Federalism, Religion, Political culture, Christianity, Early republic
For being a short-lived political movement, Federalism certainly has received many revisionist historical treatments. A decade ago, Doron S. Ben-Atar and Barbara B. Oberg edited an essay collection titled Federalists Reconsidered (Charlottesville, VA, 1999), which concluded with an epilogue that declared the political movement was “still in need of reconsideration.” Recent scholarship has simultaneously declared Federalism a regionalist clique by New England cranks that had little impact outside of parochial political debates, a cultural movement with larger and longer-lasting influence on society in general than typically allowed, and a political mindset that shaped the American democratic tradition. Thus, even if the political party did not last more than three decades, all can agree that it has at least proved an enigma for historians and an oftrevisited concept in American historiography.
Jonathan Den Hartog offers a fresh contribution to this staid topic. In Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation, he argues three central things concerning the Federalist Party: First and foremost, that religion was at the heart of its political culture; second, that it was a national movement that, while varied in different regions, is coherent enough to trace a broader historical trajectory; and the third, most novel argument, that the Federalist Party’s demise had as much to do with its religious packaging as it did with its political miscalculations. Building on this last point, Den Hartog goes further by boldly claiming the Federalist Party’s later voluntarist innovations had a significant impact in shaping American politics; he tantalizingly calls this a “Federalization of American Christianity” (7). Though Patriotism and Piety’s success varies with each of these approaches, its provocative arguments should help revise common mis-perceptions we have concerning religious and political culture during the early republic. [End Page 402]
In Den Hartog’s hands, the Federalist Party was, at its heart, a religious movement. Historians have focused too much on Alexander Hamilton, he tells us, to recognize that for a majority of those of the Federalist persuasion, religion played a significant and tangible role in the federal polity. “Historians misunderstand Federalism,” he explains, “when they ignore the religious component of their language and activity” (16). Though he overstates previous scholarly avoidance of the Federalist Party’s religious message—the connection between Federalism and New England’s Congregationalist theology is a historiographical mainstay—he is persuasive when it comes to both its centrality and diversity. Indeed, perhaps the book’s most important contribution is its demonstration of the interplay between politics and religion: Historians have long noted that the former helped frame the latter, yet it is only recently that the inverse has been acknowledged as equally true. Patriotism and Piety is an apt example of how that was truly the case in America’s first decades.
The second primary contribution, the attempt to demonstrate Federalism’s geographic depth and intellectual diversity, is what gives the book structure: Each chapter is a different case study examining one or two individuals and the variants of the Federalist Party they represent. The first chapter focuses on John Jay and the evolution of evangelical politics within the Federalist psyche. The book then moves on to Timothy Dwight and Jedidiah Morse and their invocation of combative politics in their construction of a Federalist political message. Chapters 3 and 4 contrast the approaches of Caleb Strong and Elias Boudinot; the former was representative of a more conservative Federalist spirit, while the latter was an embodiment of the transition to a more voluntarist outlook. The next comparative chapter posits Unitarian Federalists John Adams and Henry Ware as a contrast to the rising democratic tide within the movement. Further demonstrating the diversity within Federalism, Chapter 6 looks at South Carolinians Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Henry William De Saussure, which brings the presence of slavery into the equation of how Federalists cultivated visions of an ordered society. The final chapters examine the...