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PostPosted: Thu Jun 16, 2011 2:49 pm 
Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788 – 1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

(Note to Club Members - I wrote this way back in College so please excuse any youthful mistakes :D )

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The Age of Federalism

As a political science major and history minor in college few books have impressed me as much as Elkins’s and McKitrick’s masterful work The Age of Federalism. As I read other works concerning the early years of the American establishment I noticed a reoccurring trend of authors using this book as a main source in their bibliographies and end notes. I decided that the book would be well worth the read and purchased it. Despite containing over seven-hundred pages the book reads like a novel and is well organized allowing for an enjoyable and extremely enlightening scholarly examination of the Federalist Era.

The book begins by covering the pre-Federalist era politics of England and how their notions of ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ politics during the Walpolean era manifested themselves into American thought processes decades later. The authors then establish their claim that the ‘Court’ faction, that was able to establish itself permanently in England through economic means, led Britain during the American Revolution against the ‘Country’-styled Americans. After the successful revolution it would be the rise in America of the ‘Court’ faction, as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw it, or rather the Federalists, which so greatly threw America into turmoil during the 1790’s.

The turmoil resulted in the growth of two separate parties in America: the Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, and the Federalists, led by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. The authors go to great effort to emphasize how strongly Hamilton was influenced by English economic policies and how he sought to implement them in America to help our own economy grow stronger. Although he had no desire to return America to British rule the Republicans saw this differently. They accused the Federalists of betraying the revolutionary ideals by trying to form America into the type of society which had oppressed them only a decade earlier. But how did America so quickly go from a society with no parties to a two-party society? Elkins and McKitrick do a brilliant job explaining this phenomenon.

Few Founders had anything good to say about parties on paper. Adams swore that he would “quarrel with both parties and every Individual in each, before I would subjugate my understanding, or prostitute my tongue or pen to either” (p. 533). Enlightenment thought declared that no good could come from parties and that they only “caused instability, anarchy, and tyranny” (p. 264). James Madison was more realistic than most and by 1792 began to make the claim that oppositional parties were indeed healthy in a republic. Madison asserted that in “every political society, parties are unavoidable… necessary evils” and that they create “checks” upon each other to maintain the liberty of the whole (p. 266).

The factionalizing began over Hamilton’s ‘English-styled’ fiscal policies concerning the reestablishment of the American economy cemented over opinions concerning the French Revolution. American support for the French Revolution was generally strong during its first years. But quickly the revolution spiraled out of control and by late 1792 anarchy had spread through France soon to be followed by the Reign of Terror. It was events such as this that caused the Federalists in America the greatest amount of fear. That the republic could quickly collapse into anarchy under the spell of deranged leaders was a constant nightmare to Federalists in America.

Jefferson and the Republicans though saw the Revolutions as a pair of connected events. And as such they both had to succeed to prove that republicanism was a spreading enlightenment idea and that monarchies were thus doomed. Should the ideals of republicanism fail, Jefferson wrote, he would like to see “the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better” (p. 316). Even when word began to arrive in America of the horrible violence in Paris Jefferson was able to write it off as necessary losses for the cause of liberty.

Because both parties believed that either one or the other would end up ruling America in the end they acted in ways unthinkable in America today. As of yet there were “no rules at all, and no sense of limits within which suspicion and even hate were to be graded and controlled. Parties could not yet be conceived as other than alliances for a warfare in which the stakes were no less than survival or extinction” (p. 270). Jefferson and James Monroe felt no problem with advising the French to oppose Federalist treaties despite the negative effect it would have on America as a whole since it helped their own party. Meanwhile, during John Adams’s administration, the Federalists felt no remorse at implementing the harsh Alien and Sedition Acts to curb Republican influence. The fact that the creation of rival parties was completed without bloodshed or civil war can truly only be marveled at when the possibilities of what could have happened are considered. Just look at Revolutionary France, Russia, China, or even modern day Iraq as examples of what rivaling political ideologies can cause.

Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 would set the general tone of American isolationism up until World War Two, though at the time it was meant only to keep America out of the European Wars. This general policy would be followed by Adams when dealing with English and French attacks on neutral American shipping. Adams would spend his term as president trying desperately to avoid war with France and also to avoid being overthrown by the Federalist ‘conspiracy’ he saw forming under Hamilton.

By 1798 Adams saw the Federalists in much the same light as Jefferson and Madison. He had begun to see that Hamilton viewed the American landscape as a battleground the Federalists had won in 1788 and were not obliged to give up to Republican influences. Hamilton, for his part, felt the Republicans to be disloyal to America’s best interests – or as he saw the two interchangeably, Federalist interests. The Adams-Hamilton feud is given great importance in the book as their squabbles would eventually help cause the collapse of the Federalists in 1800.

The defining moment for the party was Adams’s decision to pursue peace with France in 1799 rather than to keep backing Federalist policies which stripped Republican citizens of constitutional rights and expanded the American army under Hamilton’s authority. Adams believed that with Hamilton in command of an army his conspirators would “proclaim a Regal Government, [and] place Hamilton at the Head” (p. 617). By stripping the Federalist Party of their war fever platform Adams had helped to bring about their downfall. Yet the authors make a brilliant conclusion in their ‘blame’ for the loss of the Federalist authority in America.

They conclude that the party was only held together by Washington’s vast popularity and the complete trust Americans had in his actions. Without Washington leading them the Federalists lacked any popular figurehead to rally the American people around. This vacuum of leadership helped create the infighting which helped bring about its fall. Also they conclude that the largely unpopular acts passed by the Federalist leaders during the late 1790’s damaged their party greatly and drove more people into the Republican camp. Although Adams was vindicated in his decision to pursue peace with France he was still defeated by Jefferson in the election of 1800. Although Jefferson defeated Adams by only eight electoral votes this was due to the fact that state legislatures in most states (controlled by one party or the other) chose the electors rather than having a popular election. In the Congress the result was more telling – the Federalists there would lose one-fifth of their seats and become a permanent minority in both Houses. But this is not the ‘fault’ of Adams or Hamilton individually; it was the ‘fault’ of the entire Federalist Party which had ceased to be representative of the people once they were swept up in the war fever.

Using this book as an example of how a party can rise and fall it is easy to see parallels with the rise and fall of other parties throughout American history. Currently the Republican Party, which Ronald Reagan greatly expanded in the 1980’s, seems to be suffering the same fate as the Federalists did without the presence of Washington at its head. The infighting among Republicans today and the lack of public support for their war measures are taking their toll and will inevitably lead to a temporary collapse of the party in the future. But it is also to be remembered that although the Federalist Party would soon perish in name its members lived on to found new parties with new platforms. The Republican Party shall also return in four to eight years with a unified constituency and a party objective that will lead them once again. American politics never really change as much as we might think they do. Sure the names and issues might change some, but, as Adams would argue, human nature never changes and the same desires, beliefs, attitudes, and conniving that occurred in the age of Federalism is alive and well in American parties today.

Jefferson, after his election in 1800, would foolishly believe that the he would bring about the end of oppositional parties in America. “We are all republicans, we are all federalists” he would say in his inaugural speech (p. 753). But what had been established by the rise of the Republicans was that America was not to be a united society without parties, nor a society of many small parties, but a society which could be led, or divided, by two parties fighting for overall control of the government. This precedent will likely continue indefinitely in American politics due to the Electoral College and the long history of a two-party system in American history.

This is a phenomenal book on every level. To simply sum up in six short pages what was covered in this book is literally impossible unfortunately. The book spends a good portion of time though discussing how political parties came about in American history and how the founding fathers felt about many key ideological issues we still struggle with today. Washington’s farewell address, for instance, warns against foreign entanglements and divisive political parties in America. Madison discusses the benefits of a diverse society in which no majority can rule because sectional, religious, and ideological differences prohibit that eventuality. Hamilton’s ideas concerning the creation of a funded national debt along with a national bank, the establishment of American credit as impeccable, and his desire to exploit the ‘necessary and proper’ clause as much as possible are well covered. And Jefferson’s overriding belief in the sublimity of the American Revolution and the fundamental rights of ‘all’ men as equal and how that affected the subsequent rise of democracy are discussed. This book takes issues which form the core of the early American experience and examines them to a degree which brings out the true beauty of the American government and its remarkable transformation through its early years.

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 12, 2013 12:35 pm 
General Blake,

A fascinating review and highly enlightening. A pity the book stops at 1800.

How valuable to see the early leaders of America perceived their Union to be at immediate risk of party politics. These fathers of the Constitution believed in equality of men, but were not so sure democracy could survive in the hands of ambitious and narrow-minded leaders of parties.

Here lies the tension of early American history. Throwing off English rule also meant throwing out all its cherished institutions which had taken the English hundreds of years and their own civil wars to establish. Once the rallying leadership of the founding fathers has passed, could Americans muster sufficient trust and respect for its institutions fast enough for the nation to face and resolve grave issues without dissolving the Union? Sadly, history records that for a brief and bloody spell parochialism triumphed over patriotism during the Civil War. Happily, the result was a re-affirmation in not only the founding constitutional principle of human dignity and equality, but also the conviction that no matter how divisive America might be politically, the nation as a confederation of states (E Pluribus Unum) must be preserved for the good of future generations.

The paradox of the necessity of parties in a democracy but at the same time the potential of a factious party spirit to damage the country continues with us today. We ought to recall the times of the Civil War and the leadership of Lincoln in it. Lincoln taught us that only by perceiving a higher calling and vision for the country could party squabbles be put in perspective and resolved.

Lincoln was the one who coined the phrase "A house divided cannot stand". By this he meant that while for the moment prior commitments to Southern states permitting slavery must be honored, in the end the United States would either permit slavery everywhere or nowhere. It could not persist in perpetual antagonism over such a fundamental issue. Lincoln explicitly said "This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." He saw the practical necessity of parties and positions on issues, but he had a vision of an America that survived those fights and resolved them.

I am grateful to a biography of Abraham Lincoln, written by an Englishman (Charnwood), which attempts to trace how Lincoln wrestled with these issues prior to his arrival on the scene as President. Lincoln saw a grander vision of the United States, one beyond the dis-functional rivalries inherent in the party system and definitely one beyond the selfish ambition of party leaders, including himself.

Here are Lincoln's words in a speech in the Philadelphia Hall of Independence prior to taking office which give us a clue what he thought the higher calling and vision of the United States might be:

"I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that independence. I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept the Confederacy [of the United States] so long together. It was not the mere matter of separation of the colonies from the motherland, it was the sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave [the promise of] liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but I hope TO THE WORLD, FOR ALL FUTURE TIME. It was that which gave promise that in our time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders OF ALL MEN."

How prophetic. We can look back now and see not only the toils endured by the officers and soldiers of the armies in the American civil war, but the toils of American soldiers over the past hundred years during which time America has been used greatly around the world to liberate nations from dictatorship and to bring democracy to oppressed peoples all over the world.

Will America overcome its party divisions today? Only if Americans take their eyes off their high calling as a nation and turn them to self-interest, self-ambition, and party spirit.

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