Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 13

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xix + 778 ppg.

            This entry in the Oxford History of the United States picks up after the ratification of the US Constitution and runs through 1815. The Federalist Era, Jeffersonian Era, and War of 1812 are covered. Dr. Wood, Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University has penned another outstanding edition in which he explores the general themes of this period. The central theme of the book centers on change that occurred in Americans moving from a colonial, war time government apparatus which was created to serve the cause of independence to that of a new nation struggling to make its newly created national government work while also dealing with all the changes that occurred on seemingly every level of society. In the process, Dr. Wood, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, explains that tremendous amount of change and the effects it caused in the fledgling nation.

            Here in one volume readers can discover how George Washington and other men who were considered Founders worked to create the rudiments of a national government as well as determine what the boundaries of that government were. As the nation dealt with internal issues such as westward expansion, slavery, federal and state debts, inequity in wealth and power, and different opinions as to how to deal with these issues, it also had to contend with the titanic struggle that had been ongoing between Great Britain and France for over a century. The United States had been born from that conflict, and its continued existence and well being were tied to it as well along with much of the rest of the Atlantic World. Wood explains how the US was directly connected in many ways to both nations, and how divisions between factions of both played a major role in American foreign affairs during this time.

            As Wood details, the older generation of the Revolution was fading away as the Federalist Era began and a new generation came to the fore, a generation of middling people who supplanted the more conservative Founders and embraced Thomas Jefferson’s democratic ideas. This occurred not only in politics, but also in all other aspects of American society. Whereas the older generation wanted things to remain a certain way which kept them in power and wealth, the newer participants in America wanted their share of power and wealth as well which for many they felt they had earned during the Revolution. Wood explores this critical change which he felt was the most substantial amount of change in American history.

            He also covers the Second Great Awakening which came as a surprise to the Founders. American religion was transformed in this period of time after falling to historic low participation rates. Slavery is given a chapter in which Wood writes how the men of the older generation failed to understand just how deeply ingrained it was in the southern states. This chapter shows that it was not going to dwindle away into nothing like so many had hoped it would, but rather slavery would gain strength as the labor system of the South. Hamiltonian economic policy is covered extensively as it laid the foundations for a revived economy as well as those of an enormous political struggle between supporters of France and Great Britain.

            The result is an outstanding contribution to the Oxford History series which serves as an excellent reference for this period of time. While it does not go into great detail like a monograph would of specific instances or events within the period, it does provide the basic elements in a coherent frame. Wood’s use of both secondary and primary sources serve as great places for additional research for those who wish to explore the concepts, themes, and events which Wood goes over. Given Wood’s reputation within the historical community, the book serves as a good answer to some of Wood’s earlier body of work covering the ideological principles involved in the American Revolution. As a protégé of Bernard Bailyn, it comes as no surprise that Wood does so. Much of Wood’s earlier works explore the why element of the American Revolution. Empire of Liberty serves as a explanation of what they did with those principles and how they put them into action in the new nation.

            Those looking for a book that covers how the American government began under the Constitution will not be disappointed with this work. It does cover some of the most formative years of American history as Wood explains how the Federalists were defeated by the Jeffersonians, yet how Jefferson and Madison’s attempts at fulfilling Jefferson’s idealistic form of national government did not achieve the successes envisioned by either men. The War of 1812 is dealt with and the book concludes with a chapter on how the end of that war was also the end of both the Federalists and Jeffersonian eras. With the end of the wars in Europe, the Atlantic World entered a period of great peace and prosperity and the United States entered the new age with a renewed optimism. 

            As with all volumes of the Oxford History series, this book received great praise and several awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The series is a great addition to any historian’s library and Empire of Liberty certainly lives up to the high standards which are a hallmark of the series. While Wood does not break any new ground in this area, his ability to pick up the threads of American history after the ratification of the Constitution and write a book the encompasses economic, social, political, cultural, religious, and economic histories is simply outstanding. The result is definitely worth reading.

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