Book Review: Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn (three stars)
“There is nothing more common,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia in 1786, “than to confound the terms of the American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.”
A competent, if over long survey of the American revolutionary period. A necessary corrective for those thinking the revolution ended in 1776, or 1781, or 1787. Students of history already know recent elections are not the first stirred with scandal and accusations of false dealing
‘The leaders of the Virginia dynasty—Jefferson, Madison, Monroe—cherished liberty and equality and trumpeted the pursuit of happiness, but they were unwilling—or perhaps intellectually unable—to begin the process of creating institutions and programs to extend those principles to all Americans.’
She makes the case that a robust two-party system is vital to American democracy despite that all the politicians, including Jefferson, wanted only one party—theirs. That most were inconsistent, if not out-right hypocrites is well documented. Like a dime novel, she opens with a sensational cliffhanger which she doesn’t work her back to until two-thirds through. Reads like a research paper, the footnotes mercifully at the end.
“The party committed suicide,” wrote a frustrated [John] Adams, and “indicted me for the murder.”
Numerous false details alert the reader to possible errors in more weighty topics. Dozens of “historian said” references, which add little to her narrative but bloat. Students of history are wary of manufactured and even inverted citations, ala Ward Churchill. Dunn and her readers would be better served had she restrained herself to primary sources.
‘Like Machiavelli, Tocqueville came to the sagacious conclusion that the guardian of freedom was tumult. The direct source of the tumult? Democracy itself.’
A glance at her other titles suggests Dunn’s agenda, which she pursues here. The founders were not trying to establish a democracy—they rightly feared that word, especially has it manifested itself in France—but a republic.
‘Under Jefferson and Madison, radical, revolutionary ideas—equality, majority rule, self-interest, democracy—had entered the mainstream of American politics. The old style of elitist, deferential politics was gone for good.’