Paul Finkelman’s account of antebellum decisions gets Justice Taney right, but not Justice Marshall, and especially not Justice Story.
Although most Americans can identify Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe as presidents, few can offer any details of their administrations beyond perhaps the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. And historical treatments often partition the quarter-century in which the Virginian Dynasty ruled the White House. Both works in the celebrated Oxford History of the United States that cover those administrations, for example, use the conclusion of the war of 1812 to end and begin their stories. Dividing the period in this manner suggests that the post-1812 world represented a significant break from the years that preceded it.
Kevin Gutzman, Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, and the author of numerous works on the early American republic, including several New York Times bestsellers, is having none of it. His newest work, The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, offers a richly comprehensive account of all three presidencies that is as accessible for the lay reader as it is informative for the specialist. His refusal to divide the era affords readers a better insight into the struggles of all three administrations to hold their party together and be faithful to its principles even as events forced it to adapt them in unanticipated ways. The result is Gutzman’s magnum opus, a work of classic history that is more wonderfully reminiscent of Henry Adams (whose name haunts the pages of the book) than nearly anything produced in the profession today.
The scope of The Jeffersonians makes a detailed review difficult, but several portions of the larger narrative make the work such a great read. The first is Gutzman’s discussion in the opening chapter of Jefferson’s first inaugural address. His analysis is the single best treatment of the justly famous speech. While most accounts of Jefferson’s presidency note the famous passage that “we are all republicans, we are all federalists” (note the lowercase “r” and “f”!), what makes Gutzman’s unique is the emphasis on the principles contained in the message. Gutzman notes how Jefferson tailored his inauguration and the address to “cool the partisan flame of the 1790s” and transform Jeffersonian constitutional principles into distinctly American ones. This “creed of our political faith” rested on the twin pillars of a robust federalism that confined the general government to its constitutional limitations and supported “state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns, and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies.” Cementing these principles as central to American freedom and happiness became one of the dominant themes of the quarter-century of Jeffersonian governance. The inclination of modern scholars to “wish away” the Jeffersonian devotion to federalism, Gutzman declares, has “yielded a significantly distorted, far less republican constitutional system.”
Gutzman’s emphasis on the “glittering eminence” of Albert Gallatin and his vital role as Treasury Secretary under Jefferson and Madison also deserves special mention. One cannot help but admire Gallatin in the book’s early pages. He is as much the center of the story as his more famous colleagues. The early successes of Jefferson’s presidency testify to Gallatin’s indefatigable energy and financial genius, which matched (perhaps surpassed) that of Hamilton, just as much as Jefferson’s political ideas or abilities. Gallatin was the glue that held Jeffersonian policies together, a reality demonstrated by the chaos that ensued after he left the Madison administration, when the United States found itself in dire financial straits and on the brink of war with England. Gutzman reveals Gallatin’s genius by taking an extended excursion into the Swiss immigrant’s economic thought without disrupting the narrative thread. Finding a discussion of Gallatin’s economic writings of the 1790s in the established historiography is difficult enough, but for it to be explained clearly for a lay audience is remarkable.
The War of 1812 and President Monroe’s famous tours of the United States display the same level of care and attention. Readers expecting microscopic examinations of battles and events of the War of 1812 will be satisfied. Gutzman devotes a sizable portion of the book to the military dimensions of the conflict, but at no point does he lose sight of the larger political and ideological aspects that brought the war about or their effects on the decision-making and actions of political and military figures. The War of 1812 thus becomes a fascinating account of political headaches, military frustrations, and national humiliations.
A similar attention to detail also makes Monroe’s famous tours of the United States more interesting than they probably deserve. In some ways, Gutzman’s meticulous detailing of what, to Monroe, must have been extremely tedious and repetitive celebrations nonetheless packs an emotional punch—or at least it did for this reader. Despite the numerous huzzahing and platitudes that spoke of a bright and unlimited future for the young republic, Monroe’s tours also reflected on the past half-century. Monroe was the last of the Virginian Dynasty and, except for John Marshall, the last significant member of the Revolutionary generation to hold power. His tour marked more than just America’s growth and development but also signaled the passing of the generation that secured independence and union. The republic’s future would now be in different hands. In reading Gutzman’s accounts of these celebrations, one gets the sense that most Americans at the time realized this moment too.
Gutzman’s incorporation of constitutional issues into the story deserves special attention. Far too often, scholars—historians especially—treat constitutional issues as a matter of secondary importance or as a cudgel to expose some hypocrisy on the part of the Jeffersonians. The classic example of the latter is Jefferson’s constitutional concerns over the Louisiana Purchase. Gutzman, however, places constitutional concerns at the center of The Jeffersonians. For the Virginia Dynasty and most Jeffersonians in general, the Constitution was not some malleable instrument that a clever politician or jurist could manipulate to justify their political desire. Instead, the Constitution’s limitations were just that: restrictions intended to shackle power and place prudential limits on political imagination. Gutzman is at his best when explaining these beliefs in his discussions of President Madison’s Bonus Veto and John Marshall’s Supreme Court. As Madison made clear, he supported the idea of the general government funding internal improvements, but since the Constitution did not explicitly grant such power, he could not endorse the bill. To grant the federal government a new power by interpretation instead of amendment would (to quote Madison) “have the effect of giving to Congress, a general power of legislation, instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them.”
That modern readers might find it difficult to take Madison’s Bonus Veto message seriously is more a testament to our failure to uphold Jeffersonian constitutionalism than it is to the Jeffersonian interpretation itself. As Gutzman points out, John Marshall and his Supreme Court are responsible for making Madison’s veto and the constitutionalism it represented seem like “a throwback.” Because The Jeffersonians takes constitutionalism seriously, it helps readers realize the extent to which Marshall and his able lieutenant (and Madison appointee), Joseph Story, proved the fly in the Jeffersonian constitutional ointment. Excellent chapters on Marbury v. Madison, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, Dartmouth v. Woodward, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden, chronicle the expansive reading of federal power. Gutzman demonstrates how the standard bearers of Jeffersonianism, inducing Jefferson himself, Madison, and the (sadly) lesser-known Spencer Roane and John Taylor of Caroline, realized the disastrous implications of Marshall’s decisions. If Marshall’s interpretations won the day, they would threaten the long-term survival of the principles contained in Jefferson’s first inaugural. Those fears proved prophetic. Even as the Jeffersonians won the “electoral battles, John Marshall, Joseph Story, and their colleagues were winning the jurisprudential, meaning eventually the constitutional, and ultimately the political war.”
Although Gutzman’s appreciation for Jeffersonian constitutionalism is apparent, he is less kind to Jeffersonian political ideology. Too often, he suggests, the Virginian Dynasty allowed a strict adherence to republican ideology to guide policy decisions rather than a realistic or pragmatic appraisal of situations. Nowhere was this rigid ideology more disastrous than in the policy decisions that pushed the country into a war with England. And the same ideology that caused America to blunder into the war left the country ill-prepared to fight it. Jeffersonian foreign policy operated under the assumption that Europe needed American agriculture more than Americans needed European luxuries. At the same time, the republican ideology that guided Jefferson and company considered any large domestic military force a threat to liberty and a blue-water navy an unnecessary expense (the success against Trioplian pirates, notwithstanding). As a result, early in Jefferson’s presidency, and with enthusiastic help from Gallatin, Republicans slashed the size of the army, replaced the blue-water navy with coastal gunboats, and repealed the direct taxes passed in the last years of Federalist control that paid for the military. Add to this a rather intense Anglophobia, and the consequences were policies that satiated ideology but did not address reality.
As the Napoleonic Wars reignited and England repeatedly violated American neutrality, Jefferson shelved a potentially important trade treaty with England and responded with the Embargo Act. The result “seriously damaged American agriculture” and “essentially handed over the role American shipping had played in the Western international economy to the British.” Eventually, when the United States stumbled into war with England in 1812, the Republican insistence that “little money or effort needed to be expended in maintaining America’s defense” left the young republic shockingly unprepared for any military action. The United States managed to escape the War of 1812 with a status quo antebellum treaty not because of Jeffersonian ideology but despite it. As Gutzman puts it, after fifteen years of an ideological foreign policy, “Republicans had succeeded in spite of themselves.”
Gutzman’s narrative is brisk and highly detailed. I have rarely read a book of this breadth and comprehensiveness that can also tell its story with such brevity. For all my praise of this book, I would be remiss if I did not offer a few criticisms. First is the detailed nature of the book. For specialists, this thoroughness is admirable. Still, lay readers and students might get lost in some of the proverbial weeds, especially once readers move into Gutzman’s account of the war. Second, the ending left something to be desired. Oddly, the book contains no formal conclusion. Rather, it ends jarringly and somewhat unsatisfactorily. Given the immense scope of the book, the attention to detail, and Gutzman’s keen analysis, a conclusion that ties all his themes together, explains the significance of the Virginian dynasty, and provides readers—particularly non-specialist readers—something to think about would have been helpful.
Yet these are all slight criticisms for a work that deserves immense praise and hopefully more than a few awards. To offer so sweeping an account of the Virginia Dynasty in just over 500 pages of short, pithy chapters—and to do so with dramatic storytelling, lively vignettes, and detailed analysis of important political speeches, military battles, and judicial decisions—is a feat only a master historian can accomplish. Finally, and in the highest praise I can give, The Jeffersonians should now be the standard historical account of the period.