Friday, April 16, 2010

Reading Journal: "Empire of Liberty"

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic 1789-1815.  Oxford University Press, 2009.  778 pp. (including index). Hardcover.  $35.00.

In a recent revision of the state standards in social studies, the Texas Board of Education removed Thomas Jefferson from "a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th and 19th century."  As the New York Times reported, "Jefferson is not well-liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term 'separation between church and state.'" If the conservative members of the board had read Gordon S. Wood's remarkably thorough and balanced history of the early Republic, Empire of Liberty, they would have known that in the early nineteenth century, Jefferson's notion of "a wall of separation between church and state" was popular among the growing evangelical denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, because it severed the connection between the the former established churches, the Congregationalists in New England and the Anglicans in the South, and political power. Evangelicals were, in fact, among Jefferson's most enthusiastic supporters.  But as Wood writes: "It was not enlightened rationalism that drove these evangelicals but their growing realization that it was better to neutralize the state in religious matters than run the risk of one of their religious opponents gaining control of the government." 

Wood's book, the latest volume in the magnificent Oxford History of the United States, beautifully elucidates the complexities of American politics and culture in the crucial years 1789 to 1815, when the young United States was struggling to survive and to define itself as a nation.  The book is a perfect antidote to those who seek to make history a vehicle for promoting their own narrow political ideology.
    
Wood's thorough treatment of Jeffersonian Republicanism, for example, shows that Jefferson was at the same time an aristocratic intellectual and a fervent champion of the common man; he was an agnostic who had a strong following among evangelical Christians; he was an ideological proponent of limited government who, through the Embargo Act, was responsible for a breathtaking expansion of Presidential power; he was a fiscal conservative who paid $15 million for the Louisiana Territory; he was a prophet of freedom and equality, and an owner of slaves; he wanted America to remain primarily rural and agricultural, but through his embargo he hastened the development of American industrialism.  

History is seldom as simple or as ideologically straightforward a narrative as our politically motivated "standards" attempt to make it.  Any serious student or teacher of American history will benefit from Wood's admirably balanced account.  The book covers the Presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, with thorough and lucid treatments of religion, slavery, the position of women,  diplomacy, economy, Western expansion and relations with native Americans, and artistic and literary culture.  Running through the entire book is the story of the declining influence of the aristocratic Federalists and the rise of a more democratic society, which in the North especially led to the remarkable expansion of commerce and to the beginnings of a middle-class culture that was distinctively American.

Wood, a distinguished historian of the early Republic and a professor at Brown University, writes clearly and cogently, and his volume (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year) is a worthy companion to the other volumes in this series.  (See my reviews of Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.) 

Final note: Thomas Jefferson, who spoke of separation of church and state, as President regularly attended church services that were held in the House of Representatives.

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