Campaign coverage for the 2008 Presidential Election fills the American airwaves these days. And, while media outlets were limited to newspapers and journals at the time, this has been true since the first real presidential election held over 200 years ago. Dr. Edward Larson, prolific author and respected authority on American history, spoke of the remarkable similarities between the ongoing campaign season and the election of 1800 to a packed auditorium during the recent Thomas Jefferson Lecture held at The University of Tennessee Space Institute.
When people talk about the birth of our modern political system, they always talk about the Continental Congress and the Revolutionary War, but, according to Dr. Larson, the election of 1800 should be included in such conversations, as it was truly the trilogy of events that formed the American model of two-party politics that we know today. While our choices have recently narrowed to Obama versus McCain, in 1800, Americans were bitterly divided between John Adams, a Federalist, and Thomas Jefferson, a democratic Republican.
And, even the mudslinging was every bit as rampant then as it is now. Larson said that the Federalist camp decided to hang on to power by playing the religion card. “The lead Federalist newspaper, the ‘Gazette of the United States,’ ran a large ad on the front of the paper, every single day for the two months leading up to the election, with a big black frame around it, which read ‘The Grand Question Stated! Do we vote for Adams, and a preservation of religion in America or do you vote for Jefferson and no God?’”
Jefferson, in fact had a deep interest in religious matters and was not that different in his beliefs from Adams, said Larson. The real difference between Adams and Jefferson was their vision of how the American government should be run. Larson explained that the Federalists, predecessors to today’s Republican party, believed that a strong central government led by a powerful president was vital to the growth of a secure nation. However, Jefferson and the Republicans, now the Democratic party, put their trust in the people and distrusted a strong government.
As ugly as it can be, the process has stood the test of time, but Larson said that a two-party system is not what the framers of the constitution intended. In fact, Larson commented, “both sides in their private letters kept saying ‘This whole election’s just a catastrophe!’” He went on, “but out of it arose an effective two-party system that has been the bulwark of our democracy. It created a government that, for all its flaws, is self-correcting. It’s the best we have.” To people at the time, “the election seemed like a catastrophe, and, in many ways, it was a catastrophe. But its results were magnificent,” said Larson. Speaking of the results, of course Jefferson was elected our nation’s third president, but it was so close, said Larson, that Adams actually still thought he’d won two weeks after the election.
UTSI has held the Thomas Jefferson Lecture Series since 1996, hosting a Jeffersonian expert each year to come and speak on an area of Jefferson’s life. The Institute was extremely proud to host Dr. Larson for this year’s event. Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1998 for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion and, in total, has authored seven books and is the co-author of seven more. He is a frequent guest on television shows such as The Today Show and History Channel programs, and his 2007 book, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election Of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign delves even deeper into the subject of his lecture.
STUDENT ESSAYS AWARDED AT THOMAS JEFFERSON EVENT—Pictured above with 2008 Thomas Jefferson Lecturer Dr. Edward Larson are Brooke Hill, Huntland High School senior; Callie Dixon, Franklin County High School sophomore; and Jonathon Davis, Tullahoma High School sophomore. These students each wrote the winning essay at their respective schools for the annual Thomas Jefferson Essay Contest held in conjunction with UTSI’s annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture. Davis, right, was announced as the overall winner during the 2008 lecture program and was awarded a $300 prize. In addition, $500 was awarded to his school for academic program development. Runner-ups Hill and Dixon each received a $150 prize, along with $250 for each of their schools.
UTSI’s leadership was exceptionally proud to host Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Edward Larson as this year’s Thomas Jefferson Lecturer. Pictured above are UTSI Professor Dr. Trevor Moulden, Dr. Don Daniel, then UT Associate Vice President for UTSI, UTSI Professor Dr. Thad Morton, Dr. Larson, and UTSI’s Dean for Academic Affairs Dr. Bruce Bomar.