larson says, “stamped American democracy with its distinctive partis...

May 21 2007 | Read Full Review of A Magnificent Catastrophe: Th...

Publishers Weekly

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John Dossett lends a melodious and erudite tone to this book about the most disastrous presidential election in American history: the 1800 contest between incumbent John Adams and his polymath v-p, populist Thomas Jefferson.

Nov 26 2007 | Read Full Review of A Magnificent Catastrophe: Th...

Book Reporter

All of this changed in 1796 when John Adams became president, and his political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, became vice president.

Jan 07 2011 | Read Full Review of A Magnificent Catastrophe: Th...

Entertainment Weekly

The 1800 presidential election shattered the unity of the American revolutionary spirit, transforming patriots into bitter partisans.

Sep 28 2007 | Read Full Review of A Magnificent Catastrophe: Th...

Deseret News

It was also complicated because electors from each state chose the president without a popular vote — and because either of the candidates for vice president, Charles Pinckney or Aaron Burr, could have been elected president.

Jan 20 2008 | Read Full Review of A Magnificent Catastrophe: Th...


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.

Oct 18 2007 | Read Full Review of A Magnificent Catastrophe: Th...

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