“Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800” was written by John Ferling (the author of biographies I’ve already read and reviewed on both George Washington and John Adams). Though “Adams vs. Jefferson” is is not really a presidential biography, I nevertheless decided to read it as part of this journey, wondering if it might serve as a nice bridge between our second and third presidents (it does), and looking forward to reading something a bit “different”.
History well recalls that the presidential election of 1800 was a contentious affair and led to an early test of our electoral process. But despite the book’s premise (the title itself suggests a rather sharp focus on the election), neither the campaign nor the election are discussed in earnest until the last one-third of the book.
The majority of the book is spent, instead, laying groundwork and setting the stage. Ferling efficiently reviews both Washington’s and Adams’ presidencies, the mood of the United States populace and the state of the electoral system as it then existed. In addition, the author devotes significant care to introducing the other key characters in the campaign and election: Aaron Burr and Charles C. Pinckney (the VP nominees) and Alexander Hamilton (the Federalist antagonist). Happily, these major players received fairly balanced, and interesting, assessments
Discussion of both the campaign and the election is eventually completed in just two chapters before the author moves on to review the protracted resolution of the election in the House of Representatives. That the final decision was thrown into the House was due, of course, to the fact there was an electoral vote tie between Jefferson and his running mate Burr, and that the mechanics of the electoral process at that time made it possible a Vice Presidential candidate could actually win the presidency.
The fact that the author took so long to get to the campaign and the election initially bothered me – until I realized that I actually enjoyed the first part of the book more than the section alluded to by the book’s title. Ferling’s review of Washington’s and Adams’ presidencies was nicely and efficiently consummated, and resulted in an excellent summary of our nation’s history up through the Adams presidency.
But in the end, although the election of 1800 was remarkably antagonistic (and interesting as a consequence), this book feels a bit like two-hundred pages of history in search of a premise, rather than a premise that found the right book.
Nonetheless, for a reader with a passing familiarity with the Washington and Adams presidencies and an appreciation for the caustic political environment of the times, “Adams vs. Jefferson” is a relatively easy and fun read, filling in any major holes in one’s knowledge quite nicely. Without a doubt, this book cannot, and does not attempt, to substitute for more complete studies of Washington, Adams or Jefferson. But for someone with a passing interest and a little free time (perhaps during a long ground delay at O’Hare), “Adams vs. Jefferson” is almost certainly worth the effort.
Overall rating: 4 stars