Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
This is a big book by one of the greatest living scholars of the early Republic. It is worth reading. Gordon Wood, of course, is the author of The Creation of the American Republic and numerous other works on the founding period. Empire of Liberty weighs in at 738 pages and is part of the not yet complete Oxford History of the United States. This volume covers the period from the adoption of the Constitution to the end of the War of 1812. It is a marvelous synthesis of contemporary scholarship on the period and a well-spent career by a careful and imaginative scholar. Enough with the superlatives and adjectives.
The book is organized as a narrative, with a nice mix of a somewhat gossipy treatment of elite politics interspersed with chapters on social history. On the social history front, the book is strong on economics and (thankfully from my point of view) religion. If there was one subject where I wasn’t entirely impressed, it was his treatment of military history. Having gone through a Civil War history phase as an adolescent, however, I suspect that I probably have a higher tolerance for the analysis of troop movements, battles, and logistics than the ordinary reader. Also, the volume has a good bibliographic essay, which is extremely useful as a scholar from another discipline who might be interested in using some of the literature on this period.
Wood has two chapters that will be of special interest to lawyers and legal scholars. The first is “Law and an Independent Judiciary” and the second is “Chief Justice John Marshall and the Origins of Judicial Review.” Both of these chapters are heavily weighted toward federal constitutional law and the rise of the Supreme Court. However, in comparison to Howe’s What Hath God Wrought (the next volume in the Oxford History and another book that is worth reading), Wood has a more in depth discussion of legal developments beyond the Supreme Court. His discussion of the intellectual roots of judicial independence in eighteenth-century English legal thought is excellent, as is his discussion of the politics of debtor-creditor law in the early Republic. Finally, while I feel called upon to carp at the way that developments in the common law consistently get relegated to second place vis-a-vis constitutional law in most histories, I was fascinated by Wood’s discussion of Marshall’s maneuverings against Jefferson. My employer is pleased to claim both men as alums (although the claim is stronger in the case of Jefferson than Marshall), but as between the two, Marshall comes across as the more pleasant, canny, and ultimately wise man.
In terms of political history, Wood organizes his narrative around the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. It’s a story in which the losers are, to my mind, ultimately much more interesting than the winners. One of the ways that Wood illustrates this story is through a series of portraits of middling political figures — congressmen, unsuccessful senators, successful grandees in state legislatures, and the like — which make for a nice contrast to a story dominated by Washingtons, Adamas, Jeffersons, and Hamiltons. I found myself sympathizing — if not entirely agreeing — with curmudgeonly Federalists like James Fenimore Cooper who had to live on in the increasingly crass and democratic society that Jefferson helped to midwife even if it was not ultimately his creation. Indeed, at the end of the book Wood provides a striking portrait of Jefferson in retirement, increasingly crotchety, disoriented by the grasping hucksterism of nineteenth-century America, and, perhaps most pathetically, more and more apologetic for slavery while still desperately clinging to the increasingly threadbare mantle of enlightenment prophet of human freedom. Indeed, Wood ends the volume with a peroration on the evil of slavery and its blight on the nation. It is, I think, the least compelling prose in the book, but there is no denying the evil that it condemns or the way in which it came to warp so much of American political, social, and intellectual life.