The beginning of presidential politics

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on August 21, 2010

Six hours on planes this week going to and from Texas for a business trip gave me the opportunity to catch up on my reading. Edward J. Larson's "A Magnificent Catastrophe" is a unique look into what was really the first American political contest for the presidency.

The book revolves around the 1800 election and how the politics of it played out. The plotting and partisan intrigues in the Federalist camp between President John Adams and Alexander Hamilton are likely little different than a lot of what happens today. The main change is the speed between charges and counter-charges. In the 1800s, it would typically take weeks or months – today it’s hours.

Curiously, the one incident which likely sealed the election of 1800 for Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans (which became the current-day Democrats) was something new that is now standard in political campaigns – get-out-the-vote efforts. In 1796, Adams had captured New York’s electoral votes. In 1800, he didn’t have them and lost. Why? Because the Republicans had captured the state legislature in Albany and thus controlled the method of the selection of presidential electors.

What was the big key to their success? They got voters to the polls. Horses and carriages were used to bring voters to sometimes distant polling places. It made all the difference.

For those who complain about the often dirty and coarse nature of American politics today, you will see that it’s not that we’ve devolved from the example of our noble founders – we’ve actually cleaned things up quite a bit. The founders were highly intelligent men, but they were still men, with all the petty jealousies and self-importance that come along with that nature.

If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to pick it up.


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August 2010



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