The big story of the early American Republic was the advent of a society dominated by “middling” men on the make. Discarding relics of aristocratic privilege, taste and duty that had survived the Revolution, these confident and shamelessly self-interested go-getters embraced a commercialized world of economic growth, technological progress and continuous social and cultural change. The triumph of these middling strivers in the early years of the nineteenth century, decades before Alexis de Tocqueville observed and immortalized them in the 1830s, ennobled the American Revolution by making good on its democratic promise. By 1815 the outcome was “a land of enterprising, optimistic, innovative, and equality-loving Americans.”
Heartwarming, isn’t it? This is the picture Gordon Wood presents in Empire of Liberty, his entry into Oxford University Press’s justly prestigious series on the history of the United States. Graceful, fluid and long (it tops out at almost 800 pages), Wood’s study offers a comprehensive if not encyclopedic tour through the early Republic. Readers learn a little bit about many things: George Washington’s political uses of his regal bearing, Alexander Hamilton’s economic thinking, Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policies (possibly utopian, definitely disastrous). Wood offers striking details about the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Marshall’s defense of Supreme Court autonomy, a “golden age” of evangelical hymn-writing and Benjamin Rush’s intellectually ambitious but physically deadly reliance on “bleeding”–removing as many as five of the body’s six quarts of blood (Rush thought there were twelve) to treat yellow fever, tuberculosis, cancer and mental illness.
Wood, a professor emeritus at Brown University, seems to realize that the happy story he tells about the rise of equality-loving go-getters–a process he calls the “republicanization” of American society–had a dark side. He acknowledges that a dynasty of Virginia slaveholders dominated the government, that the Louisiana Purchase and cotton gin ignited an explosive westward expansion of slavery and that an Indian policy of massacre and expulsion destroyed any hope for a less violent future in the West. Even so, Wood thinks the history of the United States in the era from the adoption of the Constitution to the conclusion of the War of 1812 should be mobilized to instill pride rather than provoke sorrow, to highlight triumphs instead of tragedies. In an opus of book reviews, many published originally in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic and collected in The Purpose of the Past (2008), Wood has been very explicit about the proper role for a historian of the early United States: to empathize with the good intentions and well-meaning gestures of the Founders with a capital F.
But not all the Founders. Instead of showering his empathy indiscriminately, Wood casts his story of egalitarian blossoming in relentlessly partisan terms. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he thinks it makes sense for contemporary Americans to take sides in the fierce partisan struggles of this era–and leaves no doubt about which side we should take. The aristocracy of the past was Federalist, the democracy of the future Republican. Crusty New Englanders held Americans back; gregarious Virginians spurred them forward. Even with the benefit of hindsight, Wood all but endorses the view of the Baptist minister who thought Jefferson’s re-election to the presidency in 1804 was a signal of the approaching millennium: “Thomas Jefferson is the angel who poured out his vial upon the river Euphrates, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.” Or, in Wood’s words: “Despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as there is a United States [Jefferson] will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation’s noblest ideals and highest aspirations.”