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

Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood
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Apr 26, 2016

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bookshelves: american-history, politics
Read from September 07 to October 14, 2010

Back when I was in college, I majored in finance and minored in girls. I graduated magna cum laude in one, and failed brilliantly in the other. At one point, trying to change my luck with the coeds, I decided to pursue the hipster lifestyle. Since it was relatively cheap to grow out my hair and act indifferent, I figured this was the best way to get girls, other than being forthright and honest and asking them on dates. Part of being a hipster is progressiveness: you dream of the Peace Corps, side with the workers, donate to Amnesty International, and eat granola.

But where to buy granola?

This led me to Wild Oats. At the time, Wild Oats was the preeminent natural food chain (it has since been swallowed and is in the process of being digested by Whole Foods). Everything in its stores was healthy, free range, and marked up 30-50%. Having no true interest in healthy eating (just a facile interest compelled by sexual frustration), I started small, by purchasing a box of Kashi.

Let me tell you something about Kashi. It is disgusting, akin to a bowl of woodchips mixed with sawdust and sprinkled with glass. Finishing a single bowl was a grueling experience that left my gums shredded and my stomach confused. It was hard, it was dry, but it was good for me.

Empire of Liberty is Kashi.

Gordon Wood's mammoth tome, a history of America between 1789-1815, belongs to the utterly estimable Oxford History of the United States. This is the third volume of that series I've read, after Battle Cry of Freedom and What Hath God Wrought? Like the other books in the series, Empire of Liberty is lengthy, serious, comprehensive, objective (as far as objectivity goes), and lucid.

It is also the driest of the three. Whereas Battle Cry of Freedom is an elegantly written masterpiece, and What Hath God Wrought? displayed an occasional spark of wit, Empire of Liberty plays it straight. It is not hard for me to imagine it being removed from the popular history section of Barnes & Noble and placed with the textbooks.

Partially, this dryness is a function of the time-period covered by this volume. Aside from the Louisiana Purchase, there are no marquee events during these two decades. There are no great battles or epic wars; the great debates over slavery had not yet begun. The big conflict was between the Federalists, who were central-government-minded aristocrats, and the Republicans, who were small-government-minded democrats. Unless you are a great fan of history, you might not see the heart-pulsing drama inherent in the question of whether the US Constitution allows the Federal Government to build roads.

Of course, I am a big fan of history, which makes me the most popular person at whatever watering hole I end up at on Friday or Saturday night. I happen to believe that the years 1789 through 1815 present an interesting, often overlooked interstice in American history. It begins with the ratification of the Constitution and the birth of the American Republic, and ends with the War of 1812. It was short period of grand ideological expectations, fueled by the success of the American Revolution, that ended with the Treaty of Ghent (which would be followed in five years by the Missouri Compromise, and eventually, the Civil War).

This was a time when anything seemed possible for America. And why wouldn't we think so? We'd just defeated the mightiest nation on earth and embarked on a political experiment - letting people govern themselves, rather than be governed by a king - that has become so commonplace today that it is taken for granted, but is actually incredibly radical when you look at the prior sweep of history. Before America there were monarchies and kings and emperors and dictators. Rome was always struggling to be a republic, but it never seemed to stick. But along comes an odd collection of planters and lawyers and merchants who manage to succeed where others have failed, to create a political system based on merit, rather than bloodline, where sovereignty comes from the people, rather than God working through a King. And every time it seemed on the verge of collapsing, it persevered.

That America was born at all was seen as proof of its blessed position in history. For a time, Americans were on a post-Revolution high, believing that democracy would spread like happy-syphilis all across the world. People ran around with stupid grins on their faces, chirping about liberty and equality. Blacks had more freedom at this point than they would until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. France started its own Revolution, and Americans cheered.

Unfortunately, like all highs, this one faded. The French starting hacking off each other’s heads. Political parties – the bane of the founders – sprang up like weeds. The tension between centralized power and local power – between the federal government and the states – increased, and is still with us today. The viciousness of the discourse teaches a valuable lesson: politics has always been a dirty game played at the lowest level; the only difference between now and then is that Twitter and YouTube has replaced the handbill.

This, alone, doesn’t sound too interesting, even to me. I mean, who wants to read 600 pages on the philosophical differences between men with ponytails? (If I wanted that, I’d just enroll in an intro philosophy course at the nearest liberal arts college). Besides the talk and dudgeon, though, there was the opening of the West, wars against the Barbary Pirates, the sexcapades of Aaron Burr, the quasi-war with the French, and the odd little war against England in 1812. You have all the elements for a couple big-budget movies and, in Burr's case, a dozen low-rent porn videos.

The problem I had with Empire of Liberty is its absolute dourness. Gordon Wood seems to be going out of his way to suppress the excitement of these moments, in order to expound relentlessly on the far-less exciting battles between Federalists and Republicans. For instance, the War of 1812, the natural climax to the book’s time-period, is glossed over in one short chapter. It’s an odd choice that reinforces the War’s secondary importance to American history, even though Wood himself seems to believe that it was of preeminent importance. The War of 1812 was American riding a bike without training wheels. If she had fallen flat on her face, you better believe that the struggle for North America, between Great Britain, the US, France and Spain would have continued. Instead, we called Great Britain’s bluff, managed to lose nearly every battle, watched our capitol burn, and still came out on top. That’s fascinating stuff! Well, it is elsewhere.

It’s not that Gordon Wood is a poor writer or a bad historian. To the contrary, he is a clear writer and a great historian. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to be having any fun. As a result, I didn’t have much fun either. To his credit, he doesn’t try to swallow as much as Daniel Walker Howe in What Hath God Wrought?. Howe's book tried to talk about everything, and was burdened with repetitive chapters on every segment of American society. Still, in Wood's case, there are ten dutiful references to the American judiciary, or American literature, or Jeffersonian Republicanism for every reference to a pirate. That is not a good ratio.

I found myself straining hard for any signs of life. I kept waiting for a personage or event to come alive and feel real. It never happened. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that Wood keeps his distance from ordinary Americans of that day, with only a few diary snippets here and there; instead, he tells the story through the familiar eyes of our sainted founders: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, etc. We already know these guys from countless books, documentaries, movies, and television miniseries starring Barry Bostwick. Hearing their words, learning their thoughts one more time isn’t very illuminating. And would it have hurt to have had a sharp opinion or two? The only time that Wood seems like a human writer, instead of a robot historian, is when he allows the slightest hint of scorn to color his portrait of John Adams, while he gives the slightest pass to Thomas Jefferson’s confused, hypocritical notions of freedom and republicanism.

I finished this book. It was good for me. And like a bowl of Kashi, I am not hungry for more.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Eric (new) - added it

Eric Kashi, textbook: exactly. I'm trudging through his The Radicalism of the American Revolution. So dry. Only the quoted samples of scurrilous pamphlet abuse move things along.

Matt Eric wrote: "Kashi, textbook: exactly. I'm trudging through his The Radicalism of the American Revolution. So dry. Only the quoted samples of scurrilous pamphlet abuse move things along."

Empire of Liberty certainly could've used a few more scurrilous pamphlets. The only thing that really enlivened this book were the ornate insults delivered by the likes of John Quincy Adams.

Based on what you're saying, I might avoid Gordon Wood for awhile.

message 3: by Eric (last edited Oct 15, 2010 08:00AM) (new) - added it

Eric I suspect Radicalism will turn out to be worth it, if only because going into it I knew next to nothing about colonial society (taking my vitamins, as it were), and his thesis, however dryily and repetitively argued, is setting me up for some Jacksonian reading, an era about which I also know nothing beyond what I can remember from high school history: Bank, Cherokees, that raucous cidery inaugural.

Matt Eric wrote: "I suspect Radicalism will turn out to be worth it, if only because going into it I knew next to nothing about colonial society (taking my vitamins, as it were), and his thesis, however dryily and r..."

I suppose you can make it, especially since you have Jackson coming up. It's very hard to read anything dry about Jackson, since he spent most of his life fighting (Banks, Cherokees, men who insulted his wife, etc.)

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