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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 is dedicated to the memory of Richard Hofstadter, one of the greatest American historians of this past century, who served in the 1950s as the dissertation adviser for both Elkins and McKitrick at Columbia University. In 1974, four years after he died, the two former students coedited a distinguished Festschrift, The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial. Although McKitrick is somewhat older than Elkins and both are now retired as professors at Columbia and Smith College, respectively, they began graduate school at the same time, after military service in World War II, and taught together at the University of Chicago while working on their dissertations.1 In 1959, when both men received their Ph.D.s at Columbia, publishers were extremely reluctant to accept any manuscript that still carried the “smell,” as one university press editor put it, of a doctoral dissertation. But Elkins’s Slavery (1959) and McKitrick’s Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960) had so much authority that they were published almost immediately, and they soon helped to revolutionize the entire interpretation of nineteenth-century American history.

As Elkins and McKitrick point out in the introductions to their first books, the South, having lost an ideological as well as a military struggle in the Civil War, achieved a decisive historiographical victory in the early years of the twentieth century. From the era of Theodore Roosevelt to the early 1950s, the most authoritative works on slavery and Reconstruction rested on a simple, bedrock assumption: “Negroes” were inherently inferior to whites, and were wholly unprepared at the end of the Civil War to look out for themselves or take on the responsibilities of equal citizenship. As W.E.B. DuBois observed in 1935, in his radical and long neglected book Black Reconstruction, even the most scholarly white historians “cannot conceive of Negroes as men.” The writings of Ulrich B. Phillips on slavery and of William A. Dunning on Reconstruction were so rich in scholarly documentation and so closely tuned to the nation’s ideological needs—exemplified by popular films from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind—that their influence on textbooks, fiction, journalism, and other historians would be difficult to exaggerate.

By the time Elkins and McKitrick published their first books, a reaction against the Phillips and Dunning “schools” was already underway. For a time this historiographical ground-work for the future civil rights movement remained on the margins of academic history. In 1944 Richard Hofstadter, who had been active in the radical student movement of the 1930s, wrote the first manifesto attacking Phillips’s racial bias and methodology. Significantly, his essay appeared in The Journal of Negro History, long known as an organ for such dissenting white Marxist historians as Herbert Aptheker and such black radical scholars as DuBois and Eric Williams.2 Nineteen forty-four was also the year of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, which drew on the advice and works of DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, Charles S. Johnson, and other black intellectuals as well as on the anti-racist arguments of white social scientists such as Franz Boas and Melville Herskovits. In historical writing, as Elkins pointed out, “the culmination and quintessence of the entire anti-Phillips reaction” came with the publication in 1956 of Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution, sometimes called the historians’ counterpart to Brown v. Board of Education. Stampp’s book presented the antipode to Phillips’s portrait of southern slavery as a benign and paternalistic institution, “a training school” and “civilizing agency” “for the untutored savage.” Stampp’s description of black oppression, dignity, and resistance soon superseded Phillips’s account and became a standard work of mainstream liberal ideology.

While fully accepting Stampp’s overdue and triumphant victory, Elkins wished to move beyond “the coercions of a century-old debate” regarding the physical harshness and moral evil of American slavery. He suggested an analogy between slavery and the way Nazi concentration camps supposedly infantilized many of their inmates and put forward what came to be called the “Sambo-thesis” to describe black submission to whites. Long after the years of uproar, caricature, and publicity over these ideas, it is easy to forget what this doctoral dissertation, intended merely as a “proposal” of new lines of inquiry, actually achieved. Elkins prepared the way for future comparative studies of slavery in different societies, for debates over the psychological effects of bondage on the personality of slaves, for related debates over the continuity and relative autonomy of African American culture, and for countless studies of the ways in which social conditions—such as the presence or absence of what Elkins termed “the dynamics of unopposed capitalism”—have shaped movements for slave emancipation and other reforms.

Meanwhile, McKitrick’s biography of Andrew Johnson reversed a long tradition in “Progressive” historiography that had vindicated Lincoln’s successor as a misunderstood populist martyr who fought bravely to defend Lincoln’s rational and forgiving plans for reunion against Radical Republican fanatics. By portraying Johnson as an astonishingly stubborn and selfrighteous racist, and his opponents as reformers struggling with a social problem of unprecedented magnitude and complexity, McKitrick suggested an approach that affected scores of later books reassessing the meaning and tragedy of Reconstruction.

Although Elkins and McKitrick have usually been identified as historians of slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction, The Age of Federalism makes it clear that they have never been part of a tradition that sees racial slavery and its consequences as the basic reality, the grim and irrepressible theme governing both the settlement of the Western hemisphere and the emergence of a government and society in the United States that white people have regarded as “free.” This view of slavery as America’s haunting original sin was eloquently expressed at times by Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln, and has been taken up by such diverse historians as Ulrich B. Phillips, Eric Williams, Eugene Genovese, Edmund Morgan, and this reviewer. But even in his first book, Elkins showed far more interest in highlighting the peculiar American social conditions that exacerbated the psychological effects of American slavery than in the slave system itself. According to McKitrick, the same social conditions—rampant individualism, demagoguery, stunted institutional development, and a glorification of self-interest—doomed the outcome of slave emancipation and Reconstruction.

This diagnosis of the central malady in American history and culture owes much to Richard Hofstadter, whose work provides a means for understanding the achievement and bias of The Age of Federalism. Having grown up in Buffalo, which he considered provincial and culturally impoverished, Hofstadter was drawn to the intellectual excitement and cultural ferment of cosmopolitan centers like New York. He would have applauded Elkins and McKitrick when they describe the egregious consequences of moving the national capital to a new and artificial town, long notorious for its mud, isolation, oppressive climate, and boarding-house living. He would have approved of their “counterfactual projection” in which the capital in 1790 is allowed to remain in New York City, enabling the national political culture to interact with a strong urban and commercial culture. Like London and Paris, such a nucleus of power and creativity would have attracted talent from all directions, providing encouragement and community to isolated genius and converting Columbia into the National University. Yet Hofstadter, who was also acutely sensitive to American populist traditions of anti-intellectualism, nativism, and what he termed a “paranoid style” of political rhetoric, would probably also have pointed to the long-term fatal dangers of combining in one image all the diabolical powers of Washington with all the evils of Wall Street and all the conniving un-Americanism symbolized by “Jew York City.” 3

If New York had remained the national capital and presidents had continued to enjoy the theater and other cultural amenities as Washington did (watching a New York play in 1789 was said to have been “the only public occasion at which George Washington was observed to laugh”), the already strong assaults against central government, bankers, big business, intellectuals, urbanites, and foreign influence would have become more intense. They were already driven by the forces of what Elkins and McKitrick call the “Country persuasion.” This idea, which in its application owes much to Hofstadter, provides a central theme in The Age of Federalism.

  1. 1

    The dissertations seem to have been virtually co-authored. In his acknowledgments in Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (University of Chicago Press, 1960), McKitrick notes: “The special role of Stanley Elkins, who gave both time and ideas to the project, partook of the conspiratorial.” In Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (University of Chicago Press, 1959), Elkins writes: “I am deeply grateful to Eric McKitrick for his unstinted assistance at every stage of the book’s evolution.”

  2. 2

    Richard Hofstadter, “U.B. Phillips and the Plantation Legend,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 29 (April 1944), pp. 109–124. In a remarkably prescient passage, Hofstadter looked forward to scholars “who will realize that any history of slavery must be written in large part from the standpoint of the slave,” a recommendation quoted by Elkins but not taken seriously by historians until the 1970s and 1980s. Hofstadter’s own interests took quite different paths.

  3. 3

    Curiously, Elkins and McKitrick never seem to sense this danger even though they clearly draw on Hofstadter in their account of the Jeffersonian “Country” tradition. Their otherwise brilliant discussion of the capital’s location also ignores the significance and political necessity of selecting slaveholding territory for the site of the new capital, where slaves would in fact soon be sold in open markets. Nor do they mention the fact that when the capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania legislature, which had already enacted a law for gradual emancipation, gave special immunity to congressmen, who were authorized to hold and keep slaves in Philadelphia during their tenure at the nation’s capital.

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