Tim'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 29, 13

Read in May, 2012

Wood's history is a fine inclusion in the Oxford series, filling in the history from the time of the Constitution until the end of the War of 1812. He argues for the fragility of the nation at the time, at least in the minds of its leadership, both Federalist, fearing democracy, and Republican (as in Jeffersonian), fearing monarchy, and hauls out the thesis from his Radicalism book about the end of hierarchy and deference in the post-Revolution society and the growth of a commercial culture.

The book reads exceptionally well, as do all the books in this series (do yourself a favor and read Howe's on 1815-1848). Wood gets cranky about whatever group is in power - the Federalist take the heat in the 1790s and Jefferson and company after 1800. He seems to admire Hamilton for his intelligence and financial acumen, if not entirely liking him, largely due to his hierarchical understanding of society (Wood's problem with all the Federalists). Adams he pokes at repeatedly for his vanity. He likes Jefferson, though pointing out his hypocrisy on slavery (which is how he ends the book as a whole). It is also interesting to me that he dismisses Jefferson and Madison on the embargo, but finds room to praise Madison on the disastrous War of 1812.

The book is excellent on the political, on the legal, on the movement west, and the development of northern commercial culture. It is less good on the south (which becomes the vague foil to the development in the north), on religion (rehashes a lot of Hatch's Democratization of Christianity), and on the lives of the common folk, details of which are sometimes more asserted than described especially with the amount of recent history written on them. But it is engagingly written and offers such charming stories and thoughtful synthesis that it has to be recommended. It's not a quick read, but you do not need to read every chapter or read them in order to enjoy it. I almost skipped the two chapters on legal history - it would not have hurt my reading of the whole, but I am glad I went through them, if only to get a better picture of John Marshall and the judicial environment in the early Republic (and how up in the air Constitutional interpretation was during the entire period).

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