The Magazine

Getting Underway

The bumpy road to nationhood.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.