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Boundless promise and grave peril

By Jill Lepore
Sunday, November 29, 2009

EMPIRE OF LIBERTY

A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

By Gordon Wood

Oxford Univ. 778 pp. $35

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In 1784 an English radical named Richard Price published an 88-page pamphlet called "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution and the Means of Making it a Benefit to the World." Price, a friend of Benjamin Franklin's, had been a warm supporter of American independence. In advocating the rebelling colonists' cause, he had come near to risking charges of treason. Now that independence was won, he looked to the United States as the world's best hope. "The revolution in favor of universal liberty which has taken place in America," he wrote, is "a revolution which opens a new prospect in human affairs and begins a new era in the history of mankind." With that colossal promise came great danger, in the possibility of an equally colossal failure. If the United States were to fail, if the new government were to descend into petty party rancor, if the American people were to grow smug and foolish and self-indulgent, it would be the whole world's loss: "The consequence will be that the fairest experiment ever tried in human affairs will miscarry and that a revolution which had revived the hopes of good men and promised an opening to better times will become a discouragement to all future efforts in favor of liberty and prove only an opening to a new scene of human degeneracy and misery."

That thrilling momentousness -- the boundless promise and grave peril facing the new and precarious United States -- is what Gordon Wood has attempted to capture and tame in "Empire of Liberty," the newest volume in the Oxford History of the United States, a hallmark series launched by C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter 27 years ago and now edited by the distinguished historian David Kennedy. No other living historian knows this era better than Wood, who has been writing about it since his first book, "The Creation of the American Republic," which won a Bancroft Prize in 1970. His most widely read work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Radicalism of the American Revolution," served, in part, as a repudiation of the work of scholars, who had argued that early Americans were fundamentally economic actors. Wood has little interest in grit, in daily ugliness and economic strife, although he has an eye for the ordinary. His argument in "Radicalism of the American Revolution" was that the real revolution lay as much in everyday and essentially peaceful "transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other" as in the replacement of a monarchy with a democracy. He made the same argument in "Creation of the American Republic" and now has made it again in "Empire of Liberty."

This volume, which begins with the ratification of the Constitution and ends with the close of the War of 1812 ("the strangest war in American history," Wood calls it), ranges across vast swaths of territory, geographic and thematic, inventorying changes, both grand and subtle, in everything from the electoral process to vernacular architecture. Throughout, Wood is concerned with documenting the halting process by which early Americans shed their fidelity to a culture of deference in favor of a messier sort of striving with the idea of equality. "The essentially aristocratic world of the Founding Fathers in which gentry leaders stood for election," he writes, "was largely replaced by a very different democratic world, a recognizably modern world of competing professional politicians who ran for office under the banners of modern political parties."

Wood, who is chiefly a political and intellectual historian, has a particular knack for writing books with the magisterial sweep of the other volumes in the Oxford History series. "Empire of Liberty" will rightly take its place among the authoritative volumes in this important and influential series, but it is not likely to stir readers yearning for a fresh interpretation of the period. Wood is not surprised by his own discoveries, and he won't surprise readers with them. Over the last few decades, the battles waged in the field of early American political history have gotten narrower and narrower. And the big questions have been beaten to death, but not answered. The debate over whether the radicalism of the American Revolution lies in its origins or its consequences is, by now, a dead horse in a one-horse town. Wood has dominated this field because, at a time when historical scholarship has grown specialized and fragmented and cramped, he excels at expansive synthesis.

The founding of the United States was marked by rebelliousness, originality and experiment. Price, rhapsodizing about the dawn of a new era in human history, was breathless and nearly giddy about it. "Empire of Liberty" is not, which produces a certain mismatch between the spirit of the age, soaring and irreverent, and the spirit of this book, commanding and dutiful.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker. Her most recent book, "Blindspot," a novel written jointly with the historian Jane Kamensky, will be out in paperback in December.

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