Book Review: McCoy, The Elusive Republic

Drew McCoy’s landmark work The Elusive Republic clearly articulates the republican vision of the Founders and firmly anchors it to the political and diplomatic history of the Early Republic. McCoy facilitates an encounter with the concerns of eighteenth century statesmen on their own terms, including the poorly understood rhetoric of “political economy.” Thinkers of the time generally understood civilizations as developing through multiple stages from childhood to adulthood and then to senescence, with England thought to occupy the last category by virtue of its large landless population, corrupt political climate, and centralization of capital. Though most thinkers believed this progression to be inevitable, McCoy argues that Republicans were determined to keep the nascent United States in early adulthood for as long as possible and thus hopefully stave off the development of a repressive regime against the likes of which they had successfully revolted. This led Republicans to idealize an agrarian republic in which hardworking freeholders would till the fertile ground and reap the benefits of their labors. International commerce would absorb surplus produce, thus keeping these farmers fully employed (and thus virtuous), but manufacturing beyond necessary implements using artisanal methods would be discouraged lest it promote the development of a landless, destitute, and vice-ridden class.

Two major implications followed from this ideological framework, according to McCoy. Land pressure grew in proportion to population, thus committing Republicans to Western expansion (which serves to highlight Jefferson’s accomplishment in securing the Louisiana Purchase). Attempting to export agricultural surpluses relied on unfettered access to European markets, but this was more of a hope than a reality in the Jeffersonian era. Though Jeffersonians enacted a fourteen month embargo in an attempt to force Europe (especially Britain) to drop their mercantilist policies, it not only failed in its stated aim but also encouraged the very type of domestic manufacture that Republicans distrusted. Both Western expansion and free trade ideology, moreover, necessitated an activist diplomacy decidedly at variance with the American ideal of aloofness from European affairs. Republicanism was thus forced to adapt to the realities of American weakness in contradistinction to Europe, which complicated the principle of agricultural export, and also come to terms with the potential for warfare (as in 1812) lurking beneath unfettered expansion and activist diplomacy.

McCoy’s work, though laudable, it is still liable to two criticisms. First, though his research is obviously meticulous and thorough, he assaults the reader with quotations, including long block quotes that seem unnecessary to sustain his argument. In conjunction with his penchant for repetition, McCoy’s book seems somewhat bloated. Secondly, he completely disregards Native Americans in this volume, including them only when referring to Jefferson’s initial plans for the trans-Mississippi West, and then in terms of their forced relocation from the East. In this sense he seems to be part of a startlingly myopic trend among historians of the Early Republic, but this is not a valid excuse. Nonetheless, this remains an exceptional and important work.

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