Thursday, January 08, 2009

John Ferling's Adams vs. Jefferson

All too often, I read or hear someone arguing about how politics in the U.S. is more divided and bitter than ever. That has always seemed overblown, and now I have a book that illustrates the point very well. John Ferling's Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 is a great read, detailing the lead-up and the intrigue into the 1800 election, which of course Thomas Jefferson won in the House after an Electoral College tie.

What comes out crystal clear is how many of the protagonists hated each other's guts, and the press was far, far more inflammatory than it is now. Some highlights:

--John Adams was referred to as "His Rotundity" (p. 90).

--Alexander Hamilton's economic plan was, according to one journalist, the "most memorable piece of imbecility and impudence that was ever imposed on a nation" (p. 147).

--Readers were told that Thomas Jefferson sacrificed dogs on an altar at Monticello (p.154).

--and, for good measure, the French were "factious, cutthroat, frog-eating, treaty-breaking, grace fallen God-defying devils" (p. 110). If they had a senate cafeteria back then, they surely would've changed the name of french fries to freedom fries.

It even got to the point that a Federalist and Republican duked it out on the floor of the House:

Lyon retaliated by spitting in Griswold's face, and Griswold in turn thrashed the Vermonter with a cane. Lyon fought back with fire tongs. The brawl ended only when colleagues separated the gladiators, who by then were punching and kicking each other as they rolled about the chamber floor (p. 106).

Aside from all the insults, Ferling also describes all the intrigue, bargaining, and threats that went on to determine who would win the presidency. Karl Rove looks like an amateur compared to some of those guys.

4 comments:

GS,  10:04 AM  

Last year I read Team of Rivals and there too the author illustrates the hyper-politicized press and the fractious politics of the time. She quotes newspaper articles and editorials throughout the book that are equal to what you highlight from Ferling’s book (interesting in light of your previous post about newspapers in Latin America), including posting rewards in the editorial pages of Southern newspapers for the heads of anti-slavery political leaders in the North.

And there is a memorable scene in the Senate floor sometime in the 1850s when one anti-slavery Senator insults a respected southern Senator and then goes on to make fun of some physical deformity the guy had. The aggrieved Senator’s nephew, who apparently was a US Rep, walked over to the Senate and commenced to beat the offending Senator with a cane. The beating was so bad that, if I recall correctly, the Senator either ended up in a coma or never fully recovered due to the severe injuries.

Those were the days….

Justin Delacour 10:11 AM  

All too often, I read or hear someone arguing about how politics in the U.S. is more divided and bitter than ever. That has always seemed overblown, and now I have a book that illustrates the point very well.

In a country with the highest level of economic inequality in the First World, I'm left to wonder as to how the relative civility of our politics today is a positive thing.

A little more polarization might actually do some good.

Steven Taylor 7:33 PM  

It is a good book, and I recommend it as well. I also thought it was the best account of the early days of the electoral college that I have read.

sharon 5:45 AM  

thanks for the link...

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Sharon
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