Empire of Liberty

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 The village was “larger and more populous”; its earlier tranquillity had been replaced by bustling activity, fierce ambition, and concern for making money.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...

(The entire section is 2066 words.)