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The New Nation in Crisis

by James Roger Sharp

Pub Date: Dec. 15th, 1993
ISBN: 0-300-05530-7
Publisher: Yale Univ.

 An insightful treatment of the ``hothouse atmosphere of passion, suspicion, and fear'' through which the US passed in the Federalist Era (1789-1801). To some extent, Sharp (History/Syracuse University) sets up a false thesis to knock down: that historians have tended to discount the birth pains of the young republic. Moveover, he accords scant space to Alexander Hamilton's landmark financial program. Still, he forcefully recounts one of America's most turbulent eras, in which the two-party system came into being. The Founding Fathers' high expectations that the new republic would be led by a virtuous aristocratic elite that would ensure civic harmony (as epitomized by George Washington) were soon dashed, and, by 1792, two opposing camps had formed: the pro-administration, pro-British Federalists, based in New England; and the anti-administration, pro-French Republicans, based in the South and led by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. The Federalists and Republicans each professed abhorrence of ``faction'' while demonizing the other side, and each party was prepared to go to the constitutional brink to see the triumph of its principles, with the Federalists abridging free speech in the Alien and Sedition Acts while Jefferson and Madison countenanced nullification with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Sharp convincingly argues that the election of 1800 ranks behind only that of 1860 as a challenge to the Union and the Constitution. With the House of Representatives called on to break an electoral tie between fellow Republicans Jefferson and Aaron Burr, some Federalists schemed to avoid ceding the election to the Republicans at all, while the Republican governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania prepared to call out the state militia in the event of Federalist usurpation. Jefferson's election averted the immediate crisis, but the genie of sectionalism was out of the bottle to bedevil the nation up to the Civil War. A cogent analysis of how the Constitution was tested by--and then came to accommodate--the brawling two-party system.