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.


The book begins with a review of the historical literature on the evolution of “Court” and “Country” traditions in England and the North American colonies. Following the triumph of the “Court party” in England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1689 and the later regime of Robert Walpole, discontent deepened among a diverse group of “disaffected Tory squires, ‘independent Whigs,’ habitués of the London coffee-houses,” and other outsiders, who denounced the Court’s “corruption, its luxury, its rotten boroughs, and its armies of placemen, relatives, and parasites.” This Country mentality, often merged with a long intellectual tradition of civic humanism and republican theory, became deeply rooted in the North American colonies and eventually unfolded as the ideology of the American Revolution.

But the Country mentality, with its constant suspicion of central power and obsession with urban conspiracies, is better suited for revolution than for instituting a stable government. The Federalists who framed and defended the US Constitution could agree with their opponents that human history reveals a universal and “irreconcilable antinomy of liberty and power.” The conviction that liberty is always fragile and vulnerable, that power is always aggressive, encroaching, and corrupting, was the one governing assumption, according to Elkins and McKitrick, “a kind of substructural given,” that undergirded eighteenth-century political thought and the institutions we have inherited from that era.4 The history of the twentieth century, one might add, has hardly contradicted those elemental premises.

Still, the freedom and independence won in the Revolution could also be imperiled by a government too weak to deal with runaway inflation, debt, trade barriers between states, and internal division accelerated by national impotence in the face of Indian resistance and foreign belligerence. By the spring of 1789, when the public cheered Washington as he traveled from Mount Vernon to New York for his inauguration, the Federalists had convinced most Americans that a stronger government was desirable as long as it embodied checks and balances, and included, in a last-minute pledge, a Bill of Rights. After Washington had served two terms, as Elkins and McKitrick point out,

the Federalists had not only established a government but had disposed of every outstanding problem that had afflicted the Confederation: pacifying the Indians, opening the Mississippi, and achieving a stable national credit. Whatever the difficulties with England and France, the country had preserved an honorable neutrality, was at peace with the world, and enjoyed a material prosperity the extent of which could scarcely have been imagined in 1789.

Yet despite these remarkable accomplishments, which enabled John Adams to sustain Federalist leadership by the narrowest electoral margin until 1801, the nation had become bitterly divided. The Country mentality, now institutionalized in the Republican Party, was on the rise. The Republicans

had succeeded in preempting the main elements of the American idea. It was the core of a world-view born of the Revolution, a parochial but far-flung anglophobia, a rural suspicion of taxes, of manipulators of money, of great military and naval establishments, and of “energetic” government.

Although radical historians have often celebrated the Republicans’ anti-capitalist rhetoric, the party actually attracted many of the richest men in America, including large slaveholders, who favored the strictest limits on government intervention in a market economy. It is thus the Country mentality, as I read the work of Elkins and McKitrick as a whole, that prepared the way for “the dynamics of unopposed capitalism”—for the individualism of Tocquevillean America that would create a form of slavery far more damaging to its victims than the slavery found in Latin America. The same hostility to institutions that would have limited absolute power over private property, including human property, combined with a strange Jeffersonian and transcendentalist detachment from reality, precluded a peaceful and reasonable solution to the problems of slavery and racial degradation.

I am not suggesting that Elkins and McKitrick see the Country mentality as the source of all evil in American history. Undeniably, they are partial to the youthful Hamilton and the Federalist Madison, whose cosmopolitan realism and “projections” for civic progress owed much to the writings of David Hume and the modernizing example of eighteenth-century Scotland. When Elkins and McKitrick come to Hamilton’s vision of industrializing an undeveloped continent, they echo, with significant and unintended irony, the rhetoric used by Frederick Jackson Turner to describe the regenerating effects of the American frontier. “The appearance of substantial manufacturing enterprises,” they write,

would not only function as salutary examples; they would summon into being enterprises yet more highly differentiated, call upon unused resources, create hitherto unsuspected demands, and give new directions to old pursuits. Thus, Hamilton declared, “the bowels as well as the surface of the earth are ransacked for articles which were before neglected. Animals, Plants and Minerals acquire an utility and value, which were before unexplored.”

Elkins and McKitrick present such a glowing picture of Hamilton’s economic program and related foreign policy (at a time when Jefferson, his enemy, was secretary of state) that we are quite unprepared for their sudden conclusion that the great secretary of the treasury, “in his impatience and pride, may be said to have created the conditions for the failure of his own vision.” For all his personal integrity, the authors now concede, Hamilton was blind to the corruption inherent in rampant and unrestrained speculation, the mania for “quick killings” in the market. Moreover, when no longer disciplined by his close ties with President Washington, Hamilton became almost maniacal in his hatred for President Adams and his determination to lead an immense permanent army that could enforce domestic obedience and be used in wild imperialistic ventures to the south and west. After re-creating in a convincing and sympathetic way Federalism’s vitality, coherence, and sense of “firstness” in building enduring institutions, Elkins and McKitrick seem to welcome the self-demolition of the Federalist Party. They even recognize that the Jeffersonian opposition took on a corrective historical mission to check “the demonic side, the speculative side, of capitalism.”

There can be no doubt, however, that the villain of The Age of Federalism is the man who defeated the party in 1800, and who in the last words of the book vows to “sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.” Elkins and McKitrick present a devastating if sometimes ambiguous picture of Thomas Jefferson—a shy and fastidious “cold fish” who “would have been all but ideal as a professor.”5 In situations involving power, Jefferson comes across as appallingly deceitful, cunning, manipulative, vindictive, and hypocritical. As secretary of state, for example, he not only seriously misled Edmond Charles Genet, the young minister sent to the US in 1793-by the French Republic, when he assured Genet he had more support from the American administration than was the case; he also passed on to Genet confidential views expressed within Washington’s cabinet and then skillfully dissociated himself from Genet’s headstrong actions, as when Genet tried to raise troops to march on Spanish Florida and wanted to commission privateers to attack British ships.

Despite his disillusion over the course of the French Revolution, Jefferson as vice-president (1797–1801) remained so rigidly Anglophobic—always hoping that France would invade and conquer England—that he played into the hands of the French government during the undeclared naval war between France and the US and the frustrated American efforts to negotiate with the French (the “XYZ affair”). He actually advised the French consul general on the best tactics to use against President Adams. Even if we allow for the peculiar nature of the vice-presidency before the Twelfth Amendment and for the earlier indiscretions of Hamilton and other officials, it is difficult to understand how the Jefferson we encounter in this book could aid an enemy nation and undercut his own president’s peace negotiations. By emphasizing this behavior, Elkins and McKitrick evidently want to make it clear that he does not deserve to be hallowed as our preeminent Founding Father, our secular American saint.

They acknowledge, of course, that Jefferson was a “liberal idealist” who has always been associated with the tradition of American liberalism. They also see him as the ideological source of the agrarian democratic myth that has long permeated both popular and intellectual culture. As the leading proponent of the Country mentality (and the man most responsible for the compromise that moved the national capital to the Potomac), Jefferson personified everything that Federalism struggled to overcome, including an almost willful ignorance of the economics of money, banking, and credit. We may be puzzled by Jefferson’s contradictory positions on cities (he actually loved the intellectual discourse of Williamsburg, Paris, and Philadelphia); on elites (for all his talk about yeoman farmers, he always belonged to Virginia’s top circle and favored a “natural” aristocracy); and on local rule (he strongly favored westward expansion and the acquisition of Florida, Texas, and even Cuba). Such contradictions may be explained in part by the visceral abhorrence Jefferson felt when confronted by the specter of an aggrandizing, urbanizing, commercializing force—similar to the force that had emerged in the changed civilization of eighteenth-century England—which threatened to annihilate the balanced cosmos of Virginia’s plantation society.

If Jefferson is the central enemy and destroyer of the “Age of Federalism,” he is also the weakest link in Elkins’s and McKitrick’s book. Unlike other characters, including such unlikely figures as the arch-Federalist Timothy Pickering, Jefferson remains a flat, even one-dimensional character, and is usually seen through the eyes of opponents. For all their imaginative flair, the authors seem incapable of conveying the magic appeal of Jefferson’s ideal of a more egalitarian society, a society always dedicated to the “living generation.” Elkins and McKitrick might well reply that they do in the end pay tribute to Jefferson’s eloquent commitment to political and religious liberty, in his 1801 inaugural address, and that little more is needed in view of the continuing popular and scholarly hagiography.6 And I must agree that it is salutary to see the “Apostle of Liberty” through Federalist eyes, especially on the rare occasions when Elkins and McKitrick turn to matters of race.

In 1801, for example, when Napoleon was planning to send a huge expeditionary force to St. Domingue to conquer the rebellious Toussaint Louverture and reclaim what had recently been the most valuable colony in the New World, President Jefferson assured the French that he would be happy to supply a fleet and help “reduce Toussaint to starvation.” Five years later, after the former slaves had defeated and expelled Napoleon’s army and had proclaimed Haiti’s independence, Jefferson had a law passed imposing a total embargo on the black republic. This action infuriated Senator Timothy Pickering, who as secretary of state in 1799 had supplied Toussaint’s forces with desperately needed provisions and had even supported the rebellious blacks with warships and a bombardment of André Rigaud’s harbor forts.

In a devastating letter of 1806, which Elkins and McKitrick have found in the Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Pickering accuses Jefferson of siding with despots in an effort to deprive the free Haitians “(‘guilty,’ indeed, ‘of a skin not coloured like our own’ but) emancipated, and by a great National Act declared Free…of those necessary supplies which…they have been accustomed to receive from the UStates, and without which they cannot subsist.” Jefferson, having long been an apologist for the crimes of the French Revolution, was now joining Napoleon in a campaign “to reduce [the Haitian people] to submission by starving them!” Sometimes history does seem to move in peculiar circles.

Jefferson’s reversal of Federalist policy on Haiti would appear even more significant if Elkins and McKitrick had explained the meaning of the Haitian Revolution for the slave societies of the New World. They do not even mention the momentous French emancipation decree of 1794, which legally freed some 700,000 slaves; or Napoleon’s efforts to reinstitute slavery as well as the African slave trade (both Africa and the slave trade, which reached its peak in the 1790s, are missing from the index); or the independent rebellion led by the slave Gabriel in Virginia, an event, inspired by the example of Haiti, which terrified Jefferson along with such leaders as Virginia’s Governor James Monroe.7 In view of Elkins’s invaluable contributions to the historiographical debates over slavery and antislavery, I find it astonishing that The Age of Federalism is virtually silent on the nature of the Atlantic slave system, its effects on American and British politics, and the rise of an amazingly popular antislavery movement in Britain. They have nothing to say about the narrowing of options for leaders of slaveholding regions as the northern states moved to eradicate the institution and as Britain moved to outlaw the African slave trade and to limit the expansion of the plantation system in such newly acquired colonies as Trinidad.

This is not a matter of calling for more detail of at least arguable relevance in a book already swollen with information. Before the American Revolution, the economy of the British colonies from the Chesapeake to Barbados was very largely dependent on African slave labor. Moreover, the colonies north of Maryland, where per capita wealth was strikingly lower than in the colonies that produced tobacco, rice, and indigo, found their best markets for exports in the sugar colonies of the West Indies. While Elkins and McKitrick repeatedly stress the political importance of this West India trade and its central role in America’s naval conflicts with Britain and France, they never explain why the world’s two leading powers were waging war in the Caribbean or why Hamilton’s vision of northern investment, factories, and Anglo-American trade was, in effect, an alternative to continuing dependence on the slave plantation system.

After mastering the principles of capitalism as a teen-age clerk in the merchant houses of St. Croix, Hamilton had been personally liberated from the Atlantic slave system when Nicholas Cruger and other generous benefactors sent him to New Jersey and New York for a college education. The move can be almost seen as a parable for the economic transformation that would gradually liberate the northern states from dependence on slave systems—a liberation made considerably less complete in the 1790s by the innovations of Eli Whitney and Samuel Slater, two other names that are absent from The Age of Federalism’s index.8 If Hamilton was not quite a militant abolitionist, he did propose, as Elkins and McKitrick note without adequately explaining the background, a plan at the beginning of the Revolution for enlisting South Carolina slaves into the army with the reward of emancipation. He was also a member of the first antislavery society in New York.

The uninformed reader would never suspect that “the Age of Federalism” was also a period of crucial transition for the Atlantic slave system from Brazil to the new American republic. The interrelationships of the period—among countries, economies, cultures—are what one misses. Britain and the northern states began slowly to disengage themselves from the old colonial order, while in France’s largest and richest colony slaves unbelievably took matters into their own hands. It was in this larger setting that Jefferson’s Country persuasion finally triumphed and Federalism collapsed, virtually guaranteeing that for three score years the South’s increasingly “peculiar” institution would be exempt from government control.9

This Issue

May 12, 1994