Gordon S. Wood examines a period of U.S. history about which I knew very little before reading this book. That is, from the signing of the Constitution in 1788 until the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815 that finally ended the War of 1812. It is one of the volumes within "The Oxford History of the United States" series for which another distinguished historian, David M. Kennedy, serves as General Editor. As Wood explains in the Introduction, "By 1815, Americans had experienced a transformation in the way they related to each other and in the way they perceived themselves and the world around them. And this transformation took place before industrialization, before urbanization, before railroads, and before any of the technological breakthroughs usually associated with modern social change. In the decades following the revolution America changed so much and so rapidly that Americans not only became used to change but came to expect and prize it."
Thus does Wood prepare his reader for a rigorous and comprehensive examination of what was indeed a multi-dimensional "transformation" during which thirteen "separate republics" eventually became "the United States of America," with its people appropriating the name that belonged to all the peoples of the New World - "even though the term `Americans' actually had begun as a pejorative label the metropolitan English had applied to their inferior and far-removed colonists." Throughout the lively and eloquent narrative that follows, Wood explains who and what played major roles in that process from a "monarchical republic" struggling for survival to what had become, "in the minds of its citizens, a nation to be reckoned with."
Of special interest to me is Wood's discussion of what Jefferson once characterized as "the miseries of slavery." He claimed that slavery's role in Missouri "was not a moral question, but one merely of power." Wood disagrees. "He was wrong. It wad a moral question, and the passions of the sons of the Founders was neither unwise nor unworthy; indeed, they had been his passions as well - the love of liberty and the desire for equality...Yet [Jefferson] always sensed that his `empire of liberty' had a cancer at its core that was eating away at the message of liberty and equality and threatening the very existence of the nation and its democratic self-government; but he had mistakenly come to believe that the cancer was Northern bigotry and money-making promoted by Federalists priests and merchants." Wood leaves no doubt that slavery would soon become the single most controversial issue for the new nation to address, especially as the thirteen colonies were joined by Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1702), Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1802), and Louisiana (1812). To what extent would slavery be a factor within the territories of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, and especially Missouri? According to Wood, "The Civil War was the climax of a tragedy that was preordained from the time of the Revolution. Only with the elimination of slavery could this nation that Jefferson had called `the world's best hope' for democracy even begin to fulfill its great promise."
Those who wish to examine the next era of U.S. history are urged to check out Walter A. McDougall's Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877 and Jon Meacham's American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.
on 6 August 2012
In the first eight chapters of this book, Wood tells us in vivid and lively language about the first three presidents of the United States. He tells about their struggles with themselves, how they tried to practice what they preached and idealized about democracy and republicanism, about the way they viewed liberty, about the way the 13 states saw themselves, about the role of the nation state, about the way they viewed their role as president in relation to the new and struggling Congress. He also tells about their yearning for freedom, real freedom, from the former mother country and from France, and Wood writes about much more. Ultimately, Wood tries to show how the presidents - and the parties that formed willingly or unwillingly around them - molded the collection of American states that were part of the early republic.
When I was reading these chapters, I soon discovered that these chapters make up the political background of the other chapters that come after them. The first eight chapters need to be read in chronological order, otherwise the reader will miss important facts or developments. The next ten chapters - the book has nineteen chapters in total - are more of the topical kind and they describe the transformation that took place in the states that made up the Union. For example, in chapter 9 Wood describes the way the American society came to life in a truly republican country, in chapter 11 and 12 he tells about the role and place of the law in American society and how the Supreme Court dugg out it's own place over against the highest courts of the states, and chapter 16 tells about the way religion changed under the leveling and middling influence of republicanism.
The last and final chapter is different from the others. In that chapter Wood brings together all that he has described and told in the preceding chapters, to show that the seeds for the republican experiment that were planted in 1776 and replanted in 1789 have come to fruition, and that many storms and difficult discussions and arguments have helped the democratic idea of Enlightenment to permeate the whole of American society.
Of course, each chapter contains about 100 references to relevant sources, giving the reader the opportunity to do some research for himself. And for even more research, the book also contains a bibliographical essay containing book titles and references on virtually every subject that the book touched on.
This book is an excellent sequel to The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (Oxford History of the United States) by Robert Middlekauff, that describes what happened in the years leading up to the American Revolution until it finally finished in 1789, and that is where Gordon Wood picks up with this most excellent and comprehensive analysis.
At the outset of his history of the United States between 1789 - 1815, Professor Gordon Wood aptly describes his subject as "Rip Van Winkle's America". Van Winkle, of course, was the subject of a story by Washington Irving. Rip goes to sleep in his small village prior to the American Revolution and wakes up 20 years later to find a vastly changed United States, larger in size, disputatious, commercial, and substantially more democratic than had been the case when Rip began his long nap.
Rip's story captures the development of the United States as Wood portrays it. Beginning with the adoption of the Constitution, which was designed to cure the excesses of individualism and local government under the Articles of the Confederation, Wood sets a theme of the increasing democratization of the United States, as political parties come to play a central role in American life and Thomas Jefferson is elected president in 1800 on a platform of equality (for white males, in any event) and of a limited role for the central government. What Wood describes as the "middling" class as opposed to the budding aristocracy of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and some of the other Founders, comes to set the dominant tone of American life.
Besides his use of the story of Rip Van Winkle, Wood sets the tone of his book with its title, "Empire of Liberty." Wood uses this term in a chapter titled "The Jeffersonian West" which describes the great expansion of the United States achieved by the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson himself used the term "Empire of Liberty" to describe his vision for the United States. As Wood explains the term: "`Empire" for [Jefferson] did not mean the coercive domination of alien peoples; instead, it meant a nation of citizens spread over vast tracts of land. Yet the British Empire had given enough ambiguity to the term to lend some irony to Jefferson's use of it. (p. 357, footnote omitted) Thus, another theme of Wood's study, in addition to democratization, is expansion. The United States grows in both area in population. The United States gradually frees itself of domination by foreign powers, both Britain and France, to form a growing sense of itself as an independent nation. At the end of the book, following what appeared to be a lucky avoidance of disaster in the War of 1812, the United States became "A World within Themselves", to use the title of Wood's insightful concluding chapter, as Americans looked to themselves rather that to Europe as the source of trade, economic growth, and culture.
Wood's long, thorough, and comprehensive study develops his themes in a variety of ways. He offers a political history of the United States beginning with the administration of George Washington and concluding with the administration of the fourth president, James Madison, through the end of the War of 1812. The tumult of this early period frequently is overlooked by those with only a casual familiarity with American history. Political disagreements were sharp, personal, and violent. There were near-wars with both France in Britain and an actual war with Britain in 1812, which sealed the result of the first war - the American Revolution. The era included a disputed presidential election in 1800, the trial of Aaron Burr, Jefferson's first vice-president, for treason, the impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice and much else. With the possible exception of the Civil War era, the early days of the United States were the most difficult time in our history.
Wood also offers insightful chapters on the development of American law and of the doctrine of Judicial Review under the John Marshall, the Great Chief Justice. He spends substantial space on slavery, with both the North and the South tragically miscalculating how this institution would come close to destroying the nation. In several chapters, Wood explores the growth of American culture during this period, a subject frequently overlooked. And there is an important chapter on the Second Awakening and on American religion. Wood shows that the separation of government from denominations, gave religion in the United States its own non-hierarchical, individual character and strengthened it, rather than having religion become a casualty of the Enlightenment.
Wood offers stories of commercialization, ambition and drive on behalf of his "middling" class with anecdotes of people who succeeded through their own efforts and of some individuals, such as Robert Fulton whose inventiveness and ingenuity made them famous. With slavery and its treatment of the Indians, Wood shows that the United States had serious failings. But the overall tone of this book is one of optimism, exuberance and hope for the promise of America. Thomas Jefferson is the single most dominating figure in this book. For all Jefferson's faults and for all the changes in his historical reputation, Wood clearly admires Jefferson immensely. Jefferson's vision, with its goal of democratization and independence, forms the heart of Wood's picture of what the United States could become.
Wood's book is the latest in a series called the "Oxford History of the United States." Each of these volumes is written by a distinguished scholar and presents, for the specialist and the interested lay reader, important and informed studies of periods in our Nation's history. It is a rare pleasure to be able to study American history through these books and through the differing perspectives of their authors. Wood's book, with its scholarship and emphasis on the Jeffersonian vision, is an exemplary addition to this series.
on 21 October 2014
The evolution of American democracy in the post-revolution realm is a very fascinating study. Gordon Wood draws the reader into the story of how the United States went from being nothing more than a rebellious former colony of Great Britain to that of a nation in its own right, ready to compete with the Old World monarchies in the big wide world. The Early Republic of 1789 to 1815 defined, dictated and cajoled the United States into the nation it is today; for better or worse.
Independence from Great Britain brought freedom to the colonies... but it was also to bring many new obstacles and conflicts for the emerging states and national government. Indeed, the nation was to change in less than three decades to one with little resemblance to what it was in 1789
Initially a loose confederation of thirteen like minded states, the development and agreement of a Constitution in 1789 allowed for the setting up of a national government. Subsequent actions by men such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and others led the creation of the 'Federalists'; leaders determined to organise the states in a more structured and powerful nation. However, they were to meet opposition from those who feared a strong centralised authority, something they'd fought the British to eradicate. Men such as James Madison, James Monroe and the most famous of them all; Thomas Jefferson, favoured a limited central government with more rights for the state authorities. The setting up of a tax system, an army, navy, militia forces and even a diplomatic service were considered by Federalists to be essential for the survival of the revolution, but examples of intrusive and freedom restricting government by the Republicans. The Federalists and the Republicans were to mistrust each other for years, an early precursor to the causes of the Civil War...
Wood covers all aspects of US society, politics, economics and religion as the country evolved into a young, vibrant nation full of entrepreneurial, commercially minded and egalitarian citizens determined to be no ones inferior. One key aspect of Wood's work documents how suspicion and dislike of all 'aristocrats' among the citizens led to a greater belief in the equality of men regardless of birthright. This was to brake down barriers and lead to the greater acceptance of women in society and even that of non-white Christians. However, this was slow to begin with and still had a long way to develop by 1815.
The opportunities presented by mass expansion to the west of the North American continent eventually convinced many Americans that they themselves were a people and a nation whose heritage may be predominantly British, but whose future was their own to discover. An identity different from that of their European cousins with different beliefs and a stronger sense of their own personal freedoms. The war with Britain in 1812 was to become more a war of symbolic defiance than that of material gain. The United States was to make a statement; we are an independent people and country who refuse to be pushed around by a former master. This was the so-called 'Second War of independence.
This is a brilliant study in the evolution of the United States. Wood clearly and entertainingly documents how the United States began as a muddled set of newly free territories which was to become a united nation determined to symbolise and practice the concept of the freedom of men over that of monarchical dictatorships as those which ran Europe. The nation in 1815 bared little resemblance to what it did in 1789 thanks to the growth of ideals and beliefs which the nation still holds dear and tirelessly tries to emulate in today's world. 'Empire of Liberty' is crucial to anyone who wishes to understand the development of the United States as a nation and also to those who wish to see why the nation thinks as it does today. Fabulous.
on 14 May 2013
This is the third book in the series that I have read and I have enjoyed them all immensely.
Be warned though, this is not the sort of book to read when you're tired. It goes into a great deal of detail about the political philosophies of the period and as such requires a high degree of concentration. It amply rewards such effort, however.
As well as politics, the book discusses the role of religion in shaping America, economics, the War of 1812, the rise of the mercantile system and the various social classes that subsequently emerged and plenty of other subjects too.
There are some extremely interesting sections on the beginnings of racism in America which ran contrary to my presuppositions. (I do so love it when that happens). Also, the facts on alcohol consumption are staggering.
This is one of those books that you can read about a period you think you know well, only to discover a thousand subtleties and surprises, completely and forever changing your perception of the period. I was fascinated by something on every single page of this book, an intimate journey with a true master historian who is writing for a popular, if knowledgeable audience. I did not always agree with his perspective, which made the dialogue all the more stimulating.
At the start, after the constitution was ratified, the Federalists were triumphant (Washington, Hamilton, Adams). Wood defines them as would-be British aristocrats, attempting to set up a social hierarchy similar to the monarchy that the US had just thrown off. To establish their regime, they set up elaborate systems of patronage with the privileged, who were landowners and big businessmen. Their goals, Wood continues, were to create a modern, centralized state - with a banking sector to finance a continental-scale commercial economy, an organized military under the control of the federal government, and a legal apparatus to set national priorities, including taxes. They deeply feared the partisan wrangling that would come if parties formed. By background, they admired the British, entertained Enlightenment ideas about rational discussion, and tended to be "deists" who believed that God had created a mechanistic universe that operated according to discernable rules rather than regular intervention with intent.
Opposition developed, led first by Jefferson and later by Madison, from their fear of centralized power. Rather than the British, they preferred the French Enlightenment, particularly when revolutionaries threw off the yoke of their monarchy, but also by intellectual preference and lifestyle emulation. Unlike the Federalists seeking to create state power, they wanted the US to remain principally agricultural, a republic of thrifty yeomen, a kind of salt of the earth in their minds. Part of Jefferson's political genius was that he synched with the rising populism of the time, which by enabling more men to participate in politics was anti-aristocratic. This ushered in electoral politics and spawned partisan groupings, known at the time as Jeffersonian Republicans.
In my opinion, the book is not clear enough regarding what exactly each grouping represented. Though the Federalists were pro-business and wanted to set up a national administrative infrastructure to support them, it alienated smaller entrepreneurs and artisans, who saw the Republicans as more supportive of their ambitions. This seemed to me paradoxical, but they voted for Jefferson en masse, permanently eclipsing the Federalists. Wood appears to clearly prefer the Jeffersonians over the Federalists, i.e. a little too accepting of their rhetorical positions at face value. Wood could, I believe, have been far more critical of Jefferson - the guy thought a lot of strange things up and was a ridiculous hypocrite. His embargo policies against the British, applied with extraordinary ideological zeal, devastated local men of commerce. Clearly, these groupings were not direct ancestors to our modern political parties, as their ideological convictions were re-shuffled in subsequent generations.
Beyond these political wrangles, the social and economic changes underway were legion and fundamental. First, given the rhetoric of liberty, Southern planters developed a racist ideology to explain their need to own slaves (they were inferior human beings incapable of taking care of themselves). This is the fissure that inevitably led to the civil war and underlies the race problem of today.
Second, with the decline of state-supported churches, an unprecedented flourishing of protestant sects began, lasting to the present day - they were democratic (i.e., less authoritarian), offered personal salvation in new ways, and had characters that were genuinely homespun. Some (including Jefferson) believed that the Indians may have been "the lost tribes of Israel", a central tenet of the Mormanism that was established in the next generation.
Third, Americans shifted their attention westward, arguing that they were uniquely distinguished from Europeans and would develop their own culture and mores. This meant not only that they stopped their attempts to copy European cultural accomplishments, but also became self-absorbed and convinced they were somehow special - after the rise of Napoleon they represented the only experiment in republican government, but they also became willfully ignorant of many developments elsewhere, even myopic. Finally, with industrialization, a commercial culture dominated the economy, to the extent that even Jefferson admitted his agrarian utopia was unworkable.
I should mention what this book is not. It is not a narrative history with mini-biographies and vivid stories. Instead, it is highly analytic, looking at trends beneath the surface and explaining what they mean. Furthermore, it is not an introductory text that goes over the basics, but assumes knowledge of the main events and important personalities. That makes it an advanced text, say, for undergraduate history majors. It is the perfect stepping off point for interested students who have just suffered through a general text book.
This book is a great intellectual adventure. I came away from it with very clear ideas about long-term trends that originated within the conditions that existed at the time, as American institutions were set in motion in practical ways and the society established its own, uniquely American identity. Though I think he is too hard on the Federalists, Wood never indulges in a triumphalist tone or an overly proud celebration of American uniqueness. Warmly recommended as one of the best of the Oxford series.
on 15 May 2013
This book is one in a series of history books. It is, if anything, harder going in the first chapter than other books in the series. But it is a very interesting period of history, the birth of the USA, and perseverance is rewarded.
on 3 January 2013
This is an excellent book, well within the overall quality of the Oxford History of the United States series. It covers in great detail the years of the new republic, in a very entertaining and well written way. It was hard to put it down, once I started reading it.