I love reading books about the early American Republic. The challenges our first leaders, especially George Washington, faced were tremendous. They had won the American Revolution, yes, but they had to deal with immense challenges in both the domestic sphere and on the international stage. Great Britain was difficult to deal with, as we had just fought a war against it. The French had a horribly destructive revolution and successive wars related to it that they alternated between trying to draw us into and attacking our shipping. And, domestically, there were uprisings, the beginnings of partisanship, wars with the Indians, and many economic issues, all of which had to be quickly solved.
Yet, somehow, we survived. The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick shows how.
That’s not what The Age of Federalism is ostensibly about. According to Elkins and McKitrick, it is meant “to account, to whatever extent possible, for Federalism’s ascendancy, decline, and eclipse, and to discern something of what displaced it.” And that is true, The Age of Federalism does cover those issues, especially in the last few chapters.
But in my view, that is not what makes it such a great book to read, nor is it really only about Federalism.
Really, it is, as the authors describe in the first paragraph of the introduction, a book that 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…[The] 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.”
That is what made The Age of Federalism a book that I think every American should read. It shows the challenges our first political leaders faced as they tried to create a new republic, their conflicting visions for America, and is a holistic political history of America’s first few years of being.
To know where America should go, we first must understand both where it has been and where its Founding Fathers intended for it to go. The Age of Federalism provides us with both that history and those visions.
Summary of The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick
The Age of Federalism covers a vast array of subjects, as you might expect of a book that clocks in at around ~750 pages. It covers:
- “The modes of thought and feeling in the Founding Generation”
- from what sources the early Republic drew its legitimacy
- Alexander Hamilton’s financial system and the ideology of national debt that was behind it
- The political ideology of James Madison and how he transitioned from being a Federalist to one of the most prominent Democratic-Republicans
- Why D.C. became the capital city and the first designs for it
- Thomas Jefferson’s vision of what the American Republic should be
- The first examples of partisan politics in America
- The conflicting views of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans on the French Revolution
- How we handled diplomacy with Great Britain, populism in America
- How Washington’s retirement affected American politics
- The political philosophy of John Adams and his ideology of “balance”
- The bitter hatred that existed between John Adams and Alexander Hamilton
- Our Quasi-War with France
- And the ultimate decline and demise of Federalism in what the authors term “the revolution of 1800.”
Sorry for the long list of topics, but that was the best way I could show the scope of The Age of Federalism. The project that Elkins and McKitrick undertook was immense; those topics listed above are just the overarching subjects discussed. Each one is a chapter that contains other subpoints about related historical facts and political developments.
The Age of Federalism progresses more or less chronologically. In each chapter, the authors discuss how the events that were happening then impacted American politics at the time and how they related to the ideology of Federalism, which was most clearly laid out in The Federalist Papers.
From undeclared wars abroad that involved privateers and naval engagements to domestic political debates and the rise of partisan newspapers, Elkins and Mckitrick do an excellent job of showing just how early America was changing and why.
Furthermore, because the book is so holistic and far-reaching, the authors of The Age of Federalism are able to show the immense challenges that faced George Washington and John Adams while they were our first two presidents. They often faced no good options; renounce our treaty with France or enter into an unwinnable war with our largest trading partner, Great Britain, sign an unpopular treaty, the Jay Treaty, with the British Empire or face significant restrictions on commerce, smash rebels on the Western Frontier and be declared a tyrant by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans or allow anarchy to triumph. And so on and so forth.
Yet despite those challenges, Washington and Adams were prescient and were somehow able to settle on a wise course that put America on a path to continued freedom and prosperity.
Finally, despite the fact that The Age of Federalism is mainly about the Federalists, it is not overly-friendly towards them. Their views and actions are shown in their entirety, both good and bad, and the authors discuss how their elitist views and unwillingness to act as a real political party meant that they were destined to fall by the wayside. Unlike in some of Joseph J. Ellis’s works, Jefferson looks like the Founder with the most realistic vision for America, not Washington or the other Federalists.
My Take on The Age of Federalism
Overall, I found The Age of Federalism to be a terrific book and is one that I wholeheartedly recommend that you read. No book is perfect and The Age of Federalism is no exception. It is not organized particularly well in the first few chapters, as it does jump around a bit and combine discussions of subjects that have little to do with one another. But, other than that small issue for the first hundred or so pages, it is excellent.
One reason I liked The Age of Federalism so much is that it provides such a holistic view of the early American Republic and what life was like in America after the Revolution. From the cultural issues discussed in After the Revolution by Joseph J. Ellis to the ascent of John Marshall as the last Federalist that is described in Without Precedent, The Age of Federalism covers many topics about early American life that I found interesting.
Additionally, it relates to many other books that I have read.
It covers the arguments in The Anti-Federalist Papers and why what the Anti-Federalists were for was not as convincing as what the Federalists were for. The authors describe the Washington presidency as it is described in His Excellency: George Washington and why the campaigns discussed in Washington’s Crossing gave him legitimacy and created his core group of advisers, especially Alexander Hamilton. The intense international diplomacy described in A Wilderness so Immense is also covered quite well.
And, most interestingly to me, The Age of Federalism covers the debates between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans that are also discussed in Founding Brothers and To Begin the World Anew. I thought that that connection to other pieces of literature was quite interesting.
Finally, I think The Age of Federalism is a book you need to read because it shows that in America, there is not really much new under the sun. We have dealt with difficult and divisive diplomacy with European nations before, as we are now doing with respect to NATO and trade issues. The national debt has been an issue since the end of the American Revolution. We have had divisive domestic political debates before. And we have even had uprisings and violence more intense and destructive than the current riots, such as Shay’s rebellion.
But despite all those issues, and many others, we persevered. America not only survived but also thrived. We overcame those challenges, all of which were much more existential threats than anything we currently face and became a better country because of it. As we overcame those issues, we will overcome these. That is a lesson that I think we should all remember right now as we deal with similar issues to those that the Founders faced.
I think that there is something in The Age of Federalism for everyone. There are immensely helpful and informational sections on political theory that should appeal to people interested in political theory. Economic issues, especially those that relate to the idea of free trade discussed in The Wealth of Nations and the problem of the national debt, are frequently discussed. and for history and military history aficionados, many of the chapters relate to our naval struggles with France and England.
In short, The Age of Federalism is a book that I think you need to read. It will be both interesting and informative. It will make you proud to be an American as you see all that we have overcome and it will revive your perhaps flagging spirit as we see news every day about intense partisanship and violent political debates.
And, finally and most importantly, it will serve as an antidote to the anti-American drivel currently being taught about the Founding Fathers. They were not evil men. They were great men that built a great nation. We must remember that and learn about why they were so great. The Age of Federalism reminds you of that. Read it.
By: Gen Z Conservative