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

Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood
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Oct 23, 12

Read from May 18 to October 22, 2012

Gordon Wood introduces this period of American history with the story of Rip Van Winkle, which is an apt illustration of the astounding cultural transformation that occurred in the period from the end of the Revolutionary War to the end of the War of 1812. Wood chronicles these changes with illuminating discussions of the intellectual currents of this period, how they affected the events of this period, and how, in turn, the events made plausible or implausible various intellectual currents. For instance, the successful War for Independence ushered in an era of greater democracy which alarmed many of the Revolutionary leaders by its excess. Wood argues that the Constitution was designed, in part, to place a check on democratic excesses in the states. Interestingly, this insight provides the backdrop for an explanation of the enigma of James Madison's alliance with Alexander Hamilton in promoting the Constitution and their rivalry once the new government was formed. Wood argues that Madison wanted the national government to be an umpire that checked the democratic excesses of the state whereas Hamilton wanted to see the United States become a powerful nation equal to Europe.

Wood also does an excellent job covering the religious and moral aspects of this period of American history. Indeed he begins the book with a discussion about why morality is more important for republics than for monarchies. In a monarchy, morality may be imposed from the top down, but in a republic, morality must be embraced by the people at large, lest their vices infect and destroy the nation. In his chapter on religion during this time period Wood does a good job of acknowledging genuinely orthodox figures in this period, of distinguishing the rational religion of many of the leading founders from both deism and orthodox Christianity, and of rightly representing the church and state position of these fathers as welcoming the moralizing influence of religion upon government and society while rejecting sectarian preferences. In other words, on an issue that is currently highly politicized Wood presents a careful, accurate account.

This carefulness and attention to detail is consistent throughout Empire of Liberty and, combined with an engaging writing style, makes this history a very enjoyable read.
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