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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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."