The Magazine

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."