Paul Donahue'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 21, 10

Read from March 22 to April 20, 2010

So many history books are just summations of political and military events between two fixed dates. Empire of Liberty goes far beyond that structure, going as far back as the early 1700s and all the way up to the Mexican and Civil Wars to put points and stories into full context. Not just wars and politics, but economics, commerce, religion, education, family life, social changes, slavery, diplomacy, westward expansion, science, philosophy, it’s all in there. Much like the other Wood book I recently read, the common theme throughout is the change all these areas underwent from an aristocratic, dependent, agrarian, Old World society into a republican, independent, commercial New World. He also keeps the them that the republic actually created by the Revolution and Constitutional Convention was nothing at all what the founding fathers intended.

It’s also intriguing and perhaps relieving that so much of today’s concerns date back to then. People railed against Congressional salaries, intellectuals were mortified at the rise of uneducated leaders and demagogues, our government tried to subvert an inevitable war via economic sanctions. One of Wood’s particularly insightful observations is that it was not the revolutionary generation that envisioned the American dream, it was the succeeding one. Instead of a hierarchy in which the middling classes were dominated by a gentry class, many of those barriers broke down and the many sons of petty merchants, cobblers, and farmers used American’s booming commercial appetite to achieve a life of luxury—the birth of the American dream.

Jefferson and his ilk also envisioned an America where liberally enlightened intellectuals were democratically elected to run the country, trade was done only with foreign countries, scientists pondered only abstract thoughts, and slavery would phase out. Instead, middling and often uneducated people were elected to office; commerce within the states exploded; scientists thought practically and began leading the world in invention (and paved America’s path to economic dominance); and the parts of the country dependent on slavery, to the grave revulsion of others, dug their heels in until the bitter end.
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