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Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) Reprint Edition
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As Wood reveals, the period was marked by tumultuous change in all aspects of American life in politics, society, economy, and culture. The men who founded the new government had high hopes for the future, but few of their hopes and dreams worked out quite as they expected. They hated political parties but parties nonetheless emerged. Some wanted the United States to become a great fiscal military state like those of Britain and France; others wanted the country to remain a rural agricultural state very different from the European states. Instead, by 1815 the United States became something neither group anticipated. Many leaders expected American culture to flourish and surpass that of Europe; instead it became popularized and vulgarized. The leaders also hope to see the end of slavery; instead, despite the release of many slaves and the end of slavery in the North, slavery was stronger in 1815 than it had been in 1789. Many wanted to avoid entanglements with Europe, but instead the country became involved in Europe's wars and ended up waging another war with the former mother country. Still, with a new generation emerging by 1815, most Americans were confident and optimistic about the future of their country.
Named a New York Times Notable Book, Empire of Liberty offers a marvelous account of this pivotal era when America took its first unsteady steps as a new and rapidly expanding nation.
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Take a Look Inside the Empire of Liberty [Click on Images to Enlarge]
George Washington (1732–1799): This portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1797 was the one rescued by Dolley Madison in 1814 when the British burned the White House.
(Library of Congress)
Lyon-Griswold Brawl (1798): Outraged by this brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives, many concluded that Congress had become contemptible in the eyes of all “polite or genteel” societies. (Library of Congress)
Washington, D.C. in 1801: The nation’s capital remained for years primitive and desolate, with muddy streets, a swampy climate, and unfinished government buildings that stood like Greek temples in a deserted ancient city. (Library of Congress)
Capture of the City of Washington: In 1814 the British army set fire to many public buildings here. Although this was considered a violation of the laws of war, they were probably retaliating for the Americans’ burning of buildings in the Canadian capital, York (Toronto). (Library of Congress)
Shakers: The name “Shakers” was originally pejorative, mocking the religious group’s rituals of trembling, dancing, and shaking. Their commitment to celibacy kept a rigid separation of the sexes, even in dancing, as this illustration shows. (Library of Congress)
A Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History
A New York Times Bestseller
"Told with enormous insight ... On every page of this book, Wood's subtlety and erudition show. Grand in scope and a landmark achievement of scholarship, Empire of Liberty is a tour de force, the culmination of a lifetime of brilliant thinking and writing."--The New York Times Book Review
"Empire of Liberty will rightly take its place among the authoritative volumes in this important and influential series."--The Washington Post
"In illuminating the theoretical underpinnings of the long 1960s era, Wood provides an excellent contribution to present understandings of how late twentieth century convictions fundamentally emerged to shape our modern world." --UCLA Historical Review
"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
"Deftly written and lucidly argued, it teems with insights and arguments that make us look at familiar topics in fresh ways.--The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Wood's contribution will stand both as an extraordinary achievement of historical synthesis, and as witness to its own time. It will not soon be surpassed"--The Weekly Standard
Selected as one of 'The Top 25 Books of 2009'--The Atlantic
Selected as one of 'The Most Notable Books of 2009'--The New York Times Book Review
"This work by the dean of Federalist scholars, and the newest title in the splendid Oxford History of the United States, has been widely hailed as the definitive history of the era."--American Heritage Magazine
"Gordon S. Wood's penetrating histor of the early American Republic, is one of the best and certainly most rewarding books of the year. It is a winter's read for the serious general reader who may read only one book in a lifetime of this period. This is that book."--The Dallas Morning News
"Wood's erudition is legendary, and in this authoritative history of the early United States, he has produced a classic. Deftly written and lucidly argues, it teems with insights that coax us to see the nation's beginnings in a new way."Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Wood has traced the main political stories of the new American nation with...commanding skill and...interpretive wisdom." --Christianity Today
"Magisterial...Gordon Wood is...equally adept at the large canvas and thumbnail sketch."--The National Interest
"Wood's grasp on the story is sure, his narration often thrilling, which are the two elements of excellent history."--Catholic Library World
"Wood has provided a readable, engaging, and incisive account of the sociopolitical history of the first decades of the American nation." --Maryland Historical Magazine
"[Wood's] exuberant panorama of a dynamic nation in the midst of dramatic change is informed by his immense scholarship and deep insights not only into the meaning of the American Revolution but also into American character, values, myths, leadership, and institutions." --Susan Dunn, New York Review of Books
"Wood's prose is filled with gems of wit and wisdom that make reading this large tome a delight...Empire of Liberty...is an articulate, deeply researched, reasoned account of the emergence of the young republic from independence to nationhood; from an Atlantic-focused intellectual and commercial emphasis toward territorial expansion and continental orientation; from deferential social and political norms into the most egalitarian social, economic, and political nation on the globe. Gordon Wood has done it again!" -David Curtis Skaggs, Northwest Ohio History
- Publisher : Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (October 1, 2011)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 778 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0199832463
- ISBN-13 : 978-0199832460
- Item Weight : 2.37 pounds
- Dimensions : 9.21 x 6.33 x 2.1 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #212,790 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Reviewed in the United States on November 9, 2019
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“Those few, who are attached to no particular occupation themselves, have leisure and inclination to examine the occupations of other people. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1776)
“A hundred despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” - Thomas Jefferson (1785)
“By enlarging the empire of liberty we provide new sources of renovation should it’s principles at any time degenerate in those portions of our country which gave them birth.” - Thomas Jefferson (1805)
Gordon S. Wood’s ‘Empire of Liberty’ was published in 2009, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It is the fourth in the series, conceived in the 50’s, but available 17 years after the third. The first and the second are still forthcoming. I don’t know how it took a half century to produce this book and expected something extraordinary. It is and can also be used as a door stopper on windy days. It covers the years after the American Revolution to the end of the War of 1812, roughly following it’s predecessor, ‘Glorious Cause’ by Robert Middlekauff in the vaunted pursuits of life, liberty, happiness and private property. A high minded sense of Republican virtue aspired to the ancient Greek and Roman city-state models of moral and civic duty.
The book depicts tensions between Republicans who argued for separate state rights and Federalists who foresaw an increasing need for a centralized government. After the war old guard graduates of Harvard and Yale, favoring a loose confederation, were confronted by new populists from the business class seeking to hold public office. The gentlemen plantation owners in the South, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as upper class lawyers John Adams and Alexander Hamilton in the North, saw danger in local legislatures led by businessmen looking after their own interests. Paper money and easy credit devalued assets and undermined the authority of the gentry by creating inflation and debtor relief.
By the 1780’s state legislatures were seen as a much of a threat to individual liberties of elites as the British governors before them. Jefferson complained about rights infringed and James Madison joined him. Revolutionaries of the 1770’s had not foreseen an electorate restricting their individual freedoms. The thinking was only a king or president could tyrannize. Now the practice of democracy itself seemed to endanger Republican ideals. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “all men were created equal in freedom, not in ability and character”. By the late 18th century a growing middle class, often wealthy, sometimes educated, challenged leadership by the gentry. In 1787 Madison began to advocate a national government to check state powers.
The middle class attacked the Constitutional Convention as an attempt to curtail their emerging power. Aristocrats argued that only gentleman of leisure, unencumbered by selfish goals, could lead fairly. Nevertheless the Constitution was passed in 1788. Federalists Hamilton and Washington, to be elected first President, were intent to create a unified nation and retreat from ideals of limited government. The First Congress of 1789 organized the Executive and Judiciary branches, House and Senate rules and select committees to streamline endless debates. It was decided Senators would be elected by state and Representatives by district. Madison was the leading voice in the House and Adams in the Senate, who was also Vice President.
The first ten Amendments contained in the Bill of Rights were written by Madison, a defensive measure against the Anti-Federalists who wanted to scrap the Constitution for a more decentralized one. By reverting powers not specifically given to federal government to the states it helped diffuse their objections. Hamilton favored a President and Senate for life, but Madison was adamantly opposed. Advised by his Vice President Adams, Secretary of State Jefferson and the Treasury Secretary Hamilton, Washington embarked on a campaign to promote the Union, tour the states and plan a monumental capital. Many House Representatives felt the Executive branch too monarchical in style. In some ways it was modeled after the British system.
Adams, who would be the 2nd President, saw no problem in hereditary positions and found them a mark of a developed nation the US should become. This put him into conflict with the majority of Republican politicians, but he was not alone. Monarchy was supported by some Senators but were fought by Jefferson and Madison, future 3rd & 4th presidents. While the Senate confirmed cabinet members the President was empowered to fire them without Senate consent, insisted on by Madison to insure executive power. Departments of War, State and Justice were tiny under Washington. Hamilton’s Treasury was powerful and reported directly to Congress. He studied Britain’s success in banks, stock and debt markets, and military matters.
In a brilliant first year Hamilton authored plans to create the national bank, mint, customs and tax agencies, buy state war debts, reissue them as federal bonds and stimulate industry. He and the Federalists didn’t recognize the large role small business would play in future economic expansion, instead focusing on the traditional top down relations of the great patrons to working classes. They turned their attentions to building an army to protect northern territory from the British and in the south from the Spanish. To raise money Federalists tried to auction individual plots to settlers. This didn’t work and vast areas were sold to wealthy speculators whose goals were to become landed gentry and gain entry into national politics.
Due to squatters and swindlers, Indians were pushed farther west each year. Georgia was ceded by natives for rights to Alabama and Mississippi. As soon as Washington signed the treaty illegal sales of land began there too. Army reprisals for raids led to buildup of troops, enticing western settlers to the government, but excise taxes on whisky, tobacco and sugar drew comparisons to British levies. Faced with an insurrection 15,000 troops were sent to Pennsylvania to demonstrate the government’s resolve. Political infighting continued between the Republicans led by Jefferson, and Federalists by Hamilton. The dispute between plantation owners in the south and business owners in the north threatened to split the nation.
By the time Washington gave his Farewell Address in 1796, France had its revolution, inspiring celebrations among Republicans. Washington, leader of the Federalists warned about political parties dividing the nation. Adams was elected President and Jefferson Vice President by delegates, although they were from different parties. The rift widened between Federalists, who saw themselves as gentlemen but called aristocrats by the Republicans, many of whom were wealthy landowners themselves, like Jefferson and Madison. James Monroe, another southerner who would become the 5th president, aligned himself with Republicans and against Federalist power. All three were plantation and slave owners suspicious of losing their rights.
America made a trade treaty with Britain following the French Revolution, declaring their neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars with Austria, Prussia, Spain, Italy and Britain. The US had a treaty with France for mutual defense but determined France was the aggressor. As France seized American ships, refused diplomatic missions and threatened war Republicans defected to the Federalist camp, except for Jefferson a devoted Francophile. France annexed Belgium, Germany and installed Dutch, Swiss and Italian puppets. In fear of French attack and a Republican fifth column, the 1798 Aliens and Sedition Acts suppressed immigration, speech and voting. Madison fought Hamilton’s efforts to expand the military as unconstitutional.
Reaction to the loss of liberties made Federalists a minority party. The threat of war with France subsided as Nelson sank the French fleet and power turned over to Jefferson in 1800. Aaron Burr was elected Vice President and killed Hamilton in a 1804 duel over a political rivalry. Jefferson pursued policies to shrink government and expand territory, in the Louisiana Purchase, Indian assimilation or removal, Lewis and Clarke expedition and international trade. Republicans remained in power with Madison succeeding to the presidency in 1809-1817. Federalists had a brief comeback in 1812 opposing the war with Britain, over maritime disputes and the Northwest Territory south of the Great Lakes, but were dissolved as a political party in 1835.
This is a straight political history. If you’re not interested in the wrangling of the early US Congress and Presidents you might avoid it. It’s not a particular pursuit of mine but it increased my knowledge of the ‘Founding Fathers’ and the social milieu they operated within. Gordon S. Wood repeats himself too often to my liking. He’s clearly an expert on this topic, and I felt like I enrolled in a graduate course as an undergraduate. It’s also not a military history of the War of 1812, although it is covered well from a domestic perspective of the attitudes and disagreements of the Americans towards the British. It seems like a love-hate relationship, Federalists leaning toward love and the Republicans falling somewhere between fear and loathing.
So did the people of America spend their days singing and toasting? Was it really all the people who were included? Were there other loyalties and feelings that were as strong or stronger? Did this exceptionalism come from the creation of the country, or was there something special about the place and its society that made for the creation of this exceptional country? What were those special qualities?
It is probably a truism that, if you take a 25-year period in the history of any country, life will be very different at the end than the beginning. (At least in the last few hundred years.) Still, one can easily make the argument that 1789-1815 is exceptional even among generational changes. For one thing, Americans were building a new form of government, one that had never been tried before, especially in a country of mind-boggling size (consider that communication from one end to the other took several weeks!). And while the outlines could be settled, there were deep deep differences in feeling how this should be carried out. For another, the entire economy was changing – a middle class was emerging, a fact which greatly affected the day-to-day lives of much of the population. And there are many other aspects (beyond building a government and a transformed economy) which may be even more important: slavery was becoming entrenched; First Peoples were being destroyed; a large fraction of the population was migrating; a large fraction of the population was finding religious awakening; the attitudes of the enlightenment were evolving (descending) into crassness and romanticism; sections of the country were growing apart in a way that could only lead to dissolution or war.
As one digs down into the era, or, rather, as one becomes experienced with reading histories of an era, one sees how each of these facets can itself be a major book. “Empire” appropriately covers the major events in several chronologically ordered chapters and then has several crosscutting chapters, e.g., on law, religion, foreign affairs, culture, and slavery.
Let’s continue with Wordsworth: “In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways/Of custom, law, and statute, took at once/The attraction of a country in romance!” Yes, to build a new government. It is amazing how little we can take for granted when we do this. Should we have explicit laws and statutes? Are we really a country or an alliance of countries? Should the executive have any power? Should the judiciary be independent? Should the government actually do anything, or should it just be there to face the outside and referee internal disputes? Some things were certain: we should have no political parties.
There were two great points of view, which have come down to us a Federalist and Republican. The priority for Federalists was a strong national government with the ability to make internal improvements and to deal with other (monarchical) countries as an equal. Republicans believed in having virtually no government. Each point of view also had its problems. Federalists believed that this strong government should be run by the competent, which the “people” clearly were not – this led to some not completely democratic points of view that also carried unfortunately into other spheres. The Republican point of view is inherently problematic. Beyond the obvious there were other problems bordering on the wacky. They were dominated by state loyalty, especially for the southern states. Much of this may have been embarrassment or (at least) defensiveness about slavery. Much worse was the attitude that industry was bad and commerce much worse. Early Republicans therefore combined the worst aspects of libertarianism, communism, and feudalism, all at the same time. It is a miracle the country held together. Perhaps communication was so poor that inertia was sufficient. And both Federalists and Republicans missed the greatest advance of all – the rise of business. Federalists thought banking was only for large concerns. Republicans did not believe in business at all. Republicanism led to hypocrisy of bizarre proportions: they needed to start a war but refused to create a military to fight it!
Dominating “Empire” is Jefferson. Complicated? Yes. Brilliant? Undoubtedly. Wacky? Wow was he ever. Hypocrite? Biggest ever. Spends his life in debt while drinking fine wine and railing against commerce. Extolling the yeoman farmer while living off the effort of a hundred slaves. And on and on and on. His complete lack of understanding of economy is mind-boggling. That the country did not collapse is a miracle, probably due to the ingenuity and industry of its people. Which brings us to the rise of the middle class.
The theme of “Empire” is middling men. That is, men (in that time always men) who have wealth matching that of the leaders of the community but not the education, upbringing, or family connections. Sometimes resentful, often not, the great change in this era was the rise of the middle class. Most important was its existence and what it did to advance the prosperity of a large number families and the overall economy. It also changed the structure of society. The new leaders of society had not read Pliny or Montesquieu. And certainly not in Latin or French. The author spins middling men into every part of the book. Related is the expansion of industry including the factory scale, but in particular the at-home variety. Although industrious farmers had always done much more than farm, it seems that during this era outside occupations began to dominate. So that while 90% of the population were farmers, most of these were also shop keepers, millers, etc.
At some point we need to wrap this up so just to mention other areas where other paragraphs could be written: Destruction of enlightenment ideals and the building of the romantic; everyone else – women, first peoples, and slaves; migrations, expansion, new states; population explosion; art and literature; sectionalism; people, the towering figures and the decline of such; the birth of the legal system; dealing with the world; stories and myths; and - much more stayed the same than changed.
The book is monumental. It covers every major aspect of the era. Many paragraphs are obviously the summary of substantial study and analysis. The writing is coherent if, for the most part, unexciting. There are a number of criticisms.
Methodological. There are no argued themes, although some preferences do emerge. The author is clearly southern and has a republican bias. As much as slavery is given its due as an atrocity, there is still much apology and wishful thinking about the attitudes of the slaveholders. Much more interesting would have been an underlying argument – but this would probably make the book unreadable to those not agreeing with it.
Bias. As already said, the preference is for the Republican ideals, especially freedom and low taxes. John Adams does very badly. Most of the references are mocking, which is all too easy for a quirky person. Jefferson, for all his idiocy, is the hero. It’s as if without Jefferson we’d all be serfs.
More methodological. Most of the illustrations are by anecdote. Would that we had a few charts and graphs. Clearly this is from the essay/anecdote school of history. Context is missing.
Unevenness. Some sections are weak, especially the one on art and culture. They ramble and appear to be concatenation of note cards.
Coverage. Speaking of 25 year epochs – this book was written in the mid-00s, it is now 2020. In that time, perhaps half an epoch, there have been many great changes. One is the realization of the breadth of society. “Empire” is rapidly becoming obsolete. There is virtually no mention of everyday life or of women. And while slavery has an important place, including making up the coda, it is a fraction of what we now expect. And First Peoples get far less attention even than that.
More bias. Another great change in the current generation is the rise of the extreme right. It is impossible to avoid the parallel with Jeffersonian Republicanism. But as extreme as the current form is, with its hatred of anything to do with government, it pales in comparison to what Jefferson wanted. When government is hated, it is run by people who hate government, and it reduces to willful incompetence whose function is solely to be looted by same.
Top reviews from other countries
The work does suffer from a very grating and sloppy use of the terms "English" and "British" as interchangeable. This is stark because so much care seems to have otherwise been taken care to be as accurate and precise as possible.
This is a very informative study of the period in which a lot of ground is covered in an engaging style of writing
The Oxford history of the USA has been, IMO, consistently good, based on all the volumes covering the 20th century that I have read. This volume is outstanding for its clarity of writing, level of detail and scope. A joy to read.
Independence from Great Britain brought freedom to the colonies... but it was also to bring many new obstacles and conflicts for the emerging states and national government. Indeed, the nation was to change in less than three decades to one with little resemblance to what it was in 1789
Initially a loose confederation of thirteen like minded states, the development and agreement of a Constitution in 1789 allowed for the setting up of a national government. Subsequent actions by men such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and others led the creation of the 'Federalists'; leaders determined to organise the states in a more structured and powerful nation. However, they were to meet opposition from those who feared a strong centralised authority, something they'd fought the British to eradicate. Men such as James Madison, James Monroe and the most famous of them all; Thomas Jefferson, favoured a limited central government with more rights for the state authorities. The setting up of a tax system, an army, navy, militia forces and even a diplomatic service were considered by Federalists to be essential for the survival of the revolution, but examples of intrusive and freedom restricting government by the Republicans. The Federalists and the Republicans were to mistrust each other for years, an early precursor to the causes of the Civil War...
Wood covers all aspects of US society, politics, economics and religion as the country evolved into a young, vibrant nation full of entrepreneurial, commercially minded and egalitarian citizens determined to be no ones inferior. One key aspect of Wood's work documents how suspicion and dislike of all 'aristocrats' among the citizens led to a greater belief in the equality of men regardless of birthright. This was to brake down barriers and lead to the greater acceptance of women in society and even that of non-white Christians. However, this was slow to begin with and still had a long way to develop by 1815.
The opportunities presented by mass expansion to the west of the North American continent eventually convinced many Americans that they themselves were a people and a nation whose heritage may be predominantly British, but whose future was their own to discover. An identity different from that of their European cousins with different beliefs and a stronger sense of their own personal freedoms. The war with Britain in 1812 was to become more a war of symbolic defiance than that of material gain. The United States was to make a statement; we are an independent people and country who refuse to be pushed around by a former master. This was the so-called 'Second War of independence.
This is a brilliant study in the evolution of the United States. Wood clearly and entertainingly documents how the United States began as a muddled set of newly free territories which was to become a united nation determined to symbolise and practice the concept of the freedom of men over that of monarchical dictatorships as those which ran Europe. The nation in 1815 bared little resemblance to what it did in 1789 thanks to the growth of ideals and beliefs which the nation still holds dear and tirelessly tries to emulate in today's world. 'Empire of Liberty' is crucial to anyone who wishes to understand the development of the United States as a nation and also to those who wish to see why the nation thinks as it does today. Fabulous.