Empire of Liberty

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2066

Gordon S. Wood begins Empire of Liberty with a summary of Washington Irving’s 1819 story of Rip Van Winkle, the legendary man who fell asleep just prior to the American Revolution and woke up twenty years later to find that phenomenal and bewildering transformations had occurred. The village was “larger...

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Gordon S. Wood begins Empire of Liberty with a summary of Washington Irving’s 1819 story of Rip Van Winkle, the legendary man who fell asleep just prior to the American Revolution and woke up twenty years later to find that phenomenal and bewildering transformations had occurred. The village was “larger and more populous”; its earlier tranquillity had been replaced by bustling activity, fierce ambition, and concern for making money. Even the language of politics had changed. People were now talking about the rights of citizenship, elections to Congress, and other matters that Van Winkle did not understand. When asked “whether he was Federal or Democrat,” he stared “in vacant stupidity.” Wood writes that most Americans living in the early nineteenth century could identify with Irving’s story because of the tumultuous changes they had experienced in all aspects of lifein politics, culture, economics, and social relationships.

Wood emphasizes, however, that the changes Americans experienced were frequently different from those that the founders of the new government had anticipated. Almost all the founders denounced the idea of rival political parties such as those that existed in England, but their strong differences in aspirations and values resulted in party-like polarization soon after George Washington’s inauguration. Those calling themselves Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, wanted the country to follow the English model of industrialization, large banks, urbanization, and centralized government. In contrast, those taking the name Republican, led by Thomas Jefferson, favored states’ rights and hoped for the country to remain essentially agrarian. While the Hamiltonians were no doubt pleased to see the expansion in financial and commercial institutions, they did not foresee the extent to which “the middling people’s go-getting involvement in commerce and enterprise” would dominate the economy and produce the “myth of the American dream.” Jefferson and most of his supporters, on the other hand, welcomed the growth of democracy but despised the economic transformations that occurred alongside it.

In contrast to historians with more left-wing perspectives, Wood is impressed with the growth of democracy during the period. In 1789, it was common for Americans to use the word “democracy” as a pejorative term that connoted mob rule and lack of protection for minorities and property rights. In Federalist number 14, James Madison defined democracy as a system in which the people exercise power directly, which was inappropriate to a large country. He asserted that a republican system, as created in the Constitution, utilized the principle of representation, which could be extended over a large region.

Within a few years, however, left-leaning persons and groups began applying the labels “democracy” and “democrat” to characterize political systems that reject aristocracy and allow the vast majority of citizens to vote for their representatives. By 1793, supporters of the French Revolution were establishing Democratic-Republican Societies, and some northerners were referring to the Republicans, or followers of Thomas Jefferson, as the Democratic-Republican Party. By the early nineteenth century, Wood demonstrates, it was not uncommon for the Republicans to be called Democrats. By then, the concept of representative democracy, which was only rarely mentioned in the eighteenth century, was becoming rather commonplace.

Although Wood does not view history through the Marxist lens of class conflict, he argues that the period witnessed a “social struggle” between wealthy aristocrats and the “middling classes,” a conflict that was particularly strong in the northern states. These middling men could not be considered gentlemen because they worked for a living with their hands. Holding positions such as artisans, mechanics, and laboring proprietors, they were too refined and too affluent to be placed with the “lower sort” or the “ruder sort.” Wood estimates that in 1790 about 60 percent of Boston’s three thousand adult men were members of the middling class and that they held almost 40 percent of the taxable wealth of the city. Their numbers and influence continued to grow, so that by the second decade of the nineteenth century they “had come to dominate American culture to a degree that the middle class in England never achieved.” While insisting that the “popular myth of equality” was based on substantial reality, however, Wood finds that it was “a psychological more than an economic reality.” The size of Connecticut farms, for example, varied from fifty to five thousand acres.

Wood recognizes that the South was not evolving into a middling and commercial society like that of the North. Although most southern famers were not slaveholders and many of them valued hard work, the states below the Mason-Dixon Line had fewer middling institutionsfewer schools, cities, banks, newspapers and manufacturing firms. The section’s “patrician order of large slaveholders” continued to dominate both politics and the culture. These economic differences had political consequences. In 1789, the South, particularly Virginia, had been the impelling force in creating the new government, and political leaders from the section still appeared to have control over the national government in 1815. The region’s power and prestige, however, was declining relative to the North, and many southerners “had a growing uneasiness that the South was being marginalized by the dynamic, enterprising, and egalitarian North, which was rapidly seizing control of the nation’s identity.”

The term “empire of liberty” was utilized several times by Thomas Jefferson in his correspondence. As implied by the word “empire,” Jefferson was a strong proponent of territorial expansion. He wanted the country to annex all, or at least most, of North America, as well as Cuba and other islands of the Caribbean. Presenting a moral justification for this goal that would come to be called Manifest Destiny in the 1840’s, Jefferson asserted that “no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.” Although such a statement sounds arrogant to modern ears, Wood points out that numerous European observers looked upon America as “the premier land of liberty.” The English radical Richard Price, for example, wrote that a “Spirit” had originated in America that promised to bring about “a State of Society more favorable to peace, virtue, Science, and liberty (consequently to human happiness and dignity) than has yet been known.”

As in his previous work, Wood does not write history from the perspectives of fads and “political correctness.” Convinced that historians should search for objective truths, at least in factual matters, he has little patience for the fashionable school of postmodernism and its “insidious” relativism that discounts even the goal of pursuing objectivity in historiography. In contrast to most contemporary multiculturalists, who tend to focus primarily on the inequalities and oppression of women, minorities, and the poor, Wood finds that the Revolution had the long-term result of liberation for the mass of citizens. Although he does not ignore the injustices that occurred during the early national period, he is convinced that American political institutions made a valuable contribution in promoting the expansion of liberty, equality, and democracy. Apparently, he continues to believe, as he previously wrote in the William and Mary Quarterly, that the school of radical multiculturalism “not only falsifies our past, it destroys our future.”

Rather than focusing on the American Revolution’s failure to eliminate the evil of slavery, Wood argues that the Revolution created “the cultural atmosphere that made slavery abhorrent to many Americans.” He observes that all the revolutionary leaders recognized that there was an obvious contradiction between the appeal to liberty in the Revolution and the existence of hereditary chattel slavery. The early national era, nevertheless, was such a cruel and brutal age, as reflected in criminal punishments, that many Americans simply accepted slavery as “merely part of the national order of things.”

Although persons of European ancestry in both the North and the South perceived the United States as “a white man’s country,” slavery was largely responsible for the growing divergence in the cultural and social organization of the two regions. Slavery, for instance, tended to breed deference and had “antidemocratic effects” on southern institutions. Wood even suggests that the continuation of slavery was one of the main reasons the South had fewer canals, fewer banks, fewer corporations, and fewer factories. It is impossible to prove or disprove such a causative linkage.

Wood does not ignore the sufferings and injustices experienced by Native Americans, but he does not condemn governmental policies as harshly as do many historians. He observes that, under the Articles of Confederation (in effect from 1781 to 1789), both the Congress and the states assumed that ownership of Indian lands was based on “the right of conquest,” therefore requiring no compensation for the ceded lands. In contrast, the administration of George Washington decided to return to the colonial practice of purchasing Indian lands, and the administration’s policy “could scarcely have been more enlightenedat least for the enlightened eighteenth century.” Even Henry Knox, who was one of the strongest defenders of Indian rights at the time, insisted that Indians must become sedentary and learn the European kind of agriculture. Wood observes that many people today find such a policy to be cruel and ethnocentric, but, he argues, “by the most liberal standards of the eighteenth century it was the only realistic alternative to the Indians’ outright removal or destruction.”

Empire of Liberty contains a good balance of materials concerning politics, law, economics, culture, and social relationships. Four of the nineteen chapters are devoted to the events and developments that occurred during Washington’s presidency, including the creation of new political institutions, reactions to the French Revolution, the conflict between unorganized political parties, the Whiskey Rebellion, and Washington’s farewell address. The presidency of John Adams is discussed in two chapters, and Jefferson’s two terms occupy four chapters.

The chapter on Madison’s presidency deals primarily with the War of 1812, with interesting discussions of the major battles, the Treaty of Ghent, and the reasons why Americans came to think of the conflict as “the second war for independence.” The two chapters about American law are particularly valuable, providing insightful discussions of the common law, the establishment of the judicial system, the jurisprudence of John Marshall, and the origins of judicial review. In addition, the book has one chapter that deals with slavery, one chapter about religion, and one chapter that presents an overview of literary, artistic, and scientific achievements.

A few of Wood’s generalizations are questionable. For instance, he writes that by 1815 “the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was clearly over.” While it is unquestionably true that many Americans, such as the followers of the religious revivals, were opposed to the worldview of the Enlightenment, there is considerable evidence that the major ideas and values of the movement, such as skepticism, deism, humanitarianism, and appreciation for science and education, were growing in importance and popularity. The period after 1815 would see developments that would have pleased most leaders of the Enlightenment, such as the growth in schools, newspapers, and opposition to slavery.

Also questionable is Wood’s assertion that, with the development of a democratic society, “heroic individuals, like the Founders, no longer mattered as much as they had in the past.” To the contrary, it would appear that people living in democracies appreciate heroism, particularly during times of great crisis, especially major wars. Even in 1815, many Americans were already looking upon Andrew Jackson as a heroic figure. The image of heroism demands a certain kind of personality, as well as success in confronting a difficult challenge.

Almost all scholars, even if they have reservations about some of Wood’s interpretations, will recognize that the Empire of Liberty, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in history, is an outstanding achievement by one of the preeminent historians of the early history of the United States. Capitalizing on his lifetime of research and writing in the field, Wood was able to take advantage of an unmatched familiarity with both source materials and historical literature. In addition to his outstanding breadth and depth of knowledge, Wood remembers the crucial importance of stories to history, and he packages his narration in a style that is engaging and accessible to general readers. Although the book is quite large, many lovers of history will want to read it from cover to cover. It is probably too massive to serve as a text in a college course, but some history teachers, if they have motivated students, might want to assign particular chapters. The book is particularly useful as a reference work for persons who want to find dependable and balanced discussions of particular topics of the period.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

American Heritage 59, no. 4 (Winter, 2010): 105.

Booklist 106, no. 2 (September 15, 2009): 19.

Kirkus Reviews 77 (September 15, 2009): 72.

Library Journal 134, no. 15 (September 15, 2009): 70.

The Nation 290, no. 4 (February 1, 2010): 33-36.

National Review 61, no. 21 (November 23, 2009): 50-52.

The New York Times Book Review, November 29, 2009, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 33 (Sept. 28, 2009): 54.

Weekly Standard 15, no. 7 (November 2, 2009): 28-30.

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