BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bernard A. Weisberger, what is your book, "America Afire," about?
Mr. BERNARD A. WEISBERGER, AUTHOR, "AMERICA AFIRE": It's about the election of 1800, which turned out to be a test, the first real test, of the electoral system and the Constitution and the--the test that was successfully passed, but only after great dangers and perils had been encountered.
LAMB: Who ran against each other there?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams. They happened to be president and vice president because of an unusual provision of the original constitutional method of electing presidents, which decreed that the electors should not vote for a president and vice president separately, but for two men. And the one with the highest total would be the victor, and the runner-up would be the--the vice president. And then that provision was installed when the Founding Fathers had no idea there would be political parties. And the situation of a president of one party and a vice president of another was one that didn't occur to them.
LAMB: How old was John Adams and Thomas Jefferson then?
Mr. WEISBERGER: They were then--Adams, I think, was born in 1735, so he would have been--in 1800, he would have been just 65. And—and Jefferson from s--1742, I believe, so he would be in his mid-50, if my mental arithmetic is off momentarily.
LAMB: Well, what were they like?
Mr. WEISBERGER: They were fascinating people, and they were old
friends who had been together in the revolutionary--in the Continental Congress. Both were on the drafting committee for the Declaration of Independence. They had both been ambassadors abroad during the Revolution, at a time when that meant a long, dangerous sea voyage. And they were good friends, but they were very different in their views of human nature.
Adams was a--a conservative who didn't have a very high opinion of—of popular judgment. He did believe in self-government, but he also believed that, in the end, people were easily seduced by rank and riches and glamour, and he believed that society was in a constant state of class war; not quite class warfare, but the poor and the rich would always be trying to get the advantage of each other. And so you needed a stable, steady government, particularly a strong executive to hold them in check. While not particularly religious, he respected tradition and authority.
Jefferson, on the other hand, was a--a philosophical radical, much more of a philosophical than a governmental radical, as it turned out. But Jefferson believed in the triumph of reason; he was a child of the Enlightenment. And he was sure that if humanity got rid of all the su--superstitions and idolatry--i.e. revealed religion and reverence for monarchy and aristocracy--the world would get better and better. And he thought that in the mass of ordinary people, by whom he meant usually small-land holders, there was a natural elite of intelligence, which could be brought out by a universal system of public education. And if such a system were in place, democracy could prosper without--without a great deal of authority, without a great deal of government.
So there--there's a--almost the optimists and the--and the—and the--not the cynics, but the--it's an optimistic vs. a hard-boiled view of human nature that separated them.
LAMB: Who were the other names in that era that you write about, in 1800?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, te--the--I suppose the character--the two—two other characters who play a--a major part in this story were the incomparable George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Washington, as the first president--and was elected unanimously; all the electors gave one of their two votes to Washington, both in 1788 and 1792—and he tried to establish a kind of Republican kingship, by which I mean he had no idea of becoming a monarch. He respected the Constitution, but he carried himself off as a--as sort of a first citizen. He was rather aloof. He drove around in a big coach. He held regular receptions and levies, and he hoped for a government of national unity that would be above faction. He really wanted to get the opinions of all his Cabinet members and--and--before making decisions.
So he--he represented kind of an ideal of the--the--not the philosopher king, but the--the--the wise and sober and virtuous statesman, who is able to reconcile the clashing interests of lots of people. And he succeeded in doing that in his first term pretty well, and then things fell apart because factionalism did rear its ugly head and--and was promptly organized to--into two contending political parties, Federalists and the Republicans. I mean...
LAMB: Let me stop you right there...
Mr. WEISBERGER: Sure. Yes.
LAMB: ...because that comes up throughout your book. A Federalist, based on today's understanding of politics, would be where? What camp?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Pretty much conservative, more--he'd be more likely to be--it's confusing. He'd be more likely, I think, to be a Republican, if you think of the Republicans today as more socially conservative. The--the Federalists took their name--they were the--originally, the people who would sponsor the Constitution, who had pushed hard for the ratification of the Constitution. And most of the people who worked hard for the ratification of the Constitution, most of the important people, had roles in the first administration. And it...
LAMB: How s--under a Federalist program, how strong would the national governor--government be?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Very--very strong. Not strong enough to crush the liberties of the states, they hope, but strong enough to have a good deal of centralized authority and with a very broad mandate, interpreting the Constitution very loosely, to do things that they thought were appropriate and in the national interest.
LAMB: George Washington and John Adams, both Federalists?
Mr. WEISBERGER: They were indeed. Well, Geo--George Washington felt that he wasn't a member of any party, and--but toward the end of the--of his second term, partisan feeling began to arise. He—he tended--he tended to agree with Federalists more than--than his op--their opposite numbers.
LAMB: Thomas Jefferson--was he a Republican?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes, he called himself a Republican. As I said, that does con--confuse people, I think, of today because he would much--the Democrats have long thought of Jefferson as the ancestor of their--of their party. He would certainly be for a--you know, a--a--an enlarged franchise and--and--and--and the--the system of government that elevated--What did Al Gore say last night? `Removed barriers and opened opportunities,' or something of that sort. On the other hand, he wanted to achieve that through a very small and weak government. There's an interesting flip-flop, in that the—the Democrats tend to be, I think, the strong, central-government party today, and the Republicans, at least in theory, argue for a reduced role for the federal government. That--that's been a flip-flop.
LAMB: You also mentioned Alexander Hamilton back then.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes. I have to get back to Hamilton. He was a—a wonderful and, in some ways, a tormented character. He was an illegitimate kid, born to a woman whom we--whom the Victorians would have been called a fallen woman, in the West Indes in 1757. And—and he was orphaned at a very early age and immediately showed--at a very early age, also showed a genius for understanding finance and for understanding market mechanisms. And as a teen-ager, he was employed by a trading firm in the West Indes and was virtually running it.
Some neighbors and friends sent him up to New York to get a college education. He got involved in the Revolution, and by the age of 20, 21, he was already on Washington's staff forging the friendship that Washington would use again when he made Hamilton his first secretary of the Treasury.
He designed the fiscal system that launched the United States successfully. He wanted to pay off the national debt and be--a f—at full face value to inspire confidence from investors. He wanted to have a central banking system. In effect, what he said was, `If you want to have a strong, successful, new republic, you'd better get the rich on your side'--not the rich; the investing, the working class, speculative classes. And he was a gifted secretary of the Treasury and, I think, had a much more far-sighted vision of what the nation was going to become than either Jefferson or Adams, really. He—he already saw it as continental and...
LAMB: Another parallel on this is that John Adams--in 1800, what was his relationship to Great Britain?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Adams was a--an unrepentant rebel against Britain in the '70s, but by the '90s, he had become an admirer of the British social system, to--to some extent; that as--he thought that the institution of monarchy, constitutional monarchy particularly, provided an--a good balancing point between the aristocracy and--representing the peers and the commons, and--and he felt that he was not happy with elections, which he thought were too likely to degenerate into scrambles among ambitious men for the perks of office.
LAMB: How'd he want to get somebody to be chief executive then?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yeah. Well, that's ri--he was--he--all--he—you know, he was--he was--he believed in self-government. He was accused of being a monarchist. He wasn't that. I mean, he wasn't one for the United States. He thought it was a swell system for the British. And he thought that, without care, the republic might easily degenerate into a monarchy. But I don't think he wanted one for the United States, but he did want a strong executive.
LAMB: What was Thomas Jefferson's relationship to France?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Jefferson's relationship to France was one of--of--it was a love affair, basically. He--Jefferson's a wonderful paradox. He's a man who speaks about the simple life and--and the virtues of--of low consumption and self--and ind--and independence, but he just loved Paris. He loved French wine, French cooking. He loved everything about French civilization, and he particularly was taken with the French Felizoffs: the Voltaires and Condorrets and D'Alemberts, who would, for 20 or 30 years prior to the American Revolution, been exalting the role of reason in human affairs and—and attacking old and crusted, traditional institutions.
LAMB: We have 280 million people in the United States today, roughly. How many people were here 200 years ago?
Mr. WEISBERGER: About--in--in 1800, the population was about 5 million, of whom about 1/2 million--1/2 million to 3/4 million were slaves. So...
LAMB: How did we elect a president in 1800?
Mr. WEISBERGER: We elected them in--in one way, as we do now; in—in another, in a quite different way. The--each state was to determine--was to appoint elect--electors, equal to the size of its congressional delegation, in any manner the state determined. And the--in 1800, 10 of the 16 existing states actually had the state legislatures choose the electors, and the other six, they were chosen by popular vote.
But where the difference between then and now was, besides the fact that there was no general popular vote--was that, as I said earlier, the--the two--the electors only voted for two men, not for a separate president and vice president. But it was like today's elections in that, by 1800, the electors, who were originally envisaged as a sort of an independent body of people who would scatter their votes among a lot of potential candidates, had already become--creatures isn't quite the word I want, but they were already running on party slates, and they were already simply registering the decision of party caucuses as to who the candidates would be. So of the 138 electors chosen in 1800, there were 73 Republican electors on Jefferson's side, who faithfully cast one vote for Thomas Jefferson and--and 65 who cast the--65 who cast their--their votes for Adams.
So, in a sense, the Electoral College was already being somewhat compromised from the original vision, and that's how we elected presidents. But a--a glitch occurred in 1800 in that, by then, both parties had a sort of president-designate and a vice president-designate. It was sort of understood who the number one and number two men were. But that meant, given the system, that the electors of your party had to at least agree that at least one of them would throw away a second vote, not vote for both men, on the tickets. And the Republicans didn't do that in 1800, either through mismanagement or--or accident or fear that they weren't going to win if they didn't cast every vote for both men. All 73 voted for both Jefferson and Aaron Burr. So the president and the understood vice presidential-designate came in in a dead heat.
LAMB: What was the--what was the number--what were the numbers then?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Seventy-three electoral votes for each.
LAMB: For each one.
Mr. WEISBERGER: For each one.
LAMB: Now there were 16 states. How many states did you need in order to win?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, I--I don't remember how they were split among the states. So...
LAMB: Did you have to split--I mean, you'd need nine.
Mr. WEISBERGER: But you need--you need--oh, well, you--yes, you--well, I--yes, af--after...
LAMB: I mean once it gets to the House.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Once it gets to the House. I'm sorry, yeah. In the--it--the tie would have to be broken by the House of Representatives. And, yes, in the House, each state got one vote; each state delegation got one vote, and--and you had to--correct, you needed a m--a majority of nine. And due to another provision of the Constitution, since changed, this caused still another problem, because the Congress that sat in January--in January and February of 1801 was not the Congress that had just been elected, which was Republican, but the Congress that had been elected two years before, which was dominated by the Federalists and the--the lame-duck Congress. And that system, by the way, continued until modern time, till 1936.
LAMB: Who could vote in 1800?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Mostly white males who had some property. Each state set its own qualifications for electors. Most of them still had some property qualifications, but in many cases, it had gotten down to owning your own house or owning a house lot. It--it varied from state to state. Some were much more liberal than others. On the whole, scholars think that maybe--there may have been 70 percent or as—as high as six--60 percent to 80 percent of the--of--of males, white males, eligible to vote, but of those, probably only half turned out. So the--the--it's very hard to get precise figures because, of course, statistics weren't kept then. But, in short, if you were--if you were white and a man and you had any kind of taxable property, you probably had a good shot at voting.
LAMB: Well, go back to the parallels again.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Sure.
LAMB: You had John Adams, a Federalist; Thomas Jefferson, a Republican. Jefferson loved France. Adams loved Great Britain.
Mr. WEISBERGER: That's right.
LAMB: And you could only vote if you were a white male with property, by and large?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: That meant that no women could vote, no blacks could vote.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Correct.
LAMB: And you had the Electoral College that, out of the 16 states, 10 chose the--the electors through the legislature.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes, that's right. Yes.
LAMB: So how'd the other six choose them?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Through--either through a popular vote or through some combination of a popular and a legislative vote. I think, in some cases, the legislature named a slate that the electors voted on. But, in general, the people, the voters, directly chose the electors in those six states. I don't think--but, no, I don't--it's not that I don't think; I know not all of them, however, had our current system, in 48 of the 50 states, of winner take all, where the--the party runs a complete slate of electors, and--and--and you vote for them all, and the party that wins 51 percent of the vote gets all--all the electoral votes of that state. In--in at least--in at least two, I think in Maryland and New Jersey--certainly New Jersey--electors were chosen by district. And so you could have a--a mixed electoral vote from—from a given state.
LAMB: What did you find the differences were 200 years ago from—you know, we just went through, in November and December, all this—this election. But what--what's the--what are the differences between the--among the people, among the attitudes, among the media?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, I think--well, the media--the media is a—an interesting s--story in itself. The basic difference, though, between then and now--and I think there's a very important one--is that the country was really divided in the 1790s. The Constitution is new and untried. It didn't have the respect and reverence that it s--now has. The Supreme Court was in existence, but John Marshall had yet to become the first chief justice and establish it as the authoritative body for interpreting the Constitution. And as I said, the—the Constitution was a work in progress.
There were differences. The--the basic differences between the two parties sort of reflect the differences in the country as a whole. But Republicans, generally, were in favor of a fairly decentralized government with policies that benefited agriculture. The Federalists were more on the side of a strong central government with a lot of encouragement to investments, banking, finance and--and even manufacturing, although it was in a very infant state then. So there was a--a tug-of-war over what economic direction policies should take.
LAMB: Who were the stockjobbers?
Mr. WEISBERGER: The stockjobbers were the names of Jefferson and his ally, Madison, whom I haven't mentioned as another member of the cast--were--it was a name that Madison used for investors and people who held stock in the--in the National Bank, which was jointly privately and publicly owned; people who--whom he--whom Madison felt were unproductive members of society because they didn't grow things, but they just shuffled pieces of paper around and they artificially bid up prices, and they, in a sense, made money--made money by appealing to people's cupidity and--and expectations. And he had a great disdain for them; so did Jefferson.
And what they were afraid was that Hamilton's plan of—of strengthening the--the investing classes and strengthening the fiscal structure of the government was, in effect, giving large and undeserved bonuses to what they would call the stockjobbers. And—and so that was a--it was a fundamental difference there.
And the differences were exacerbated by the fact that this 10-year period, between the beginning of the constitutional government and the election of 1800, was conducted against the background of the French Revolution. And the French Revolution horrified conservatives, and at first at least, it sort of cheered people like Jefferson, who saw it as kind of a, you know, opening to a more democratic and just society. And passions were very strong on both sides of that issue and were made even stronger when France and England went to war with each other, and there was then a foreign policy question of whether American policy should tilt toward France or England.
LAMB: In reading your book, it--it almost looks like you knew what was going to happen in the election of 2000; that you cleverly had it ready to go on the market a couple of months before it happened. And when did you first think about writing this book, and what--why did do you it?
Mr. WEISBERGER: I--I wish--I wish that I could say I had the gift of prophecy, but I--the--the--thought of writing the book in 1998. That's when I started serious work on it. The--it had been suggested to me as a topic. It wasn't something I specialize in, but I--I knew the general outlines of the story. And when I got to work on it, I was drawn in deeper and deeper because it's--it's a fascinating story. I had been really unaware of how divided the country really was, and as I say, compared to what it was then, it's--it's a lovefest now.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Mr. WEISBERGER: I live in Evanston, Illinois.
LAMB: What do you do full-time?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Just what I just--what you have in your lap there; I produce books and articles like that. I'm a free-lance historian. I taught at universities for about 18 years...
Mr. WEISBERGER: ...and then--Wayne State in Detroit, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester.
LAMB: And where are you from originally?
Mr. WEISBERGER: I'm originally from New York; from a little town called Hudson, New York, about 100 miles up the river from New York City, and was educated in the public schools of New York City, Columbia College. And then I went off to the big war and--and came back and got a graduate degree in history at the University of Chicago.
LAMB: Taught where?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, my first teaching job actually was--my first full-time teaching job was at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and from there, I went to Wayne--Wayne State, then to Chicago.
LAMB: And this book is what number for you?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Eigh--18--18, if you count--if you count an edited book as--as a book.
LAMB: What kind of books have you written then?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, my first was about Civil War newspaper correspondents. My second was about revivalists and evangelists in American history, from Jonathan Edwards to Billy Sunday. And my—then I--then I wrote a book about American journalists. Then I've done textbooks, juveniles about captains of industries. But the last--well, the last three or four I've done, which I guess are the ones which would be most significant, were a biography of the La Follette family in Wisconsin; a--Robert M. La Follette, a progressive senator from 1900 to 1925, and his two sons, who became senator and governor of Wisconsin. And before that, I did a biography of William Grapo Durant, who was the founder of General Motors and a very interesting man, not a--not a conventional businessman; a sort of a plunger and visionary, who, in 1903, when the automobile was just a contraption that everybody thought of as a rich man's toy, said, you know, `There are going to be millions of these on the roads someday.' So I--I--I shop around.
LAMB: Now how does someone who has written a book about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and a lot of others--there have been a lot of books written about them--get the following people to endorse their book: David McCullough, Doug Brinkley, Arnold Rogo, Ken Burns, Robert Remini and Herb Parmett?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, I--I'm--I don't--I don't quite know how to answer that.
LAMB: Was that your idea that they do that, or was that the book company's?
Mr. WEISBERGER: They were all--well, the book company always sends out advance copies to people whom they think might--might make favorable comments on it. How did I--how did I get to be that way? I don't know how to say this without seeming immodest. I--I write well, and--and I have written, I have asserted and I have known some of these people. I worked on a couple of films with Ken Burns; I didn't mention that I have done some television work, too. I wrote the script for a movie he did called--I co-wrote with Geoffrey Ward a movie called--a documentary called "The Congress," in 1986, and I was also a co-author of one, "The Statue of Liberty." So Ken knows my work.
I've done work both as a historical consultant and script writer for Bill Moyers, and that's how I know him. David McCullough and I were partners on American Heritage. So I--I'm not suggesting there's an ol' boy network at work there. I--they certainly are--they're friends, but they're my friends because I've worked with them and they know my stuff.
LAMB: When in--when--what about American Heritage? Tell us more about that.
Mr. WEISBERGER: American Heritage is--was my--my home. I'm still a contributing editor. I placed my first article there in August of 1955 when the magazine was less than a year old--I was considerably younger than I am now--and have written for it intermittently ever since. And for 10 years, from 1989 until just last year, I did a regular column called In The News, in which I looked at the historical context of ongoing news stories. So that's how I got to be an American Heritage pro. And I did serve on the staff full-time for two years. I--after I'd decided that teaching wasn't giving me all that I wanted out of--out of life, I went to work for two years as the associate editor at American Heritage.
LAMB: So if John Adams were sitting right here, what would you say about him? What'd he look like?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, in that--in--in the picture that's on the—the cover of the book, it's his presidential portrait, when he is old, and you can almost see his teeth fallen in. The--one of the journalists who opposed him and--des--described him as `old, bald, blind, crippled, toothless John Adams,' which was pretty harsh, and it gives you a flavor of the journalism of 1800. As a young man, I think he looked considerably better than that, but he was--from his mid-30s, he was portly.
He--what would I say to him? I would say, `I admire you enormously, Mr. Adams,' and--Adams is a wonderful story. He was a successful Boston lawyer in his mid-30s in 1760 or so. He identified himself with the revolutionary cause, went off to the Continental Congress and was an absolute workhorse there, and really the spark plug of--of a great many of the Continental Congress' efforts to promote--to carry on the revolution. It meant long, long periods of separation from both his home in Massachusetts and his wife, Abigail, whom he loved very dearly.
Then he agreed to go abroad to represent the United States in Europe and negotiate loans with European bankers. And as I say, that was--th--at the time, you have to remember that letters took three or four weeks. Well, domestic letters took anywhere from a week to four or five weeks to pass between parties, and several months to--to pass across the Atlantic. So it meant a long, long trip. It meant being really cut off and isolated from home. It meant serious risks of capture or shipwreck, but he did that, and when he came back, he was rewarded, I guess, with the vice presidency.
LAMB: W--when he was president of--of his country in the years--what--what years were he--was he president?
Mr. WEISBERGER: He was president from March, 1797, to March 1801.
LAMB: Where was his son, John Quincy Adams, at that time?
Mr. WEISBERGER: His son, John Quincy Adams--who as a--most people now know, became president in 1824--his son, John Quincy, was at the beginnings of a brilliant diplomatic career. He had--he had accompanied Adams to Europe as a young boy and had already served as secretary of legation, I believe in Sweden and in Russia. He had come home briefly in the beginning of 17--of the 1790s and Adams made him minister to Prussia, I believe, and was roundly denounced for this nepotism, but he said that his son was the best man for the job, and he was. So he was--basically he was abroad--during the campaign, if I recall, he was abroad in Europe.
LAMB: If Thomas Jefferson were sitting here, what would you see?
Mr. WEISBERGER: In his 50s, a tall--a very tall, loose-jointed man, comfortable in his own body, reddish hair turning to gray, rather sharp features with a prominent nose and cheekbones, and a man who was, you know, as I said, who had a--a--an endlessly roving mind and a taste for making political and philosophical pronouncements that were sometimes much more radical than--than his actual views.
LAMB: As you listen to the--if you did, or either you read about it or listened to the chatter about the 2000 election, and when you hear people say, it's un-American to decide an election like they did in Florida, what would you--what would--how would you relate to 200 years ago?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, 200 years ago, the election was decided by some switched votes in--in Congress. The difference between 1800 and 2000 was that the--in 1800, there was an actual Electoral College tie, so there was a constitutional mechanism for--for resolving a tie. However, what happened was a series of political shenanigans. The Congress, the Federalist Congress, did not want to yield power to this `upstart red Jacobin' was the word then, and...
LAMB: Thomas Jefferson.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Thomas Jefferson. And what they contrived to do was to cast--they controlled--two states were equally divided. They had delegations equally divided, so in effect, their vote was nullified. Six were controlled by the Federalists, and that--and that meant they could deny Jefferson the majority of nine that he needed. And what they decided to do was keep voting for Burr and block Jefferson's access to the presidency. And when Inauguration Day rolled around--March 4th, 1801--they would presumably say, `Look, there is now a constitutional problem. There's a vacancy in the presidency not foreseen in the Constitution, and what we'll do is pass special emergency legislation to allow us to name a president, one of our own.' And that was a--that was a real threat to upset the constitutional system.
That, indeed, was un-American or at least unconstitutional, and the Republicans responded to that, not Jefferson personally. Jefferson and Adams took no part in this. That is, they remained on their aloof pedestals. But Republican Party leaders, including some Republican governors and congressmen, said, `Well, if you do that, we either will not recognize this usurpation and we will jail any federal officers who come in and try to enforce federal law within our boundaries, or we will walk out of the union and call a new Constitution and—and perhaps form a new co--a new--a new union, which will exclude the Federalist states.' The Federalists, by the way, dominated New England. They had all the New England states and a couple of the middle states. The Republicans controlled the South and West. So there was a sectional split there, too.
And the situation was finally resolved only by what probably was some backstairs bargaining. We don't know for sure. But in the end, after a week of furious balloting--36 ballots, which I believe were referred to by Bush in his victory speech last night, the Federalists blinked and--and they let Thomas Jefferson take 10 states and become the president.
LAMB: But the one switch that Delaware...
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yeah.
LAMB: I mean, Delaware had one member of Congress; therefore, he had the vote...
Mr. WEISBERGER: Bayard, yes. He a--he had--he controlled the—I think tha--that--that is correct. It was--he was the key man in—in the switch.
LAMB: But he was a Federalist.
Mr. WEISBERGER: He was a Federalist, but I think what he did was cast a blank ballot and I think the Federalists in two other states cast blank ballots to allow them to go Republican. I'm the--I'm--I--I've forgot the details of my own book, I'm sorry. But--but yes, Bayard was--Bayard was a key negotiator.
LAMB: Yeah. I think it turned out 9-6 with two abstain--abstentions.
Mr. WEISBERGER: That--I--8, 10, 9...
LAMB: Am I right? Anyway, but...
Mr. WEISBERGER: No, I think--I think you're right. There were t...
LAMB: But the vote was switched.
Mr. WEISBERGER: ...two states abstaining. There was a--but I—I have a feeling Jefferson got 10, but I can't recall. But in any case, the vote--there was a switch. I mean, you--you are right; the Federalists in--in at least two states.
LAMB: What did they--what did the public say back then, though, after Thomas Jefferson became president?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, it's hard--well, what--they--they—they rendered their ultimate verdict in 1804 when they re-elected him triumphantly. Jefferson was a--as a winner, pressed all the right buttons.
I--I want to go--let me go back just for one moment, if I may, to the possible deal that was made. The Federalists let it be known, I—or at least some Federalists, moderate Federalists; there were some diehards who wanted to hold out to the end. But the...
LAMB: The Adams people, the Adams Federalists.
Mr. WEISBERGER: The Adams Federalists, yes, because Adams was essentially a moderate. And the Adams Federalists, rather than—than throw the--the country into turmoil, wanted some kind of assurances that Jefferson would not, A, wipe out the national debt that they'd incurred, because Jefferson was constantly raging about the necessity to make government frugal and cheap; B, that he would not purge the civil service, throw out all the Federalist office holders. There were only a couple of hundred of them at the time.
Now he never gave any formal assurances of that effect, but there was a wonderful moment, and one of the ones I most enjoyed writing about, and I think I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. Jefferson and Adams met on Pennsylvania Avenue, both out for a walk, while the crisis was at its height in the House, and had a discussion. And Jefferson--Adams said, well, the--the Federalists would--that--that Jefferson could avoid a constitutional crisis if he would give some assurances that--that he wouldn't sponge, as is--expunge the national debt, in Adams' words. And--and Jefferson said, well, he didn't know about that, but he thought the Federalists really ought not to risk breaking the country apart. And as for what he would or wouldn't do, he said, `Let my past conduct be the guide to--to what I'll do in the future.'
Well, that was very ambiguous, because Jefferson had only held an executive position once, governor of Virginia; then he'd been secretary of State for three years. But when he took office, he did not wipe out the national debt--they began to pay it down--and he did not throw out all the Federalist office holders.
LAMB: But you tell a--a symbolic story at the very beginning of your book about the moment of the inauguration and--and you begin by—you tell it...
Mr. WEISBERGER: Sure. Well...
LAMB: ...at the--the--where he woke up, where John Adams woke up.
Mr. WEISBERGER: On the morning of March 4th, in 1801, after it was decided, after the--the--the balloting was concluded and Jefferson was named president--on the morning of March 4th, 1801, at 4:00 in the morning, John Adams got up, took himself to the stagecoach depot in Washington, wherever that was--Washington was then, remember, a brand-new city--and got on a coach. He was just a private citizen, a passenger on his way--on the start of his journey back to Boston. And Jefferson, in his turn, about 10:00 that morning, walked from his boarding house to Congress with no fanfare, no big inaugural parade, a small detachment of DC militia marching along in front of him, and I think there was a militia cannon salute when he entered the Capitol. But it was all done without fanfare. It was, indeed, a peaceful transfer of power. It was the--at that time, it was with the first time that I'm aware of in modern history in a republic of any size that that had happened; that as a result of a popular vote, one party had simply turned over the reins to another party, which was radically different than its outlook on--on--on the country.
LAMB: Did Thomas Jefferson think he was going to be at his inaugural, John Adams?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Did...
LAMB: Did Thomas Jefferson think John Adams would be there at the inaugural?
Mr. WEISBERGER: I don't know whether he thought that or not. Probably not. There has been some speculation that it was bad grace for Adams not to stick around and--and be there, but, you know, there was really no precedent for it. The first two inaugurals had been Washington's. When--and Jefferson was at Adams' inaugural because he was vice president. There was no precedent for the out--there was no precedent for the outgoing president to be present at the inauguration.
Adams was grumpy about the defeat, there's no two ways about it. When you've run for re-election and been turned down, it's a--it hurts, and--but I'm not sure whether it was bad manners, or just a deliberate attempt to show exactly what--what it did show: `I'm the--I was the president and now I'm a private citizen. I'm just one of you all.'
LAMB: I want to read just a--a couple sentences here: `During a congressional debate, a Vermont Republican, Representative Matthew Lyon, spat in the face of Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold. Two weeks later, in mid-February, Griswold walked over to Lyon's desk and began to beat him with a hickory cane. Lyon snatched up a pair of tongs from one of the fireplaces heating the House chamber and returned the blows. The yelling gladiators rolled on the floor for a time before being separated.'
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes, that happened.
LAMB: What's that circumstance of that?
Mr. WEISBERGER: The circumstance was that Griswold had--they--it was during a debate in 1798 on some measure--I think a revenue bill—and Griswold had made some sort of slighting remark about Lyon, some personal remark about Republican radicals--Griswold was the Federalist from Connecticut, Lyon was a Republican--and Lyon took it personally and simply went over and began to whale Griswold. Feelings are very high, and Lyon is another minor but interesting character in the story.
He was a journalist, too. He ran some paper called the Vermont Gazette, if I believe--if I remember correctly. And what happened in 1798 was that feelings were enormously passionate then, especially because there was a war scare with France going on, and--and that always whips up popular feeling. And the Federalists passed and John Adams signed, unfortunately, the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to criticize the president of the United States or to make remarks that tended to bring him into disrepute. It was a flat violation of the First Amendment, but the First Amendment was only nine years old and--and nobody was paying all that much attention to it.
But the Republicans were, of course, enraged and--but the act was passed and applied. About 14 or 15 Republican editors were fined and put in jail for varying periods, including Matthew Lyon.
LAMB: Just for criticizing...
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...the president.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yeah, for relatively mi--well, some for relatively mild criticism, some for rather savage criticisms. The--the tone of journalism at the time--you'd asked about how the public felt. We don't know how the ordinary public felt very well, except through their votes, but the newspaper editors of the couple of dozen newspapers in the country at the time were totally unrestrained in the kind of language they used about their opponents, and called them scoundrels and liars and wretches and degenerate dogs; infidels was a common practice.
So some of the insults to Adams were, I suspect, pretty strong. But one--one poor one man was thrown in the--in the jug for a few months for saying when Adams passed through a town and a salute was fired, somebody--he was in a tavern and described as `rather merry' at the time--and somebody next to him said `They're'--I don't know if I can use the word on the air, but he said, `They're firing at the president's behind.' And he said, `Well, I hope they fire right through his behind.' And that was the offense for which he was jailed.
LAMB: We know a lot--or not a lot, but we know about the Hamilton-Burr duel...
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes.
LAMB: ...where Hamilton died, but you mention a--a threatened duel between Hamilton and Monroe.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes, and I--it allows me to finish what I was saying about Hamilton earlier. He was a brilliant man in--in public administration, but--but very poor in his--in his personal judgment. He--and one of the things he did in 1791 when he was in Philadelphia, which was then the capital, was to start an affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds, whose husband promptly began to black--found out about it and began to blackmail him.
LAMB: What was he doing when he had the affair?
Mr. WEISBERGER: He was then secretary of the Treasury. What happened was that he--Maria Reynolds, it's--that's a lovely story in the book, too--Maria Reynolds showed up one day in his office. She said she had New York friends and connections. She--her husband—her husband had left her and she was stuck and would he help her get back to New York and give her some money. And he said he would, but he didn't have it about him. So she invited him to her home that night, and as he put it, `She received him--me in the bedroom and it soon became apparent that other than pecuniary consolation was acceptable.'
Well, they started the--the affair, and then presently she said, `Horrors! All is discovered. My--my--my husband just found out.' But the husband, it turns out, did not come and threaten to shoot Hamilton or horsewhip him. He said, `Well--well, if you pay me some money, I mean, I will promise to forget about this.' Later, the husband was jailed for some other offense, and tells his jailers, `Put me in touch with some congressman who I know.' And he said to the congressman, `You know what? Alexander Hamilton has been giving me money, and he's been giving me money for private speculation on his--on his account. He's gi--he's giving me insider treasury information and I use it and make money and share it with him.'
Well, three--three congressmen found this out and promptly went to Hamilton and said, `What's going on here?' because that was obviously the most serious of all possible charges. And Hamilton said, `I--I'm sorry. I did give him money, but not for speculation, because he's blackmailing me.' They all agreed to hush it up.
Two years later in--in--or several years later, in 1797, lo and behold, a scandalmonger named James Callender, who was the--the—I suppose the Matt Drudge of this day, issues a pamphlet called The History of the United States in 1797 in which he tells this story. And Hamilton was furious. Who had broken secrecy? And of the three congressmen who'd come to visit him, one was the--the--one was James Monroe, from--the senator from Virginia. So he challenged Monroe—he confronted Monroe and said, `Did you--did you leak the story? That was a crummy thing to do,' or words to that effect. Monroe said, `No, I didn't.' And Hamilton intimated that Monroe was being a liar, and Monroe says, `You think I'm a liar, I'm ready to beat you, and--man-to-man on the--on the field of honor.' And there was a possibility of a duel between those two, and it--and it was composed by none other than Aaron Burr of New York, who--who got both parties to agree to some sort of--of peaceful resolution. And it is a great irony that Aaron Burr later killed Hamilton on the dueling field.
Hamilton also had a great capacity to make rivals and--and to hate his rivals, and he--he detested Aaron Burr, who was his rival in New York politics. He detested Jefferson, whom he thought of as a vapid—an empty-headed radical, and he also intensely disliked John Adams. And he was so angry at John Adams in 1798 for insisting on making a temporary peace with France instead of going to war with France, a war in which Hamilton hoped to be a successful general--he was so angry at him that in the middle of the campaign, he came out with a pamphlet saying, `John Adams is not fit to be the president of the United States.'
Hamilton, really, in a sense destroyed or at least seriously compromised his own role in the Federalist Party, seriously compromised his own future in politics, seemed to have no place to go after having been the most successful Treasury secretary in our history, probably.
LAMB: You also tell, briefly, a story about a--a fellow by the name of William Blount, who was kicked out of the Senate.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes. He was the first man to be thrown out of the Senate. Blount's--Blount's little problem was that he was trying to start a private war with Spain. The country was very widely spread out. The Western states, Kentucky and Tennessee at the time, and—and the Western settlements in what was soon to become Alabama and Mississippi, were very loosely tied to the eastern coast of the United States. Transportation was enormously difficult. Economically, their natural outlet was to the Gulf of Mexico--outlet for their produce. And so there was always a kind of a simmering undertone of talk among Westerners about that they--maybe the best thing for them to do was pull out of this union with the Atlantic states and form a union of their own.
And right on their borders lay Spanish-owned Mexico, and Spain was a very weak and--and dec--decadent power at the time. And the idea of getting together a small force of militia, maybe getting a little help from the British, and just knocking off the Spanish garrisons in Mexico and annexing part of Mexico and creating a great Southwestern confederacy was always--was always there. Blount apparently took part at least in the initial discussions of such a project, and it was found out and the Senate expelled him, and that--that was what happened.
LAMB: John Marshall is often acknowledged as the most powerful chief justice of the 16 in history, 34 years as chief justice. But when was he appointed?
Mr. WEISBERGER: He was appointed in--in February or March of 18--well, not March. He was appointed at the tail end of the Adams administration, during Adams' lame duck period.
LAMB: So he was going home. He was out.
Mr. WEISBERGER: He...
LAMB: He didn't win.
Mr. WEISBERGER: That's--th--that's right. But he had wo—the Republicans in the expiring Congress had passed a Judiciary Act of 1801, providing for more justices, which were needed, because the country was growing. But it gave Adams a chance to make a number of lifetime appointments. And Jefferson simply fumed about that, because once the--these Federalists were entrenched in the judiciary, getting back to parallels with the contemporary scene, you couldn't get them out. They had lifetime appointments. He was very unhappy about that.
Marshall had been--he was a Virginia Federalist, one of the few Federalists in the South. A long time, he and Jefferson knew each other and--and didn't like each other very much and were poles apart on their political views, but Marshall had established a reputation in Virginia and Adams, in order to shore up the Southern wing of the Federalist Party, first appointed him secretary of State in the fall of--in 1798, and then moved him up into the chief justiceship as a third chief justice just before he left office. And Marshall used the--the office to the fullest extent that al--possible. He--as you say, he was the chief justice of the court for 34 years. I think he was in the majority in all but a tiny handful of cases. He wrote most of the major opinions. And in opinion after opinion, he nailed down one principle: The United States is one country and the rights of the American people as a whole trump the rights of the individual states.
LAMB: So he was a last-minute appointment.
Mr. WEISBERGER: He was a last-minute appointment. There is a story that Adams made a number of midnight appointments, that is, on the night of March 3rd, that he sat up late signing commissions for federal justices. That's not quite true. He--he didn't do that. But he did, in the last month of his office-holding, appoint a number of federal judges.
LAMB: You write some about Yellow Jack.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Ah, yes. That's another part of the--of the drama of the book and the part I enjoyed writing. We take it for granted now that--or at least we did until the AIDS epidemic surfaced--that--that medical science has made us immune to all sorts of diseases that used to be devastating, and we forget that two centuries ago, there were certain diseases that doctors did not know how to cure that could really ravage a city. And in 1791--I--I'm sorry, I think it's `91, but I got--the city of Philadelphia was hit with yellow fever. Now it was then the capital--for 10--between 1790 and 1800, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. It was a city of only about 50,000 people and about 5,000 people died of—died of it.
Yellow fever was brought up to Philadelphia by ships from the West Indies, where it was very prevalent, and it was spread--people didn't know it then--by mosquitoes during the breeding season, and it just multiplied geometrically, it just exploded once it got a--ahold in a city. So in that summer, literally thousands of people began to die, several hundred a week, and the federal government, in effect, was shut down. They couldn't get clerks to come into the offices, and it just more or less suspended operations.
Jefferson moved out of the city, where he lived, to--to a rural—a rural part of the--to a--what would now be a suburb. Actually it wasn't very--I think it was sort of just west of the Schuylkill River. If you got to high and dry ground, there were no mosquitoes and there you were less likely to get it. They didn't realize that then, but they--and actually, Alexander Hamilton got it and survived it.
And Washington and Congress were out of town anyway, because Congress used to take a long, long summer recess. But they couldn't come back until--until November. The city was paralyzed.
LAMB: Is it fair to conclude--and I must say I said this to myself as I read this book--nothing's changed?
Mr. WEISBERGER: In a sense, nothing has changed. I think one thing--the election did change kind of an original conception of the American republic. I think the Founding Fathers, although they're very practical politicians and very good at weaving compromises and--and delaying divisive issues like slavery, which they swept under the rug for 60 years, did have an idea of a small--of a--of a small republic led by wise and virtuous and disinterested leaders.
By 1800, it was clear that wasn't the case. There--there were factions in society, sectional interests, economic interests, and they were going to contest each other. And what the 1800 election did was to provide a mechanism by which they could do it peacefully. But once that was established, yeah, the two-party system--and we seem to be a two-party country, judging by the fate of third parties—was established then and it operates much as it does now. What's changed now, of course, is the--what, the--the media are different, the...
LAMB: But are they?
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, are--well, that's right. They're not. They were cer--they were violent slanderers then. Callender, who broke the Alexander Hamilton scandal, was jailed under the Sedition Act, by the way, and Jefferson, who had been secretly subsidizing him, didn't bail him out quickly enough for Callender's satisfaction.
LAMB: And he's--here's a journalist who was secretly subsidized by a politician.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes. Yes. Jefferson never admitted it, but he did.
LAMB: You have the sex scandals, the--the Maria Reynolds story.
Mr. WEISBERGER: You certainly did.
LAMB: You have the close votes had to be settled in the House of Representatives, or...
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: You've got appointments at the last minute that affect the next administration.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Well, w--now that I think of it, you're right. There are really profound similarities.
LAMB: You got this--the concern about stock jobbers today and whether or not you're only interested in making money and whether that works in the country vs. having the government decide.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Yes. Well, the--I think--I think that is true. There certainly are all those similarities, and in fact, I end the book by pointing out that in a certain sense we are still all Federalists or Republicans, but that phrase I stole from Jefferson, and--who on--in his inaugural address, which is one of the best in American history, took office after this divisive election campaign and said in his inaugural address, `We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists,' meaning we--we don't have it fight each other.
LAMB: This is one thing that has changed.
Mr. WEISBERGER: True.
LAMB: The violence among human beings seems to be different. The--Frederick Muhlenberg, the first speaker, was stabbed?
Mr. WEISBERGER: That is what one of my sources said, and it seems hard to--hard to credit, apparently not--not fatally, but there w--people were enraged at each other. There were some street riots. J--John Adams' defense of signing the Sedition Act, by the way, which he knew was--was--the--the--a pretty harsh measure...
LAMB: Which put journalists in jail.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Which put journalists in jail.
LAMB: For criticizing the president.
Mr. WEISBERGER: For criticizing the president. John Adams said there was a real threat of riot and revolution in--in the streets, that--of--of mob rule. And you know, he was thinking, as they all were thinking, of what was going on in France at the time, where a revolution had taken place that established a constitutional monarchy and that had degenerated into a--into a bloody slaughterhouse, where people killing each other and executing each other.
LAMB: By the way, who named this book "America Afire"?
Mr. WEISBERGER: I did, in collaboration with the--with the editors. We were looking for a title that would sort of convey the--the flavor of the time, and--and th--the essential point of the book is that the country was in danger of--of being consumed.
LAMB: Our guest has been Bernard Weisberger. If you want to see how things have changed, or remain the same, here it is: "America Afire." Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. WEISBERGER: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2001. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.