Party-hating rebels who lost a cause

The Age of Federalism
August 11, 1995

By drafting the United States Constitution, getting it ratified and forming the first federal government the politicians who called themselves Federalists achieved one of the outstanding peaceful coups of modern western history. But Federalism quickly faced divisions, as some of its leading proponents drew away in the 1790s to create a Republican opposition. Thomas Jefferson's victory in the 1800 presidential election marked Federalism's eclipse as a force in national politics. In little more than a decade of its emergence the political persuasion that did so much to shape modern US government lay shattered.

Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick retell this familiar story with verve and freshness in The Age of Federalism. Many years in the making, their fine book should long stand as a standard work on the 1790s and will be essential reading for all interested in early US politics. Avoiding any single or simple explanation, they provide a clear and powerful analysis of the Federalists in government, and how they managed to do themselves in.

The tale is not one of unmitigated disaster. As a concept of government, in which unity between the states could be guaranteed by national institutions, active in certain spheres, Federalism was successfully established in the 1790s, and remained essentially unshaken by the debates and conflicts to come. But as a concept of politics, that saw power best left to an exclusive elite, and factions and parties as dangerous threats to the republic, Federalism soon became bankrupt.

Elkins and McKitrick trace the vain efforts of Federalists in the late 1790s to put the genie of an emerging party politics back in its bottle, and the consequent determination of the Republicans - as Jefferson put it in 1802 - to "sink federalism into an abyss from which there will be no resurrection for it".

The Age of Federalism takes a view "from above", dealing chiefly with major government figures and national issues. Much of the book is devoted to foreign affairs, for here lies the core of its argument. Attitudes towards Britain and France, say the authors, did most to define differences in the federal administration and also, in time, shaped the emergence of opposition politics and party activity. They demonstrate, however, how closely foreign and domestic issues were interconnected. Alexander Hamilton's financial system required stable commercial relations with Britain; the Jay Treaty that secured this, though condemned by Republicans, was popular on the western frontier as well as with eastern merchants and financiers.

Events should have favoured the Federalists. Enthusiasm for France, boosted by the French Revolution, then qualified by the Terror, was a liability for Republicans, whom Federalists could portray as Jacobin traitors. The revelation in 1798 of the XYZ Affair, in which French agents had tried to shake down US emissaries for bribes as a preconditionfor negotiations, and the quasi-war at sea with France that followed, ought logically to have committed the Republicans to an abyss. Circumstances, and the Federalists' own actions, ensured that the opposite happened.

Approving an unnecessarily large army, passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and prosecuting opponents of government policy, Federalists in Congress and the administration of John Adams provoked growing popular outrage at their use of arbitrary power, and so helped seal their own defeat. Elkins and McKitrick do full justice to their "witless, . . . almost comic" incompetence. But Federalism was not just inept. It was rooted in a political vision ill- matched to a system where voting and debate were widespread, rather than restricted to a small social group. Federalists saw party and opposition to government as destructive; they could not accept them as necessary ways of conducting things in a large political nation. All Americans were learning this in the decades after the Revolution. Given the assumptions they clung to, the Federalists could not control the system they had created.

Elkins and McKitrick, having exposed the Federalists' predicament, shed few tears for them. Throughout they provide a lively commentary on individuals and events. Their account of the XYZ Affair is highly entertaining. They are not too happy with Jefferson, and are tolerant but acerbic about John Adams's idiosyncrasies. Admiration for Hamilton leads them to pass tactfully quickly over the shortcomings of his final years. They quote Abigail Adams on Elbridge Gerry (who "always had a wrong kink in his head") and recount the achievements of the French minister, Edmond Charles Genet, who in the space of little more than a year managed to be made persona non grata in both Russia and the US, but then saved himself from the guillotine by staying in New York state and marrying the governor's daughter.

Political historians often write about winners. We must be grateful to Elkins and McKitrick for exercising their skill and wit so effectively on some of US history's most prominent and important political losers.

Christopher F. Clark is a senior lecturer, department of history, University of York.

The Age of Federalism

Author - Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick
ISBN - 0 19 506890 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £32.50
Pages - 925

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