Grand Ideals Plus Self-Interest Spawned US Political Traditions

Article excerpt

FOR the past several decades, there have been two rival interpretations of the United States' founding epic. One centers on the Constitution: It imagines the framers as children of the Enlightenment, architects of a "golden age" of participatory government.

Against this luminous construction, scholars like Richard Hofstadter launched their revisionist interpretation, which pictured the Founders as oligarchs and slave-holders jealously guarding their economic prerogatives. The notion that the men who conceived the United States were elitists, obsessed with their own economic and social status, is at variance with the version that holds them up as paragons of what they themselves would have called "civic virtue."

Among the many wonders of "The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800," Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's panoramic record of the emergence of modern politics in the US, is how these noted historians reconcile such contradictory accounts of America's national origin. By treating the messy business of politics as equal to the high-toned struggles over constitutional philosophy, the authors allow readers to see how grand ideals cohabited with narrow self-interest in the minds of the Founders. One finishes this book with the sense that the men who created the American political order were both larger than life and tragically flawed, sometimes far-sighted geniuses and sometimes blundering fools.

All the significant figures of the post-revolutionary years - Washington, Madison, Adams, Burr - are here. Also present are less well-known but influential figures like the Federalist renegade Jedidiah Peck, who became a hero of the dissident movement that swept the country in the 1790s, and Charles Cotesworth Pickney, the Revolutionary War veteran who could have been president but preferred being a Southern gentleman.

At the heart of the narrative are Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, whose clashing visions of the proper political order were nearly overshadowed by what the authors call a "colossal enmity." Hamilton and Jefferson squandered huge amounts of energy detesting each other. Never since in US history have two such talents fought so bitterly over the levers of power. Each denounced and connived against the other until the governments of Europe strained forward to watch like spectators at a title fight. Elkins and McKitrick's focus on the conflict of these remarkable men helps keep this learned book from falling into the monotony of mere recitation.

Hamilton, perhaps the most dynamic of the Founders, might have won the struggle if his values had been less absolute. As this volume's title proclaims, the opening years of the Republic were dominated by the Federalists, whose political theories were articulated in the pamphlets named after their movement. …