The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
Modes of Thought and Feeling in
the Founding Generation

This book is an extended encounter with firstness. It begins with the first appearance of the United States as a self-acknowledged nation, at the moment when the nation first put on the organizing structure under which it still functions. But though the structure is still there, the character and substance of what was first contained within it have altered beyond recognition, a process which in fact was in motion almost from the beginning. Our book seeks to recover something of this earlier substance, some measure 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. Our scope is defined by the opening cycle of the nation's public life, one we are calling the Age of Federalism. Federalism, as a way of perceiving a society's purposes and guiding its collective affairs, did not have a very long life. We wish to account, to whatever extent is possible, for Federalism's ascendancy, decline, and eclipse, and to discern something of what displaced it.

A familiar way of viewing this historic cycle (which might also, with some justification, be called the Era of Washington) is to think of it as something of a Golden Age. In some sense it may well have been that; but any forceful figure of speech has a way of evoking images which exclude others equally pertinent, perhaps more so. In this case the age of the lawgivers, with its serene echoes of Roman antiquity, is an image that renders its object even more remote than in fact it already is. The remoteness has itself become a major problem, even as one concedes that much of what the lawgivers left has held up tolerably well.

Indeed, well into the twentieth century writers on the subject, whatever the other differences among them, tended to approach the post-Revolutionary era in a spirit that was on balance essentially benign, finding as they did much to respect in the good sense and realism of the founding generation. 1 This habit changed somewhat abruptly in the late 1950s and 1960s, giving way to a decidedly different emphasis. The Federalist period now came to be seen, as Marshall Smelser aptly

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