Printer Friendly

The Deadlock Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance.

The Deadlock Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance. By James Roger Sharp. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2010. 238 pp.

Perhaps due to the current heightened ideological division between the major political parties and the disputed resolution of the 2000 presidential election, both of which echo events of 1800, there has been a marked rise in scholarly interest in the 1800 campaign for president. That contest pitted Federalist incumbent John Adams against Republican Vice President Thomas Jefferson in a horserace that ended in an electoral vote tie between Jefferson and his Republican running mate, Aaron Burr. In a failed effort to stop the elevation of Jefferson to the presidency, Federalist members of Congress then rallied behind Burr in the subsequent voting by the House of Representatives to resolve the election. It makes for a gripping story of partisan intrigue, with the political future of the young republic at stake. With his new book, The Deadlocked Election of 1800, historian of the early national period James Roger Sharp contributes the fifth major scholarly monograph on the election to appear between 2005 and 2010.

Prior to the recent outpouring of books, scholarship on the 1800 presidential race focused on the emergence of national political parties during the 1790s, with the election presented as the capstone event in the process. Among the new books, Susan Dunn's Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) concentrates on the triumph of the Republican Party; Bruce Ackerman's The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2005) shows how the election and its consequences transformed America's constitutional structure; and my A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign (Free Press, 2007) supplies a detailed state-by-state analysis of the campaign itself. Although Sharp's book also reviews the rise of partisan politics during the 1790s, it devotes more attention than these other books to the balloting in Congress. Despite this focus on the contest in the House of Representatives between the two Republican candidates, which is reflected in the book's subtitle, Sharp advances a thesis that the election was uniquely bitter and divisive because each of the two major parries--the Federalists and the Republicans--"was organized around the belief that it, and it alone, was the interpreter and translator of the wishes of the fictive sovereign people" (p. 23). Partisans on both sides, Sharp argues, equated losing the election with the loss of the constitutional republic. Under this thesis, the battle in the House appears as a desperate, rear-guard effort by Federalists to save the union from "the fangs of Jefferson" (p. 90) after having narrowly failed to elect one of their own candidates, due to a split in their ranks between Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

Sharp advances three types of evidence to support his thesis. Mainly he uses the dire words of participants. Clearly, they spoke as if the union hung in the balance, but then, as Sharp concedes, "frenzied rhetoric" is a trait of American politics (p. 168). One need only listen to conservative talk radio today about President Obama or liberal bloggers of the last decade about President Bush to hear ominous warnings about the republic's fate. As further evidence of desperation, Sharp notes the willingness of Republicans to nominate, and Federalists to embrace, such an unqualified leader as Burr. Yet, Burr was better prepared for high office than many of the men and women nominated by major parties for the vice presidency since 1800, and he had equivalent (albeit different) qualifications for the post as the Federalists' 1800 nominee, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Both were picked to balance the ticket with Burr, a New York commercial lawyer who opposed slavery, contrasting as sharply with Jefferson, an agrarian-minded Virginia slave owner, as the Charleston slaveholder Pinckney did with the antislavery Boston attorney Adams. Northern, promanufacturing and antislavery Federalists had good reason to support Burr over Jefferson. Finally, Sharp points to the newness of the republic and the popular appeal of nonpartisanship as evidence in support of a genuine fear that union actually hung in the balance in 1800. I hope Sharp is right that Americans today dismiss the current bitter partisan rhetoric "as an exercise of exaggeration and hyperbole" (p. 168), but I am not so sure.

The briefest of the recent books about the 1800 campaign, The Deadlocked Election of 1800 provides a readable overview of well-known events. As with my own work on the topic, Sharp draws on new resources available to historians of the period--particularly, the expanding published collections of letters by the founders and the American Antiquarian Society's remarkable First Democracy Project. Sharp's book adds further historical perspective on a pivotal episode in American political history.

--Edward J. Larson

Pepperdine University
COPYRIGHT 2012 Center for the Study of the Presidency
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Larson, Edward J.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012
Previous Article:Bess Wallace Truman: Harry's White House "Boss.".
Next Article:Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters