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The Age of Federalism

Book Review

Arthur J. Rolnick - Senior Vice President and Director of Research, 1985-2010

Published March 1, 1994  |  March 1994 issue

By Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick
Oxford University Press
925 pages

In my seventh grade civics class I was surprised to learn that our Constitution, with all its checks and balances, places no controls on political parties. In fact, the Constitution does not even mention political parties. I was surprised by this revelation because as a non-voting participant in the "I Like Ike" campaigns in the 1950s, I thought the Constitution must have created the Democrat and Republican parties just like it created the House of Representatives and the Senate. To the contrary, I learned that political parties just happened; and, even after 22 amendments, political parties remained outside the purview of our Constitution.

Recently I learned the full story behind the development of these organizations in the United States. In The Age of Federalism, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, two highly skilled and painstaking historians, explain how the country evolved from an idea to a working republic; in many ways, this is the story of the evolution of the two party system. And once again I was surprised. Not only did political organizations quickly become an integral part of our democratic system, but they did so despite warnings against political factions by our country's leaders who feared their divisive impact on our emerging republic.

The Age of Federalism is a thoughtful and well-researched history of the early years of the United States under its Constitution. The key participants and their views on the major issues are examined from several different points of view. Readers are provided insights into the complexity of the issues of the day and how they inevitably led to the political party system. The book spans the first 12 years of the U.S. government under its Constitution. It begins in the fall of 1788 with the ratification of the Constitution and the election of George Washington as the first president of the United States. It ends with the election of the first Republican president, Thomas Jefferson, and the defeat of the last Federalist president, John Adams.

The authors appear to have left no stone unturned. They took 25 years to research and write their book, referencing hundreds of sources. The book contains over 750 pages of text plus 153 pages of notes and index. Elkins and McKitrick used unpublished manuscripts and well-known published works, foreign government documents and US documents, doctoral dissertations, statesmen's papers and newspaper articles.

This extensive research effort hasn't resulted in a dry, historical tome, though. One of the features of The Age of Federalism is its attempt to get under the skin of the day's main players, to come to know them better so as to more accurately interpret their actions. This effort lends additional drama to the day's events. For example, when Washington considered the tumultuous events surrounding a 1794 treaty with England, known as the Jay Treaty, the authors wonder: "A question which is still of some interest, however, concerns the way in which all this affected the behavior of George Washington. What was it that made his decision on the treaty so abrupt, and what was there in Fauchet's [French minister] intercepted dispatch that filled him with such a cold fury, a fury that did not lessen but grew more brutally implacable with every subsequent effort Randolph [Secretary of State] made to exculpate himself? How, in short, did he see it? Obviously we cannot know for certain, but the surrounding context, which is visible enough, contains several striking elements."

The broad outline of the book follows the development of political factions. The first five chapters are devoted to the beginnings of the new nation under its Constitution when the seeds of political parties are planted. In the next five chapters the seeds begin to grow as the public chooses sides between Hamilton's vision of a centralized and active government and Jefferson's vision of a decentralized and passive government. Political parties come to fruition in the last five chapters with the coalescing of the Republicans (which were not the political forebears of today's Republican Party) and their defeat of the Federalists in the presidential elections of 1800.

Organized political factions did not exist in the first constitutional years. In effect, only one party existed; it was the party of George Washington. Washington ran unopposed and was the unanimous choice of the country. Without a campaign fund, without a campaign manager and even without a campaign, Washington received all the electoral votes.

Washington was unable to maintain this political harmony for long. His first order of business was creating a Cabinet. Congress and the president agreed that Cabinet members would be approved by the Senate but were appointed and could only be fired by the president. Washington then named Alexander Hamilton Secretary of Treasury, Thomas Jefferson Secretary of State and Henry Knox Secretary of War, and all received Senate approval with no opposition. However, opposition to Hamilton and his financial plans soon developed within the Cabinet. Hamilton proposed that Congress establish a national bank and that, with the help of this bank, the federal government pay off the country's war debt. Jefferson questioned the idea of creating a national bank. He opposed making bond speculators rich. And he was most concerned about expanding the federal government's power and influence over the economy. This was the beginning of a falling-out between Jefferson and Hamilton that eventually divided the country into two political parties.

While opposition to Hamilton's financial plan began the political rift between Hamilton and Jefferson, it was differences over international affairs that caused the rift to develop into two distinct political parties. Hamilton and his followers felt that the economic health of the United States depended critically on our relationship with our major trading partner. While England had yet to fulfill its obligations under the peace treaty of 1783 to abandon its holdings in the Northwest Territory, Hamilton and his followers felt this problem could be peacefully negotiated with a new treaty. Jefferson and his followers saw this issue with England much differently. They felt that the English had violated the peace accord and that the United States should impose economic sanctions against the English, even consider military force if necessary. Jefferson was also more sympathetic than Hamilton to the French and their revolution. Jefferson felt we should strengthen our economic and political ties to the French; Hamilton disagreed, seeing little reason to support the French in overthrowing their monarchy.

In 1794 when John Jay, acting on behalf of Washington, brought back his new treaty with England, the party lines were drawn. Although Jay's treaty was eventually approved by the Senate, it was clear that the political landscape was no longer comprised of a single party.

In Washington's farewell address (1796) he warned not only against political allegiance with Europe, but also against the forces of political factions at home. Jefferson also voiced concern over the increasing political divisiveness. President Adams, however, was unable to hold back the political tide. His support of the Alien and Sedition acts was to doom his reelection. Both laws were viewed by the public as Federalist attempts to squelch political opposition. The Alien Act, which imposed much longer residency requirements for citizenship than originally imposed by Congress, favored the Federalists, because new immigrants tended to vote for Republicans. The Sedition Act, which made it unlawful to criticize the government of the United States or the president, was an even more direct attack on the opposition party. The Federalists made 14 different attempts to prosecute offenders under this law. As a result, the Alien and Sedition acts inspired organized opposition against the party in power. In the election of 1800 the Republicans ended the reign of the Federalists and the precedent for a two party system was established.

The Age of Federalism may not read like a historical novel, but it contains a skillfully developed plot that is engaging to the end. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have produced a rich exposition of this period, one that students of US history should consider adding to their collection.

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