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Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Pivotal Moments in American History Series) (ISBN-10: 0195167716), published in 2004 by Oxford University Press, USA, is a gripping description of a defining moment in the American history; the dramatic battle between two parties, which profoundly had various dissimilar visions of the way the American nation ought to be governed. During the 1800, the United States was struggling to rise to its feet in the middle of various threats from constitutional struggles and foreign governments. John Adams, the then president of the United States who was not only a strong-willed Federalist, but also elite, was set to compete against Thomas Jefferson, his vice-president and a populist Republican. The two contestants, who were heroes of the revolutionary era and once close friends, became bitter rivals locked in a battle for America’s future.

The 1800 election campaign was ruthless and full of tussles, just like any contemporary political contest, with contestants employing every means possible to win over their rivals like backstabbing, mud slinging and even scare tactics. The political heat that existed nearly led to the collapse of the young and growing United States. Things got worse when Alexander Hamilton released a fifty-four page printed copy containing distressing attacks on Adams; an act which saw the campaign climax in a standoff in the Electoral College that dragged on through numerous ballots. Adams got eliminated in elections, while Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his running mate each got 73 votes. As a result, the then Federalist-dominated House of Representatives was left to choose between two Republicans to be the president. The problem is that both of them were despised. Eventually, a deal was reached that altered one vote making Jefferson the president. Consequently, the standoff that almost brought the nation to its knees finally ended. Adams who was devastated left Washington prior to dawn on the Inauguration Day.

In this book, Ferling presents the history of the pugilist nature of the U.S. presidential politics, as well as election’s twists and turns. In addition, he gives a clear portrait of struggles of the then new America and the bruising political wars fought by America’s founding fathers, plus the key roles played by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. It is evident that little has changed in the American politics in the past 200 years with regards to the viciousness of campaigns, but the reader can take comfort in the author’s message of ultimate triumph brought about by the American democracy that has enabled the nation to pull through when faced with dreadful situations, both at home and overseas.

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With magisterial command, the author gives life to the 1800 election story of two main contenders (Adams and Jefferson) in the race towards America’s Presidency. In addition, he also explores the story and lives of the rest of the presidential candidates, including the fiercely contested political questions that were at stake then. Ferling successfully demonstrates not only why the 1800 American presidential election was a milestone in the history of the U.S., but also how passions and political issues during the 18th century resonate with modern times. The author did a immense job in telling the reader reasons behind various positions taken by contenders, particularly when they disagreed creating a bitter mayhem amongst them. Whereas the modern politics is shallow and driven by short-sighted politicians whose interests are in themselves rather than in their electorates, this book astonishingly exhibits the commitment and individuality of the American politicians in serving their country and people during those days.

Review

Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 has a succinct preface and fourteen brief chapters summarized in 215 pages, which makes the book quite easy to read. It has end notes, a list of abbreviations and an index. I took particular interest in the author’s statement in the preface regarding similarities and differences between politicians during the 18th century and today. He said:

‘‘The prevailing sense for some time has been that politics in the eighteenth century was substantively different than modern politics. Supposedly, public officials were different as well, tending to be more detached and disinterested, more above the fray.…. Politicians then, as now, were driven by personal ambition. They represented interest groups. They used the same tactics as today, sometimes taking the high road, but often travelling the low road, which led them to ridicule and even smear their foes, to search for a scandal in the behavior of their adversaries, and to play on raw emotions’’(xviii).

 
 
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The length in which politicians can go to ensure that they win an election is quite surprising, from employing partisanship, bitter criticism, to outright falsehood. Another thing that one found fascinating while reading the book was the author’s sense of passion in describing the period when the book was written. This is evidenced by his statement when he said, ‘‘Indeed, the 1790s was one of America’s most passionate decades. It was kindred in warmth and fervor, and especially in rage, to the 1770s, 1850s, 1930s, and 1960s, for activists of all persuasions understood that colossal choices in foreign relations were to be made that would dramatically shape the nation, if, in fact, the infant republic survived those choices’’ (Anonymous 1).

Despite this book’s strengths, it is not without its fair share of flaws. The author spends a half of the book providing biographies of the then five presidential candidates, up to 1796. In my opinion, that was unwarranted and extreme. Though I admit that giving some background info to readers who are less familiar with the story was proper, his editor ought to have summarized biographies so that they cover relatively few pages. I feel that providing individual chronicles and individual origins of each of contestants, even though relevant to the story, were a bit too much. One actually waited for Ferling to commence the actual story that is related to the book’s title.

Again, when the author gets to 1796, there is a bit of jumping around amongst threads of the different states and players, while Ferling pays little attention to the book’s theme. He moves about from one political plan to the next without making much sense of the way they all fit together. Besides, the author severally repeated similar points, as if he did not remember that he had already talked about them in a different thread.

Of importance to note is the author’s coverage of the period of 1800, in which he repeatedly cites brutal attempts to manipulate elections by different party-affiliated newspapers. One would agree that some of that information is useful to give the reader a clue regarding the actual picture of what happened; however, the repetition of the information eventually tires the reader. For instance, how many times did Ferling have to mention the Federalist paper’s referral of Jefferson as a France-loving anarchist before readers can grasp the info?

Conclusion

The American presidential election which took place in 1800 was a fascinating contest, with a lot of lessons for current politicians to learn. However, Ferling did not capture the story as one expected, but instead, he allowed himself to be obstructed; thus, he lost control of the theme of the story, while spending so much time on biographies. Though the book is quite informative, it has numerous flaws and one would not recommend it to anyone.

   

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