Sunday, January 17, 2010

Empire of Liberty

That's the title of historian Gordon S. Wood's new history of the early republic, 1789-1815 -- 738 fascinating pages on a period so fuzzy and dull in my recollection that I almost didn't pick it up off the library shelf.

Having finished it, I'm glad I did pick it up. Not only does Wood understand the cast of characters, he understands what was happening. Textbooks and summaries portray this period in general, and the War of 1812 in particular, as a second war for independence. True as far as it goes, but false in the implication of a natural and foreseen unfolding.

This was a generation of surprises. From most of the Founders' point of view, the new country veered wildly out of control. Americans in 1815 were more commercial-minded, more egalitarian, and less willing to defer to their "betters" than any of the Founders were comfortable with.

The Revolutionary leaders....had an opportunity to realize an ideal world, to put the broadminded and tolerant principles of the Enlightenment into practice, to become a homogeneous, compassionate, and cosmopolitan people, and to create the kind of free and ordered society and illustrious culture that people since the Greeks and Romans had yearned for....

But little worked out quite as the founders expected.... their high-minded promise to end slavery and respect the rights of the native peoples were no match for the surging demographic forces accelerated by the Revolution. ...

The transformation Americans had experienced was unintended, for the character they celebrated in Andrew Jackson and the Hunters of Kentucky -- the romantic, undisciplined, and untutored heroes of the battle of New Orleans of 1815 -- was scarcely the character they had sought in 1789. The bumptious nationalism and the defiant abandonment of Europe expressed at the end of the War of 1812 were both repudiations of the enlightened and cosmopolitan ideals of the Revolution and attempts to come to terms with the largely unanticipated popular commercial society that had emerged from the Revolution.

Read it and discover a new aspect of your ancestors' world. And if you're looking for something about this period but a little more specialized, let his 13-page postscript bibliographical essay be your guide.


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