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The Age of Deference

The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy

by David Hackett Fischer
Harper & Row, 455 pp., $8.95

Ever since World War II, much of the intellectual energy of American historians has been preoccupied with those special distinctions, both major and marginal, that have marked off American society from every other society in the world. The necessary work of elaborating these newly perceived distinctions, and the complementary need to minimize old ones or to sweep them out of sight entirely, has led to various excesses. And this in turn has created an altogether new need—the need for an intermediary language, an idiom with which to mediate between our older and our newer perceptions.

For example, the work of Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and others in the 1940s and ‘50s pretty well devastated the Parringtonian notion that our political parties could be distinguished from one another by their basic political or social philosophy, or that any of our parties has been characterized by “philosophy” at all. Well and good, but there certainly was something: The man who thought he could tell the difference between a Whig and a Democrat in the 1840s was not merely imagining it. Against the background of this dilemma, Marvin Meyers in 1957, with his concept of the “persuasion,” gave us the mediating term between systematically articulated principles and no principles whatever.

David Fischer has now done us a similar service in the face of a similar dilemma of historical explanation, this time pertaining to the organization of political society in the colonial and early national periods. For some years it has been apparent that few significant insights are any longer to be gained by picturing American colonial leadership as “aristocratic,” in any of the legal or sociological senses that make this a term of some precision when applied to the European society of the same period. On the other hand one surely goes too far, and precious distinctions are too crassly blurred, in assuming as one of our historians does that colonial society should be characterized as “middle-class democracy.” Notwithstanding virtual universal suffrage and ease of acquiring property, we know in our historian’s bones that this will not quite do. “Nowhere in eighteenth-century America,” as Bernard Bailyn rightly puts it, “was there ‘democracy’—middle-class or otherwise….” Not quite aristocracy, not quite democracy—but there was a mechanism which did govern social and political behavior, a measure whereby such behavior was in some rough way predictable. The mediating term for it, which David Fischer now uses with both precision and subtlety, is “deference.”

DEMOCRATIC development in America never included suffrage reform as a central issue, as would be the case in nineteenth-century England. Even before the Revolution the franchise was open to almost any adult white male who really wanted to exercise it. Nor was there, of course, anything like a hereditary titled aristocracy with feudal privileges. Even moneyed elites were far from stable; even in that day they were continually being refreshed—or diluted—by new money and parvenu recruits. And yet one will not understand the quality of social action in those days, or account properly for the relatively limited nature of political participation, until one perceives that there then existed at least a functional equivalent of class exclusiveness: that public affairs were managed by men whom the entire community defined as “gentlemen,” and that this was possible through the more or less willing consent of men who were not gentlemen. Such deference was both political and social, and was supported by habit and custom. It was expressed in visible signs, salutations, differences in dress, and marks of respect. “Deference” in some form, in any society, is of course perennial; the crucial point is how widely it is understood and articulated, whether it is both expected and given, and whether it exists without strain. As late as John Jay’s time, in the Federalist era of the 1790s, it was still possible to project political expectations on a relatively frank basis of elitism and deference. But deference was a mechanism which generations after 1800 could no longer count on, and this is one of the great themes of Fischer’s book.

The Federalists of George Cabot’s, Rufus King’s, and Jay’s generation, inheritors of an earlier tradition, were not “political” men with any of the major meanings and overtones which the term “political” would acquire in subsequent times. The conceptual unit of their thought was society rather than the individual; they believed in the reality of class consciousness but not of social conflict. Government ought to be representative, with a broad electorate; but although the people should be capable of choosing their own governors they were not capable of governing themselves. They should consent, as they had in the past, to be governed by the better sort. The scope of government should be maximal, and not, as Jeffersonian dogma would later make it, minimal. And the spirit of faction was deadly to the spirit of deference. It threatened the permanence of social harmony, the legitimacy of an accepted governing elite, and the very stability of government itself. These Federalists, men of probity and conscience, thus had few psychological resources for accommodating themselves to the triumph of Thomas Jefferson and his followers in 1800. After that time the decline of deference, as well as the expansion of popular participation, was sickeningly rapid. The specific vehicle for change, in a whole series of relationships, was party.

And yet it would be far too simple to go on assuming, as we generally have, that this set of changes represented no more than a victory for Jeffersonian Republicanism, or that they were largely the work of the Jeffersonian party, or that they would come to full realization only with the Age of Jackson. They began immediately (the greatest expansion of voting, for example, occurred between 1800 and 1816), and the important thing is that the Federalists themselves, and not unwittingly either, had much to do with accelerating them. The process was active and conscious. This is what gives Fischer his other great theme. There was another mechanism, another mediating term—a working distinction between “Old” and “New” Federalists which is the key to the revolution, as Fischer calls it, in American conservatism.

THE difference between the “Young Federalists”—the new generation that carried on the fight against the Jeffersonians in the years prior to and during the War of 1812—and the “Gentlemen of the Old School”—men of the true Founding Fathers mentality who could not adjust to the new standards of politics—did not consist in their elitism. Both still believed that leadership should derive from breeding, birth, and wealth, from grace of mind and of person. But the younger men were much less fastidious, and far more “modern,” as to the methods required for gaining and holding that leadership. These men, of whom Harrison Gray Otis, Robert Goodloe Harper, and John Rutledge were representative types, may have despised the people but respected their power. They were not above courting popular favor. They were fully prepared to emulate the Jeffersonian Republicans in the techniques of party organization (to the dismay of their elders, convinced that all parties were bad), and to try beating the Jeffersonians at their own game. Fischer shows that for a time at least, certainly on the state level, they were a good deal more successful at it than has generally been appreciated.

The impression which the chroniclers of Jeffersonian Democracy have given us of a fatal decline in Federalist energy depends in no small part upon the elegiac mood, the dead-heartedness, despair, and withdrawal of the Gentlemen of the Old School. For them, however, Federalism had always been more a state of mind than a political organization. It is something of a surprise to find that the Federal Party was not actually organized, in a form that later generations would have regarded as “political,” until the early years of the nineteenth century. This was after the deaths of Washington and Hamilton (the two great heroes of Federalism), and after such men as Jay, Cabot, King, and Pickering had either retired, in effect, or ceased to believe in their hearts that anything good could come of further struggle. But the fact is that during these very years the Young Federalists built powerful organizations in most of the states, exploited such new devices as the barbecue, stump speech, door-to-door canvass, nominating convention, and the party newspaper, and succeeded in holding a number of state governments.

It is true that much of the general, more familiar pattern of Federalist decay remains. They never caught up with the Jeffersonians’ head start in party management, organizational ingenuity, or popular appeal. They could never rid themselves of the anti-republican stigma their opponents managed to place upon them. They did shift to a concept of minimal government, and from open to covert elitism, but they could never recover the republican mystique which the Jeffersonians had so successfully captured and which all majority parties in subsequent American history would share without question. Moreover, the fortunes of a war which they had bitterly opposed would deal them the coup de grâce. After the Peace of Ghent, the Battle of New Orleans, and the Hartford Convention (with its overtones of disunion), their party was without a future.

And yet the advance of political democracy during the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century, in the form of phenomenally increased participation and the decline of deference which accompanied it, was due not to the efforts of one party (with the death of Federalism, participation would temporarily decline), but to the heightened interest generated by the competition of two. Resurgent Federalism during the Napoleonic era may be correlated with the bungling maritime policies of Jefferson and Madison, but democratic development must be correlated with both.

David Fischer’s “Old School-Young Federalist” distinction is a simple but original hypothesis in the most elegant scientific sense. There is no period in American history, he insists,

in which fundamental change proceeded with greater power, speed, and effect than in this most obscure of periods. And there is no better reflection of that change than the careers of those most obscure of American party leaders, the men who called themselves Federalists in the era of Jeffersonian democracy.

The connections and correlations really seem to fit, and Fischer’s book is a satisfying account of that important but elusive transition, for the first time credibly located, from the Age of Deference to the Age of Parties.

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