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Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States)

November 1st, 2010

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Book Overview:

The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes three Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in the newest volume in the series, one of America's most esteemed historians, Gordon S. Wood, offers a brilliant account of the early American Republic, ranging from 1789 and the beginning of the national government to the end of the War of 1812. As Wood reveals, the period was marked by tumultuous change in all aspects of American life--in politics, society, economy, and culture. The men who founded the new government had high hopes for the future, but few of their hopes and dreams worked out quite as they expected. They hated political parties but parties nonetheless emerged. Some wanted the United States to become a great fiscal-military state like those of Britain and France; others wanted the country to remain a rural agricultural state very different from the European states. Instead, by 1815 the United States became something neither group anticipated. Many leaders expected American culture to flourish and surpass that of Europe; instead it became popularized and vulgarized. The leaders also hope to see the end of slavery; instead, despite the release of many slaves and the end of slavery in the North, slavery was stronger in 1815 than it had been in 1789. Many wanted to avoid entanglements with Europe, but instead the country became involved in Europe's wars and ended up waging another war with the former mother country. Still, with a new generation emerging by 1815, most Americans were confident and optimistic about the future of their country. Named a New York Times Notable Book, Empire of Liberty offers a marvelous account of this pivotal era when America took its first unsteady steps as a new and rapidly expanding nation.

Book Review

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History Books The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes three Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in the newest volume in the series, one of America's most esteemed historians, Gordon S. Wood, offers a brilliant account of the early American Republic, ranging from 1789 and the beginning of the national government to the end of the War of 1812. As Wood reveals, the period was marked by tumultuous change in all aspects of American life--in politics, society, economy, and culture. The men who founded the new government had high hopes for the future, but few of their hopes and dreams worked out quite as they expected. They hated political parties but parties nonetheless emerged. Some wanted the United States to become a great fiscal-military state like those of Britain and France; others wanted the country to remain a rural agricultural state very different from the European states. Instead, by 1815 the United States became something neither group anticipated. Many leaders expected American culture to flourish and surpass that of Europe; instead it became popularized and vulgarized. The leaders also hope to see the end of slavery; instead, despite the release of many slaves and the end of slavery in the North, slavery was stronger in 1815 than it had been in 1789. Many wanted to avoid entanglements with Europe, but instead the country became involved in Europe's wars and ended up waging another war with the former mother country. Still, with a new generation emerging by 1815, most Americans were confident and optimistic about the future of their country. Named a New York Times Notable Book, Empire of Liberty offers a marvelous account of this pivotal era when America took its first unsteady steps as a new and rapidly expanding nation.

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  1. Jonathan Zasloff
    November 1st, 2010 at 19:40 | #1


    What an odd, brilliant, and maddening book. Wood is a very distinguished historian: his The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia) is required reading for any student of the revolution, and after several years’ hiatus, he has come back with several outstanding works, most notably The Radicalism of the American Revolution and The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. But like many great scholars, he has become infatuated with his own thesis, namely, that the revolution represented the beginning of a radical cultural transformation of America based on liberty and equality.. And because of this, in Empire of Liberty he makes several judgments of both coverage and assessment that are blinkered and often grotesquely unfair. The bottom line, as other reviewers have suggested, is that in order to adequately appreciate the politics of the early national period, you really should read Wood’s work together with Elkins and Mckitrick’s The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 or Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and/or American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. That’s a tall order, but Wood unfortunately makes us do it.

    First, the good news. Empire of Liberty brilliantly succeeds in avoiding the “high politics” focus of traditional narrative history while also steering clear of dreary, overly technical and quantitative social history. Wood is at his best in this book as a CULTURAL historian, shrewdly demonstrating how the quarter-century between 1789 and 1815 manifested a transformation of American culture. His central organizing concept is that of the growing dominance of “middling sorts,” who were neither aristocrats nor mere laborers but rather energetic men on the make (virtually always men), who used their wits and hard work to succeed, and who rejected the traditional deference to political and social elites. Again and again, Wood takes us into small farms and tinkerers’ shops, across the Alleghenies and into new land subdivisions, and shows how the first generation of Americans embraced social mobility and a fluid upwardly mobile society. He is particularly brilliant in his discussion of religion, showing how new Protestant sects emerged and rejected the hierarchical nature of traditional Anglican and Congregationalist establishments.

    It doesn’t hurt that Wood is a superb writer. It is no small feat to actually explain Alexander Hamilton’s financial program coherently and clearly, but Wood does it. He is able to keep the reader on the big picture of politics without drowning us in minutiae. And I believe he is particularly persuasive in breaking us out of the old “northern Federalists versus southern Jeffersonians” narrative of the period. Instead, his heroes are the NORTHERN Republicans, who embraced a commercial society and the acquisition of wealth while rejecting what they saw as Federalist condescension.

    But he is so focused on these northerners and their Republicanism, so committed to his account of the rise of the middling sorts, so devoted to seeing the time as these people saw it, that he begins to lack all perspective. Jefferson is the hero of this book, and Wood spares no effort in somehow connecting Jefferson to all that was good and true in America during the period. He tries to see Jefferson as Jefferson saw himself. But that’s a problem, for few figures in US history have been capable of such thoroughgoing self-deception as The Sage of Monticello. What we wind up with when it comes to assessing republicanism begins to look less like history and more like a propaganda exercise.

    The searing, brutal contradiction at the heart of the Jeffersonians’ world-view was, of course, their embrace of the slave system. “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for freedom from the drivers of Negroes?” asked Dr. Johnson, and while Wood snidely says that Jefferson understood the contradiction and needed no lecturing, he never really grapples with the way in which slavery affected, conditioned, influenced, and controlled every aspect of the Jeffersonian vision. We really hear nothing about slavery until more than 2/3 of the way through the book; Wood provides us with a superb chapter on slavery, and then basically forgets it again until a couple of paragraphs at the conclusion.

    He consistently ignores, downplays, elides, or just overlooks what slavery meant politically to the Jeffersonian movement. He never considers the possibility that a key to Jefferson’s hatred of national governmental power was the threat of controlling or removing the slave system. Throughout the book we read confident assertions about the meaning of America and Jeffersonian Republicanism, and then with the tag line “at least in the north.” But what Wood conveniently fails to face squarely is that the Jeffersonian operation was based on SOUTHERN power: for all his talk about northern Jeffersonians, Jefferson himself and the others at the center of the Republican Party made very sure that the Virginians remained firmly in control. That was why they made sure to destroy Aaron Burr, the only northern Republican who could possibly have threatened them.

    If that isn’t bad enough, his treatment of the Federalists is just shockingly unfair. The majority of quotes concerning the Federalists, what they believed, and how they behaved comes from their Republican opponents. Virtually every time the word “Federalist” is mentioned, the adjective “aristocratic” precedes it. To hear Wood tell it, you’d never know that at the end of the day, much of the Federalist policy program survived because Jeffersonian attempts to dismantle it were met with catastrophic policy failure. Wood says that the War of 1812 was a triumph of Republicanism without ever getting around to the fact that, say, President Madison reconstituted the Bank of the United States in 1816 because getting rid of it in 1811 drove the country into bankruptcy. Or that the idea of a coherent American NATIONAL identity that eventually emerged was a central FEDERALIST policy goal. Or that the Federalists’ insistence on a balanced economy with a substantial manufacturing base eventually came about; instead, you only hear that the manufacturing that emerged was bottom-up, not top-down, as the Federalists wanted. Except that they were far more diverse in thinking than that. No matter: the Federalists were aristocrats, and thus ANY development that was not aristocratic must have been Republican. He insists that northern middling sorts were were Republican because they hated taxes; but it was the success of Hamilton’s financial program that enabled the states to reduce taxes. Wood talks about how building roads helped the middling sorts: but it was the Federalists, not the Jeffersonians, who supported it.

    Wood mentions Federalist antislavery, but only in passing; why? Because paying more attention to it would have forced him to admit that many Federalists worked hard against slavery, defended Toussaint L’Ouverture’s regime in Haiti, and that Jefferson undercut him. You would never know from Wood’s account that Jefferson only triumphed in 1800 because of the south’s inflated electoral vote total from the 3/5 clause (otherwise, Adams would have remained in office). But Wood can’t tell you that, because that would undermine his assertion that there was huge popular love for Jefferson — a fact that we know because, well, Jefferson said so!

    I’ve gone on too long. This is an important and very good book. It is required reading. But beware. Wood has an agenda, and it’s best that it not remain hidden.

  2. Robert Moore
    November 2nd, 2010 at 17:36 | #2


    Gordon Wood’s new contribution to the Oxford History of the United States is without any question one of the finest historical works that I have ever read. In fact, I learned so much from the preview copy that I received through the Amazon Vine Program that I intend to buy a copy when it is published next month. I’ve twice read his classic work THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION as well as his brief book THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: A HISTORY.

    This new work picks up at the point where most of Wood’s other works have left off. His highly regarded history of the revolutionary period, THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC 1776-1787, for instance, ends with the creation of the American republic, but not the practical working out. If you are familiar with Wood’s work the themes that he emphasizes are familiar. The dominant intellectual issues of the age were centered around the shift from a monarchial and hierarchical view of political society to one where republicanism and democracy dominated instead. Much of Wood’s book is focused on the ideas of the age. The book is far more an entry in the history of ideas rather than a social history. Wood doesn’t completely neglect social and cultural history, but far and away the emphasis of the book is on political history.

    There are several crucial periods in American history, but it is hard to top a segment of American history that embraces the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison; the Louisiana Purchase and the expedition of Lewis and Clark; John Marshall and his role in forming the American legal system; and the growing role of evangelical religion after its eclipse of the rational religion that was embraced by all of the Founders (Jefferson, for instance, was in despair at the emotional religion that dominated after his presidency, instead of the Unitarianism or Deism that he preferred).

    The book contains a wonderful bibliographic essay that will prove invaluable to anyone wanting to expand their reading of the years following the ratification of the constitution. I’ve read pretty extensively in the period, including biographies of all of the major founders and several surveys of the period, but this is hands down the book I would recommend to anyone on the period if I can recommend only one book. Just as Wood’s prior works had established him as perhaps the premiere historian of the revolutionary period, so this work should become the premiere historical work on the federalist and early democratic period.

  3. Charles Evans
    November 3rd, 2010 at 02:38 | #3


    Reading “Empire of Liberty” is ambitious. It is not a book that can be breezed through in one sitting. No, it is a very in-depth look at the founding of the United States. It is not just a look at history, a listing of the facts, but it is a philosophical study of the leaders and the impact of their decisions. That is what separates “Empire of Liberty” from other books of this genre it is not a straight-forward chronological telling of history. Each chapter of “Empire of Liberty” is a discrete lesson of American history. One chapter focuses the founding judicial review another focuses on religion. What is so enlightening is Wood’s ability to show how each (such as religion) to become a uniquely American.

    Some have complained that Wood is overly focused on the republican values (circa 1800 not in today’s sense of the word) at the expense of the Federalist. While it is true that much of the material focuses on the Jeffersonian view of a republican society, but I think it is fair and shows the true mood of the country. Wood has a fair approach as it shows the brilliance of Hamilton, but he shows the bias towards England. The Republicans are certainly not given a free-ride as Wood shows the insanity of the trade embargos prior to the war of 1812. The overriding theme is America’s obsession with Liberty and how it shaped every decision that was made by the early republic. Again, it is hard to over-emphasize that this is not a traditional telling of American history – it is a commentary of the times.

    “Empire of Liberty” is very relevant for today’s American. We are constantly exposed to talking heads who state, “The founding fathers believed this” or “The founding fathers believed that”. In truth, most of today’s issues would be as foreign to Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Madison as the concept of nuclear fusion. Wood’s gives well-thought commentary on the founders beliefs and the underlying principles that guided them in their decision making. Again, this is not light-reading nor will ever be confused with literary fluff.

    Final Verdict – Unlike an book that I have ever read – while this is not something that everyone will enjoy it is a “MUST” for anyone with an interest in American History. I would not be surprised to see another Pulitzer coming to Gordon Wood’s bookshelf!

    5 Stars

  4. Peter G. Keen
    November 3rd, 2010 at 03:51 | #4


    Other reviewers have provided thoughtful and comprehensive reviews of the content of this excellent book. I’ll focus my own on the book as a Good Read. It’s perhaps the best on U.S. history that I’ve read since Daniel Howe’s What God Hath Wrought, the next one in the Oxford series, which has the same virtues. It is beautifully written and flows well; the style is precise and compact rather than elegant, but a model of measured exposition. The examples mesh beautifully into its superbly modulated flow of argument. Just about every paragraph has a point to make that is convincing and clear. This slows it down in some ways, all good ones. First, it’s long and it will take months rather than days to go through and it needs active engagement and reflection by the reader. It’s not skimming material. Second, it builds its picture in a way that precludes fast skipping.

    It doesn’t have an axe to grind. It’s a fairly centrist analysis that has no debunking and takes the leading political figures as essentially honorable individuals – almost all male, of course – working their way honestly to make the transition from the society and social hierarchies they were brought up in to the creation of a unique republic that fused the many interests and differences of American diversity. He places less emphasis than Howe on the economic and social dynamics underlying the cancerous issue of slavery, though his chapter, Between Slavery and Freedom, is a fine summary of how and why the Revolutionary leaders were so misguided in their conviction that it would just fade away. The last paragraph of the over 700 pages concludes that “The Civil War was the climax of a tragedy that was preordained from the time of the Revolution.”

    He shows how the new “middling class” became so pivotal in the shaping of a new society. He talks of this as the momentous social struggle that underlay so much of the moves to create a republic of law and freedom but also of liberal values. There is a superb balance between the political, social and judicial portrayals and a downplaying of the Great Men psychodramas, with a more useful analysis of their beliefs and intentions. The book is perhaps a little light on economic development and its political dimensions.

    As other reviewers note, it requires a fairly solid prior knowledge of US history. It’s not academic in the pejorative sense but neither is it a quick guide. It assumes that the reader has a fair understanding, for instance, of the personalities and biographies of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton (whose restoration as a major figure seems to be a common thread in recent scholarship.) I would not expect students or casual readers to enjoy it. I am not a specialist in the field, though I read widely and often in it. I found that it crystallized and threw new light on what I already knew and pointed to many aspects of the period that I did not know.

    I hope you get as much out of it as I have. It’s a model of how to fuse “popular” and scholarly history.

  5. CJA
    November 3rd, 2010 at 05:05 | #5


    This is a brilliant but difficult book, which took me a few months to read. Wood writes well and is in absolute command of his material, but he does not write with the narrative flair of Kennedy or McPherson, the two most readable volumes of this series.

    But your investment in this book will be rewarded if you stick with it. Wood demonstrates the nation’s profound shift from an English republic dominated by an aristocratic elite in 1789 to a full fledged democracy by 1815. Wood may overstate the democratic status of the U.S. by 1815, and in the process does not give enough credit to the profound effect that Andrew Jackson had on the country in completing this transformation. But certainly the die is cast by 1815.

    What is extraordinary about the book is Wood’s ability to factor culture, the arts, everyday life, work, and society into his political analysis of the transformation of the nation in this period. The United States is profoundly different from Europe, and the nation’s recognition of and belief in its own exceptionalism perhaps explains the strangeness of the War of 1812, an event I simply could not fathom until I read Wood’s excellent book. Even this early in its history, the nation wanted to remake the world in its own image. The economic embargo and trade warfare was seen as a lever for forcing the warring European nations to abide by American principles of the free passage of goods and ideas over borders. Wood does not see the war as one of conquest (he sees the Canadian ventures as necessary to secure the frontier from British sponsorship of Indian wars), but as an assertion of American independence and desire to force Europe to accommodate its legitimate interests.

    Viewed in this way, the presidencies of Madison and Jefferson come off as far more successful than has been the view of a number of critical historians. Wood points out that Madison in this respect understood the pulse of nation better than anyone else and was rewarded by having more towns named after him than any other President.

    What is to explain this transformation of America in this period? Wood does not set out grand historical factors, and is more interested in documenting the transformation than in explaining it. But I think that Wood would probably agree that a lot has to do with the abundance of land and resources and the explosion of population. It’s a variant of the “frontier” thesis: the entire country is the frontier given that even the heavily populated areas are not fully settled as they are in Europe. There is a fluidity of commerce, economic fortunes, and social class that makes this country different from the European nations. In Wood’s words, America is a nation of the “middling” classes — it makes up for the lack of a hypereducated, refined, and moneyed aristocracy with an enormous body of hard working middle classes dedicated to bettering themselves and the new nation.

    Wood also portrays slavery as the cancer that threatens the system. Its feudal, class based, and increasingly racist nature is completely contrary to the Jefferson ideals of equality and individual dignity. In 1789, the consensus was that slavery was on its way to extinction; by 1815, the South knew better and understood its continued dependence on the institution. Failure to excise this tumor early in the nation’s history led to its metastasis and to the ultimate Civil War.

    While not an easy read, this is an extraordinary book — one of the best works of American History.

  6. mirasreviews
    November 4th, 2010 at 10:02 | #6


    “Empire of Liberty” is an examination of the political, social, and economic changes that the United States underwent between the signing of the Constitution in 1789 and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, by Gordon S. Wood, scholar of the American Revolutionary era and recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for history for “The Radicalism of the American Revolution”. As Prof. Wood has extensive background in the subject of the early republic, he has well-formed opinions about people, events, and their implications. This volume, like others in Oxford’s “History of the United States” series, takes a middle road ideologically. My own knowledge of the social history of this period is greater than the political, and I don’t always agree with Wood’s assessment. But that is the nature of history: it’s gone, and future generations are left to emphasize what we will.

    “Empire of Liberty” follows the transition from the 18th to 19th centuries, the abandonment of the Revolution’s Enlightenment, rationalist principles for a more commercial, religious nation that would be driven by its middle class to become an industrial power. In many ways, the Founders, the men whose ambitions and ideas created the United States, are left behind. But Wood starts when the ideologies of the Revolution are first coming into question but still foremost in people’s minds, in 1789, when an excess of democracy prompted calls for a national constitution. He follows the often acrimonious battles between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. And, just as the Republicans win the battle to define the character of this nation and its government, they are seemingly overtaken by the fruits of the their own ideas.

    Though it occasionally gets philosophical, this is primarily a tour of the political events and ideas of the period and secondly a look at what was going on socially and economically. There was massive migration westward, to the extent that some feared that the country was emptying out and Americans were turning their backs on civilization. And nearly the entire period played out against a background of world war between Britain and France, which, just as it had profoundly affected the outcome of the Revolutionary War a decade before, was to involve the US in a Quasi-War with France and a genuine war with Britain in 1812. We also see the nation’s practice and attitude toward slavery changing during that time, only to become more reactionary in the South, creating a cultural divide that proved insurmountable.

    “Empire of Liberty”‘s 19 chapters are semi-chronological. Each is dedicated to a different subject, so the chronology doubles back on itself sometimes. In simple terms, these are topics that Wood covers: the circumstances under which the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist economic agenda, the emergence of a Republican opposition party, the French Revolution in America, the Adams presidency, Quasi-War with France, Jefferson presidency and agenda, increasing democratic and middling-oriented social structure, the great westward expansion, the independent judiciary (Supreme Court), origins of judicial review, slavery in America, the Arts, religion, diplomatic policy, the War of 1812. You get all of this in 800 pages, so it is not comprehensive on any subject. It’s a fine reference for fundamentals, though, and there is an excellent bibliographic essay in the back which you can consult for further reading.

  7. Robin Friedman
    November 5th, 2010 at 19:02 | #7


    At the outset of his history of the United States between 1789 – 1815, Professor Gordon Wood aptly describes his subject as “Rip Van Winkle’s America”. Van Winkle, of course, was the subject of a story by Washington Irving. Rip goes to sleep in his small village prior to the American Revolution and wakes up 20 years later to find a vastly changed United States, larger in size, disputatious, commercial, and substantially more democratic than had been the case when Rip began his long nap.

    Rip’s story captures the development of the United States as Wood portrays it. Beginning with the adoption of the Constitution, which was designed to cure the excesses of individualism and local government under the Articles of the Confederation, Wood sets a theme of the increasing democratization of the United States, as political parties come to play a central role in American life and Thomas Jefferson is elected president in 1800 on a platform of equality (for white males, in any event) and of a limited role for the central government. What Wood describes as the “middling” class as opposed to the budding aristocracy of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and some of the other Founders, comes to set the dominant tone of American life.

    Besides his use of the story of Rip Van Winkle, Wood sets the tone of his book with its title, “Empire of Liberty.” Wood uses this term in a chapter titled “The Jeffersonian West” which describes the great expansion of the United States achieved by the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson himself used the term “Empire of Liberty” to describe his vision for the United States. As Wood explains the term: “`Empire” for [Jefferson] did not mean the coercive domination of alien peoples; instead, it meant a nation of citizens spread over vast tracts of land. Yet the British Empire had given enough ambiguity to the term to lend some irony to Jefferson’s use of it. (p. 357, footnote omitted) Thus, another theme of Wood’s study, in addition to democratization, is expansion. The United States grows in both area in population. The United States gradually frees itself of domination by foreign powers, both Britain and France, to form a growing sense of itself as an independent nation. At the end of the book, following what appeared to be a lucky avoidance of disaster in the War of 1812, the United States became “A World within Themselves”, to use the title of Wood’s insightful concluding chapter, as Americans looked to themselves rather that to Europe as the source of trade, economic growth, and culture.

    Wood’s long, thorough, and comprehensive study develops his themes in a variety of ways. He offers a political history of the United States beginning with the administration of George Washington and concluding with the administration of the fourth president, James Madison, through the end of the War of 1812. The tumult of this early period frequently is overlooked by those with only a casual familiarity with American history. Political disagreements were sharp, personal, and violent. There were near-wars with both France in Britain and an actual war with Britain in 1812, which sealed the result of the first war – the American Revolution. The era included a disputed presidential election in 1800, the trial of Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s first vice-president, for treason, the impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice and much else. With the possible exception of the Civil War era, the early days of the United States were the most difficult time in our history.

    Wood also offers insightful chapters on the development of American law and of the doctrine of Judicial Review under the John Marshall, the Great Chief Justice. He spends substantial space on slavery, with both the North and the South tragically miscalculating how this institution would come close to destroying the nation. In several chapters, Wood explores the growth of American culture during this period, a subject frequently overlooked. And there is an important chapter on the Second Awakening and on American religion. Wood shows that the separation of government from denominations, gave religion in the United States its own non-hierarchical, individual character and strengthened it, rather than having religion become a casualty of the Enlightenment.

    Wood offers stories of commercialization, ambition and drive on behalf of his “middling” class with anecdotes of people who succeeded through their own efforts and of some individuals, such as Robert Fulton whose inventiveness and ingenuity made them famous. With slavery and its treatment of the Indians, Wood shows that the United States had serious failings. But the overall tone of this book is one of optimism, exuberance and hope for the promise of America. Thomas Jefferson is the single most dominating figure in this book. For all Jefferson’s faults and for all the changes in his historical reputation, Wood clearly admires Jefferson immensely. Jefferson’s vision, with its goal of democratization and independence, forms the heart of Wood’s picture of what the United States could become.

    Wood’s book is the latest in a series called the “Oxford History of the United States.” Each of these volumes is written by a distinguished scholar and presents, for the specialist and the interested lay reader, important and informed studies of periods in our Nation’s history. It is a rare pleasure to be able to study American history through these books and through the differing perspectives of their authors. Wood’s book, with its scholarship and emphasis on the Jeffersonian vision, is an exemplary addition to this series. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review “Empire of Liberty” here as part of the Amazon “Vine” program.

    Robin Friedman

  8. Jeffrey Swystun
    November 6th, 2010 at 20:26 | #8


    I am reading this “series” having first completed The Glorious Cause. Empire of Liberty picks up the chronology at 1789 taking the reader to 1815. This period is best categorized as the emergence of a swiftly maturing mass democracy following the excitement of national independence. Founded on inspiring but untested principles and goals, this shows the shaky but promising America as it begins to execute against its ideals and strategy. As the author states, “In the decades following the Revolution America changed so much and so rapidly that Americans not only became used to change but came to expect it and prize it”. This insight along with the American drive for commerce and less-than-successful handling of foreign affairs are three characteristics of modern America that were born in this era.

    After espousing and fighting for democracy and equality, Americans now had to fulfill their promise. This change of “subject” to “citizens” was huge and naturally the young nation stumbled. As early as 1787 it was clear that the Revolutionary leaders had retreated from much of the Republican idealism that formed their crusade. This was not out of want but out of necessity given the challenges of the day. One of these challenges was the changing social strata given that all men were now created equal. There arose a conflict between the new ‘middling people’ and the gentry-aristocracy. Wealth, sophistication and worldliness was no longer preserved for the upper crust. This social struggle resulted in the middle class and would transform America for decades.

    This period also produced a certain arrogance as well. Americans could not speak of a national character or identity because it had not yet been forged. Instead they took the position that they were more “enlightened and ideally located along the process of social development”. This belief was quickly shared across its geography through the advantage of a common language. John Adams suggested that American English would become the next universal language (and it certainly is in business). The glorious cause had turned into a noble social one but with airs.

    Yet, there was a great deal of uncertainty when Washington became the first president. Ceremonies had monarchical symbolism, some wanted him to rule as a king, and even the Founders were unsure on how to form a democratic government. Like Hamilton, most had a vision of America becoming a great powerful nation yet he had the foresight and intelligence to lay the economic framework to achieve it. Hamilton knew where people’s ambition lay and he influenced it by stoking the coals of commerce (Thomas Paine had said in 1776 “Our plan is commerce.”).

    This was also a time of party politics which had not been predicted. Washington turns out to be a tremendous diplomat in this turmoil. The author points out that the first President’s goals were clear, “All he ever wanted for America, was time for its institutions to settle and mature, time for it to progress in strength and become master of its own fortunes.” He accomplished this during an incredibly contentious time. A time when the Federalists began to label the Republicans “Democrats” which was a derogatory term (as a Canadian, I almost needed a cheat sheet to keep Federalist, Republicans and Democrats clear).

    The new century tested the leadership and its new institutions. There was significant social upheaval including rioting, excessive drinking, lax social behavior, and the disintegration of the family. The native issue remained large and incredibly sad with one Wea speaker saying to their British ally in the Revolutionary War, “In endeavouring to assist you, it seems we have wrought our own ruin”. And as America took over dealings with the natives, the author observes and concludes, “The encounter between the two incompatible cultures was a tragedy from beginning to end”.

    Perhaps the greatest reform challenge of the period was the anti-slavery movement. Yet, one fifth of the population remained enslaved. The Revolution freed only a small fraction but created an atmosphere that made the practice of slavery abhorrent. This though had a terrible impact as it forced Southerners “to fall back on the alleged racial deficiencies of blacks as a justification for an institution that hitherto they had taken for granted and never before needed to justify. The anti-slavery movement that arose out of the Revolution inadvertently produced racism in America.”

    The War of 1812 is also covered and I was amazed to see how much American lore sprung from it: the national anthem, “we have met the enemy and they are ours”, the killing of Tecumseh, Old Ironsides, and more. The author believes it was one of the most important wars in American history – also the strangest war in American history. Its start was Gulf of Tonkin-ish as the reasons stated were British impressment of American sailors and other maritime violations, yet, that hardly seems cause for war. What it truly resulted in was national pride.

    It was also a time of progress. Common men became gentlemen with a new focus on education, refinement, the arts, and communications (newspapers and the post office sped up shared communications along with better roads). As this period closes the author believes that “it made it much easier for Americans to come to a more honest appreciation of their society’s preoccupation with economic development and money-making”. He points out one fact that I have observed, that even from this early time, Americans were unsettled and moved frequently from place to place. I must say that as a Canadian who has worked for a series of American companies, I have been amazed at how quickly my colleagues will pick up and move for a slight increase in compensation or title. Canadians are far more rooted which is very interesting and tied to how the two nations evolved.

    Clearly executing against ideals on paper are more challenging than can be assumed and early American is such an example. The book is incredibly interesting and had a great pace to it although I have to admit certain chapters required patience especially those covering law and the judiciary and religion. Overall it was fascinating. The author provides accurate foreshadowing when he writes, “The Civil War was the climax of a tragedy that was preordained from the time of the Revolution.” I am looking forward to the next in the series, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

  9. George B. Sears
    November 6th, 2010 at 23:47 | #9


    Americans are fortunate to have many heroic figures in the period when the US came to exist. The difficulty of simply making people like Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton into purely heroic figures is that they existed in a terribly contentious age. This book describes a process by which the American Republic actually came to function.

    The things that emerged around the turn of the 19th century, as issues, continue to this day. Who is really supposed to govern this country? Is it elites, people trained to govern, or simply those who represent the everyday interests of working men (mostly then) and women? The first great battle, perhaps, is whether popular Democracy can work at all, or whether America may simply need a king. That king could have been Washington, and some assumed he would be the monarch. But, popular Democracy did emerge.

    In the first quarter century, the author seems to say, the nation of ideas vaguely disappeared and a commercial entity emerged. The idea of a nation preoccupied with wealth continues today. The Empire of Liberty was Jefferson’s view of America controlling (or at least influencing) a vast territory. In this period, the US started on the road to gaining a vast continental geography. But the price of commercial energy, and the need to absorb new land, was extreme tension with the Natives, and a failure to do much about slavery. America became about achievement, about success. Students were pushed along not by the lash, but by a desire to achieve, the author says. The structure of the American economy found a synergy with the structure of government. Newspapers were about commerce and about politics. The cotton economy of the South differed greatly from the urban economies of the rest of the country, and the South grew apart. For a half century after the period covered in this book, these clouds grow darker and darker. The economic progress was mixed, everywhere. There were opportunities on the frontier, but industrialization tended to limit some kinds of advance. How much reform is enough, and what is the basis for reform?

    The detail in this book is great, but the flow of the narrative carries all this factual information along extremely well. This is a readable history with a compelling story, validated by the depth of research.

    The first half of the book, roughly, is the story of men and ideas, and how a country emerged, a country with tremendous momentum, despite the flaws. The second half is somewhat more conceptual, and more of a social history. The Republic has emerged. There is a sense of stability. The gigantic men and their titanic struggles are not really there so much, though the concept of how judicial review emerged is covered in a full chapter.

    If there is a hero of this book it is certainly Jefferson. Washington may have held the country together, and given dignity to a government with little in the way of legitimacy. But Jefferson honed the notion of popular government, a country not run by a governing class. The British returned to monarchy after a failed attempt to move beyond a king. The French killed their king, got anarchy followed by a dictator, and then the king was restored from without. You have to forgive America for some of the flaws, glory in people making the thing work.

    For anyone interested in knowing how this country was formed and what made it succeed, this is a great, if serious, book.

  10. Bethesda Bibliophile
    November 10th, 2010 at 19:56 | #10


    This superb book already has some excellent substantive reviews. I would just add this point: if you really want to put today’s politics (whether for or against tea parties and their like) into perspective and shed some light on what our constitutional republic is about and how it came to be, you must read this very well researched and very readable book.

  11. Robert D. Harmon
    November 12th, 2010 at 09:07 | #11


    In this volume, an Oxford History that fills a gap between the Revolutionary period and the early industrial years, Gordon Wood provides us with a multifaceted story. It’s not just a linear story of how the U.S. evolved from its new Constitutional rebirth in 1789 through the end of the War of 1812, which, he tells us, definitely broke the U.S. from its British cultural and civic roots.

    It’s also a story of many beginnings in American culture and society. We learn that the Federalist movement was not so much a party as a social order, the remnants of an aristocratic way of life exemplified by Washington and Adams, a life and culture that would be subsumed under a republican mindset, a “Republican Party” as Wood terms it (later “Democratic-Republican”, later simply Democratic). Indeed, he concludes, at the end of this period, Americans “looked back in awe and wonder at all the Founders and saw in them heroic leaders the likes of which they knew they would never see again in America. Yet they also knew they now lived in a different world, a bustling Democratic world.”

    Wood also shows how America interacted, not just with its aristocracy and the aristocratic outer world evoked by Britain. We see how the French Revolution both was affected by, and affected, ours. We see how by 1815, with the re-established old order in Europe, that America would become unique, the only democratic republic in the world of the Holy Alliance. We see how, economically, politically and otherwise, it would become a world of its own. We see how the “Jeffersonian West” of the Louisiana Purchase would also devolve from Europe, and emerge, clearly so, as early as 1815, and now the way west would open.

    Wood does not neglect the fact that, although post-Federalist America did profess a new equality, it was not so for those who were native American, or women, or slaves. Indeed, the Framers, he shows, seemed to think that slavery would wither, when by 1815 it would become entrenched, a clever observation, but he adds that it maintained a slaveholder aristocracy that was already becoming marginalized and defensive.

    He also shows some of the other threads beginning in the Jeffersonian period, the rise of a uniquely American religious culture, freed of the Church of England, that would grow westward and more vigorous. He shows how an independent U.S. judiciary, and the principle of judicial review, was not a given but indeed a development that would rise during the period. “Precisely because of the exuberantly democratic nature of American politics, the judiciary right from the nation’s beginning acquired a special power that it has never lost.” He shows how this spirited order would drive the early entrepreneurs and canal builders in advance of an industrial age. And, he tells these stories in terms that laypeople would find illuminating – and cohesive.

    There’s more, but suffice to say that the research seems to be impeccable, and that the writing clear and fascinating. This book is literature and history, and is a worthy addition to the Oxford History series.

    Highly recommend.

  12. Grant Christensen
    November 12th, 2010 at 20:05 | #12


    For anyone who is a fan of the Oxford History of the United States series, this latest volume will be an invaluable edition to your collection. It nicely balances chapters on education/arts/culture, law, and religion in America, with the importance of major legislation setting up the foundation of the country, the roles of Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and the disputes between federalist and anti-federalist influences following the radification of the Constitution.

    Beyond the text itself – the work is supposed to fit in with the other volumes of the Oxford History of America series and present a definitive history of the entire era. In this goal – the text fails absolutely. I love the Oxford Series and have read all 8 volumes, however, in several ways this work, while so complete through 1808, lacks the clarity of vision for the end of the period.

    Empire of Liberty devotes less than 80 pages to Madison’s presidency and the War of 1812. The reader is given the distinct impression that the author simply ran out of time – like reviewing a student’s essay that clearly spent too much time on the first half of an answer, resulting in an abbreviated second half. This is unfortunate, as the Oxford Series has published a number of longer works, and certainly would have lost no readers by including an additional 100 pages to make the work truely complete. Unlike What God Hath Wrought and Freedom From Fear – Empire of Liberty is going to require a serious and extended second edition if it wants to purport to be a complete history of the era through 1815.

    I disagree strongly with the implication that the author has no ideological axe in his work. Wood is clearly obsessed with stressing and explaining the American developments after radificiation with early Americans distrust of “Monarchy.” In fact Monarchy, monarchial, and other forms appear more than 700 times over the course of the text. (I started tallying in chapter 3 – it was that obvious). Unlike some reviews here, I do not think Wood has an overt political bias favoring the Jeffersonian Republicans or skewering Hamiltonian Federalists, but certainly there is a feeling of an academic agenda that at times made me put the book down in a way that Freedom from Fear, What God Hath Wrought, Battle Cry for Freedom, and Glorious Cause (other remarkable and superior volumes in the Oxford series) did not.

    Finally, I was shocked at a couple key omissions. There is no mention of the “era of good feelings” which many historians term the era that led to Jefferson’s emergence as President. The War of 1812 is covered in a mere 35 pages, Madison’s first election is mentioned in passing, with no discussion of his vice president or a list of his cabinent officers. There is no mention of the death of President Washington’s reaction around the country. The election of 1812 covered in two paragraphs. Other works in the series have previewed important players and events in the next text, in a way that makes reading the texts in order appear seamless, but Howe’s What God Hath Wrought profiles many leaders as having important roles in the War of 1812 that are simply omitted in Wood’s work.

    Accordingly, by the standards of a well written and researched history text, Empire of Liberty exceeds expectations. Doubtless, like many of its companion volumes, it will win awards. But as for allowing the History of the United States series to present a complete and thorough accounting of the 1808-1815 era, this work and the Oxford Series have suffered a tremendous blow that only a revised second edition or new volume can satisfactorily address.

  13. Paul L
    November 14th, 2010 at 08:12 | #13


    Thesis and Summary:

    In this, the 8th volume of Oxford’s History of the United States, Gordon Wood weighs in on the Washington through Madison administrations, and gives a broad perspective analysis of the burgeoning American and American culture. Indeed, Wood’s thesis can be summed up to say that by 1815 America was a thoroughly transformed nation from the one that initiated the revolution in 1776: a nation that had gone from gentleman leaders to a far more inclusive- albeit brutish- democracy.

    Woods begins his journey to American Democracy by explaining the “middling” class of Americans that emerged with the ratification of the Constitution. This new class of Americans did not personify the classical notion of virtue that Federalists found necessary to lead. They were a people possessed of a native congeniality for the sake of prosperity. They were fond of money making (and good at it), they weren’t Harvard or Princeton educated, and they voted. It is this middling class that is the protagonist (for lack of better word) of Wood’s work. He sees their growth as the Federalists’ death and he sees Jefferson as their chief advocate and the man responsible for their ascendance to power. Herein one finds Wood’s bias. He simply adores Thomas Jefferson and makes bare faced obeisance to him at every turn of the page it seems while looking to traduce Federalists as much as possible. As I read this substantial work, I couldn’t help but to constantly contrast it with Elkins and McKitrick’s The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. Both works are monumental in scope, but one is sympathetic to Federalists and the other to Republicans.

    Chapters 3, 4 and 5 together offer a perplexing and contradictory view of the Washington administration. One the one hand, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists ignored the middle class as beneath them. On the other, it was Alexander Hamilton’s policies that brought tremendous prosperity that led to Federalist popularity in the wake of the Jay and Pickney treaties and the Whiskey Rebellion. Indeed, throughout the work, Wood never discredits the policies of the Federalists; he just merely gives them no credit for those policies.

    In chapter 3, The Federalist Program, Wood makes the somewhat dubious claim that Hamilton did not have the foresight to see the future of American manufacturing. I would think that both of Hamilton’s foremost biographers (McDonald and Chernow) would strongly disagree, as would Hamilton himself. Further, Wood makes an attempt to characterize Federalist policies as a Walpoleon spoils system without admitting that this was the first federal government instituted in the United States and suffered the exigencies of such: authority, legitimacy and revenue. Should they have appointed people who wanted nothing more than to undermine federal power in favor of state power? Also, for all of Wood’s conjecture of a spoils system, no evidence is presented of a corrupt appointment process.

    Chapter 4 shows us the emergence of Jefferson and Madison as the opposition to Federalist policy. They fight the assumption of state debts, the chartering of the Bank of the United States (which they let expire in 1810), and Hamilton’s stance on foreign policy. As has become a common theme by this point in the book, Wood manages to find a way to justify Jefferson and Madison’s actions with Philip Freneau while he has the time to take umbrage with the tone used by Alexander Hamilton (page 154) in totally destroying Jefferson’s erroneous fears of his financial system. It really came as no surprise that Wood came down softly on the Republicans in respect to the Genet mission as well.

    Wood does a much better job with the Adams administration than his predecessor. Adams fits the Federalist mold that Woods has pigeonholed them all into. He was a monarchist, a self appointed aristocrat and someone who couldn’t have foreseen a use for Wood’s “middling” class. Wood’s makes an excellent case in chapter 6 that the disinterested aristocrat was not possible in America. American land speculation was terribly risky and none sans John Jay could hope to uphold the image of the landed English gentry. He also hits the nail on the head with the “X,Y, Z Affair” and the “Quasi War.” He rightly concludes that Federalist gains were offset by their paranoid fears of the “Jacobian” influence. He does not, however, identify the split in the Federalist camp soon enough. Some time before Adams’ failed second run at the Presidency the Federalists had already split between he and Hamilton. Hamilton was, in fact, vehemently against the Alien and Sedition Acts and had already brought many Federalists away from Adams.

    Having done away with the Federalists, Wood now turns to Jefferson. Certainly no one writing since Dumas Malone has had a better grasp of Jefferson, but Wood’s admiration of the man simply leads to what only can be viewed as equivocating on many points. It seems Woods gives Jefferson credit for the entire Revolution on page 287! Wood does correctly point out Republican ideology on page 311 when he quotes Wartman. When Wartman claims that public opinion leads to egalitarian truth, he basically is laying the groundwork for justifying anything. Of course, this is the same ideology that would be used to justify slavery some decades later. It is this that killed the Federalists. They never had a blind devotion to public opinion because they never viewed themselves as a political party. Republicans began as the opposition party to the first administration, they had always acted as a party whether they admitted it or not. When Jefferson had won power, Federalists were already dissipated enough as to never constitute an opposition party. It was not the “middling” class as Wood assumes that killed the Federalists, but the fact that Federalists never saw themselves as a political party.

    Woods two chapters on the law (11 and 12) represent the two strongest chapters in the book. Beginning with his proper distinction of colonial judges against their English counterparts, Wood explains the extraordinary power that has always existed in the U.S. judiciary except under the Articles of Confederation. With the adoption of the Constitution and the Federalist administration, Federalist judges began to bring unified law to all people in the U.S. Wood rightly credit John Marshall as bringing judicial review to the U.S. by using an ex post facto explanation in the Marbury v. Madison case. Woods shows how Marshall treated the constitution as law. Fundamental law to be sure, but law nonetheless, and subject to judges’ review as all laws are. Wood also correctly points out the significance of the Dartmouth College case. It single handedly did more to protect the “middling” class and the money making endeavors than any legislation passed by a Republican. Once again, it seems, that Federalist policy and decision making is in fact what allows this “middling” class to emerge, and not the high minded idealism of Thomas Jefferson. In fact, I am hard pressed to find one piece of legislation cited by Wood and enacted by Jeffersonian-Republicans that helped this “middling” class emerge that Wood is so sure was dependent upon them.

    With the chapters in Republican Diplomacy and the War of 1812 not even a scholar of Wood’s stature can prevaricate enough to hide the disaster of the Republican administrations.

    1) Allowing the Bank of the United States to expire was a total failure and had to be re chartered

    2) Decreasing the size of the Army and Navy in 1810 was not justifiable

    3) Non importation and embargo act were abject failures

    4) War of 1812 resulted in the burning of the U.S. Capital and status quo ante

    In every case Wood attempts to use the idealism of Madison and Jefferson as a buttress against their poor decisions, even going so far as to compare their trade sanctions with modern day ones (page 633), but it runs rather shallow. Expecting the reader to level out the trade sanctions from a nascent economy to those exercised by the megalith that is the modern U.S. economy is a bit much.

    In the end, the conclusion Wood reaches- that Thomas Jefferson was almost singly responsible for the emergence of the new American- simply does not follow from the 738 pages of fact he presented. The heroes that come through are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall.


    Wood’s writing is superb and his scholarship is sound. Although I disagree with his conclusions, there is no mistaking the quality of his work. The simple readability of this work is amazing for a tome of this length and depth. To be sure, it is not a simple breeze through over the weekend, but it is not so arduous that you dread having to pick it up each night. Indeed, it is a joy to pick up night after night and read. I took almost 12 pages of notes as I read this book and welcome any comments. I put time and effort into this review, and do recommend this book even though I give it only 3 stars. I hope you find this review helpful even if you do not agree.

  14. Jim McCabe
    November 14th, 2010 at 15:58 | #14


    Excellent overview of the culture and times of the early Republic. For me, this book provoked a lot of re-thinking about the nature of the American Revolution. Previously, I had thought of it less as a revolution, and more in the Jacques Barzun formulation (in FRom Dawn to Decadence), as a continuation of the evolutionary politics of Whiggish Britain. I’m not entirely sure Barzun was wrong, but Wood makes an excellent case for the radicalism of the Founding, particularly after Jefferson and the Republicans ascended in 1800. The Jeffersonian ideal that emerged from the politics of the early Republic had many drawbacks, of course, but I think contributed more to the notion of American exceptionalism, and of an identity distinct from European powers, than the Federalists would have ever pursued. Very well-researched, well-written, and relevant.

    The only criticism I have is in the structure, which followed a much more chronological and top-down view in the first half, then swung to a more topical and cultural view in the second. Both approaches work, but it is a little disconcerting for the reader, as it progresses its depiction of American politics to 1800 along a fairly defined path, and then just starts approaching the years subsequent to 1800 culturally by subject matter (e.g., law, religion, westward expansion, etc.), at least until the war of 1812. That’s a minor quibble, though, and it does serve to reinforce the difference between the Jeffersonian/Madisonian view (government is not the primary driver of events) from the Hamiltonian view that preceded it.

  15. Kevin Fontenot
    November 16th, 2010 at 01:03 | #15


    Somewhere along the way, historians quit writing strong narrative history, thankfully some still know how to do narrative history well and contribute to the scholarship. In “Empire of Liberty” Gordon Wood continues his story of early America with a gripping narrative of the development of the republic. Wood stresses the continued radical nature of the American experiment as it struggles with political birth pangs amid the division between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. Most impressive are his tightly drawn portraits of both the well known and obscure. I found his portrayal of Aaron Burr particularly telling. Despite its length, the books reads easily and quickly draws the reader into the very complicated world of early national America. Very well written and highly recommended, it would make an excellent textbook for a course on this era.

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