- Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States)
- Oxford University Press, 800 pp.
According to legend, the British forces under Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781 with a military band playing a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” There is no documentary evidence that this musical interlude ever occurred. After the American Revolution, however, many Americans certainly did feel that their lives had been up-ended and the world around them changed beyond recognition.
The years following the triumph at Yorktown are sometimes referred to by historians as the “Critical Period” because internal divisions among the thirteen states, only loosely united under the Articles of Confederation, nearly derailed America’s experiment in nation building. Gordon S. Wood, in his brilliant new study of this period, Empire of Liberty, has chosen a different image, that of Rip Van Winkle, to symbolize the era from the aftermath of the Revolution to end of the War of 1812. Though often challenged by bewildering social changes and threats to political stability, Americans awoke after Yorktown to a new morning for a new nation, to a time of promise when “suddenly, everything seemed possible.”
Empire of Liberty is a great book in a great series, The Oxford History of the United States. The Oxford volumes have won a trophy case of awards and James McPherson’s contribution dealing with the Civil War era, The Battle Cry of Freedom, originally published back in the 1980’s, made it to the New York Times best seller list.
An accomplished historian and prolific writer, Gordon Wood has received quite a few accolades himself. His notable awards to date are headlined by the Bancroft Prize in 1970 for The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, and the 1993 Pulitizer Prize for History for The Radicalism of the American Revolution.
It is going to be hard to top these achievements but Empire of Liberty is the book to do it. Actually, it is better to think of Empire of Liberty as a complement to Wood’s earlier books, as well as a volume in the Oxford series.
In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood challenged Cold War era interpretations of the events of 1775 to 1787. The American Revolution, according to this conservative slant, began as a colonial rebellion to regain the rights of Englishmen. This led in due course to a heroic war for political independence and a thoughtful, well-mannered reorganization of government institutions once the dust settled. Wood contended that the American revolutionaries aimed to create democratic institutions from the start. Taking up this theme again in Empire of Liberty, he relates how a bitter, ideological contest ensued between urban political radicals and frontier democrats against the political establishment centered on the port cities and southern plantations. The Election of 1800 brought the decades-long struggle to a climax with Jefferson, Madison and the Republicans knocking John Adams and the Federalists off their political pedestal.
Once the Constitution was ratified and George Washington took the oath of office as the nation’s first president, expectations that affairs of state were going to remain in the gloved hands of gentleman like John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were swiftly confounded. With Thomas Jefferson as their leader and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography as their gospel, self-educated, egalitarian leaders like William Findley rose to prominence. In the new America, democracy and commerce were not going to be dirty words.
Along with the more familiar sparring between Jefferson and Hamilton, “daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks,” Wood describes how Findley, a canny, Scots-Irish frontiersman from Western Pennsylvania outmaneuvered aristocratic opponents in the Pennsylvania legislature. Elected to the U.S. House of representatives, Findley devoted himself to issues dear to the settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains. He long outlasted his Federalist foes, becoming a political fixture of the early Congress, only retiring in 1817 as one of the last of the generation of the “Founders.”
Similar success stories were even more apparent in the world of commerce which transformed the society of the northern states with astonishing speed. Oliver Evans, a younger contemporary of Findley, helped lay the foundation for Philadelphia’s transformation into an industrial powerhouse during the 19th century. The self-educated Evans invented high-pressure steam engines, a fully-automated flour mill and a steam-powered dredge that was years ahead of its time.
Oliver Evans was a visionary who foresaw the development of railroads, but lack of capital and a shift in the focus of American society worked to frustrate his genius. One of the most provocative insights of Empire of Liberty is that the very success of men like Findley and Evans helped create a change of focus in American society. Impressed with the achievements of these “self-made” men, Americans during the early 1800’s turned away from the greater world of Europe toward the beckoning expanse of the western frontier which Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase had augmented in spectacular fashion.
An explanation can be found for this remarkable shift in a statement by Hezekiah Niles, another of the trend-setting innovators who helped turn American society “upside down.” Niles founded the first national news journal in the United States. In his Weekly Register, Niles urged that the U.S. shift its emphasis away from commerce with foreign nations, a development that would have shocked Alexander Hamilton, who had rebuilt America’s finances largely on tariff receipts during the 1790’s. The development of America’s domestic resources, with its vast agricultural lands and untapped mineral resources was what counted. The American people, Niles contended, need only “to look AT HOME for all they desire.”
For all their differences, Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams were statesmen with a vision of the United States as a powerful force on the international scene. But here was a form of American isolationism that resulted from far more than heeding Washington’s advice to avoid “entangling alliances” with foreign military powers. Niles urged Americans to embrace forms of self-reliance without thinking about the consequences. A host of issues would emerge during the first decades of the 19th century that could not be settled merely by hitching a team of oxen to a Conestoga Wagon and staking a claim to frontier land cleared of Indians.
In the absence of a vigorous foreign trade, how would Americans gain the necessary capital to develop technological innovations like those of Oliver Evans? How would the United States maintain its intellectual and scientific development if a tariff were placed on the importation of books from Europe, as was done in 1816?
Despite such weighty considerations, Americans in 1815 were remarkably optimistic, especially given the growing uniformity of the standard of living and cultural expectations of the great mass of its white, native-born population. There seemed to be no obstacle to American prosperity and security that its industrious, free-born citizenry could not master.
By the end of the War of 1812, Wood writes, “America’s conception of its national character was becoming much more indebted to the middling people’s go-getting involvement in commerce and enterprise. These ambitious, risk-taking entrepreneurs, who were coming into their own by the second decade of the 19th century, were the generation that imagined the myth of the American dream.”
However, American society had one problem for which its “Yankee ingenuity” and Jeffersonian idealism could find no solution: slavery.
Wood’s gifts as an historian are evident throughout this magnificent book. Analysis of issues like the rise of judicial review by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall is handled with the same sure touch as his spirited narrative of the feuds and rivalries that dominated the political history of the period. But nowhere is Wood’s grasp of the broad themes of history or his insights into human nature better articulated than in his chapter on the resurgence of slavery under the Early Republic.
As the American Revolution drew to a close, the promise that “suddenly, everything seemed possible” appeared to be especially relevant to slavery. Except for the Quakers, little consideration had been extended to the human rights of Africans brought in bondage to the colonies before the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765. But with the rhetoric of liberty in the air, Patriot leaders like James Otis began questioning if it was “right to enslave a man because he is black?… Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or short face?”
It did not take long for this idealism to be translated into action. Beginning with Vermont in 1777, states in the north began passing abolition laws. Even southern states like Virginia began to outlaw the importation of new slaves from Africa and the slave trade to the nation as a whole was set to end in 1808 with the expiration of a 20 year protective measure in the U.S. Constitution.
In the heady days of the early 1790’s, most political leaders predicted the eventual demise of slavery. Many echoed George Washington’s words that he believed that slavery would be “abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.” A growing number of slave owners began freeing slaves or allowing them to purchase their own freedom. Woods relates a touching story of a white congregation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore who raised funds to free their black preacher.
And then, the “world turned upside down” once again. Following the example of the revolutionaries in France, slaves revolted on Haiti in 1792. Survivors who reached the United States, both white and black, brought lurid tales of massacres on that tropical island. Fear of slave rebellions in America, along with the new wealth being generated by Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, began to change many minds about the wisdom of abolishing slavery in the United States.
Within a few years, the promise of a “slow, sure” end of slavery faded. The new state of Kentucky set the tone of America’s retreat from freedom when its 1792 constitution declared that “the legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners,” which was unlikely to happen, to say the least. And the situation worsened with each year. Alarmed that the example of the free black population in its state would encourage those still in bondage to strive for freedom, Virginia passed a law in 1806 ordering all freed slaves to leave the Old Dominion. Nor was this merely a southern phenomenon. In 1805, free blacks were denied the right to participate in the Fourth of July celebration in Philadelphia, the very city where the Declaration of Independence had been written less than three decades before.
With the issue of slavery thus banished “out of sight and out of mind,” white Americans could find many positive aspects on the national scene of 1815 to reassure them. The annals of that time, which Wood chronicles in such an engaging fashion, were indeed a record of many successes, especially the noteworthy degree of unity among the disparate states. Though the grammatical usage of the time still declared that “United States are” rather than the “United States is” a nation, it was indeed a nation.
The “Era of Good Feeling” that followed 1815, however, was of short duration. The issue of slavery could not be banished, as the crisis that erupted in 1819 over admitting Missouri as a slave state showed. Even Jefferson, the “Sage of Monticello,” began to have doubts about the future, fearing that the “Empire of Liberty” that he and the other “Founding Fathers” had created might not survive “the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons.”