David'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
Oct 29, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: books-i-read-in-2009
Read in November, 2009 — I own a copy

** spoiler alert ** I’m not sure how Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 could be any better. It may seem strange to call a 750 page history a page-turner but it is. I couldn’t put the thing down. One is always worried when picking up a history of this length that you’ll be confronted with turgid, clunky prose and pedestrian insights, that you’ll have to slog through the thing for weeks to get through it, if you finish at all. That is most definitely not the case here. Wood’s flowing, lucid, prose-style is wonderful. He is also a masterful story-teller, his insights are fresh and fully-reasoned, and he untangles the sometimes contradictory threads of the founding era and weaves them into a comprehensible and satisfying whole. It’s as easy to read as a good novel and just as interesting. The book is a triumph of the historian’s craft.

Having spent a lifetime immersed in research of the founding era, Wood has no problem seeing the men responsible for our beginnings as men, not icons. There is no hero worship here. Wood fully represents the greatness and the genius of the founding generation that we revere today but he also shows us their flaws, their ambition, and their motivations, which were at times base. We get a full sense from Wood of the men and their era.

Washington’s importance as the indispensable founder is recognized, though not dwelled upon. Wood points out that while his two terms as president were important to the stability of the infant nation, in the long run his most important act was stepping away from the presidency. Just as when he laid down his sword after the war when he could easily have become a dictator, his retirement from the office of the presidency which he could have held for life exemplified the Roman ideal of servant government and established the precedent of the peaceful transfer of power. By these two acts, Washington became a hero of republican liberty all over the world.

Madison gets his due, which pleased me. Many don’t realize how important Mr. Madison was to the founding moment but we see it clearly in Woods’ account. Even more important was Alexander Hamilton, whose economic program allowed for the stability and remarkable growth of the early republic. He may have been the most intelligent of the founders but he was also the most reviled. Jefferson, who could hate with the best of them, never hated anyone more than Alexander Hamilton. Even Adams, a fellow Federalist, despised Hamilton, calling him “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” It had always puzzled me that Madison had split so clearly with Hamilton during the first Washington administration. The two had been allies during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and ratification period of 1788-89, collaborating on the Federalist Papers in support of the new constitution. But within months of Washington taking office with Hamilton as his Treasure secretary, Madison became the leader of the opposition. I’d always attributed this to Jefferson inordinate influence over Madison. Jefferson had been abroad in France during the Convention period so Madison was free of his influence. Upon Jefferson return to serve as Washington’s Secretary of State, he and Madison resumed their close friendship. And I’d been of the opinion that it was solely Jefferson’s sway over his younger colleague that caused Madison’s split with Hamilton. But Wood shows that this was not the case. Certainly Madison took Jefferson’s views into account. But it was more often Madison temporizing his more radical friend than the other way around. Where it came to Hamilton, Madison’s opposition was not the result of a weakness of character that caused him to defer to Jefferson but instead one of philosophical principal. As Hamilton began introducing his economic programs Madison realized that Hamilton’s idea of a vigorous national government differed greatly from his own. Madison objected vehemently to the federal assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debt and to the introduction of a national bank, both of which he believed would elevate the federal government far above that of the states. He objected further to Hamilton’s creation of a permanent and consolidated national debt, ala Great Britain, which in Hamilton’s view would spur economic progress. And indeed it did. While instrumental to the early republic’s economic success, these moves were the beginning of the opposition’s fear that Hamilton and his fellow Federalist were monarchists.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is the discussion over many chapters of the rise of the Republican party and the demise of the Federalists during the 1790s. Wood explains how the Federalists, while believing in the equality of men under the law, also believed there was a natural aristocracy among men, an aristocracy which had the right and duty to rule over the masses. Washington believed it, Hamilton believed it, Adams believed it. As the self-made men coming out of the 1790’s economic success began to proliferate, the Federalist vision came under attack. These “middling sorts” believed they had as much right to governance as the self-appointed aristocratic class, indeed even more so since they understood and could represent the interests of the common man better than the elites ever could. The Federalist were appalled by these men, considering them to be nothing more than low-lifes and demagogues with little understanding of society and how it should be governed. Each side saw the other as a threat to the liberty that had been won during the revolution. The Republicans saw the Federalists as monarchists, while the Federalists saw the Republicans as “democrats” a pejorative term at the beginning of the 1790’s. By the end of the decade the term began to loose its negative connotations as many of the new merchant class began to embrace the banner. In the end, the Federalists never had a chance. The sheer number of new men coming out of the economic success of the 1790’s overwhelmed the Federalists, who over the following twenty years became progressively extinct as a political class. This rise of Jeffersonian republicanism was nothing short of a second American revolution, one that many felt finally completed what had begun in 1776. The irony that it was Hamilton’s economic programs that gave rise to the men who would replace him and his class would not be lost on Hamilton. After Jefferson’s election in 1800 he knew his time was through and he feared that everything he and the other revolutionaries had fought for had been subverted: “This American world was not meant for me.”

Who won, in the long run? Do we now live in a Jeffersonian or a Hamiltonian world? Books could be written on this question alone and I myself could argue the question from both sides. But in the end, in regards to the leviathan federal government of modern day America (one that would most likely horrify even Hamilton and would certainly send Jefferson into fits of outrage and despair) I believe we live more in a Hamiltonian world, one in which government coercion is everywhere, in which we are ruled by a small group of elites interested primarily in their own survival. With his support for a strong and energetic executive and for the primacy of the federal government over the states, this is certainly not what Hamilton intended. But it is perhaps the inevitable result of the Hamiltonian vision. We have now what Jefferson continually warned about: the tyranny of the few over the masses. So while we live in a Hamiltonian world I believe Jefferson won the argument.

Jefferson is the winner in another sense also. As Wood points out, Jefferson:

"…personified this revolutionary transformation. His ideas about liberty and democracy left such a deep imprint on the future of his country that, despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as their is a United States he will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation’s noblest ideals and highest aspirations."

Wood does not flinch from the fact that Jefferson, while embodying for all time our most cherished vision of ourselves, was himself a member of the elite:

"[Jefferson:] was a well-connected and highly cultivated Southern landowner who never had to scramble for his position in Virginia. The wealth and leisure that made possible his great contributions to liberty and democracy were supported by the labor of hundreds of slaves."

That Hamilton, the self-made man, would represent the rejected aristocratic vision while Jefferson, an aristocrat to his bones, would represent the adopted democratic vision, is one of the strange ironies of American history.

Also at play during the 1790’s was the effect the French revolution had on the country. I’d always known it was an issue but I didn’t realize how much until I read Wood’s book. Virtually everyone in the United States supported the French revolutionaries in 1789 believing, correctly, that their own revolution had inspired the French. However, as word spread about the appalling activities going on in France circa 1792-93, the Federalists began to have doubts about the true nature of the new French government. On the other hand, Jefferson, who was blindly pro-French, and many fellow Republicans were always ready to excuse away any French democrats atrocities under the reasoning that you need to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet. To the Federalists it appeared that France’s revolution had devolved into nothing more than anarchy and terror, and given the rise of the democratic notions of the new merchant class, feared the same might happen here at home. The issue fueled the mistrust between the two sides and colored virtually every public debate of the decade.

And this only covers half the book though the idea that Wood concentrates on in the first half – that of the Jeffersonian revolution of the common man - infuses everything that comes later, for instance the furious rush westward, one that the federal government only could hope to control:

"The carefully drawn plans of the 1780s for the orderly surveying and settlement of the West were simply overwhelmed by the massive and chaotic movement of the people….[m:]any settlers ignored land ordinances and titles, squatted on the land, and claimed preemptive rights to it. From 1800 on Congress steadily lowered the price of Western land, reduced the size of purchasable tracts, and relaxed the terms of credit for settlers in ever more desperate efforts to bring the land laws into line with the speed with which the lands were being settled."

If you ever need evidence of the American propensity for liberty and individual initiative free from government coercion, read Wood’s chapter on the push westward.

This push, however, was disastrous for the American Indian. (It would also set the stage for the argument about slavery in the Western territories, which set the stage for the Civil War.) Jefferson and other leaders of the time held what they considered to be the enlightened view on the Indian issue: the civilization and assimilation of the Indian into white society. This view:

"…gave no recognition whatsoever to the worth or integrity of the Indians’ own existing culture. In the minds of many early nineteenth-century whites, enlightened civilization was still too recent, too precarious, for them to treat it as simply an alternative culture of lifestyle. Only later, only when the Indian culture had been virtually destroyed, could white Americans begin to try to redeem the tragedy that had occurred."

There is more, much more, to talk about in this wonderful book but I’ll leave it to you to explore the rest. I’ll just end by saying simply that I loved this book. It taught me much, explained a lot, and it made me think hard about the American character, the one that emerged during the Jeffersonian revolution of the '”middling sorts.” Their confidence, initiative, and determination for self-improvement became instilled in the American persona, the idea of what it is to be an American. Their demand for liberty became our birthright. In the Age of Obama, do we still retain these characteristics? I think so. The push back against the statist, European vision of the Obama administration is heartening to see. While I am certain that the elites in Congress don’t give a damn what ordinary Americans think, they do take public opinion into account when it comes to their reelection. If there are enough of us “middling sorts” left out there, we may be able to defeat their collectivist vision and continue this Empire of Liberty with which we’ve been blessed.
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