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

Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood
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Dec 04, 14

bookshelves: history
Read in August, 2009

It's the childhood of the Republic. In this volume, an Oxford History that fills a gap between the Revolutionary period and the early industrial years, Gordon Wood provides us with a multifaceted story. It's not just a linear story of how the U.S. evolved from its new Constitutional rebirth in 1789 through the end of the War of 1812, which, he tells us, definitely broke the U.S. from its British cultural and civic roots.

It's also a story of many beginnings in American culture and society. We learn that the Federalist movement was not so much a party as a social order, the remnants of an aristocratic way of life exemplified by Washington and Adams, a life and culture that would be subsumed under a republican mindset, a "Republican Party" as Wood terms it (later "Democratic-Republican", later simply Democratic). Indeed, he concludes, at the end of this period, Americans "looked back in awe and wonder at all the Founders and saw in them heroic leaders the likes of which they knew they would never see again in America. Yet they also knew they now lived in a different world, a bustling Democratic world."

Wood also shows how America interacted, not just with its aristocracy and the aristocratic outer world evoked by Britain. We see how the French Revolution both was affected by, and affected, ours. We see how by 1815, with the re-established old order in Europe, that America would become unique, the only democratic republic in the world of the Holy Alliance. We see how, economically, politically and otherwise, it would become a world of its own. We see how the "Jeffersonian West" of the Louisiana Purchase would also devolve from Europe, and emerge, clearly so, as early as 1815, and now the way west would open.

Wood does not neglect the fact that, although post-Federalist America did profess a new equality, it was not so for those who were native American, or women, or slaves. Indeed, the Framers, he shows, seemed to think that slavery would wither, when by 1815 it would become entrenched, a clever observation, but he adds that it maintained a slaveholder aristocracy that was already becoming marginalized and defensive.

He also shows some of the other threads beginning in the Jeffersonian period, the rise of a uniquely American religious culture, freed of the Church of England, that would grow westward and more vigorous. He shows how an independent U.S. judiciary, and the principle of judicial review, was not a given but indeed a development that would rise during the period. "Precisely because of the exuberantly democratic nature of American politics, the judiciary right from the nation's beginning acquired a special power that it has never lost." He shows how this spirited order would drive the early entrepreneurs and canal builders in advance of an industrial age. And, he tells these stories in terms that laypeople would find illuminating - and cohesive.

There's more, but suffice to say that the research seems to be impeccable, and that the writing clear and fascinating. This book is literature and history, and is a worthy addition to the Oxford History series.

Highly recommend.

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