In this distinctive new interpretation of the events of the 1790s, Berkin (The Bill of Rights), professor emerita of history at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center, portrays the decade not as the era that inaugurated American party politics but as the seedtime of American nationalism. The difference is an academic nuance that may be lost on many readers of this nonetheless enjoyable and lively survey. The Federalists are the book’s leading characters, those whom historians often harshly blame for holding pent-up democracy at bay. By contrast, Berkin credits them with creating, through “the hard work of governance,” Americans’ enduring attachment to the nation, even while they maintain their loyalties to their individual states. She builds her case around the decade’s four well-known crises: the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791–1794, the Genet and so-called XYZ affairs of 1793 and 1798, and the tumult around the Alien and Sedition acts and the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798–1799. Alexander Hamilton plays a central role, as do George Washington and other Federalists. Of course, the Federalist Party disappeared, and the tensions between state and nation have never abated. Berkin allows readers to better see how the nationalist side of this struggle took form. (May)
"A Sovereign People is right that Americans-against the odds-forged a strong and lasting nationalism in the 1790s."
Wall Street Journal
"In this distinctive new interpretation of the events of the 1790s, Berkin...portrays the decade not as the era that inaugurated American party politics but as the seedtime of American nationalism.... [An] enjoyable and lively survey."
"[An] insightful political history... Berkin makes a reasonable case that the Founders' resolve left the U.S. a viable nation."
"In A Sovereign People, Carol Berkin has given us a powerful story about the birth of America-but one that most of us missed in school. After the Declaration and the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention, what then? As Washington says to Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, 'Winning was easy, young man. Governing's harder.' Just how much harder comes through in Berkin's compelling narrative, as she shows how the newborn republic survived a series of potentially fatal crises in the 1790s and toughened into a viable nation."
James Basker, President, Gilder Lehrman Institute of America
"Carol Berkin's masterful new book guides readers through the turbulent first decade of government under the Constitution. The decisions of the nation's first congresses and presidential administrations ensured the nation's survival and set precedents for our enduring national values. As we confront the challenges facing America in the 21st century, there is much we can learn from the crises of government legitimacy and sovereignty faced by the nation in the 1790s."
Julie Silverbrook, Executive Director, The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource)
"In a volume certain to provoke debate, Carol Berkin finishes the story begun in A Brilliant Solution, her masterful account of the forging of the Constitution. The new system of government, Berkin persuasively argues, was promptly tested by four crises. With meticulous research and vivid prose, Berkin deftly shows how the Federalist leadership not only weathered these emergencies but molded the fragile republic into a stable nation. A major book by a major historian."
Douglas R. Egerton, author of Thunder At the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America
"No one tells the American story better than Carol Berkin, who has written captivating narratives about the colonial era, the Revolution, and the Constitution. Her compelling new book reveals that by 1800, the sovereign American people had emerged with the Constitution as their true foundation, although they would debate its meaning for centuries to come."
Linda R. Monk, Author of The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution
"Carol Berkin's path breaking A Sovereign People highlights the way that high Federalists won the hearts and minds, not only of the rich and powerful, but of ordinary people from all walks of life, leading them to look to the nation and the Constitution rather than to the states for the source of their identity. Her astute analysis of four foreign and domestic crises brings the critical decade of the 1790s to life, capturing the tensions, the hopes and the fears of the people charged with creating the basis for a new and as yet untried nation. A tour de force."
Sheila Skemp, Clare Leslie Marquette Professor Emerita of History, University of Mississippi
"Carol Berkin has written a convincing reinterpretation of the four major crises of the 1790s. This essential book shows that the Whiskey Rebellion, Genet Affair, XYZ Affair, and Alien & Sedition Acts actually helped bind the nation together, increasing support for the government, a sense of American identity, and respect for the Constitution. Everyone interested in the history of this vital decade needs to have her book."
James H. Broussard, Director of the Lebanon Valley College Center for Political History
Berkin (history, City Univ. of New York; Civil War Wives) scrutinizes four crises of the 1790s to tell the story of how the Federalist party, under the leadership of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, united the nation under the authority of the federal government. The author's core argument suggests that the Federalist response to the Whiskey Rebellion, the Genet affair, the XYZ affair, and the Alien and Sedition Acts not only extended the scope of the government's power but also shifted people's negative perception of the government, giving rise to American nationalism. This work expands readers' understanding of the shifting loyalties from Washington the individual to the office of the president to the shared identity of the American people and finally to the U.S. Constitution itself. A solid companion to Eliga H. Gould's Among the Powers of the Earth for developing a nuanced take on how the nascent U.S. government solidified its power in the eyes of the American people and the world. VERDICT Essential reading for all history lovers.—Jessica Holland, Univ. of Kentucky, Lexington
A historian offers a "closer look at the 1790s" designed to "remind us that nationalism and patriotism once carried more positive meanings—and give us reason to believe they can do so again."In 1789, when the war hero George Washington became the first president, everyone expected great changes. They were not disappointed, writes Berkin (Emerita, History/Baruch Coll.; The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America's Liberties, 2015, etc.) in this insightful political history of the following decade. Washington and his supporters may have called themselves Federalists, but Berkin astutely notes that they were nationalists. They had written the Constitution and fought for ratification, and they wanted to make it work. They eventually succeeded after overcoming four bitter crises, which the author recounts at great length. No one realized how much the 1791 excise tax on distilled spirits would upset frontier farmers, who protested, often violently. Washington fumed at this "whiskey rebellion" for three years before crushing it. In 1793, Edmond Charles Genet, the "young and brash" new French minister, began aggressively recruiting Americans to support France's war against Britain. This outraged Washington's administration, but by year's end, he had self-destructed. The XYZ Affair is remembered as America's refusal to pay the corrupt French government a bribe. In truth, American diplomats dithered for months before deciding that there would be no quid pro quo. Opponents denounced the 1798 Aliens and Sedition Act as an attack on free speech. Controversy during its short, stormy life centered on interpreting the Constitution, which, Berkin emphasizes, showed that Americans had begun taking it seriously. Roughly 60 to 70 pages on each of the four political crises, filled with speeches, letters, editorials, polemics, debates, and legislation, may daunt some readers, but Berkin makes a reasonable case that the Founders' resolve left the U.S. a viable nation.