Cover image for America afire : Jefferson, Adams, and the revolutionary election of 1800
America afire : Jefferson, Adams, and the revolutionary election of 1800
Weisberger, Bernard A., 1922-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : William Morrow, 2000.
Physical Description:
vi, 345 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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E330 .W45 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"Bernard Weisberger has once again brought the past to life. If you want to experience the crossfire of intellectual and political ferment at the dawn of our Republic, open these pages and start ducking."
--Bill Moyers

America Afire is the powerful story of the election of 1800, arguably the most important election in America's history and certainly one of the most hotly disputed. American self-government was still an endangered experiment seventeen years after the War of Independence had been won. As 1800 dawned, the sacrifices and fraternity of "the spirit of '76" had vanished, replaced by bitter and angry rivalries. Former allies Adams and Jefferson, president and vice president, now Federalist versus Republican, squared off in a vicious contest to win the fourth presidential election under the Constitution.

The Constitution was still new and untried. The young republic lacked a cohesive national identity, the strength to confront aggressive foreign powers in a world racked by war and revolution, and a stable system for working out political differences electorally. Political parties were new, unforeseen, and unwelcome creations. Small wonder that no one was prepared for the partisan warfare that threatened to rage out of control. Or for the broken friendships, scandals, riots, slanders, beatings, and jailings -- elements of a crucial and perilous election that sparked a constitutional crisis and threats of civil war.

Ultimately, the surprise is not that problems arose, but that the United States emerged from them a stronger nation. For when Adams stepped down from the presidency peacefully in 1801, it was the first time in modern history that a leader had voluntarily turned over power to his political enemy. This was truly a revolution and a triumph for democracy "made in America."

Scrupulously researched and eminently readable, America Afire tells the tale of a watershed event in American history and lends a valuable new perspective on the early years of the United States, as well as the genesis and nature of our political system.

Author Notes

Bernard A. Weisberger taught at Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester before devoting himself full time to writing

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The election of 1800, a landmark in U.S. history, has been justly called a "revolution," for it was a peaceful transfer of power from the governing party to the opposition. Considering the mutual calumny heaped by Federalists and Republicans on one another, not to mention the specter of civil war skulking in the background, an outcome terminating the U.S. was entirely conceivable. To convey the texture of politics with such stakes in this infant nation, Weisberger offers this lively narrative of the personalities and politicking that preceded Jefferson's election as president. He couches the conflicts among Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Burr as manifestations of the party system aborning and ambles along interesting paths of their grass-roots-level political activity, such as their operations to get a majority in that strange constitutional device, the electoral college. Weisberger further textures the surrounding issues of the decade, such as the whiskey tax and the Alien and Sedition Acts, that made the contenders in 1800 so distrustful of one another. An engaging, flowingly told story. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Being released in time to mark the 200th anniversary of the election of 1800 won't be much of a selling point for this disappointing volume. It relates what Weisberger describes as one of the most mud slinging and divisive elections in American history: Jefferson versus Adams, two old friends pitted against each other for the highest office in the land. However, that dramatic claim is not borne out by Weisberger's account, most of which is devoted to the 13 years leading up to the election. The thread of Weisberger's narrative is the emergence of divisive factionalismÄfrom which the framers of the Constitution believed, mistakenly, they had adequately protected the new nation. But in his attempt to follow this thread through the early years of American history, Weisberger, a columnist for American Heritage, tells readers little they didn't learn from their high school history textbooks. He begins with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, rehashing familiar details of the debates (big states threatened the small states, and the North tangled with the South over slavery). Offering a snapshot of America at 1790, Weisberger reveals little more than that the nation was "already an empire"Äthat is, it was geographically huge, and home to an increasingly diverse mix of religious groups, from French Huguenots to Jews to Moravians to Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Weisberger relates Aaron Burr's launching of a "well-oiled" political machine in New York and suggests that sectional discord reared its ugly head as early as the 1790s, yet never does his story really come alive. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The election of 1800 was revolutionary because it allowed for the first peaceful transfer of power under our Constitution, argues Weisberger, the author of ten books and longtime columnist for American Heritage. This exchange of power, from the Federalist to Republican party, was atypical for the dominant European powers of the time. Included here are skillful accounts of the fragile diplomatic efforts to prevent Great Britain, France, and Spain from carving up the new country and lucid narratives about the differences between New England and the South, whose interests were represented respectively by the Federalists and the Republicans (not to be confused with the later party of Lincoln). In the national election, Republican Jefferson defeated Federalist Adams but was tied by fellow Republican Aaron Burr, since the Constitution did not yet provide for separate votes for President and Vice President. A split in the Federalist Party between Adams and Alexander Hamilton, whom Adams attacked as "the mostindefatigable and unprincipled intriguer in the United States," aided Jefferson. When the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, it took 36 ballots before Jefferson was finally declared the winner. This classic political drama celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Weisberger's able retelling is recommended for public and academic libraries and young adult collections.DKarl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 1801p. 1
Part I Discords of an Unfinished Nation
Chapter 1 Philadelphia, Summer 1787p. 13
Chapter 2 The Nation in 1790p. 29
Part II Personalities, Places, and Domestic Discord, 1789-1794
Chapter 3 Washington's Hopeful First Termp. 43
Chapter 4 The Curse of Factionp. 66
Chapter 5 Mr. Burr Launches a Machinep. 83
Chapter 6 Wedges of Sectionalismp. 101
Part III War Abroad, Politics at Home, 1793-1796
Chapter 7 Terror, Turmoil, and Citizen Genetp. 119
Chapter 8 John Jay's Divisive Treaty, 1794-1795p. 138
Chapter 9 Jefferson and Adams's First Round, 1796p. 160
Part IV Toward Disunion, 1797-1800
Chapter 10 X, Y, Z, and the French Connection, 1798p. 173
Chapter 11 Gagging the Press, 1798p. 200
Part V Campaign and Conscience, 1800-1801
Chapter 12 The Climax and the Drawn Battle of 1800p. 227
Chapter 13 The Crossroads of February 1801p. 258
Chapter 14 The Republican Presidentp. 278
Epilogue: Aftermath and Echoesp. 299
Notesp. 311
Bibliographyp. 323
Indexp. 327