Enduring Struggles

Edward J. Larson


     ... professor of history and law at Pepperdine University. Dr. Larson specializes in the tension between science and religion in America. In A Magnificent Catastrophe, he dissects the 1800 presidential election when Thomas Jefferson, democracy, and science barely defeated the Federalists, elitists and state religion.   Dr. Larson won the Pulitzer with Summer for the Gods about the Scopes trial; his Evolution is a Modern Library book. His many articles have appeared in dozens of journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Nature and Scientific American.

Going to the polls in 2008, citizens of the United States have a lot to learn from their election of 1800, according to historian and law professor Edward J. Larson. Even then, religion and science were very much at odds. “I was interested in this particular election because of big themes that are still with us -- the Enlightenment, religion, science, freedom, what democracy means. These themes stay with us,” he says. “And the election of 1800 was perceived as a clash between science and religion in popular culture in America.”

The party we call Republicans today are direct descendents of yesteryear’s Federalist Party and today’s Democrats started with Jefferson, Dr. Larson reminds us.

“(The Federalists) actually took that name to cover what they were really about, to give them a better public face. They were nationalists. They were the party of commerce. They built the military. At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton (leader of the ‘High Federalists’) proposed having a king. He deeply believed that you couldn't trust the people. They wanted to create a strong national government centered on a powerful presidency because they wanted a free flow of business protected by the Supreme Court, protected by the Constitution.

“For Adams to get reelected (in 1800) the Federalists tried the fear angle. It worked in the off-year elections (in 1798) when they gained in Congress by threatening a French invasion, exporting the terror of France, the reign of terror to America.

“(In 1800,) they're playing the religion card, because they realized the only way they're going to hang on to power was playing the religion card. The lead Federalist newspaper, the ‘Gazette of the United States’ was the house journal of the Adams Administration, even more so than the Fox News today would be the house organ of the Bush Republicans. Every day in the two months leading up to the election in Pennsylvania (with Philadelphia still the nation’s capital), the ‘Gazette of the United States’ ran a large ad on the front of the paper, every single day, with a big black frame around it.

“It had a banner headline, ‘The Grand Question Stated!’ They said, ‘Do we vote for Adams, and a preservation of religion in America or do you vote for Jefferson and no God?’ That's the push that they were making.”

When the core contest was between people governing themselves or being ruled by a king or an elite, why did Dr. Larson chose to call his study of this pivotal election A Magnificent Catastrophe?

“Because there had never been an election like this before. Both sides in their private letters kept saying ‘This whole election’s just a catastrophe!’ 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. The election seemed like a catastrophe, in many ways it was a catastrophe. But its results were magnificent."


[This Program was recorded January 16, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

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It is our continuing pleasure to explore with Ed Larson the peculiarly American dynamic in which religion and science face off.

We greatly appreciate the considerable effort it required on his part to make this conversation possible. We very much look forward to continuing to work with him.

Related Links:


A Magnificent Catastrophe is published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.

In earlier programs with Edward Larson, we talked about Summer for the Gods and Evolution.


David McCullough's John Adams is a sympathetic biography showing many of the events Larson presents from Adam's perspective.


In His Excellency, Joseph Ellis provides a demythologizing and mature account of George Washington who's presence, even in death, loomed over the 1800 election.


The Hemingses of Monticello tells a story which puts the early United States and the relationship between Adams and Jefferson into a richer and more complex context. Annette Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for writing it.


In writing her book about Lincoln's presidency, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin discovered that the core belief sustaining Lincoln was neither opposition to slavery nor commitment to the Union.  It was the belief that people could govern themselves.


David Nasaw (Andrew Carnegie) and David Cannadine (Mellon, An American Life) have written excellent biographies showing how the successor to the High Federalists, today's Republican Party, evolved as the advocate, and ultimately captive, of economic elites, big business and crony-capitalists.


Gerry Adams provides a modern view of the acts and arguments by which people seek to govern themselves.


John Dean illustrates the dangers of a "High Federalist" government: dysfunctional Congress, unitary executive and fundamentalist Supreme Court.


Robin Meyers, Jim Wallis and Stephen Carter examine the threats to both government and religion of intermingling the two.


Frank Partnoy and Kevin Phillips describe the dangers of allowing the interests of economic elites and business to supersede public interests.


... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

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