Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Report: "A Magnificent Catastrophe," by Edward Larson

Ambitious people don't always come off too well in literature, and "A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign" shows that our hallowed founding fathers were no exception.

The "Founding Fathers" are usually presented as an archetype of monolithic cohesion; high-minded patriots, with a nascent American polity's well-being the driving force behind their every action.

There is a wistful, almost universal, sentiment that says, “they just don’t make them like that anymore.”

But this book establishes that they were monolithic only in their desire for independence from England, and thereafter took radically different positions.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Larson's portrayal of names as revered as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the not-so-revered, Aaron Burr or Thomas Cotesworth Pinckney, leaves hardly a hair of difference between the high- and low-minded amongst them.

These gentlemen were, in the end, politicians. And like all specimens of that species, they craved power and stepped on people to get it.

Alexander Hamilton comes off particularly bad, or good, depending on your politics.

As a member of the "high Federalist" faction, which ruled before the presidential election covered here, Larson marks him for a pro-British, almost monarchical, presence on the American political scene. A guy who managed to finagle his own standing army out of the Federalist majority and was known as “General Hamilton.”

And he wasn’t the only founder with aristocratic tendencies.

Larson writes that the aforementioned Pinckney, “fought the Revolution to preserve what he, as a South Carolina patrician, viewed as the traditional rights of Englishmen, which for him included the God-given right to enslave Africans -- a right that prewar legal developments in Britain appeared to threaten.”

"Liberty or Death!" indeed.

It comes as quite a shock, in fact, that beacons such as Hamilton, John Adams, and other Federalists in power at the time had a strong aversion to, well, democracy.

They didn't like it, feared it, figured it for a precursor to the mobs, massacres, and guillotines that were all the rage in France at the time.

In fact, they made it a practice to tar Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party (not THAT Republican Party) as "Jacobins," after the unruliest faction of the tumultuous French political scene. Much the way today's Republicans go on about the Democrats being "socialists."

There is, perhaps, something calming in all of this. A vote of confidence for those who shrug at today's Washington shenanigans, confident that our Republic shall survive this, too.

The debate so marvelously detailed here traces the pedigrees of our current political divide.

It may come as a surprise, for those who went into paroxysms over the Bush administration’s scant deference to the rule of law, that such behavior has roots in the guy gracing our ten dollar bill.

Concerned that changes in Maryland’s election law would deliver the presidency to Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton wrote a fellow Federalist, “I am aware of strong objections to the measure, but if it be true, as I suppose, that our opponents aim at revolution and employ all means to secure success, the contest must be unequal if we not only refrain from unconstitutional and criminal measures, but even from such as may offend against the routine of strict decorum.”

In blog-ese, Hamilton is saying, “If we don’t act unconstitutionally or criminally, and risk offending everyone’s sensibilities, we’ll lose the election.”

Al Hamilton, meet Karl Rove.

This book makes clear that today’s rabid partisanship is hardly a new phenomenon.

As the complex election of 18000 is being resolved, things in Washington are at fever pitch. Members of the warring parties no longer socialize as they did up in Philadelphia and Massachusetts Federalist Harrison Gray Otis writes his wife to say, “I have concluded to go to no more balls. I do not enjoy myself with these people.”

Seeking to forge some kind of bipartisan sentiment, the victorious Jefferson is obligated to point out that, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Sound familiar?

Well, the founders reacted in much the same way their legislative offspring do today, and they didn’t need Fox News or the Internet to slime far and wide.

Messenger on horseback was sufficient to spreading a rumor that the mostly forgotten Pinckney, a frequent and viable presidential candidate in those days, had gone to England in search of four mistresses for sharing with John Adams, who quipped in response: “If this be true, General Pinckney has kept all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”

There isn’t enough of such stuff in “Magnificent Catastrophe.” It's a dense, if worthwhile read.

That’s not Larson’s fault. The people he’s researching did what they did and said what they said, and the business of resolving the dangerous partisan rift was indeed a grim one.

In fact, “Magnificent Catastrophe,” suffers from its almost exclusive focus on the inside ball associated with the party politics that followed the death of George Washington who preferred that grand and national coalitions conduct the country’s business.

Readers may yearn for a wider portrait of America, such as that rendered in the account of John Adams’ time on the hustings, when an agrarian, English-styled nation filled with country villages surfaces, if only too briefly.

“Magnificent Catastrophe” doesn't quite live up to its grandiose title. The founding fathers’ low-brow dealings are anything but magnificent, and the catastrophe was ultimately averted.

But it is a revelatory document detailing the way presidents were chosen in the nation’s early days, and dissecting the numbers, myriad votes, and concomitant conniving employed to affect them, in a tense political season that might have doomed the country.

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