The Age of Federalism

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This book presents a reasonably definitive treatment of the George Washington and John Adams presidential administrations, 1789-1801. Although a number of worthy biographies of the founding fathers, monographs, and excellent general studies, such as John C. Miller’s The Federalist Era, 1789-1801 (1960), have been previously published, there has been need for an in-depth analysis of American national government and politics between the inaugurations of Washington and Jefferson. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick pull together all the threads and themes to present a judicious and freshly interpretive account of the shaping of the new government of the Republic. Although often excessively wordy, the book achieves considerable vitality in depicting the personalities of the important participants and even of lesser ones. Somewhat obtrusive, however, are the flashback biographical sketches of persons. For the major figures, the authors demonstrate a consistency in intellectual development.

The book has something of a split personality, partly due to dual authorship, but mostly because the chronological coverage allows for a shifting of emphasis in the political process. First, ideas had to be tested in the practical arena of establishing government and formulating the direction of its policies. Then, as settled government emerged, events, domestic and worldwide, had sway in affecting the course of decision making and in causing the rise of oppositional politics.

The great men who influenced decisions, some at odds with each other as Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans, had in common a desire to fashion government and its policies so that successive generations of Americans would be best served. The authors recognize a “Court-Country” division in American politics of the Revolutionary era, bearing some resemblances to alignments in Georgian England; in America, besides the competition between the “ins” and the “outs,” there were the contending forces of nationalism, promoting commercial and industrial development, versus advocacy of agrarianism and a weak central government. The authors state that “a central question for this book” is “exactly how the ’Court option’—the Federalist version of a republican future—was smothered in the 1 790’s, and the degree to which it smothered itself.” With the rise of a party system, “the response of Federalism was that of righteousness under siege, and amounted to little more in the end than a sterile defense of constituted order against the forces of insubordination and sedition.”

The authors discuss personal attributes of the great men of the age—notably George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—but are not very successful in penetrating beyond the public to the inner man. Washington certainly honed virtues of restraint during his Virginia legislative and Congressional experiences and as commander in chief under the superintendence of Congress, as the authors contend. Yet this side of the man was as much affected during the French and Indian War years, when he learned how to handle interpersonal relationships in the context of driving ambition. The authors are also too selective in composing profiles of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton. Interpretations of lesser figures, such as Timothy Pickering, are more revealing.

Washington, whom the authors depict as a true republican, set his sights on establishing legitimacy, even reputation, for the new government. Having already long acquired a sense of “an additional self,” Washington tried his best to follow the highest, most disinterested standards in administration. His quest not for the best men but for the “First Characters” was compromised somewhat, however, by insistence that appointees come from different segments of the broad geographical constituency.

Readers will find many insights in the discussions of the establishment of the executive and judicial branches, the enactment of the Bill of Rights, and foreign and Indian relations and diplomacy. Throughout the book, legislative debates and maneuvering are covered alongside executive actions.

The authors allege a “massive personal and political enmity” between Hamilton and Jefferson, but do not substantiate this assertion beyond discussing the clash of their policy ideas and principles. The “Federalist-Republican polarity” that developed was expressive of commerce and money versus agriculture, nation versus states, and elitism versus democracy. Philosophically, the cleavage between Hamilton and Madison, dating back to the duality of the Federalist papers, was an emphasis on power versus balance in government.

A strong case is made that Hamilton’s hopes for a strong nationalist and mercantilist state were predicated upon ideas expounded in the writings of Scotsman David Hume. Though differing with Hume regarding the funding of national debt, Hamilton believed, as did Hume, that the public good was best promoted by the use of governmental power to stimulate commerce and industry. An urban, orderly, and commercial society suited the advancement of the economy and of human dignity.

The compelling criterium of the Hamiltonian program, according to the authors, was one of projection—“an ordering of facts and circumstances into patterns which present conditions have not as yet made actual but which future ones will.” It is a vision of future growth. “The problem was one of execution, of how the potential was to be made real.” The administration of Washington is evaluated in this context, with attention to the success...

(The entire section is 2318 words.)