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Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) Hardcover – October 28, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A new addition to the Oxford History of the United States, Wood's superb book brings together much of what historians now know about the first quarter-century of the nation's history under the Constitution. Acknowledged as the leading historian of the period, Wood brings authority and easy style to a tough task—wrestling into order a period of unusual anxiety, confusion, crisis and unbridled growth in the nation's affairs. The emergence of democracy and individualism is his overarching theme. No surprise there, for he's the author of a celebrated work (The Radicalism of the American Revolution) on just that topic. In this new work, he concentrates more on events, institutions, politics and diplomacy than in his earlier books yet proves himself a master of these topics, too. He offers no newfangled approaches, no strongly stated positions, no contests with other historians. Instead, we get the distillation of a lifetime's study and reflection about the era between Washington's presidency and the end of the War of 1812. A triumph of the historian's art, Wood's book will not soon be supplanted. No one interested in the era should miss it. 40 b&w illus., maps. (Oct.)
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"An important book that needs to be read. Take the time."--Washington Times
"A bold, intelligent, and thoroughly engaging interpretation of the period from the birth of the republic to the emergence of a mass democratic society in the early part of the 19th century... Gordon Wood has written an immensely important book that deserves a wide readership among scholars and anyone interested in American history. The book will certainly influence how future historians write about the triumphs and tragedies of the early republic."--The Providence Journal-Bulletin
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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.
Wood is a prominent historian, a learned man and supreme scholar, and while the tome is more than 700 pages there are no wasted words and the book is very informative. In reading this book, you will be delighted to learn new things about the subject matter as presented by the author. I like very much that he does not go in a strict chronological order, but rather deals in topics pertaining to the development of the nation through the first four presidents. While every historian must have his or her own theories and opinions (many involving politics), Wood presents an even handed history, and while I suspect he is leaning more toward an America that adopted an egalitarian attitude largely due to hatred of the British and admiration of the French Revolution, the author has the decency to not shove it down your throat.
He does a very good job of introducing us to not only the main players during this critical time of our nation's history, but also brings forth the middling classes, as he calls them. These people are essentially what we would refer to as the "middle class" of today, whether lower, middle, or upper middle class. The rise of this class, coupled with the concept of equality became very critical of the Federalists and their sense of upper class rule. Many of these people had visions of a type of wealth enjoyed by the British peers, but that did now work in America because land was so abundant and a "gentleman" had to come to his money by methods other than simply collecting rents and devoting his life to his interests and pleasures. America was more a working and hustling place. There were those who thought that Washington was too regal, with his formalities, levees, and sense of superiority, and while Washington was in every respect the indispensable man, he was greatly concerned about his every action and how it would set a precedent in a newly formed government. Yes, he was thin skinned, and did not do well with criticism, but he believed in a central government and a strong executive office. His eight years of serving as the chief executive were what held the nation together.
In spite of the national devotion to Washington, politics were brewing. Alexander Hamilton was the most important cabinet officer in Washington's administration, and it was his brilliance in matters of finance that set America on a sound footing. His ideas of the assumption of the various state debts due to the Revolutionary War restored the credit of the United States, but it also established the Federal government as superior to that of the individual states. The author points out that with Hamilton coming from the Caribbean, and the bastard son of a Scottish peddler, he had no sense of loyalty to any state as did Jefferson and Madison and others to Virginia. He and Jefferson became adversaries who saw the utopia of the United States from totally different perspectives. Jefferson was more a philosophical visionary, possibly a man more suited to be a professor, but a person who gained immense fame as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and then became the leader of the opposition to the Federalists. Wood does point out that the very idea of party politics at that time was totally unrelated to what we know today. Prominent men did not campaign for office, but used letters to their supporters and encouraged others to publish in newspapers opinions that were in their favor and would likely result in votes.
Poor John Adams. He was the first man to suffer the office of the Vice President of the United States. His reputation as a grumpy old man was well deserved and he was a novice in political intrigue and outmatched by both Jefferson and Hamilton. His single term as president was a success in that he kept America out of a war with France and with Jefferson's election, Adams left on an early morning stage for his home without remaining to participate in the exchange of power. Jefferson, in his typical democratic style, walked to the inauguration from his boarding house. That reminds me of the same thing for dramatic effect, when Jimmy Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue and ushered in a completely ineffective administration. It was also interesting that the result of the election of 1800 put Jefferson in the White House, largely because he carried 82% of the electoral votes of the slave states. In those state, a slave was counted as 3/5 of a person, and the irony is that Jefferson, a slave holder who championed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, carried only 27% of the Northern states, which reinforced the Federalist fear that the South was taking over the nation. Jefferson was called behind his back, the Negro president. While he aspired to individual freedom, it was interesting to me (from another book) that when Lafayette last visited Jefferson at Monticello and suggested that slaves be taught to read and write in order to make the transition to freedom, old Tom simply said that would not work because they would learn to forge papers and run away to freedom. Between that and Sally Hemings, Jefferson for me takes a back seat to greatness, but I felt that Wood still worships at the altar of his wickedness.
There is a great chapter on slavery and it reveals how our nation appeared to be moving away from the peculiar institution, but there were two factors that changed that. The first was the invention of the cotton gin, which immediately changed the agricultural scene to cotton because it was so much more lucrative, and the revolution in Haiti which lasted for ten years and caused great concern because of its success and the brutality that the white salve owners suffered. Jefferson never recognized Haiti as a nation, but it was the next country after America to gain independence and they did allow all people to be free.
Little is said about Jefferson's administration. We all know it primarily for the Louisiana Purchase, which cannot be credited to TJ's diplomatic finesse, but many historians want to brush over his disastrous embargo policy, which destroyed the economy of the United States during his mess of a second term.
There is a great deal of good information here and I would suggest that everyone interested in the early development of this nation have this book in their home.