Young Men of the Revolution

The intelligent American of today may know a great deal about his history, but the chances are that he feels none too secure about the Founding Fathers and the framing and ratification of the Federal Constitution. He is no longer certain what the “enlightened” version of that story is, or even whether there is one. This is because, in the century and three quarters since the Constitution was written, our best thinking on that subject has gone through two dramatically different phases and at this moment is about to enter a third.

As well as a continuation of my earlier thoughts on elites, this post is a tribute to a classic article: Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick’s “The Founding Fathers: Young Men of the Revolution,” in the Political Science Quarterly 76, no. 2 (June 1961). When I opened the article to reread it in order to write this post, I was struck by the vigour and assurance of that opening paragraph. It’s writing that hasn’t dated so much as aged, beautifully.

The article is best considered, in terms of influence, as a prelude to Elkins’ and McKitrick’s big book, The Age of Federalism (OUP, 1993). But as someone with more interest in the 1780s than the 1790s, it’s the article I want to reflect on here. And I don’t actually want to focus on their historiographical “phases” or even the idea of an “enlightened” version of the story, so much as the particular interpretative point that all that leads up to. What I like about “Young Men of the Revolution” is its attempt to take subjectivity seriously as a historical force, in all the different problematic ways that implies—the subjectivity of groups as well as individuals, history as contingent moments as well as epochs. In short, I think it’s an effort to see the “founders” as they saw themselves.

The Death of Major Andre“The Republic is now very old, as republics go. But it was young once,” write Elkins & McKitrick, “and so were its founders”—and “with youth goes energy.” The first half of the essay is devoted to historiographical critique, especially of Charles Beard and his own economically-minded critics. But the authors are interested in something which, for them, is quite different to “class.” What they want to know is, “How do we account for the dedication, the force and éclat, of the Federalist leadership? When all is said and done, we do not exactly refer to the ‘interests’ of a James Madison. We wonder, instead, about the terms in which he conceives of personal fulfillment, which is not at all the same. What animates him?” The answers they give go back to their basic act of refocusing: “youth” and “energy” animates Madison, and his friends.

It’s this apparent turn away from the concept of “class” and its attendant inequalities and social realities, and towards an alternative explanation of group motivation, that led to the essay’s adoption into the corpus of what William Hogeland calls the “Adairite” intellectual history approach to the founding. I think I first came across it in a footnote to John P. Roche’s equally classic article, “The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action,” American Political Science Review 55, no. 4 (1961), which I got to via Gordon Wood; I’m fairly sure it appears in Douglass Adair’s own “Fame and the Founding Fathers,” too. But in so many ways, none of this scholarship is a turn away from class at all—it only thinks it is.

A certain experience of youthfulness and energy, the experience captured by Elkins and McKitrick (in their own writing as well as in their analysis—”and at this moment is about to enter a third“!), is an experience structured by all three of those words the National Association of Scholars so dreads: race, gender, and class. It’s absolutely vital to Elkins & McKitrick’s account that the people they’re talking about are privileged, white men. They are also young, but their youth is of a particular kind, a kind that wields power.

Class, gender, and race—and youth, too—are forces that cross boundaries. Even, sometimes, the boundary between warring factions, warring countries. For now, I want to offer just one exhibit in support of these ideas: the attitude of the Young Men of the Revolution to the execution of Major John André. The thirty-year-old British spymaster, captured behind patriot lines arranging the bungled surrender of West Point by Benedict Arnold, is a strange and interesting figure in the American Revolutionary mind. Far from despising André as a spy and an enemy, Alexander Hamilton and his fellow young officers felt the utmost sympathy and respect for him. As Hamilton wrote to his fiancée, the exceedingly well-born Elizabeth Schuyler,

It was proposed to me to suggest to him the idea of an exchange for Arnold; but I knew I should have forfeited his honor by doing it, and therefore declined it. As a man of honor he could not but reject it; and I would not for the world have proposed to him a thing which must have placed me in the unamiable light of supposing him capable of meanness, or of not feeling myself the impropriety of the measure. I confess to you, I had the weakness to value the esteem of a dying man, because I reverenced his merit.

Andrew Trees  identifies the tie that binds Hamilton to his captive as “an ideal linked to being a gentleman and an ideal that was firmly British in origin and character.” It is a sympathy born out of self-fashioning and self-understanding, generated by gender, race, and class, and fully capable of acting as a historical force, just as it stopped Hamilton from suggesting the proposed trade. It helps set the “terms” of “personal fulfillment” for a Hamilton, a Madison. When we study such sympathies, such forces, we are also studying the structures from which they spring. It’s only in that context that we can then try to understand the impact they had in their turn on history, on the world.

5 responses

  1. Having been formally educated before the publication of The Age of Federalism, I have a different opinion on their article. The 1943 Adair dissertation was a graduate student probing for the weakness of the prevailing dominant interpretation, but I view the Elkins and McKitrick article as a rehash of the almost throwaway insight that Charles Warren’s conclusion in his 1928 classic The making of the Constitution when he wrote the line of contention between the Antifederalists and the Federalists was one of age. Both Warren’s and Elkins and McKitrick’s articles emphasize that it was the American Revolution that provided the younger generation the opportunity to supplant the older politicians who came of age in the 1760s. The young men of the revolution base of power rested with the national government as opposed to their elders whose power emanated from various states. Perhaps their experiences with the impotence of the Confederation animated their view of a just social compact.

    In your previous post you said you were aligned with Beard. If by that you meant, that elites share a consensus on the basic values of and the preservation of the system, then I am a Beardian also. I view the elite competition for political power to be a necessity for the development of American pluralism. I also believe that policy reflects not the demands of the masses but the needs and beliefs of the elites. In other words the public good rests in the hands of the Few and not the Many.

    the next step comes in testing their constructed notions of “disinterestedness” or “enlightenment.” Were they motivated simply from avarice in their desire to cash in depreciated securities as the most vulgar Beardian would argue? Is McGuire’s many statistic regressions in his book, To Form a more Perfect Union, a much better jumping off point for those who wish to argue than economic motives warped the social contract, or what if Max Edling is right, and the Federalists of 1787 were motivated to create a limited government except in times of military necessity. What if the many were not taxed to provide the interest payments on those securities?

    By the way, thank you for providing a link to Andrew Trees’ article. I was not familiar with it. It taught me something new. Thanks.

    • Thanks Brian. I actually think you’re right about the “almost throwaway” nature of the “youth” argument. Ken’s comment gets at this too – did E&M really, honestly think that being young, as such, is a useful explanatory category for the makers of the constitution? In my post I tried to show how we can see their point in a more complex way. That is, not so much about the question of generations, as the idea that “youth” as a concept and an idea about the self can actuate and inflect the structures of race, class, and gender that shape power relationships.

      Basically, I’m seeking here to think about not what you call a “vulgar” Beardianism, but a complex version – and naturally, that’s only a local corollary to the larger project of a complex Marxist historiography.

      • Tom,

        I don’t think you are engaging in “vulgar” Beardianism. If I do, I’ll let you know. I enjoy complex Marxist history. I enjoy anything that shows me something new.

        I also enjoy playing the Devil’s Advocate. Historians engage in all sorts of categorizations and periodizations all the time. Beard in his Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy argued there existed a continuity of interests caused by the existence of the Treasury securities, adoption of the constitution, etc.

        I’ll argue that E&M argue that the American Revolution created a whole new structure of politics on a national scale which younger, lesser known politicians took advantage and dominated politics until 1810s.

        Last month, there was a charity concert in New York City to raise money for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Were the performers Cliff Richard or from the punk movement of 1980? People from the 2000s? Nope. Paul McCartney, the Stones, one half of the Who, Clapton, etc. Those young men of the British Invasion have dominated popular music for almost as long the Revolutionary generation dominated American politics.

        As i get older, I have come to appreciate how a new political age can utterly destroy the vestiges of the previous age. The politics of my youth have been crushed by the neoliberalism of the past 35 years.

        “You say you want to change the constitution. Well, you know. We all want to change your head.”

        Best wishes.

  2. Excellent and thought-provoking post, Tom. If there’s one thing that teaching a broad swathe of US history over the last 2.5 years has done for my historical thinking, it is in considering the impact of generational changes. I particularly see the War of 1812 in the same light – a really fascinating liminal moment in which a new generation of leaders comes to prominence and puts its own twist on the Madisonian generation that is beginning to fade into the sunset. (I suppose there are similarities here with the 1790s, too – I think some of Matthew Hale’s forthcoming work will address that question).

    I guess the question I have, though, is how far we can take this as a category of historical analysis. I think here of Ed Miliband’s acceptance speech as Labour leader, where he claimed to be the same age as David Cameron, but a different generation. Is there not a danger that in attaching youth as a category of analysis, it can blind us to differences?

    After all, there were pretty serious divisions that emerged between Federalists and Republicans in the 1790s, often from people of the generation that had only just cut its teeth on war. (Why did people like Alexander Dallas or Matthew Livingston Davis, for example, identify so strongly with the Republican cause, when they in many ways were only slightly younger versions of Hamilton?).Or coming at it from a different angle, if class and privilege and power is so important to Elkins and McKitrick, then what would a study of non-elite youth in this period look like?

    • Ken – your final question raises exactly what I’m trying to get at; the “youth” described by E&M, just like the patriotic virtue, wise leadership, and so on, described by other historians of the founding, really stands in for (or at least, is structured by) considerations of class and privilege. A study of non-elite youth would be really interesting to me, because I think – just like my own study of post-revolutionary elites – it would have to show the ways revolutionary events and discourses impacted on class consciousness, identity, and modes of power or resistance.


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