America in the 1790s: In a Book Twenty-Five Years in the Making, Two Historians Examine the High Politics and Great Person Ages of Our Nation's First Decade

by Gordon S. Wood


by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick.
Oxford University Press, 925 pages, $39.95.
WHEN I entered graduate school in history, thirty-five years ago, many of us beginning graduate students thought that some of the most exciting work in the field was being written by a pair of young historians named Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. This dynamic duo, whom we somehow thought of as a single entity, had not yet published a book, but they had written some imaginative and provocative articles—on slavery and capitalism, on a new meaning for Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, and on the youth of the Founding Fathers. We could scarcely wait for what they would do next. Because we thought them to be inseparable—like Ben and Jerry or Sears and Roebuck—we were surprised when they eventually published separate books, Elkins on slavery and McKitrick on Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. But we accepted the rumor that they needed to split up and publish individually in order to get tenure at their respective colleges, Smith and Columbia. After their highly acclaimed books appeared, these two historians published virtually nothing else, either separately or together, for three decades.
Now, at last, we know what they have been up to all this time—The Age of Federalism, a mammoth study that covers the period from the beginning of the U.S. government under the Constitution in 1789 to Thomas Jefferson’s election as President in 1800. They have read everything having to do with high politics and diplomacy in this turbulent decade—unpublished manuscripts, British Foreign Office documents, dissertations from both sides of the Atlantic, newspapers, statesmen’s papers, and hundreds of books and articles. Suddenly they have revived the once noble but now presumably dying dream that history can be an accumulative science, gradually gathering truth through the steady and plodding efforts of countless practitioners turning out countless monographs. In this book they have brought together and made meaningful hundreds of monographs, written over the past century or more, on obscure and seemingly insignificant topics of history in the 1790s—from an 1877 biography of George Cabot to the most recent analysis of the XYZ affair. No historian, or pair of historians, is likely to do again what they have done.
In their rich and detailed study the authors aimed at recovering something of
what it was like—the difference it made—becoming a “nation” after having been something else, especially in the experience of those persons most directly implicated in bringing this entity into being and setting it afoot.
Something called federalism is what defined America’s purposes and guided its affairs during this decade. This federalism did not, the authors admit, have a very long life, and therefore they want in their book “to account, to whatever extent is possible, for Federalism’s ascendency, decline, and eclipse, and to discern something of what displaced it.”
The result is a truly remarkable book —a blockbuster of more than 750 pages of text plus 175 more pages of notes and index. It is not length that makes the book remarkable but its character and scope. The book seems to be a throwback to an earlier time of large narratives of great men and grand events. It is reminiscent of Henry Adams’s multivolume account of the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison; indeed, it appears to do for the 1790s what Adams did for the succeeding two decades. It is certainly history from the top down, not from the bottom up. It is ail high-politics history, without the slightest concession to the social history of the past generation of history-writing, or even to the kind of social history that Adams attempted in his famous first six chapters. Elkins and McKitrick concentrate almost exclusively on headline political and diplomatic events.
All the great characters of the period are insightfully portrayed in beautifully crafted vignettes: George Washington, the heroic first President who brought legitimacy to the new government; Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant Secretary of the Treasury who fashioned its financial program; Thomas Jefferson, the learned Secretary of State who, together with James Madison, in the House of Representatives eventually created a Republican opposition that ultimately brought down the Federalist government. Sometimes in just a few pages or a few lines Elkins and McKitrick capture more about these characters than biographers have in whole volumes, and with more humor. Jefferson, for example,
had an agreeable enough exterior presence, though he was not very ardent in personal relationships. He was entirely accessible but always fastidious and a bit distant; he could occasionally even exhibit—though shrinking from open hostility—a touch of the cold fish. But for the most part he was quite amiable, especially in small groups, where his shyness left him; knowing a great deal about a great many subjects made him endlessly interesting. . . . One imagines that he would have been all but ideal as a professor.
But it is not just the great men who stride through these pages. The authors have provided sketches of a dozen or more lesser figures involved in the story of this passionate decade in the nation’s history—from the irascible Philip Freneau, the sometime poet and journalist who became a principal voice of Republican invective, and the sardonic Gouverneur Morris, who was the only Foreign Minister to remain in Revolutionary France through the period of the Terror, to the worldly Talleyrand, the French Foreign Minister who survived multiple changes of regime in France simply by never adhering to any principle.
All the great and many of the not-sogreat political and diplomatic events are also described: there are two chapters on Hamilton’s financial program, one chapter on locating the capital and building the federal city, another on the French Revolution in America, a large section of a chapter on the 1790 Nootka Sound controversy between Britain and Spain, another section on the Convention of 1800 with France. They are not just described, however, but analyzed, examined, turned over and over, explained, and expounded in astonishing and often loving detail. Sometimes the authors set forth fully the existing historical literature on a problem—for example, Washington’s farewell address or the Whiskey Rebellion— and then wind their way through that literature and the circumstances of the time in order to find a balanced and satisfactory explanation or conclusion. Other times they describe all the contemporary elements pointing toward a particular solution of a problem—for example, evidence of the French proclivity in 1797 to negotiate with the Americans—and then ask why the seemingly obvious solution never resulted.
So the volume becomes much more a series of problem-solving essays than a simple linear narrative of the period. This approach means that small things are sometimes left unexplained. We are never told, for example, why Jefferson and Hamilton resigned from Washington’s Cabinet, or why Washington had to go to his seventh choice to fill the position of Secretary of State after Edmund Randolph’s resignation and to his fourth choice to fill the office of Secretary of War. But it is not just little things that the authors ignore. Despite the book’s extraordinary length and its detailed analyses of almost every major political and diplomatic event of the period, much of importance is simply not dealt with. There is virtually nothing, for example, on slavery, the development of law and the judiciary, the Yazoo land frauds, or religion.
ACTUALLY the authors did not intend to write an ordinary narrative that moves directly from one event to another in chronological order. Instead they want the historical process to “be shown happening, to whatever extent our capacities can control it, and not in one way but many.” Thus they wander to and fro, stop, backtrack, and cover old ground from new directions. They do not simply tell what happened; they ruminate on what happened, often slowly and accumulatively, repeatedly considering an individual or an event from different perspectives, building layer after layer of analysis until the reader has a subtle, rich, deep, and multidimensional picture of a world very different from ours. They aim to bring a literary sensibility to their history, one similar to that of Lionel Trilling or of their mentor, Richard Hofstadter, to whose memory they dedicate the book. When the authors discuss the election of George Washington to the presidency, they pause to ponder the meaning of character. When they consider the location of the national capital, they meditate at length on the anti-urban bias of Americans and the thinness of their cultural life. And in writing their chapter on the reaction of Americans to the French Revolution, they start with a short essay on the ways Americans and the French have viewed each other throughout their histories.
Such a meditative technique inevitably slows down the prose and results in a good deal of repetition, interruption, and diversion. In the authors’ continual backing and filling and their multilayered analyses of problems, such things as Alexander Hamilton’s West Indian experience, Lord Sheffield’s report on British trade policy. Citizen Genet’s plans as French Minister to the United States, and America’s vision of an Atlantic freetrade community necessarily get mentioned and described more than once. This makes for an ever-deepening understanding of particular issues (and, incidentally, it allows the reader to dip in and read sections here and there without having to read everything that went before), but it does tend to break up the narrative—as do the authors’ many vignettes and digressions. Their sketch of James Madison, for example, quickly slides off into a description of Madison’s college in Princeton, which turns into a discussion of the college’s Scottish president, John Witherspoon, which leads to a consideration of Scotland and its vibrant intellectual life in the eighteenth century.
Given so much reading and research and such a multilayered presentation, the authors’ judgment inevitably takes on a magisterial and authoritative quality that few if any historians of the period have possessed. Sifting, as they frequently and conscientiously do right in their text, through the contradictory evidence and the conflicting and sometimes polemical historical monographs, they strain for objectivity and impartiality, and most of the time they achieve it. Their book may be the most balanced account ever written of the politics of this contentious decade.
Many readers, especially those with a bias toward Jefferson and the Republicans, will probably disagree. The book will seem to be too pro-Hamilton and too much a defense of the Federalists. And such readers will have a point. In the contest over Hamilton’s plan for funding the national debt and creating the Bank of the United States, which began the rift among the Founding Fathers that led to the emergence of the Republican Party, the sympathies of Elkins and McKitrick clearly lie with Hamilton. The authors can scarcely stop shaking their heads at how little understanding Jefferson and Madison, the agrarian Virginian leaders of the Republican opposition, had of banking or money, and they therefore imply that the Republicans’ criticism of Hamilton’s financial program could have had little substance. Indeed, the authors’ account of the debate over the debt and the bank reads at times like a present-day editorial from The Wall Street Journal, lecturing all those simpleminded liberal Democrats on their inability to comprehend the most elementary workings of money and stock markets. Nonetheless, Elkins and McKitrick are absolutely right about the Virginians’ ignorance of banks, finance, and public credit.
When the authors couple this innocence in money matters with Jefferson’s and Madison’s extreme and apparently irrational hatred of all things British, it is not surprising that they have a hard time understanding the grounds for the formation of the Republican Party and its bitter accusations that the Federalists were trying to establish a monarchy. Since Elkins and McKitrick believe that “there was small likelihood of anyone’s setting up a monarchy in the American republic, and no critical observer should have had much difficulty perceiving this at the time,” they can only conclude that Madison and Jefferson were deluded in some sense (“the coolest minds may be unsettled, as is shown by the case of James Madison”) and that the entire Republican effort at opposition was based on a misperception of reality. All the Republican invective, all the charges that the Federalists were “monarchists” and “aristocrats,” the authors can therefore dismiss as mere “tag-words . . . formulas that seemed to tie all these suspected men and their principles together in a system of ready reference.” The Republicans, the authors suggest, became prisoners of their own farfetched ideology.
Yet there was truth in that Republican invective, for Hamilton and other Federalist leaders were interested in more than stock markets and banks and commercial prosperity. They in fact wanted to turn the United States into a fiscal-military power that would rival the great European states and achieve the honor and glory that all such great states aspired to. This meant establishing for the United States a strong national government with an elaborate administrative bureaucracy, a standing army and navy, and the financial wherewithal to accomplish great and noble deeds. The whole structure would be held together not by republican virtue, which Hamilton thought was chimerical, but by patronage, interest, ceremony, and force—the kinds of ligaments monarchies used. So although technically the Federalists did not want to set a king upon an American throne, they were indeed seeking to infuse enough monarchical elements into American life to substantiate the Republican fears of Federalist monarchism. Elkins and McKitrick can never quite bring themselves to admit that those fears may have been justified.
Their praise of the Federalists’ political economy and their criticism of the Republicans’ irrationality notwithstanding, the authors ultimately have not written a brief for federalism. Over and over they emphasize that the Federalists brought about their own demise: that Hamilton in his impatience and pride misunderstood the speculative nature of those who would execute his financial program; that the Federalists invested nearly all their moral authority in the figure of Washington, and therefore had nothing to hold them together when he left office; that their Alien and Sedition Acts and their plans for a huge standing army in 1798 were as stupid and clumsy as they were unpopular; and that they ultimately turned against the very principle —the sovereignty of the people—that they themselves had championed.
Nevertheless, in the end the authors’ account of federalism’s decline and fall has an elegiac tone. With the demise of the Federalists, they imply, something important in American life was lost, and it was doomed to be lost from the very beginning. The Federalists, they conclude, attempted to stand against what the authors call “the American idea,” a world view, born of the Revolution, that was suspicious of far-removed and energetic government, of manipulators of money, of taxes, of English entanglements, of great military and naval establishments, of the use of force at home or abroad. This American idea, the authors say, was pre-empted by the Republicans; it
was a popular temper, in the long run better matched in season and out to the ordinary pursuits of the spreading Republic than were the more demanding and exclusive standards of Federalism even at its best.
In the long run of the nineteenth century perhaps, but surery not for our own time. When we look at the United States of the last two thirds of the twentieth century, does it not seem possible that the Federalists may have the last laugh after all? For is it not true that the great bureaucratic and fiscal-military state that they wanted for America in the 1790s has at last been achieved, and that that achievement has been brought about largely through the efforts of the very party that Thomas Jefferson founded?