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Getting Underway

The bumpy road to nationhood.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Empire of Liberty

A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


by Gordon S. Wood


Oxford, 800 pp., $35

Rare has been the multi-installment, multi-authored history of the United States that has offered the consistently authoritative and readable installments being published in the long-ongoing Oxford History of the United States, of which Gordon S. Wood's book is the eighth segment.

The first installment, Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause, on the years of the Revolution, appeared in 1982 and is old enough to have been republished in a revised and expanded edition. Yet there's more to come. The pre-Revolutionary years are still to be covered, as are the decades immediately after the Civil War. Only one subject installment, on American foreign relations, has appeared. We'll be lucky to live long enough to see the completion of the series. And truly so, inasmuch as it includes its installments three Pulitzer Prize recipients, winners of the Bancroft, Parkman, and other prizes, and best-seller list entries.

In this respect, there has never been a project like it. And this installment is a superb companion to its worthy predecessors.

Wood's contribution spans the quarter-century between the implementation of the Constitution of 1789 and the close of the War of 1812, years that commenced in exhilarating promise and ended in confusion. The United States had emerged from its second war with Great Britain comparatively unscathed and in a buoyant mood after Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans. But the generation of great leaders of the nation's founding was slowly fading from the scene, politics were bitter, the national treasury was in shambles, and at war's end none of the grating issues that had led to it had been resolved.

The United States might be, as Jefferson called it and Wood thinks of it, an "empire of liberty," but it was an empire still more imagined than realized, and liberty may have been on most male minds but was a scarce reality for women, Indians, and slaves.

Gordon S. Wood is known principally for his splendid earlier studies of the ideas and aspirations, both high and colloquial, that fueled the writing and ratification of the Constitution and the emergence of a remorseless tide of democratic beliefs and attitudes in the decades afterwards. One might therefore be surprised to find him here taking on the more concrete, "harder" matters of the past like events, treaties, wars, laws, and institutions of which he's written little before.

Yet he carries off his assignment with characteristic clarity, grace, and force. His two chapters on the law, as well as a single one on religion, are tours de force. Known for his unequalled command of original sources and the historical works based upon them, Wood makes this comprehensive work a distillation of a lifetime's reading and reflection. Here, too, he's at his most Woodish in the number, sometimes surfeit, and aptness of the quotations he incorporates, and of his ability to get at the temper of the times of which he writes.

Wood's subject is the seedtime of the republic under the Constitution. That quarter-century saw the implementation of the federal system of government, probably the most freighted challenge in the nation's history. The 1790s were the critical decade; if matters didn't go right, the infant republic might dissolve into separate parts, or other nations might try to claim (or, as it were, reclaim) American territory.

Precedents had to be set. Congressional and executive procedures had to be established. Rules of debate and bearing had to be adopted. And the basic laws of the nation regarding such state-essential matters as the judiciary, immigration, government funding, and territorial administration and settlement had to be enacted.

It was not easy going. From the start, the nation's leaders, James Madison foremost among them, showed that "peculiar American tendency to discuss political issues in constitutional terms--a tendency that had the effect," remarks Woods, "of turning quarrels over policy into contests over basic principles."

Not for Americans, then or now, an unideological approach to public affairs. The challenge of creating a functioning system of federal government was made all the harder by the appearance of what would gradually become political parties and by a politics--their tone, the charges flung, the fears expressed, and dire predictions advanced--far more sulphurous and bitter than today's. Yelling "You lie!" at the president is nothing compared (for example) with the hammer-and-tongs fight on the floor of the House between Federalist Roger Griswold and Democrat-Republican Matthew Lyon that helped inaugurate congressional history. One might have foreseen in those days the makings of parliamentary behavior we associate with other national assemblies.

Yet the 1790s was a decade of extraordinary achievement, equaled only by the 1860s and 1930s. Under George Washington, Congress among other things established the basic lines of the judiciary, guided by Alexander Hamilton set the nation's economy on a firm footing with banking and debt acts, temporarily settled some outstanding issues with Great Britain, passed laws for immigration and naturalization, and entered into (and then, under John Adams, ended) a quasi-war with France. No less significantly, as the new century opened, the nation survived one of its most momentous constitutional crises when Congress found a way to resolve an Electoral College deadlock that allowed Thomas Jefferson to become president.

Next came the unexpected purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France--a fortuitous opportunity unsurpassed in American history. When had another nation doubled its territory at the cost of $15 million and the stroke of a pen? No wonder that Americans could imagine, with Jefferson, that a new era, perhaps one of untroubled peace and unlimited opportunity, had begun.

But such was not to be. France and Britain, at war after 1803, sought to put neutral shipping (like that of the United States) to their own use--and close it down to their enemies. Jefferson's administration came to wreck trying to resolve that challenge with an outright embargo on American shipping. Madison fared little better and had to take the country into battle in 1812. Only in 1815, after an inconclusive and by no means glorious war and a renewed peace with Britain, could the formative stage of the nation's history be said to have ended.

Wood proves a master at narrating all this and at bringing his history alive with brilliant character sketches of public figures (like William Findley, Jedediah Peck, and Matthew Lyon), many of whom readers will encounter for the first time. None of these portraits is better than Wood's of Aaron Burr, that compelling but never appealing man who killed Hamilton and eventually turned against, if not became a traitor to, his country.

But it is Jefferson who bestrides this work, Jefferson the man whose aspirations, for Wood, were emblematic of the nation's sweeping march to democracy, Jefferson whose spirit infuses his own and later times. There is nothing amiss with such an approach. What it does risk, however, is partiality--in Wood's case, of the most subtle kind. As long as democracy remains at the core of Americans' sense of themselves, then Jefferson can justifiably take center stage. But he does so always at a price. And it's a price that even Wood pays in this work.

For Jefferson was a slaveholder. And slavery, which touched almost every element and permeated most elements of American society, north and south, until its end, and whose legacy marks us still, doesn't put in an appearance until chapter 14, late in the book. Other historians have made a conclusive case, in recent decades, that slavery was a constituent part, not just a chapter or a subject, of American history. And it has to be counted against Wood that he doesn't make more of slavery's role in every dimension of the nation's early history. He sets slavery into the context of reform rather than of centuries of bond servitude, imperial needs, and plain racism. He sees reform as creating racism, not racism as sustaining slavery and impeding reform. By implication, slavery does not compose for Wood an integral part of the population, society, and culture of the United States but is rather a feature subject to "reform." Worse, we get almost nothing of the slaves themselves--their lives, their culture, their struggles, and as we say these days, their "agency."

Yet it's rare that a book like this can overcome what's a requirement of sorts for all multi-volume, multi-authored histories: that interpretive strength be sacrificed to balance and comprehensiveness. Wood is always judicious, unfailingly evenhanded. But we miss a sense, for example, of how the propulsive growth of democratic mores and institutions and of comparative equality was everywhere bound to the existence of bond servitude, of how the nation's economy was everywhere dependent on Southern cotton and its slave labor force, of how the effort in most quarters to avoid staring into the moral abyss deformed religion, ideas, and literature as well as politics.

If, as Wood seems to believe, the election of 1800 was, in Jefferson's own terms, "the revolution of 1800"--"an extraordinary and unprecedented experiment in governing," as Wood puts it in typically sweeping fashion, "without the traditional instruments of power"--it was a revolution that in many ways set back the cause of equality and democracy. With it opened decades of white male supremacy and the hammerlock of Southern politicians, by virtue of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, on national life.

It is only fair that such criticism of Wood's effort be placed in context. That context, I think, is the difficulty that Wood's generation of historians--my own--has had in throwing off the shackles of its own past. Those who have written only of slavery in monographs and synthetic works have almost all escaped the magnetic force that such echt American ideals as democracy and liberty exert on us all. They work with a subject that does not yield easily to abstractions; they study slavery and racism up close. And younger historians, most of them cynical to the core about abstract talk of freedom and homes of the brave, feel no pull from the verities that reigned in school and community before the 1960s and the Cold War.

But those of us born before the Second World War, who were affected by a world going up in flames, still want to hold to hopes of a more perfect union, of democracy and representative government on the march, of the spread of greater equality here and abroad. A book like Empire of Liberty is witness to this faith. Its approach is neither invalid nor wrong. Who does not want to be swept away, as Wood long has been, by the rush of democracy after 1789? Until there is yet another multi-volume history of the United States like this one, Wood's contribution will stand both as an extraordinary achievement of historical synthesis, and as witness to its own time.

It will not soon be surpassed.

James M. Banner Jr., a historian in Washington, is a cofounder of the National History Center and coeditor, most recently,
of Becoming Historians.