Empire of Liberty

Stephen Conway enjoys a history of the early American republic, 1789–1815, by a master of the subject  

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Reviewed by: Stephen Conway
Author: Gordon Wood
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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Few subjects can have had a more appropriate historian. Gordon Wood is one of the leading writers on revolutionary America and the early national United States. His Creation of the American Republic (1969) won plaudits and prizes; his Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) was no less praised. This last work is particularly relevant to the book under review, as it deals in detail with one of the themes pursued vigorously – and successfully – in Empire of Liberty: the democratisation of America, not just politically, but economically, socially, culturally and religiously.

Wood paints a vivid picture of an America transformed. When the period covered by his volume opened, the new United States had just abandoned its first form of government – the loose-reined Articles of Confederation – and had adopted the more centralising Federal Constitution. The advocates of the new constitution hoped that it would bind the disparate states into a nation. But this was proving difficult. The legacy of the British connection remained a powerful influence. Americans continued to be locked in an essentially dependent relationship with Britain, consuming large quantities of British goods, and during the 1790s beginning to send across the Atlantic the cotton that provided the raw material for Lancashire’s textile mills. 

Culturally and politically, too, many Americans remained in awe of Britain; the old elites who had led the revolution were divided over whether to seek better relations with the former mother country or to continue to regard it with deep hostility. The task of creating a distinctive American identity was dogged by the very Britishness – even Englishness – of the majority of the white inhabitants of the United States.

By the end of the period that Wood surveys, the situation was very different. America had become a more democratic, more commercial, and more egalitarian society – at least for its white citizens. The emotional ties with Britain had been weakened, if not totally severed. 

The War of 1812, seen by many contemporaries as a second War of Independence, contributed mightily to this process of distancing from Britain by giving more confidence to Americans. There was also a new generation, for whom the British connection was history, not lived experience. All those Americans under 40 years of age (that is, some 85 per cent of the population) had been born as citizens of the United States and had never known what it was like to have George III as their king. 

The new nation now looked inwards much more than before. Its focus was on internal development – the seemingly boundless opportunities of America itself – and no longer on the importance of transatlantic links. Perhaps most importantly, in Wood’s view, middling Americans had come to see themselves as the true representatives of the new democratic society. They rejected the hierarchies of the past – and of contemporary Europe – and proudly proclaimed their own values. 

Foremost among these was making money. Indeed, for such Americans, money had become the sole legitimate basis for social distinctions. Elite Americans, who still attached importance to birth, breeding and education, might lament this development, but they recognised their inability to stop it.

Wood acknowledges that the new democratic America was essentially a northern phenomenon; repeatedly he qualifies his general statements with phrases such as “especially in the north” and “in the north at least”. 
The south, as he explains, remained different. Indeed, the emergence of cotton as its principal commercial crop and export commodity accentuated the south’s difference from the north, for the spread of cotton cultivation was accompanied by the expansion of slavery away from the tidewater and deep into the back country. 

The north, in Wood’s account, had become the powerhouse of the new republic, and the south, despite cotton, was losing its early pre-eminence. Virginians, whose planter class had provided much of the leadership at the time of the revolution, began to sense a decline in their influence. The elderly Jefferson, a Virginian but one of the early champions of democratisation, was bitterly disappointed by the results. Despairing of the northern obsession with money, he believed that only in the agricultural south could the true principles of republican government be pursued. The United States, in other words, remained far from united. The seeds of the Civil War were germinating. 

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Stephen Conway is professor of history at University College, London. His books include The British Isles and the War of American Independence (OUP, 2002)