Christopher Carbone'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
May 11, 2010

really liked it
Recommended for: people who want to know how our country started

Empire of Liberty is a gripping narrative on the first 25+ years of the United States of America, the story of how the founding fathers started the nation, how the country saw itself, and how the nation was defined through constant- sometimes suffocating -contradictions.

The book begins with George Washington contemplating the Presidency and how the states contemplated giving up true Independence for interdependency; how being a state subject to a Federal Government chaffed them. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to a realization that should seem obvious, but is not through the lens of history: that our Founding Fathers were as much at odds with each other BACK THEN as we are now (to some extent). The book is a literal "page turner" as the author steps aside and lets the facts speak for themselves. How Washington seemed to be almost afraid of the public; how Adams seemed to hate them; how Hamilton seemed contemptuous of them; and how Jefferson seemed to embrace them.

The book deals frankly with many glaring contradictions: how could a nation the prized Liberty be so expansionist? How could Thomas Jefferson, a man who wanted small, limited government double the size of the nation and later effectively stop trade due to his Presidential whims? How could a nation that wanted freedom of speech pass the Alien and Sedition Acts? How could we say all men are created equal, and then dis-include women, Indians and many immigrants?

To say nothing of slavery.

The book suffers from some extensive "Jefferson Worshiping" that is hard to swallow: they gloss over the fact that he was most likely the biggest hypocrite in American political history (limited government... until HE became President; a little revolution every 10 years is a good thing... but not while HE was in power; all men are created equal... except his slaves). I wish the author had spent as much time explaining all of Jefferson's issues as he did John Adams' (my personal favorite Founding Father) and Aaron Burr's (everyone loves a good villain).

But the book does give a good explanation of the evolution of the leader's relationship with the world around them and our "freedoms." And that leads inexorably to slavery, and how, as a nation, we were utterly bound to this paradox, and how the North and the South tried to ignore it as best they could. Of the first 5 Presidents in this Nations history, 4 were slaveholders;' Jefferson and Washington were two of the wealthiest men of their day; almost all their wealth and privilege was derived from their slaves. The book seamlessly tracks the growth of slavery and how it, in effect, crippled the nation while making a very select few filthy, filthy rich. And in that line, lay the infancy of the Civil War.

But the book also chronicles the haze between Constitution and and Andrew Jackson: it leaps at Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, their dual and their lives; it explains American views of England and France, the XYZ affair and Napoleon. The book defines what Americans thought of themselves and how we could fool others and ourselves. Ultimately, the book explains the War of 1812 and how it was actually a second American Revolution, how it kept the British, once and for all, out of US territory, and how the US never again had to deal with its own sovereignty issues.

The book does have slow parts- there is an extended portion dedicated to Art in the period, that I felt dragged and another section on invention that was disappointing. But overall, I was surprised by how well the book moved; I wish it had done more to explain the hypocrisy of Jefferson, Washington and Madison, but there was only so much to go on. I also thought that the book did a fantastic job of explaining how the North and South started to grow apart in the early 1800s and how that separation was due, almost entirely, to slavery.

Overall, this book is a must read for anyone interested in Post Revolutionary America (in effect, this review is 5 stars for them), but I also recommend it to anyone interested in how we started as a country and how we took those first steps into the world.
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