Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States)
Gordon S. Wood
Oxford University Press, 2009
800 pp., $39.95
Merely mortal historians dream fondly of writing one book of enduring significance. With the publication of Empire of Liberty, Gordon Wood, emeritus professor of history at Brown University, has now published three such volumes. His Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 was recognized immediately upon its appearance in 1969 as a nearly definitive explanation of what the republican political principles of the American Revolution meant to their proponents and how those ideas fueled the successful revolt against Britain. Then in 1992 he published The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a compelling study that showed how widely and deeply the Revolution's republican ideology worked to shape all aspects of early American society. In a career also marked by a stunning proliferation of seminal scholarly essays, insightful books on the major founding fathers, and much general writing of the absolutely highest caliber, Wood's addition to the noteworthy Oxford History of the United States could be the occasion for pure celebration.
If, instead, I take more time to treat what strike me as problems, it is not from any doubt about the book's triumphal success in achieving what it set out to do. That goal seems to be a political history of the early United States that also explains the many connections between the era's political life and the dramatic changes percolating through American society as a whole.
The organization of the book indicates clearly what Wood is attempting. Its introduction and first eight chapters narrate the trials of the new republic from the writing of the Constitution through the administrations of George Washington and John Adams to "the Jeffersonian Revolution" of 1800, when the Democratic Republicans displaced the Federalists as the nation's guiding political faction. The more than 300 pages in these chapters offer a bravura account of frequently retold events, enlivened with telling details (when Washington became the president, he employed more workers at Mount Vernon than he supervised as head of government), persuasive judgments on individuals (James Madison was "the most intellectually creative public figure America has ever produced"), and commanding interpretations of key documents (the Federalist Papers, various Indian treaties, Federalist and Democratic Republican propaganda, and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that protested Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts).
Then come two thematic chapters on social organization and the opening American frontier, c. 1800; followed by two especially compelling chapters on law, the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Marshall; then four thematic chapters (reform, slavery, culture, religion); followed by two outstanding chapters on American foreign policy and the War of 1812, featuring the maneuvers of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; and finally a last chapter on the great changes in the country from 1789 to 1815. In other words, we have a political narrative with interpolations.
So, what could possibly be troubling about such a work? The materials for complaint, which are mostly provided by Wood himself, concern issues of comprehension, causation, and irony. First is the question of comprehension, which is best explained comparatively. Wood's volume in the Oxford History of the United States most closely resembles volumes by Robert Middlekauff on the American Revolution (The Glorious Cause, first edition 1982) and James McPherson on the Civil War era (Battle Cry of Freedom, first edition 1988), which were also superb political histories. None of these volumes, however, accomplished what Daniel Walker Howe brought off so successfully in his 2007 contribution to the Oxford History, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. While Howe too provided sterling political history, he also drew upon a vast quantity of social history and the recent outpouring of scholarship on previously understudied groups to write a full history of the American people. When Howe showed how the political history shaped broader cultural values, his work paralleled what the others had done. But when he went beyond to demonstrate how the political history often reflected economic, demographic, religious, cultural, and intellectual developments, he reached a level of comprehension not nearly as obvious in the other volumes. To be sure, Empire of Liberty has useful pages on Native Americans, commerce, agriculture, religion, the arts, voluntary organizations, newspapers and magazines, slavery, and much else, but developments in these spheres are usually treated as reactions to ideology—thus, in chapters titled "Republican Society," "The Jeffersonian West," and "Republican Reforms."
Howe's triumph was to show how what happened in non-political spheres was often as important for understanding the course of American experience as were political developments. Thus, Howe builds the experience of women into the fabric of his broad narrative, but for Wood, women appear only when a few notable voices are being influenced by republican principles to speak out for women's rights. Other female activities that were not so directly inspired by republican politics, such as explored by Catherine Brekus (Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America,1740-1845, 1998) are absent, despite their manifest importance. Similarly, the frontier West comes into play for Wood mostly when its people or problems impinge on national leaders and their concerns. Yet compelling arguments by scholars like Alan Taylor (The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, 2006) and Patrick Griffin (American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier, 2007) have shown how often violent frontier experience substantially shaped the era's concepts of citizenship, understandings of race, and practices of rough-hewn democracy. Because this western angle of vision is not present in Wood's book, it suffers as a comprehensive picture of United States history.
Closely related to issues of scope are questions about causes and effects. They concern what Wood sees as the construction of society in the new American nation. For his picture, not just the most important factor, but virtually the all-comprehending factor, in American historical development was the run-on effect of the Revolution. Wood's brilliance in describing American "liberty" includes his ability to show how from the 1780s, the concept took on a more individualistic, democratic, and populist character than it conveyed before the Revolution. In conflict with Britain, liberty had meant the kind of freedom from corrupted and concentrated authority that would allow self-sufficient gentlemen to act virtuously for the public good. Increasingly, amidst conflict aimed at defining the American future, liberty came to mean the kind of freedom from any centralized authority that allowed almost all white men to pursue virtue as they themselves defined it. In this process, deference—which the major Founding Fathers had assumed would come to themselves as if by nature—collapsed as an organizing social principle. Increasingly it was not deference but self-assertion, not tradition but contract, not learning but the market, not stability through the suppression of faction but balance through the competition of factions that defined an American way of life.
In this interpretation, developments in other spheres were, of course, not unimportant—economy, demography, gender, religion, disease, commerce, learning—but none of them are allowed to crowd out republican political ideology as the driving force. The problem with this unilinear rendering is not its presentation of political ideology but rather the all-encompassing role given to the extrapolation of political ideology for explaining social change. As one of the most important spheres to highlight strengths and weaknesses of this general interpretation, religion serves unusually well.
At several places in Empire of Liberty, Wood describes religion in this period as being defined, driven, or caused by the expanding logic of Revolutionary liberty. Thus, "As American society became more democratic …, middling people rose to dominance and brought their religiosity with them." Or, in the baldest expression, "The Revolution released torrents of popular religiosity and passion into American life."
Such statements are subtly misleading. As Daniel Walker Howe once pointed out, there was indeed a great surge of evangelical religion in the post-Revolutionary period, and that surge certainly did relate to Revolutionary events. But taken no further, the story is incomplete. The religious surge in the early republic, suggests Howe, resulted from a number of factors, not all of them political and not all of them rooted in the Revolution: "the Puritan/evangelical tradition did not simply adapt to, or borrow from, modernity and democracy; it actively helped form them. Individualism, voluntarism, and contractualism were features of the Puritan/evangelical religious tradition before they were taken over by the secular political philosophers of possessive individualism."
Using Howe's insight, it is possible to observe how Wood, with political ideology highlighted as the primary force behind religious development, shortchanges the agency of some of the era's primary religious actors. Methodism, for example, was in this period an engine for revival, reform, renewal, and social cohesion of nearly incalculable force. And Wood does record the dimensions of Methodist advance: from no adherents in 1760 to 700 churches in 1790 to more than a million adherents in 1820. Of course Methodism did not expand in a vacuum, but in fact took full advantage of the space opened up by the Revolution's stress on freedom. Yet Methodism enjoyed a dynamism of its own that cannot be explained in primarily political terms. Its Arminian theology stressed human freedom, but of a quite different sort from the American political variety. Its evangelistic strategies certainly did empower ordinary people, black as well as white, women as well as men, but with an energy that paralleled, rather than grew out of, the workings of republican ideology.
Particularly on the question of how Methodists so capably exploited the contagion of liberty, while always retaining a motive power of their own, it is a shame that John Wigger's splendid new biography of Francis Asbury was not available for Wood's use. As it is, Wood mentions Asbury only twice, in fleeting references. Wigger, however, shows that Asbury's constant itinerations (thousands of miles each year for more than a third of a century), his single-minded devotion to spiritual goals (unwearied preaching for conversion and sanctification and against what he regarded as wasting time in politics), and his contrarian social ethics (harsh critic of both slavery and runaway acquisitiveness) made him very much an exception to social developments driven by republican liberty. Yet the Methodist movement Asbury led was one the most constructive forces in the new nation. While the work of the Methodists was certainly a perfect fit for the new social worlds influenced by Revolutionary ideology, the Methodists also exercised a discernibly separate influence that grew from a distinctly religious vision.
If Wood had made room in the movement from ideological cause to social effect for more ideological causes than just republican principles, and more effects than arising from the extension of those principles, he might have recognized Asbury as one of the era's most important figures (known face-to-face and a source of direct encouragement to far more Americans than Thomas Jefferson). He might also have seen the Methodist movement as very nearly the equal of Federalist or Republican ideologies in its effect on American society, at least during the period treated by Wood. The payoff would have been a fuller, more accurate general "history of the United States."
Mention of Jefferson highlights a third issue: the irony of Wood's title and of his entire presentation. The title quotation comes from Jefferson, who saw the ideals of the American founding as delivering a decisive blow against monarchical tyranny and as setting up a modern nation where the absence of hierarchical coercion would bring in something like a secular millennium. Wood clearly finds this vision compelling. Somehow, he manages to take Jefferson's profession straight up: "Jefferson personified this revolutionary transformation" that led Democratic Republicans to "dream … of a world different from any that had ever existed, a world of democratic republics in which the scourge of war would at last be eliminated and peace would reign among all nations." Moreover, Jefferson's "ideas about liberty and democracy left such a deep imprint on the future of his country that, despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as there is a United States he will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation's noblest ideals and highest aspirations."
The general problem with crediting the United States in this period with creating an "empire of liberty" is, of course, slavery. The particular problem, highlighted by evidence supplied in this book, is Jefferson.
On slavery, too much has already been said by too many individuals to demonstrate why the "liberty" of Wood's title needed at least some indication of ambiguity. To be sure, he quotes Samuel Johnson's devastating remark, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Moreover, at numerous places Wood points out how slavery compromised the founding ideals: as in the Constitutional provision to count voteless slaves as three-fifths of a person, thus ensuring the slave states an artificial advantage in the House of Representatives; as in the race-determined discrimination that beset freed African Americans in the North as well as the South; and as in the solid foundation that slavery provided for the determined southern advocacy of republican theory. Wood even ends his book with Jefferson's despair at slavery-generated controversy over Missouri in 1820 and offers as his own very last word, "Only with the elimination of slavery could this nation that Jefferson had called 'the world's best hope' for democracy even begin to fulfill its great promise." Yet despite this full treatment of slavery and its effects, Wood consistently describes the Jeffersonians' ideological attacks on "monarchy" as somehow intrinsically ennobling and instinctively believable—even though it was in monarchical Britain that during this very period reformers were moving steadily toward peaceful elimination of slavery.
The sharpest irony that Wood's account exposes concerns Jefferson himself. A sweeping indictment of this democratic visionary does not need to call on those who have made a career out of trashing Jefferson, but can be built from evidence supplied by Wood himself. The indictment has many particulars.
Jefferson was, first, driven so powerfully by ideological certainty that he often lost his grip on political reality. As early as the 1780s, Wood describes Jefferson's political principles in "their innocence and impracticality … their utopianism." He shows that Jefferson's ardent support of the French Revolution was never tempered by any reaction to its excessive bloodshed. He concludes that in their attitudes and dealings with France, "the naïveté of the Revolutionary Americans [including Jefferson] seems astonishing." And in one of the long-running themes of the last part of the book, Wood details how delusionary Jefferson's belief was that by regulating American trade, the new nation could force its will on Britain, France, and Spain. Following this logic to its conclusion led Jefferson to his economically disastrous Embargo of 1807, which shut down American shipping in a fruitless effort to influence the European great powers. If Jefferson's hope was commendable (to find a peaceful solution to international tension), his means for pursuing that hope bordered on fantasy.
The more serious charge against Jefferson concerns the deep vein of hypocrisy that colors his entire life. The leader of the Democratic Republicans proclaimed an "empire of liberty" as a principled goal, yet was willing steadily to contemplate conquest of Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. In the run-up to the War of 1812, he seems never to have even considered finding a "just war" rationale when he encouraged the invasion of Canada and the absorption of Canada into the United States.
This great proponent of republican ideals of virtue, which required gentlemen to be free of burdensome obligations to others, lived constantly beyond his means and so was perpetually in debt.
Jefferson was the era's strongest defender of limited government and strict constitutionalism, yet when it served his interests he unilaterally expanded the powers of the central government to purchase Louisiana and to punish violators of his Embargo and other trade restrictions.
On slavery, Jefferson was said to be a kind master and did express regret about breaking up slave families, yet in his lifetime he sold or gave away 161 of his slaves, which often resulted in breaking up families. He claimed to "abhor severity" and did not beat his slaves himself, but had no compunctions against having others whip his disobedient chattel. Most amazing was his public stance on race mixing, as explained by Wood: "Although Jefferson had no apprehensions about mingling white blood with that of Indians, he never ceased expressing his 'great aversion' to racial mixing between blacks and whites." Yet Jefferson himself fathered several children with the slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson's record on slavery may have been relatively typical for his place and age, as Wood suggests, though especially this last self-contradiction causes doubts about that assertion.
Given this lengthy record of double dealing and runaway ideology, it is a puzzle how Jefferson can be regarded as embodying America's finest ideals or how, more generally, the new nation can be viewed as an "empire of liberty."
Again, the example of Daniel Walker Howe is instructive. For his title, Howe took Samuel F.B. Morse's first telegraph message, "what hath God wrought," and determined to use it without punctuation so that it could be read both providentially and ironically. As in Howe's volume, Wood presented the material for a complex moral judgment on American history in his era, yet despite the presence of such material—especially for slavery and Jefferson—the book does not feature that ambiguity as a controlling theme.
But perhaps the complaints I have offered about the limits, simplifications, and ironies of Wood's book are, in the end, only another form of compliment. Wood has traced the main political stories of the new American nation with such commanding skill and such interpretive wisdom that at least some readers will long for that same historical brilliance to shine on all aspects of life in "the Early Republic, 1789-1815." If that Olympian goal in the end eludes Gordon Wood, it is more an indication of the fearsome complexity of the period than a complaint about the work of one of the nation's truly great historians.
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Among his books are America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford Univ. Press) and The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, recently published by InterVarsity Press.
1. For outstanding examples of writing in those three modes, see "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 39 (1982), pp. 401-41; The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (The Penguin Press, 2004); and a great number of luminous review essays in the New York Review of Books.
2. The following echoes an argument expanded in my book America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 187-94.
3. Daniel Walker Howe, "Religion and Politics in the Antebellum North," in Religion and American Politics from the Colonial Period to the 1980s, ed. Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow (Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), p. 136.
4. John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.