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 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.