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Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide… John Adams

A magnificent catastrophe : the tumultuous election of 1800, America’s first presidential campaign Edward J. Larson New York : Free Press, c 2007 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xi, 335 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 277-314) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

“They could write like angels and scheme like demons.” So begins Larson’s account of the wild ride that was the 1800 presidential election – an election so convulsive that Thomas Jefferson would later dub it “America’s second revolution” – a statement that needs to be carefully weighed since it may contain a more than healthy dose of braggadocio since he was the victor.

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This was America’s first true presidential campaign indelibly etching the lines of partisanship that have so profoundly shaped American politics ever since. The contest featured two founding fathers facing off as the heads of their two still-forming parties – the hot-tempered but sharp-minded John Adams the anglophobic anglophile, and Thomas Jefferson always a revolutionary at heart but one of the most conniving practical politicians ever born – flanked by the brilliant tacticians Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who later settled their own differences in a duel.

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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 yankee Federalists would squelch both the libertines and the Southern agrarian interests in favor of their merchants and bankers; Jefferson and his radically democratizing followers would supplant all authority – except their own – and govern by fiat supported by the mob. The stakes could not have been higher.

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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.

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Drawing on 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 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 and finally emerged changed if not fatally impaired.

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