Mark Noll

Jefferson's America?

From 1789 to 1815, in Gordon Wood's telling.

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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.[4] 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.

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