The Magazine

Down to the Wire

If you think 2000 was a cliffhanger, try 1800.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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It would be hard to conceive of a more fluent, balanced, and full telling of the election's background and realities than Larson's. I know of no other book devoted to the contest which relates the tale so well. It now becomes the standard account. Larson draws readers along while lucidly supplying the necessary complement of detail about the election's political context and its progress from intraparty scheming to congressional resolution. Not naturally an easy story to relate, Larson tells it with consummate deftness and skill.

But that does not mean that A Magnificent Catastrophe is fully satisfactory as a work of history. And herein lies a problem with so much avowedly popular history--of which this is a fine example--today. An academic historian, Larson is clearly aware of criticisms of academic prose and aims, criticisms that also embody complaints about the ideological positioning and intellectual posturing of much academic history. But to steer clear, as Larson wisely does, of academic quarrels and ideological argument does not require him, like so many other authors of popular history, to forgo an authorial voice or to refrain from advancing any ideas.

Unfortunately, however, A Magnificent Catastrophe lacks both that voice and those ideas. Where and what is Larson's point of view? One has no sense of a historian wrestling with intractable evidence, or asking himself whether the facts themselves don't yield up some questions that need tackling.

Nor does one gain confidence from the absence of references to prior scholarship; Larson seems willful in citing only published manuscript sources but not the work of his colleagues. Furthermore, all is too serene; the facts arrange themselves too easily into a smooth narrative. But smoothness is not a characteristic of history--history in the past or history today. To assume that in the mere telling of a story inheres its full significance is to surrender the historian's perspective, to cede to participants an event's meaning, and to reduce history dangerously close to chronicle.

It's also patronizing. The idea that readers are interested primarily in stories and not in analysis, that they won't accept argument, that they won't devote some intellectual labor to understanding an issue, or aren't intelligent enough to distinguish fact from interpretation, has gained ground in recent years. It doesn't speak well for an author and his publisher to accept these assumptions.

Let's take simply the matter of the "election of 1800." That's what we know it as, and not foolishly so. But doesn't that name embody some hidden propositions that it might be useful to question? Yes, we normally have a single election: The voters vote, and a clear outcome, a winner, results. But in an election like that of 1800 (as of 1824) in which the results are determined not by the voters but, instead, by members of the House of Representatives, two elections, not a single one, take place. Each is governed by different rules pertinent to its distinct institutional arena. The first is a public election contest fought throughout the country under regulations enacted by state authority. The second is confined to a single institution, is governed by House rules enacted for this single event, and is held behind closed doors.

That being the case, a kind of analytical clarity results when these separate contests are treated as separate events. Making the distinction between the two events even more necessary is the fact that, in 1801, the deciding election in the House was unprecedented. No rules, no experience for resolving an electoral tie, could be borrowed from the past. The Constitution was of little help; indeed, because of its many defects--defects that would, in part, be repaired by the 12th Amendment--the Constitution contributed to the electoral crisis in the first place. So did the failure of Congress to anticipate and address through legislation or constitutional amendment some of the problems that were foreseeable.

In addition, no mere narrative of all of these events can itself make clear that the election of 1801 was a critical moment in the constitutional history of the United States. Its resolution in the House saved the Constitution. Had the House not chosen a president by March 4, or not chosen one at all, there are solid grounds for fearing armed intervention or a second constitutional convention. More than that, as Bruce Ackerman has shown with penetrating skill in The Failure of the Founding Fathers (2005), not only the two elections themselves but many of the events leading to them were constitutional in nature, and a series of Supreme Court decisions afterwards owed their significance to issues raised by the election.

Even without addressing Ackerman's arguments, Larson might have engaged his readers in consideration of the larger significance--political, ideological, and cultural, as well as constitutional--of this critical contest. To assert without extensive explanation its importance is to empty the election of anything but its contents as an exciting episode. It surely was more than that.

It is the case, for instance, that Bayard's explanation of his decision to precipitate the election's resolution in the House--that he did not want "to hazard the constitution" by further defying the people's choice--brought into being a new line of constitutional reasoning and decision-making. It is the Constitution itself, rather than any party or any individual, which must be made "to win." To be sure, no single person, no single institution, is free to determine what the Constitution is or means; Americans will come to no unanimous agreement about how the Constitution should best be interpreted so that it "wins." But after 1801, a new standard of constitutionalism had been established, one that would allow the Marshall Court, starting with its Marbury decision in 1803, to issue its great decisions in some comfort that, controversial as these decisions would be, there now existed a broad constituency for which the Court's decrees, announced as constitutional interpretations, would have the authority of legitimacy. The Court could now freely declare that it was protecting the Constitution.

Larson ends with Jefferson's inauguration. That's a pity, because he had the opportunity to reflect on the enduring significance of the contest. That significance was enormous. Small-government, agrarian capitalism became the ideological norm against which American public policy would be measured well into the 20th century. The South gained a chokehold on the presidency and Congress until Lincoln's election took the nation into a new era for all time. Slavery was given 60 years to strengthen itself in the Old South and in the states carved out of the old southwest and across the Mississippi in the Louisiana Territory. The purchase of that vast western terrain by Jefferson's administration in 1803 at a stroke doubled the size of the young nation, greatly enlarged its agricultural might, expanded the areas into which slavery would advance, and set the final stage of the nation's eventual spread from sea to sea. With ideological sustenance from Jefferson and his followers, white manhood suffrage became nearly universal by 1840.

In short, the election of 1800 laid the groundwork for the nation's emergence as a slaveholding, agrarian, democratic, continental colossus.

It thus turned out that, in 1800, the voters, and in February 1801 the members of the House of Representatives, were deciding more than which party and, of the two Democratic-Republicans, which man would occupy the presidency for the next four years. It turned out that James Bayard was doing more than precipitating an outcome that would preserve the integrity of the 1787 Constitution.

Instead, the voters and their congressmen were determining the course of American government, the nature of American culture, the fate of African Americans, and the geographic reach of national authority for much of American history. They could not know that then, but we know it now. A Magnificent Catastrophe would have been better than it is had its author led his readers to contemplate those extraordinary consequences of a single presidential election.

James M. Banner Jr. is a cofounder of the National History Center and the author of To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815.