Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism

by Susan Dunn



In her take on the election of 1800, historian Dunn (co-author with James MacGregor Burns of The Three Roosevelts, etc. also offers a dramatic account of the nation's struggle to establish political legitimacy, but with a sharper emphasis on the triumph of Jefferson and his populist ideals. As the 19th century dawned, Dunn explains, the war for independence may have been over, but the true outcome of the American Revolution was still very much in doubt. The choices in 1800 election could not have been starker: Federalist Adams championed the need for a strong central government that would forge an image of honor and national unity. The Republican Jefferson prized the rights of individuals to criticize their government and viewed the Federalist vision as a dangerous slide into monarchy and a reversal of the Revolution's ideals. Like Ferling, Dunn does a superb job of recounting the campaign, its cast of characters, and the election's bizarre conclusion in Congress. That tense standoff could have plunged the country into a disastrous armed conflict, Dunn explains, but instead cemented the legitimacy of peaceful, if not smooth, transfers of power. What sets Dunn's effort apart, however, is her earnest portrait of Jefferson, and his ideals. While careful to acknowledge his "blind spots" and internal conflicts, Dunn eloquently illustrated that it was Jefferson's faith in the ideals of the Revolution that galvanized in our nation "the legacy of a political culture energized by the creative conflict of opposing parties."

Read the review in the Houston Chronicle:

The San Jose Mercury News

September 5, 2004

A lively view of Founding Fathers in political fray

by Charles Matthews

"I always consider the whole nation as my children, but they have almost all proved undutiful to me," grumbled John Adams. We've forgotten that the attitude some of the Founding Fathers had toward the country was less paternal than paternalistic: Father knows best and don't talk back!

As Susan Dunn puts it, "As far as the governing elite was concerned, it was understood that some Americans -- the fathers -- would pilot society, as they piloted their families, while other Americans -- the wives, the children, the 'people' -- would sit in the back of the boat, obediently rowing."

Dunn's new book, "Jefferson's Second Revolution," is lively, highly readable account of how the deadlocked election of 1800 helped give voice to some of those "other Americans," creating noisy conflict of parties and factions that we now accept as fundamental to democracy.

George Washington, for one, thought political parties a bad thing: "potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the Power of the People, to usurp for themselves the reins of Government."

And there was nothing about parties in the Constitution, with the result that it was possible to a president and a vice president who had radically differing views, as happened in 1796, when Adams became the president and the runner-up, Thomas Jefferson, the vice president.

Jefferson was a strong opponent of the Sedition Acts that clamped down on political dissent during the Adams administration. The acts helped drive a wedge between the nascent political parties Federalists -- to which Adams belonged, though a bit reluctantly -- and Jefferson's Republican.

In 1800, Adams and Jefferson ran against each other again, but though Adams was defeated, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives by an Electoral College tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. And as the country worked its way out of this predicament it became clear that political parties, with their ability to weld at least a semblance of unity out of a crowd of conflicting voices, had a role to play in American government.

But the emergence of parties also created -- or at least exacerbated -- the climate of name-calling and mudslinging that persists today. Jefferson, who rarely set foot in a church, was denounced an atheist. Adams was denounced for monarchical ambitions. And in the most extreme instance, the bad blood between Burr and Alexander Hamilton proved lethal.

Dunn, who teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts, has a gift for telling the complex story of a sea change in American politics, giving it real immediacy and making it at least as interesting (and sometimes more than) the current partisan conflicts that welter around us. Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr and others stand before us in these pages as political animals, not as marble icons.