Foibles of the Founding Fathers : THE AGE OF FEDERALISM, By Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (Oxford University Press: $39.95; 944 pp.)

Richard J. Barnet is the author of "The Rocket's Red Glare: When America Goes to War." His new book "Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order" (with John Cavanagh) will be published by Simon & Schuster next February

"The Age of Federalism" is an impressive achievement. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have produced an original, scholarly and sparkling account of this nation's first crucial decade under the Constitution. The book combines meticulous historical analysis with a sweeping narrative in which the founding fathers emerge as believable people--at crucial moments wise, vain, petty, ambitious, confused, imaginative, courageous, self-righteous, passionate and stubborn.

The author's insights into the character of the nation's early leaders, richly documented in letters, reminiscences and descriptions of their behavior at critical moments, reveal Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and Madison to be far more complex, contradictory and spirited than in more traditional historical accounts. Of the principal actors of the 1790s only George Washington remains an awesome shadow--a simple, wise and fair leader in war and peace with almost no obvious failings except a touch of self-pity. (At the end of his term, smarting under attacks from on republican newspaper, the President complained in a letter to Jefferson that every act of my administration is "tortured" in words that "could scarcely be applied to Nero . . . or even to a common pickpocket.") The authors make us understand how Washington's judicious character and almost universal acclaim served to confer legitimacy on the new republic.

The book is primarily an account of the two intertwined struggles that defined the nation's first decade. The first concerns the clashing visions held by Federalists and Republicans of what American society could and should become.

"Of all the events that shaped the political life of the new republic in its earliest years," the authors write, "none was more central than the massive personal and political enmity . . . which developed in the course of the 1790s between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson."

The two men embodied antithetical visions of American society more sharply than any of the other major figures of the Federalist era, and the book offers a subtle account of how their basic ideological beliefs shaped their decisions on a wide range of political issues.

Jefferson dreamed of a "yoeman republic" with as little city life and factory noise as possible. "The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body."

The authors are not the first to point out the deep contradictions in Jefferson's thought and life. He "keenly savored" pleasures found in cities; Paris delighted him. His tastes were sophisticated, even sybaritic, far removed from those of the mythic small farmers who served as the linchpin of his political vision. How the great continental republic Jefferson envisaged could be built on his slogan "let our workshops remain in Europe" he never made clear. The drafter of the Declaration of Independence, who had been minister to France, detested England, which he held to be the symbol of everything to be avoided in the new world--aristocracy, financial speculation, centralized government and industrial development.

Elkins and McKitrick note the irony that as a builder, whether of Monticello, the University of Virginia or of political alliances, Jefferson was a remarkably practical man, if anything too enthralled by details. (One fascinating chapter describes Jefferson's micro-management of the design of Washington, D.C.) But Jefferson's grand political vision ignored crucial realities; Virginia, which he took as the model for his ideal pastoral commonwealth, was dominated by large planters, not small farms. The authors call Jefferson's yoeman republic "the moral, ideological, and literary construct of a humane and cultivated Virginia gentleman."

Alexander Hamilton's utopia was England, an aristocracy in the process of industrial development, a nation to emulate in order not to be dominated by its power. The authors, arguing that Hamilton was strongly influenced by the writings of David Hume, give a vivid account of what Hamilton actually did to develop the pillars of his system--a funded debt, a national bank, central taxing authority, an interventionist national government to promote industry and urban culture that, as Hume puts it, links together "industry, knowledge, and humanity."

He made no secret of his admiration for the unwritten English constitution that encouraged the energy and order needed for effective government. England was not only the most promising political model but the most important trading partner for the new nation. (The nation's first secretary of the treasury once assured a British officer that "we think in English.") Yet despite his great influence over Washington, Hamilton did not succeed in establishing the interventionist industrial policy he advocated, thanks largely to the clumsy speculators who were his allies and to Madison and Jefferson who fiercely opposed it. (Madison wrote that manufacturing produces "the most servile dependence of one class . . . on another.") The story of the failure of the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers and its abortive plan to create the nation's first industrial park in a new town on the Passaic River, to be called Paterson, is one of many small vignettes the authors use to illumine large trends.

The second major theme running through the book concerns the sharply divided feelings in America evoked by the French Revolution and the European war to which it led and explores the influence of the international crisis on domestic ideology and politics. The French Revolution triggered a series of events in which these clashing models for building a new nation would be put to the test over a decade. Questions of foreign and domestic policy were inseparable just as they are today. But in the 1790s Americans had many reasons to feel themselves to be participants in the struggles of Europe. For many Americans the French Revolution confirmed the historic importance of their own recent struggle for liberty, and for a powerful conservative minority the dangers of democracy. The European powers still occupied large tracts of territory in North America, maintained military outposts on the Northwest frontier of the United States, and controlled key rivers.

Although shippers, planters and traders had economic interests in the outcome of the wars spawned by the French Revolution, most citizens were more aroused by political and moral passion. The revolution in France became a metaphor for the political struggle in America. By 1793 France became a metaphor for the political struggle in America. By 1793 France had proclaimed a "war of all people against all kings," and even though many Americans were appalled by the bloodshed in France, which the Federalists used to attack republicanism in America, most felt that the fate of their own republic required support for the struggle to create the French Republic. In "the revolution of 1800," as Jefferson called it, the Federalists were swept from office and the party disappeared. "The influence of the Hamiltonian Treasury, the immense prestige of Washington, and the Federalists' willful exploitation of the crisis with France," the authors conclude, "were all that had allowed them to hold on as long as they had."

Much of this book sifts ground that generations of historians have plowed--the Genet mission, the Jay Treaty, the XYZ Affair, the Whiskey Insurrection and the successful collaboration of Jefferson and Hamilton to keep the United States out of war despite popular pressures to fight on one side or the other. The authors have produced a skillful synthesis that links the story of the rise of political parties in the United States with the struggles over foreign relations, and in the process they shed new light on the early development of American political culture. The authors usually evaluate conflicting evidence on issues of fact that remain controversial after more than two centuries, and they discuss the clashing theories of other historians judiciously. In most cases they make it clear where they come down, and they can expect quarrels on some of their interpretations. General readers may find some of these discussions arcane and skip them. But anyone interested in how this country began under the Constitution will be greatly rewarded by the reading of this book.

The struggles chronicled in this work--how, when and where to tax, what the banking system should be, what is the proper balance between the President and Congress, what is the proper role of government in industrial development, how to carry on foreign trade, and when or whether the United States should intervene in foreign wars--are still the paramount issues of the day. The connections between foreign and domestic policies have multiplied since the Age of Federalism, but they are harder to comprehend and not so obvious as when European armies were still deployed in North America. At the end of the 20th Century the United States faces the need to debate and to define what sort of society we are building and what kind of role we are to play in the new global constellation of nations, just as in its earliest days. What is conspicuously missing is the passionate commitment to large visions and great endeavors that united even the bitterest political antagonists when Washington and Adams were President.

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