The Triumph of the Country

The Age of Federalism

by Stanley Elkins, by Eric McKitrick
Oxford University Press, 925 pp., $39.95

Except for the 1860s, no decade in American history has been as dangerous, as divisive, and as formative as the 1790s, which Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have aptly termed “The Age of Federalism.” Beginning in 1789, American leaders implemented and began to interpret the new Constitution. They enacted most of Alexander Hamilton’s financial program, which shored up the nation’s credit and helped inaugurate an era of breathtaking prosperity. They agreed to build a new capital city “on a stretch of uninhabited wasteland on the Potomac.” They preserved a precarious neutrality during a global war that provoked serious hostilities with England and then an undeclared naval war with France. They suppressed the Whiskey and Fries rebellions in Pennsylvania. They passed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. They concluded treaties with England, Spain, and France which removed British forts and troops from American territory, opened the Mississippi to American navigation, and freed American merchant ships from the constant peril of capture by French privateers.

Elkins and McKitrick examine all these developments with thoughtfulness and care. Despite 754 pages of text, however, their monumental synthesis omits many subjects that have captivated social historians for the past thirty years. After decades of “history from the bottom up,” we now have a huge volume on the 1790s which tells us nothing about sailors, artisans, midwives, farmers, indentured servants, the family, or Mary Wollstonecraft (whose Vindication of the Rights of Women was partly reprinted in 1792 in the American Ladies Magazine). Whatever one makes of this defiant selectivity, Elkins and McKitrick have written a masterpiece that deserves to be understood and appreciated on its own terms before being compared to any hypothetical better book. Up to a point, at least, the authors’ refusal to give “equal attention” to all segments of society has enabled them to present a sharper and more convincing picture of their chosen subject: the complex development and demise of a political outlook or world view called federalism (epitomized in political theory by the classic Federalist essays written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay).

I shall later question the significance of divorcing the issues Elkins and McKitrick do pursue from the omnipresent setting of racial slavery and an economy dependent on the Atlantic slave system. But I must first applaud their extraordinary gift, reminiscent of Madison and Hamilton themselves, for defining and elaborating key issues, premises, principles, and dilemmas; and then shifting clearly and gracefully from this concern with abstract ideas to living personalities and actual choices, consequences, accidents, and problems of infinite complexity. No other living historians have written with greater skill and elegance to illuminate the contingency and interrelatedness of events. Even apart from the memorable portraits of Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Jay, John Adams, Genet, Monroe, Talleyrand, and John Marshall, sentences of The Age of Federalism sparkle with such playful intelligence that I never felt a trace of boredom, despite the time it took to read, and often reread, every page.

Awaited for decades, The Age of Federalism …

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Letters

A Later Triumph June 9, 1994