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

September 26, 1993|Richard J. Barnet | 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."

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