Michael's Reviews > Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood
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's review
Nov 23, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction, history, american-history
Read in April, 2011

Stellar overview of American politics & society in the first 40 years of the USA. If you've read Wood's 'Radicalism of the American Revolution' you know he marries a masterful grasp of the early Republic with a fluid and entertaining style. This (much bigger) book takes up similar themes, with chapters on science, religion, commerce, etc.

I picked this up to help me understand something that's never been especially clear to me - how the US had become "democratic" not more than 50 years after a republican revolution in a society that still used "democrat" as an epithet. Wood shows how the relentless leveling of a dynamic frontier capitalist society steadily eroded the kinds of durable class distinctions that made democracy a dirty word in the 18th century.

Also especially interesting to me: his explanation of how some elites came to see the Articles of Confederation as hopelessly unworkable, and the chapter on religion, which links the lack of an established denomination and competitive democratic (& capitalist) culture with the distinctive enthusiasm Americans show for religion.

One of the best and most difficult tricks a historian can pull off is to open up the distant past and show you how things could have been very, very different. We take it for granted the rebels in '76 prevail, that the 13 colonies coalesce as one functioning nation-state, and that the new country would successfully defend its interests against robust competition from England, France and Spain. Wood over and over again allows one to see how precarious all these triumphs were, while setting the stage for the 50s and 60s when basic tensions unravel the country.
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