Dave'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
Jun 11, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: history, read-in-2011, library-book

I'm not sure how one person keeps this much knowledge in his or her brain. Now that I've finished, I feel like I've forgotten half of this book. I doubt it's the same for Wood.

Empire of Liberty is the third volume of the Oxford History of the United States that I've read, along with Middlekauff's Revolutionary War tome and Howe's brilliant telling of America from 1815-1848. Howe's is still my favorite, but Empire of Liberty is thorough, critical, and high-level enough to give a sense of historical accomplishment without bogging the reader down in single events.

I miss Howe's emphasis on the quotidian experience of different Americans; Wood focuses a great deal of the book on the big guys (Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Wood's endearing personal dislike for John Randolph, etc.). While this is valuable, I would prefer less concentration on the workings of the early Congress and more focus on what occurred in the rest of the nation outside the podunk pre-arson Capitol.

That's not to say there weren't glimmers of great storytelling in this book. It just seemed like Wood felt obligated to spend the first 2/3 of his work describing governmental history. Once he got through all that, he either realized he didn't have the space for the rest of America or faced a historical establishment that couldn't supply him with the sources he needed to tell a more well-rounded history.

With that off my chest, I will say that the governmental history was told with a keen eye and, at times, a dry humor. I could sense Wood's pleasure in relating the idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies, and humanity of founding fathers engaged in the very inglorious business of running a fractious and often very silly country.

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