on August 10, 2009
Other reviewers have provided thoughtful and comprehensive reviews of the content of this excellent book. I'll focus my own on the book as a Good Read. It's perhaps the best on U.S. history that I've read since Daniel Howe's What God Hath Wrought, the next one in the Oxford series, which has the same virtues. It is beautifully written and flows well; the style is precise and compact rather than elegant, but a model of measured exposition. The examples mesh beautifully into its superbly modulated flow of argument. Just about every paragraph has a point to make that is convincing and clear. This slows it down in some ways, all good ones. First, it's long and it will take months rather than days to go through and it needs active engagement and reflection by the reader. It's not skimming material. Second, it builds its picture in a way that precludes fast skipping.
It doesn't have an axe to grind. It's a fairly centrist analysis that has no debunking and takes the leading political figures as essentially honorable individuals - almost all male, of course - working their way honestly to make the transition from the society and social hierarchies they were brought up in to the creation of a unique republic that fused the many interests and differences of American diversity. He places less emphasis than Howe on the economic and social dynamics underlying the cancerous issue of slavery, though his chapter, Between Slavery and Freedom, is a fine summary of how and why the Revolutionary leaders were so misguided in their conviction that it would just fade away. The last paragraph of the over 700 pages concludes that "The Civil War was the climax of a tragedy that was preordained from the time of the Revolution."
He shows how the new "middling class" became so pivotal in the shaping of a new society. He talks of this as the momentous social struggle that underlay so much of the moves to create a republic of law and freedom but also of liberal values. There is a superb balance between the political, social and judicial portrayals and a downplaying of the Great Men psychodramas, with a more useful analysis of their beliefs and intentions. The book is perhaps a little light on economic development and its political dimensions.
As other reviewers note, it requires a fairly solid prior knowledge of US history. It's not academic in the pejorative sense but neither is it a quick guide. It assumes that the reader has a fair understanding, for instance, of the personalities and biographies of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton (whose restoration as a major figure seems to be a common thread in recent scholarship.) I would not expect students or casual readers to enjoy it. I am not a specialist in the field, though I read widely and often in it. I found that it crystallized and threw new light on what I already knew and pointed to many aspects of the period that I did not know.
I hope you get as much out of it as I have. It's a model of how to fuse "popular" and scholarly history.
on October 21, 2009
Thesis and Summary:
In this, the 8th volume of Oxford's History of the United States, Gordon Wood weighs in on the Washington through Madison administrations, and gives a broad perspective analysis of the burgeoning American and American culture. Indeed, Wood's thesis can be summed up to say that by 1815 America was a thoroughly transformed nation from the one that initiated the revolution in 1776: a nation that had gone from gentleman leaders to a far more inclusive- albeit brutish- democracy.
Woods begins his journey to American Democracy by explaining the "middling" class of Americans that emerged with the ratification of the Constitution. This new class of Americans did not personify the classical notion of virtue that Federalists found necessary to lead. They were a people possessed of a native congeniality for the sake of prosperity. They were fond of money making (and good at it), they weren't Harvard or Princeton educated, and they voted. It is this middling class that is the protagonist (for lack of better word) of Wood's work. He sees their growth as the Federalists' death and he sees Jefferson as their chief advocate and the man responsible for their ascendance to power. Herein one finds Wood's bias. He simply adores Thomas Jefferson and makes bare faced obeisance to him at every turn of the page it seems while looking to traduce Federalists as much as possible. As I read this substantial work, I couldn't help but to constantly contrast it with Elkins and McKitrick's The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. Both works are monumental in scope, but one is sympathetic to Federalists and the other to Republicans.
Chapters 3, 4 and 5 together offer a perplexing and contradictory view of the Washington administration. One the one hand, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists ignored the middle class as beneath them. On the other, it was Alexander Hamilton's policies that brought tremendous prosperity that led to Federalist popularity in the wake of the Jay and Pickney treaties and the Whiskey Rebellion. Indeed, throughout the work, Wood never discredits the policies of the Federalists; he just merely gives them no credit for those policies.
In chapter 3, The Federalist Program, Wood makes the somewhat dubious claim that Hamilton did not have the foresight to see the future of American manufacturing. I would think that both of Hamilton's foremost biographers (McDonald and Chernow) would strongly disagree, as would Hamilton himself. Further, Wood makes an attempt to characterize Federalist policies as a Walpoleon spoils system without admitting that this was the first federal government instituted in the United States and suffered the exigencies of such: authority, legitimacy and revenue. Should they have appointed people who wanted nothing more than to undermine federal power in favor of state power? Also, for all of Wood's conjecture of a spoils system, no evidence is presented of a corrupt appointment process.
Chapter 4 shows us the emergence of Jefferson and Madison as the opposition to Federalist policy. They fight the assumption of state debts, the chartering of the Bank of the United States (which they let expire in 1810), and Hamilton's stance on foreign policy. As has become a common theme by this point in the book, Wood manages to find a way to justify Jefferson and Madison's actions with Philip Freneau while he has the time to take umbrage with the tone used by Alexander Hamilton (page 154) in totally destroying Jefferson's erroneous fears of his financial system. It really came as no surprise that Wood came down softly on the Republicans in respect to the Genet mission as well.
Wood does a much better job with the Adams administration than his predecessor. Adams fits the Federalist mold that Woods has pigeonholed them all into. He was a monarchist, a self appointed aristocrat and someone who couldn't have foreseen a use for Wood's "middling" class. Wood's makes an excellent case in chapter 6 that the disinterested aristocrat was not possible in America. American land speculation was terribly risky and none sans John Jay could hope to uphold the image of the landed English gentry. He also hits the nail on the head with the "X,Y, Z Affair" and the "Quasi War." He rightly concludes that Federalist gains were offset by their paranoid fears of the "Jacobian" influence. He does not, however, identify the split in the Federalist camp soon enough. Some time before Adams' failed second run at the Presidency the Federalists had already split between he and Hamilton. Hamilton was, in fact, vehemently against the Alien and Sedition Acts and had already brought many Federalists away from Adams.
Having done away with the Federalists, Wood now turns to Jefferson. Certainly no one writing since Dumas Malone has had a better grasp of Jefferson, but Wood's admiration of the man simply leads to what only can be viewed as equivocating on many points. It seems Woods gives Jefferson credit for the entire Revolution on page 287! Wood does correctly point out Republican ideology on page 311 when he quotes Wartman. When Wartman claims that public opinion leads to egalitarian truth, he basically is laying the groundwork for justifying anything. Of course, this is the same ideology that would be used to justify slavery some decades later. It is this that killed the Federalists. They never had a blind devotion to public opinion because they never viewed themselves as a political party. Republicans began as the opposition party to the first administration, they had always acted as a party whether they admitted it or not. When Jefferson had won power, Federalists were already dissipated enough as to never constitute an opposition party. It was not the "middling" class as Wood assumes that killed the Federalists, but the fact that Federalists never saw themselves as a political party.
Woods two chapters on the law (11 and 12) represent the two strongest chapters in the book. Beginning with his proper distinction of colonial judges against their English counterparts, Wood explains the extraordinary power that has always existed in the U.S. judiciary except under the Articles of Confederation. With the adoption of the Constitution and the Federalist administration, Federalist judges began to bring unified law to all people in the U.S. Wood rightly credit John Marshall as bringing judicial review to the U.S. by using an ex post facto explanation in the Marbury v. Madison case. Woods shows how Marshall treated the constitution as law. Fundamental law to be sure, but law nonetheless, and subject to judges' review as all laws are. Wood also correctly points out the significance of the Dartmouth College case. It single handedly did more to protect the "middling" class and the money making endeavors than any legislation passed by a Republican. Once again, it seems, that Federalist policy and decision making is in fact what allows this "middling" class to emerge, and not the high minded idealism of Thomas Jefferson. In fact, I am hard pressed to find one piece of legislation cited by Wood and enacted by Jeffersonian-Republicans that helped this "middling" class emerge that Wood is so sure was dependent upon them.
With the chapters in Republican Diplomacy and the War of 1812 not even a scholar of Wood's stature can prevaricate enough to hide the disaster of the Republican administrations.
1) Allowing the Bank of the United States to expire was a total failure and had to be re chartered
2) Decreasing the size of the Army and Navy in 1810 was not justifiable
3) Non importation and embargo act were abject failures
4) War of 1812 resulted in the burning of the U.S. Capital and status quo ante
In every case Wood attempts to use the idealism of Madison and Jefferson as a buttress against their poor decisions, even going so far as to compare their trade sanctions with modern day ones (page 633), but it runs rather shallow. Expecting the reader to level out the trade sanctions from a nascent economy to those exercised by the megalith that is the modern U.S. economy is a bit much.
In the end, the conclusion Wood reaches- that Thomas Jefferson was almost singly responsible for the emergence of the new American- simply does not follow from the 738 pages of fact he presented. The heroes that come through are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall.
Wood's writing is superb and his scholarship is sound. Although I disagree with his conclusions, there is no mistaking the quality of his work. The simple readability of this work is amazing for a tome of this length and depth. To be sure, it is not a simple breeze through over the weekend, but it is not so arduous that you dread having to pick it up each night. Indeed, it is a joy to pick up night after night and read. I took almost 12 pages of notes as I read this book and welcome any comments. I put time and effort into this review, and do recommend this book even though I give it only 3 stars. I hope you find this review helpful even if you do not agree.
on April 2, 2010
What an odd, brilliant, and maddening book. Wood is a very distinguished historian: his The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia) is required reading for any student of the revolution, and after several years' hiatus, he has come back with several outstanding works, most notably The Radicalism of the American Revolution and The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. But like many great scholars, he has become infatuated with his own thesis, namely, that the revolution represented the beginning of a radical cultural transformation of America based on liberty and equality.. And because of this, in Empire of Liberty he makes several judgments of both coverage and assessment that are blinkered and often grotesquely unfair. The bottom line, as other reviewers have suggested, is that in order to adequately appreciate the politics of the early national period, you really should read Wood's work together with Elkins and Mckitrick's The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 or Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and/or American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. That's a tall order, but Wood unfortunately makes us do it.
First, the good news. Empire of Liberty brilliantly succeeds in avoiding the "high politics" focus of traditional narrative history while also steering clear of dreary, overly technical and quantitative social history. Wood is at his best in this book as a CULTURAL historian, shrewdly demonstrating how the quarter-century between 1789 and 1815 manifested a transformation of American culture. His central organizing concept is that of the growing dominance of "middling sorts," who were neither aristocrats nor mere laborers but rather energetic men on the make (virtually always men), who used their wits and hard work to succeed, and who rejected the traditional deference to political and social elites. Again and again, Wood takes us into small farms and tinkerers' shops, across the Alleghenies and into new land subdivisions, and shows how the first generation of Americans embraced social mobility and a fluid upwardly mobile society. He is particularly brilliant in his discussion of religion, showing how new Protestant sects emerged and rejected the hierarchical nature of traditional Anglican and Congregationalist establishments.
It doesn't hurt that Wood is a superb writer. It is no small feat to actually explain Alexander Hamilton's financial program coherently and clearly, but Wood does it. He is able to keep the reader on the big picture of politics without drowning us in minutiae. And I believe he is particularly persuasive in breaking us out of the old "northern Federalists versus southern Jeffersonians" narrative of the period. Instead, his heroes are the NORTHERN Republicans, who embraced a commercial society and the acquisition of wealth while rejecting what they saw as Federalist condescension.
But he is so focused on these northerners and their Republicanism, so committed to his account of the rise of the middling sorts, so devoted to seeing the time as these people saw it, that he begins to lack all perspective. Jefferson is the hero of this book, and Wood spares no effort in somehow connecting Jefferson to all that was good and true in America during the period. He tries to see Jefferson as Jefferson saw himself. But that's a problem, for few figures in US history have been capable of such thoroughgoing self-deception as The Sage of Monticello. What we wind up with when it comes to assessing republicanism begins to look less like history and more like a propaganda exercise.
The searing, brutal contradiction at the heart of the Jeffersonians' world-view was, of course, their embrace of the slave system. "Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for freedom from the drivers of Negroes?" asked Dr. Johnson, and while Wood snidely says that Jefferson understood the contradiction and needed no lecturing, he never really grapples with the way in which slavery affected, conditioned, influenced, and controlled every aspect of the Jeffersonian vision. We really hear nothing about slavery until more than 2/3 of the way through the book; Wood provides us with a superb chapter on slavery, and then basically forgets it again until a couple of paragraphs at the conclusion.
He consistently ignores, downplays, elides, or just overlooks what slavery meant politically to the Jeffersonian movement. He never considers the possibility that a key to Jefferson's hatred of national governmental power was the threat of controlling or removing the slave system. Throughout the book we read confident assertions about the meaning of America and Jeffersonian Republicanism, and then with the tag line "at least in the north." But what Wood conveniently fails to face squarely is that the Jeffersonian operation was based on SOUTHERN power: for all his talk about northern Jeffersonians, Jefferson himself and the others at the center of the Republican Party made very sure that the Virginians remained firmly in control. That was why they made sure to destroy Aaron Burr, the only northern Republican who could possibly have threatened them.
If that isn't bad enough, his treatment of the Federalists is just shockingly unfair. The majority of quotes concerning the Federalists, what they believed, and how they behaved comes from their Republican opponents. Virtually every time the word "Federalist" is mentioned, the adjective "aristocratic" precedes it. To hear Wood tell it, you'd never know that at the end of the day, much of the Federalist policy program survived because Jeffersonian attempts to dismantle it were met with catastrophic policy failure. Wood says that the War of 1812 was a triumph of Republicanism without ever getting around to the fact that, say, President Madison reconstituted the Bank of the United States in 1816 because getting rid of it in 1811 drove the country into bankruptcy. Or that the idea of a coherent American NATIONAL identity that eventually emerged was a central FEDERALIST policy goal. Or that the Federalists' insistence on a balanced economy with a substantial manufacturing base eventually came about; instead, you only hear that the manufacturing that emerged was bottom-up, not top-down, as the Federalists wanted. Except that they were far more diverse in thinking than that. No matter: the Federalists were aristocrats, and thus ANY development that was not aristocratic must have been Republican. He insists that northern middling sorts were were Republican because they hated taxes; but it was the success of Hamilton's financial program that enabled the states to reduce taxes. Wood talks about how building roads helped the middling sorts: but it was the Federalists, not the Jeffersonians, who supported it.
Wood mentions Federalist antislavery, but only in passing; why? Because paying more attention to it would have forced him to admit that many Federalists worked hard against slavery, defended Toussaint L'Ouverture's regime in Haiti, and that Jefferson undercut him. You would never know from Wood's account that Jefferson only triumphed in 1800 because of the south's inflated electoral vote total from the 3/5 clause (otherwise, Adams would have remained in office). But Wood can't tell you that, because that would undermine his assertion that there was huge popular love for Jefferson -- a fact that we know because, well, Jefferson said so!
I've gone on too long. This is an important and very good book. It is required reading. But beware. Wood has an agenda, and it's best that it not remain hidden.
At the outset of his history of the United States between 1789 - 1815, Professor Gordon Wood aptly describes his subject as "Rip Van Winkle's America". Van Winkle, of course, was the subject of a story by Washington Irving. Rip goes to sleep in his small village prior to the American Revolution and wakes up 20 years later to find a vastly changed United States, larger in size, disputatious, commercial, and substantially more democratic than had been the case when Rip began his long nap.
Rip's story captures the development of the United States as Wood portrays it. Beginning with the adoption of the Constitution, which was designed to cure the excesses of individualism and local government under the Articles of the Confederation, Wood sets a theme of the increasing democratization of the United States, as political parties come to play a central role in American life and Thomas Jefferson is elected president in 1800 on a platform of equality (for white males, in any event) and of a limited role for the central government. What Wood describes as the "middling" class as opposed to the budding aristocracy of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and some of the other Founders, comes to set the dominant tone of American life.
Besides his use of the story of Rip Van Winkle, Wood sets the tone of his book with its title, "Empire of Liberty." Wood uses this term in a chapter titled "The Jeffersonian West" which describes the great expansion of the United States achieved by the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson himself used the term "Empire of Liberty" to describe his vision for the United States. As Wood explains the term: "`Empire" for [Jefferson] did not mean the coercive domination of alien peoples; instead, it meant a nation of citizens spread over vast tracts of land. Yet the British Empire had given enough ambiguity to the term to lend some irony to Jefferson's use of it. (p. 357, footnote omitted) Thus, another theme of Wood's study, in addition to democratization, is expansion. The United States grows in both area in population. The United States gradually frees itself of domination by foreign powers, both Britain and France, to form a growing sense of itself as an independent nation. At the end of the book, following what appeared to be a lucky avoidance of disaster in the War of 1812, the United States became "A World within Themselves", to use the title of Wood's insightful concluding chapter, as Americans looked to themselves rather that to Europe as the source of trade, economic growth, and culture.
Wood's long, thorough, and comprehensive study develops his themes in a variety of ways. He offers a political history of the United States beginning with the administration of George Washington and concluding with the administration of the fourth president, James Madison, through the end of the War of 1812. The tumult of this early period frequently is overlooked by those with only a casual familiarity with American history. Political disagreements were sharp, personal, and violent. There were near-wars with both France in Britain and an actual war with Britain in 1812, which sealed the result of the first war - the American Revolution. The era included a disputed presidential election in 1800, the trial of Aaron Burr, Jefferson's first vice-president, for treason, the impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice and much else. With the possible exception of the Civil War era, the early days of the United States were the most difficult time in our history.
Wood also offers insightful chapters on the development of American law and of the doctrine of Judicial Review under the John Marshall, the Great Chief Justice. He spends substantial space on slavery, with both the North and the South tragically miscalculating how this institution would come close to destroying the nation. In several chapters, Wood explores the growth of American culture during this period, a subject frequently overlooked. And there is an important chapter on the Second Awakening and on American religion. Wood shows that the separation of government from denominations, gave religion in the United States its own non-hierarchical, individual character and strengthened it, rather than having religion become a casualty of the Enlightenment.
Wood offers stories of commercialization, ambition and drive on behalf of his "middling" class with anecdotes of people who succeeded through their own efforts and of some individuals, such as Robert Fulton whose inventiveness and ingenuity made them famous. With slavery and its treatment of the Indians, Wood shows that the United States had serious failings. But the overall tone of this book is one of optimism, exuberance and hope for the promise of America. Thomas Jefferson is the single most dominating figure in this book. For all Jefferson's faults and for all the changes in his historical reputation, Wood clearly admires Jefferson immensely. Jefferson's vision, with its goal of democratization and independence, forms the heart of Wood's picture of what the United States could become.
Wood's book is the latest in a series called the "Oxford History of the United States." Each of these volumes is written by a distinguished scholar and presents, for the specialist and the interested lay reader, important and informed studies of periods in our Nation's history. It is a rare pleasure to be able to study American history through these books and through the differing perspectives of their authors. Wood's book, with its scholarship and emphasis on the Jeffersonian vision, is an exemplary addition to this series. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review "Empire of Liberty" here as part of the Amazon "Vine" program.
on October 25, 2009
For anyone who is a fan of the Oxford History of the United States series, this latest volume will be an invaluable edition to your collection. It nicely balances chapters on education/arts/culture, law, and religion in America, with the importance of major legislation setting up the foundation of the country, the roles of Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and the disputes between federalist and anti-federalist influences following the radification of the Constitution.
Beyond the text itself - the work is supposed to fit in with the other volumes of the Oxford History of America series and present a definitive history of the entire era. In this goal - the text fails absolutely. I love the Oxford Series and have read all 8 volumes, however, in several ways this work, while so complete through 1808, lacks the clarity of vision for the end of the period.
Empire of Liberty devotes less than 80 pages to Madison's presidency and the War of 1812. The reader is given the distinct impression that the author simply ran out of time - like reviewing a student's essay that clearly spent too much time on the first half of an answer, resulting in an abbreviated second half. This is unfortunate, as the Oxford Series has published a number of longer works, and certainly would have lost no readers by including an additional 100 pages to make the work truely complete. Unlike What God Hath Wrought and Freedom From Fear - Empire of Liberty is going to require a serious and extended second edition if it wants to purport to be a complete history of the era through 1815.
I disagree strongly with the implication that the author has no ideological axe in his work. Wood is clearly obsessed with stressing and explaining the American developments after radificiation with early Americans distrust of "Monarchy." In fact Monarchy, monarchial, and other forms appear more than 700 times over the course of the text. (I started tallying in chapter 3 - it was that obvious). Unlike some reviews here, I do not think Wood has an overt political bias favoring the Jeffersonian Republicans or skewering Hamiltonian Federalists, but certainly there is a feeling of an academic agenda that at times made me put the book down in a way that Freedom from Fear, What God Hath Wrought, Battle Cry for Freedom, and Glorious Cause (other remarkable and superior volumes in the Oxford series) did not.
Finally, I was shocked at a couple key omissions. There is no mention of the "era of good feelings" which many historians term the era that led to Jefferson's emergence as President. The War of 1812 is covered in a mere 35 pages, Madison's first election is mentioned in passing, with no discussion of his vice president or a list of his cabinent officers. There is no mention of the death of President Washington's reaction around the country. The election of 1812 covered in two paragraphs. Other works in the series have previewed important players and events in the next text, in a way that makes reading the texts in order appear seamless, but Howe's What God Hath Wrought profiles many leaders as having important roles in the War of 1812 that are simply omitted in Wood's work.
Accordingly, by the standards of a well written and researched history text, Empire of Liberty exceeds expectations. Doubtless, like many of its companion volumes, it will win awards. But as for allowing the History of the United States series to present a complete and thorough accounting of the 1808-1815 era, this work and the Oxford Series have suffered a tremendous blow that only a revised second edition or new volume can satisfactorily address.
on October 21, 2012
The Oxford History of the US is one of the greatest series of history books of which I am aware. Being of that series, Empire of Liberty (EoL) is certainly an interesting and in-depth look at the United States during a critical period in our evolution. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period.
That said, there are several reasons I would only give this volume 3 stars.
The book is structured as a series of essays on topics. So for instance, a chapter (essay) on the evolution of Amerian law is followed by a chapter (essay) on Chief Justice Marshall. A reader can't help wondering if the two topics could be covered at once. Because of this structure, almost every chapter until the last few is constantly reviewing the entire period. Over and over again, the book swings through a period of 50 years or more. The essay structure is further exacerbated since many of the chapters are structured as multiple essays. The chapter on religion for instance has a separate essay on millenial beliefs.
Overall while the essay structure might be interesting for many readers on particular topics, it leads the book to be a tough read. And it also makes it difficult to get a feel of the overall chronology of the period. Even more distracting for me, this essay structure leads the book to often be a list of examples. Take the millenial essay, it is essentially a list of millenial proponents and statements during the period. OK, but this doesn't place these people in context or give one a feel for how they fit overall in the period.
EoL is a great book. (It probably is warranted 5 stars compared to the mass of history books.) But as part of the Oxford series, I would expect it to be better written.
on June 5, 2011
It's all there -- the contest between advocates of big versus small government, deficit hawks versus deficit doves, and the politics of character assassination -- 200 years ago. Wood's clear and lively narrative of the first 25 years of post-Revolution America is shaped to fit recognisably within a modern frame of reference.
The risk of relevance, of course, is the perception of partisanship and, as some of the reviews here indicate, Wood does not escape the trap. I share their feeling that he lacks objectivity when it comes to assessing Jefferson. Not that he cooks the book by omitting relevant material; in fact, there is more than enough here to justify a very different assessment from the one Wood prefers. It comes as no surprise to find he got his title, "Empire of Liberty," from an expression attributed to Jefferson, because the triumph that Wood's attributes to those who shook off the recidivism, as he sees it, of the Federalists is largely put down to Jefferson's genius. In so doing, all that is good about Wood's hero is absolute and all that is not is "ironical" (i.e. atypical, unintentional, mysterious).
And yet, Jefferson's agrarian nostalgia, isolationism, anti-commercial ideology, ignorance of economic principles, personal and political double-standards, and propensity to hate those he disagreed with could be said to have weakened and betrayed the national opportunities that were created during the Washington-Hamilton ascendency. Could be said. It's a complex debate, of course, and to Wood's credit -- although he connects the dots in a somewhat perverse way to arrive at his conclusions -- he acknowledges the conflicting evidence.
If I may be forgiven for defending my namesake, the one respect in which Wood can seem devious is in his use of Hamilton. He starts out by treating him in mostly favourable terms -- Revolutionary War hero, intellectual giant among the Founders, especially in economic matters, and disinterested politician. But, later, long after Hamilton has left the public stage (indeed has been killed), the man looms even larger in the narrative as a name synonymous with everything opposed to Jeffersonian liberty and independence (for Wood, the Jeffersonian Revolution becomes more important than the American Revolution). Thus (p654) Hamilton's name is invoked to deflect blame from Jefferson's about-face on civil liberties and small government; Hamilton's name is paired with Napoleon (p698) when, of course, Jefferson was the great Francophile; and (p730) Hamilton alone is the "Old World" to Jefferson's new. We need not ask why Wood chooses not to make similar use of, say, Washington, even though he could serve almost as well (based on the evidence the author presents). One might say that the history here is good, but the panegyric is not.
The volume's great strength is Wood's ability to synthesise the vast scholarship devoted to this period. His sources are mainly secondary, but that is probably unavoidable in a series like this one. His chapters on the emergence of a federal judiciary, his elucidation of the arguments for and against a central bank, and his discussions of the intellectual currents flowing through this late-Enlightenment period are all impressive and well worth reading. His treatment of slavery is less satisfying. I was surprised to come upon this (p538), for example: "Free blacks now had to carry papers or wear arm patches affirming their status; of course, this was partly for their own security..." To me, it seems Wood is confusing a rationalisation with an explanation.
There is much to enjoy and think about in this book. It has unexplored contradictions, certainly, but any age, any personality, will not give up all its secrets.
Gordon Wood's new contribution to the Oxford History of the United States is without any question one of the finest historical works that I have ever read. In fact, I learned so much from the preview copy that I received through the Amazon Vine Program that I intend to buy a copy when it is published next month. I've twice read his classic work THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION as well as his brief book THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: A HISTORY.
This new work picks up at the point where most of Wood's other works have left off. His highly regarded history of the revolutionary period, THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC 1776-1787, for instance, ends with the creation of the American republic, but not the practical working out. If you are familiar with Wood's work the themes that he emphasizes are familiar. The dominant intellectual issues of the age were centered around the shift from a monarchial and hierarchical view of political society to one where republicanism and democracy dominated instead. Much of Wood's book is focused on the ideas of the age. The book is far more an entry in the history of ideas rather than a social history. Wood doesn't completely neglect social and cultural history, but far and away the emphasis of the book is on political history.
There are several crucial periods in American history, but it is hard to top a segment of American history that embraces the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison; the Louisiana Purchase and the expedition of Lewis and Clark; John Marshall and his role in forming the American legal system; and the growing role of evangelical religion after its eclipse of the rational religion that was embraced by all of the Founders (Jefferson, for instance, was in despair at the emotional religion that dominated after his presidency, instead of the Unitarianism or Deism that he preferred).
The book contains a wonderful bibliographic essay that will prove invaluable to anyone wanting to expand their reading of the years following the ratification of the constitution. I've read pretty extensively in the period, including biographies of all of the major founders and several surveys of the period, but this is hands down the book I would recommend to anyone on the period if I can recommend only one book. Just as Wood's prior works had established him as perhaps the premiere historian of the revolutionary period, so this work should become the premiere historical work on the federalist and early democratic period.
In this volume, an Oxford History that fills a gap between the Revolutionary period and the early industrial years, Gordon Wood provides us with a multifaceted story. It's not just a linear story of how the U.S. evolved from its new Constitutional rebirth in 1789 through the end of the War of 1812, which, he tells us, definitely broke the U.S. from its British cultural and civic roots.
It's also a story of many beginnings in American culture and society. We learn that the Federalist movement was not so much a party as a social order, the remnants of an aristocratic way of life exemplified by Washington and Adams, a life and culture that would be subsumed under a republican mindset, a "Republican Party" as Wood terms it (later "Democratic-Republican", later simply Democratic). Indeed, he concludes, at the end of this period, Americans "looked back in awe and wonder at all the Founders and saw in them heroic leaders the likes of which they knew they would never see again in America. Yet they also knew they now lived in a different world, a bustling Democratic world."
Wood also shows how America interacted, not just with its aristocracy and the aristocratic outer world evoked by Britain. We see how the French Revolution both was affected by, and affected, ours. We see how by 1815, with the re-established old order in Europe, that America would become unique, the only democratic republic in the world of the Holy Alliance. We see how, economically, politically and otherwise, it would become a world of its own. We see how the "Jeffersonian West" of the Louisiana Purchase would also devolve from Europe, and emerge, clearly so, as early as 1815, and now the way west would open.
Wood does not neglect the fact that, although post-Federalist America did profess a new equality, it was not so for those who were native American, or women, or slaves. Indeed, the Framers, he shows, seemed to think that slavery would wither, when by 1815 it would become entrenched, a clever observation, but he adds that it maintained a slaveholder aristocracy that was already becoming marginalized and defensive.
He also shows some of the other threads beginning in the Jeffersonian period, the rise of a uniquely American religious culture, freed of the Church of England, that would grow westward and more vigorous. He shows how an independent U.S. judiciary, and the principle of judicial review, was not a given but indeed a development that would rise during the period. "Precisely because of the exuberantly democratic nature of American politics, the judiciary right from the nation's beginning acquired a special power that it has never lost." He shows how this spirited order would drive the early entrepreneurs and canal builders in advance of an industrial age. And, he tells these stories in terms that laypeople would find illuminating - and cohesive.
There's more, but suffice to say that the research seems to be impeccable, and that the writing clear and fascinating. This book is literature and history, and is a worthy addition to the Oxford History series.
"Empire of Liberty" is an examination of the political, social, and economic changes that the United States underwent between the signing of the Constitution in 1789 and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, by Gordon S. Wood, scholar of the American Revolutionary era and recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for history for "The Radicalism of the American Revolution". As Prof. Wood has extensive background in the subject of the early republic, he has well-formed opinions about people, events, and their implications. This volume, like others in Oxford's "History of the United States" series, takes a middle road ideologically. My own knowledge of the social history of this period is greater than the political, and I don't always agree with Wood's assessment. But that is the nature of history: it's gone, and future generations are left to emphasize what we will.
"Empire of Liberty" follows the transition from the 18th to 19th centuries, the abandonment of the Revolution's Enlightenment, rationalist principles for a more commercial, religious nation that would be driven by its middle class to become an industrial power. In many ways, the Founders, the men whose ambitions and ideas created the United States, are left behind. But Wood starts when the ideologies of the Revolution are first coming into question but still foremost in people's minds, in 1789, when an excess of democracy prompted calls for a national constitution. He follows the often acrimonious battles between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. And, just as the Republicans win the battle to define the character of this nation and its government, they are seemingly overtaken by the fruits of the their own ideas.
Though it occasionally gets philosophical, this is primarily a tour of the political events and ideas of the period and secondly a look at what was going on socially and economically. There was massive migration westward, to the extent that some feared that the country was emptying out and Americans were turning their backs on civilization. And nearly the entire period played out against a background of world war between Britain and France, which, just as it had profoundly affected the outcome of the Revolutionary War a decade before, was to involve the US in a Quasi-War with France and a genuine war with Britain in 1812. We also see the nation's practice and attitude toward slavery changing during that time, only to become more reactionary in the South, creating a cultural divide that proved insurmountable.
"Empire of Liberty"'s 19 chapters are semi-chronological. Each is dedicated to a different subject, so the chronology doubles back on itself sometimes. In simple terms, these are topics that Wood covers: the circumstances under which the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist economic agenda, the emergence of a Republican opposition party, the French Revolution in America, the Adams presidency, Quasi-War with France, Jefferson presidency and agenda, increasing democratic and middling-oriented social structure, the great westward expansion, the independent judiciary (Supreme Court), origins of judicial review, slavery in America, the Arts, religion, diplomatic policy, the War of 1812. You get all of this in 800 pages, so it is not comprehensive on any subject. It's a fine reference for fundamentals, though, and there is an excellent bibliographic essay in the back which you can consult for further reading.