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The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick
1994 Bancroft Prize
Synopses & Reviews
When Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office for the presidency in 1801, America had just passed through twelve critical years, years dominated by some of the towering figures of our history and by the challenge of having to do everything for the first time. Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Jefferson himself each had a share in shaping that remarkable era--an era that is brilliantly captured in The Age of Federalism.
Written by esteemed historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism gives us a reflective, deeply informed analytical survey of this extraordinary period. Ranging over the widest variety of concerns--political, cultural, economic, diplomatic, and military--the authors provide a sweeping historical account, keeping always in view not only the problems the new nation faced but also the particular individuals who tried to solve them. As they move through the Federalist era, they draw subtly perceptive character sketches not only of the great figures--Washington and Jefferson, Talleyrand and Napoleon Bonaparte--but also of lesser ones, such as George Hammond, Britain's frustrated minister to the United States, James McHenry, Adams's hapless Secretary of War, the pre-Chief Justice version of John Marshall, and others. They weave these lively profiles into an analysis of the central controversies of the day, turning such intricate issues as the public debt into fascinating depictions of opposing political strategies and contending economic philosophies. Each dispute bears in some way on the broader story of the emerging nation. The authors show, for instance, the consequences the fight over Hamilton's financial system had for the locating of the nation's permanent capital, and how it widened an ideological gulf between Hamilton and the Virginians, Madison and Jefferson, that became unbridgeable. The statesmen of the founding generation, the authors believe, did "a surprising number of things right." But Elkins and McKitrick also describe some things that went resoundingly wrong: the hopelessly underfinanced effort to construct a capital city on the Potomac (New York, they argue, would have been a far more logical choice than Washington), and prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts which turned into a comic nightmare. No detail is left out, or left uninteresting, as their account continues through the Adams presidency, the XYZ affair, the naval Quasi-War with France, and the desperate Federalist maneuvers in 1800, first to prevent the reelection of Adams and then to nullify the election of Jefferson.
The Age of Federalism is the fruit of many years of discussion and thought, in which deep scholarship is matched only by the lucid distinction of its prose. With it, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have produced the definitive study, long awaited by historians, of the early national era.
"The era here bursts with intellectual animation, a rare example of authors writing authoritatively and adeptly for two audiences." Booklist
"Reading this magnificent work of scholarship is like taking a leisurely stroll through one of the most turbulent eras in the history of our nation.... Virtually every issue, event or character that enters the story is examined with a scholarly thoroughness that will insure the volume's success as a reference tool for some time to come." Drew R. McCoy, The New York Times Book Review
"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....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.'...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." Richard Ryan, The Christian Science Monitor
Book News Annotation:
Noted historians Elkins (emeritus, Smith College) and McKitrick (emeritus, Columbia U.) provide an analytical survey of the first 12 years of the US under the Constitution (1788-1800) that captures the personalities and issues of the young nation with clarity, authority, and feeling. Both scholarly and accessible, and likely to become a classic.
Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Stanley Elkins is the author of Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, and is Professor of History at Smith College. Eric McKitrick is the author of Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, and is Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University.
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