Edward J. Larson

A Magnificent Catastrophe

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A Magnificent Catastrophe Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 32-page guide for “A Magnificent Catastrophe” by Edward J. Larson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 10 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Allocating Power to the Federal Government and Ambition as a Force in Politics.

Plot Summary

A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign, written by Edward A. Larson and published in 2007, documents the US presidential election of 1800, a highly-contested political drama, preceded by what is considered the first political campaign in American history. The front-runners in the contest were widely considered to be the then-current President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Although the two men were serving together in the Executive branch at the time of the election, they represented two opposing political parties: Adams was the leader of the Federalist Party, and Jefferson was the leader of the Republicans.

The two men, initially friends, had become intense rivals over the years, as their opinions on how to direct the young country diverged. Adams, like most Federalists, favored a strong central government run by highly-educated, elite politicians, serving as a check on the mob-like impulses of the general public. Jefferson, like the Republicans of the day, had a more optimistic view of the general public and saw the common man as the true source of virtue in any democracy. Jefferson feared mob-rule less than he feared a powerful government’s ability to indulge in tyrannical impulses.

The book tracks the dramatic series of events that details how the rivalry between Adams and Jefferson ultimately produced a tie in the presidential election. Two other figures moved to center stage in the political moment: Alexander Hamilton and his rival Aaron Burr. These men initially came into the spotlight for the roles they played in organizing candidates and voter turnout for the New York City elections, a pivotal early procedure in the process of choosing electoral college voters who would ultimately select the president. When Burr’s efforts produced a shocking upset victory for the Republicans in New York—long a stronghold of Hamilton’s Federalist party—he was rewarded for his efforts by securing the vicepresidential nomination (behind Jefferson) for the Republicans. Hamilton, not to be outdone by his rival, continued to meddle in national politics and attempted to convince his fellow Federalists to rally around High Federalist candidate Charles Pinckney. Hamilton hoped that he could advance Pinckney as the presidential candidate over Adams, but his plot was revealed, and it backfired. Adams was suddenly galvanized into running a campaign—often called America’s first presidential campaign—that ended up boosting his popularity in the polls.

Ultimately, the electoral college tie was not between Adams and Jefferson, but rather between Jefferson and his fellow Republican Aaron Burr. After repeated tie-breaking votes in the House of Representatives, Jefferson emerged as the winner of the election of 1800, Burr became his Vice President, and incumbent John Adams was ushered out of national politics, having finished in third place in the electoral college tally.

The election is considered a watershed moment in the political history of the United States, in which George Washington’s idealized vision of American politics gave way to a different reality. Washington had hoped for a harmonious consensus rule by a group of people who debated amicably until they all fundamentally agreed on the best course of action for American policy. The reality was a partisan battleground, in which each side stooped to fearmongering and smear-tactics in their campaigns. Both sides, convinced by their partisan loyalty that the stakes were high if their party were to lose the Presidency, were willing to engage in the sort of politics that would have seemed dishonorable in previous elections, but which set a tone that still resonates in American politics today.

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