Monday, February 05, 2024

Review: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Woods’ Empire of Liberty covers the history of the early US, roughly 1789 to 1815. Starting with the reasons for the constitution and the early years of the new government, the first part of Woods’ hefty volume covers some fairly well-trodden areas. This is not to say it doesn’t offer some interesting analysis of the reasons for the new constitution as well as how it was interpreted and implemented in those early years. It is primarily focused on the presidential politics up to the election of 1800 that sees Jefferson come to power. The general theme here is the initial power of the Federalists followed by the rise and dominance of the Jeffersonian Democrat-Republicans. For those familiar with this historical period, it is fairly standard, but laid out masterfully and deftly.

The second half of the book is more thematic, rather than chronological. Here the chapters pick up a theme or topic and explores it. So, you have a chapter on religion in the early republic, another on the development of the Supreme Court and its power, one that looks at slavery, and one that looks the foreign policy and diplomacy of the period. Each of these provide a fascinating window into an aspect of the history of the period.

The book ends by providing a coda for the enlightenment. That is, as the War of 1812 ends and its consequences are felt, the 18th century ends and the Enlightenment ideas that inspired and influenced so much of the ideas of the founding generation give way to both a more pragmatic approach and the new Romanticism that takes root in the 19th century.

The overall, general theme of the book is the rising republicanism and egalitarianism in the early US. By that, it is meant that the central conflict, as it is convincingly presented by Woods, was between hierarchical, monarchial societies on one hand, and on the other, the push to individualize, democratize, and equalize society on the other. Today we think in terms of liberal and conservative, right and left. And while there are elements of that in the early republic, these dichotomies are mostly absent. The split is really primarily between those supporting more traditional social hierarchies (Federalists) and those with a more radical and flatter view (Jeffersonian Republicans). The former seeing these hierarchies as bulwarks against the ravages of both tyranny from above (kinds) and tyranny from below (mob-rule). The latter seeing individual liberty and an engaged citizenry as the real spirit of ’76.

All in all, I think this book is a well-balanced and important history of the early Republic. While probably a bit overly focused on the political history, it does capture the broad themes of the society more generally. It is important to understand this history: if only to see that all the controversies and issues and concerns we fret about today where all there in the early Republic. We got through that. We can get through the craziness of today too.

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