The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XV
The Mentality of Federalism
in 1800

The year 1800 marked the end of Federalist predominance in the nation's public life, a predominance never to be reasserted. Whether Federalism had -- or rather might have had -- any kind of future after that time is a question that provokes the historical imagination. Could things conceivably have taken a different turn? Was there any likelihood that Federalism, as a party and as a persuasion, could have stabilized itself and survived as one side of a more or less settled polarity in the future life of American politics?

Thomas Jefferson, for one, believed that the "revolution of 1800" -- a phrase he himself used, if he did not coin it 1 -- had been in the nature of things bound to occur, and that the revolution would in all likelihood be a permanent one. Jefferson saw the defeat of the Federalists in that year as marking the definitive ascendancy of a natural republican majority over a minority faction whose hold on the powers of government had been maintained for twelve years through essentially artificial means. The influence and patronage of the Hamiltonian Treasury, the immense prestige of Washington, and the Federalists' willful exploitation of the crisis with France were all that had allowed them to hold on as long as they had. Yet sooner or later, as Jefferson saw it, the intrinsically republican temper of the American people was bound to repudiate -- as it now had -- the exclusivist, fiscalist, consolidationist, and perversely anglophile tendencies of Federalism. That decision, he thought, was final, and not likely to be reversed. Jefferson himself, moreover, was determined from the first to see that this should be so, and to banish Federalism forever. 2

To all intents and purposes he succeeded, and historical opinion well into our own time has remained largely satisfied with the Jeffersonian judgment. But a revival of interest in the Adams presidency, beginning in the mid-1950s, opened up the question again in a new and variant way. Some writers began pointing out that Federalism did, after all, have its moderate and reasonable side. A clear distinction, they urged, should be drawn between the irrational extremists and

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