Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Empire of Liberty

When it comes to early American history, few beat Gordon Wood, and this new book looks like a great summing of the period,

Gordon S. Wood demonstrates in “Empire of Liberty,” his superb new account of America’s pivotal first quarter-century, these inchoate Americans were audacious from the very start. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, brazenly asserted that the United States was destined to be “God’s own Word.” Madison called America an Arcadian “paradise,” while Thomas Jefferson labeled the nation “the world’s best hope.” And when they gazed over at the decadent, decaying monarchies of France and England, Americans concluded they were on the cusp of a new age, destined to be “an asylum to the good, to the persecuted and to the oppressed.”

Wood’s central characters are familiar too, but presented in admirably nuanced portraits. We see the austere George Washington, whose inordinate strength was his realism; we see the perplexing Thomas Jefferson, who so eloquently championed the rights of the common people while remaining publicly silent about the evils of slavery; we see Alexander Hamilton, who helped give us capitalism and who also had profound reservations about the revolutionary tide sweeping Europe; and we see James Madison, who Wood thinks may well have been the most intellectually gifted figure the nation has ever produced.

I imagine it covers a lot of the same ground as his past books, but nice to see it all collected in one volume.


  1. That would be fun to read here.

  2. Might be a good way to start off the New Year.

  3. I just ordered this just in case. If nothing else, it will go with my other Robert Whelan books -- maybe he'll join us yet!

  4. I just received Empire of Liberty. WHAT A BOOK! This may be based in part on Wood's previous articles, etc. but it goes way beyond them. 850 pages worth. You could teach an entire class around this book.

    Here's the table of contents:

    Table of Contents
    Introduction: Rip Van Winkle's America
    1. Experiment in Republicanism
    2. The Monarchical Republic
    3. The Federalist Program
    4. The Emergence of the Jeffersonian Republican Party
    5. The French Revolution in America
    6. John Adams and the Few and the Many
    7. The Crisis of 1798-1799
    8. The Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800
    9. Republican Society
    10. The Jeffersonian West
    11. Law and an Independent Judiciary
    12. Chief Justice John Marshall and the Origins of Judicial Review
    13. Republican Reforms
    14. Between Slavery and Freedom
    15. The Rising Glory of America
    16. Republican Religion
    17. Republican Diplomacy
    18. The War of 1812
    19. A World within Themselves
    Bibliographic Essay

  5. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/01/books/01arts-BROWNPROFESS_BRF.html

  6. The chapter titles read like historical essays. Sounds like I have to order this one.

  7. It's like an encyclopedia in size, but the bits I've read are well written and easy to read.

  8. I've said before, I like Gordon Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution was excellent, and I liked his character studies in Revolutionary Characters. I haven't gotten around to reading The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. I see he has also written a book on historiography,

    The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

  9. I've read all but the Radicalism of the American Revolution and I agree -- he's a good historian but he also writes well. As opposed to Wills, who is also a good and interesting historian but is difficult for me to read (I find his writing very convoluted).

    My review of Wilderness Warrior (what a title!) was such a "hit," that I've been asked to review another on the history of an island off British Columbia for the Pacific Northwest history journal. I'm going to start reading that this week. I assured the editor I would be a little nicer this time.

  10. Congrats on your review. Keep it up!

    I don't have the same problems you have with Wills. He approaches history in a different vein, and I can see how it may seem convoluted, but I got a lot out of Henry Adams and the Making of America. I also liked his book on Gettysburg.

  11. Thanks, Gintaras. The academic journals don't pay -- which for a writer is sort of a deadly habit to get into -- but they are good to have on the CV for a fledgling historian.

    I have Wills' book on the University of Virginia which I still intend to read. I read lots of academic history, but for some reason he is just difficult for me to read. Different styles for different readers, I guess.