Rip Van Winkle's America
At the outset of his history of the United States between 1789 - 1815, Professor Gordon Wood aptly describes his subject as "Rip Van Winkle's America". Van Winkle, of course, was the subject of a story by Washington Irving. Rip goes to sleep in his small village prior to the American Revolution and wakes up 20 years later to find a vastly changed United States, larger in size, disputatious, commercial, and substantially more democratic than had been the case when Rip began his long nap.
Rip's story captures the development of the United States as Wood portrays it. Beginning with the adoption of the Constitution, which was designed to cure the excesses of individualism and local government under the Articles of the Confederation, Wood sets a theme of the increasing democratization of the United States, as political parties come to play a central role in American life and Thomas Jefferson is elected president in 1800 on a platform of equality (for white males, in any event) and of a limited role for the central government. What Wood describes as the "middling" class as opposed to the budding aristocracy of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and some of the other Founders, comes to set the dominant tone of American life.
Besides his use of the story of Rip Van Winkle, Wood sets the tone of his book with its title, "Empire of Liberty." Wood uses this term in a chapter titled "The Jeffersonian West" which describes the great expansion of the United States achieved by the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson himself used the term "Empire of Liberty" to describe his vision for the United States. As Wood explains the term: "`Empire" for [Jefferson] did not mean the coercive domination of alien peoples; instead, it meant a nation of citizens spread over vast tracts of land. Yet the British Empire had given enough ambiguity to the term to lend some irony to Jefferson's use of it. (p. 357, footnote omitted) Thus, another theme of Wood's study, in addition to democratization, is expansion. The United States grows in both area in population. The United States gradually frees itself of domination by foreign powers, both Britain and France, to form a growing sense of itself as an independent nation. At the end of the book, following what appeared to be a lucky avoidance of disaster in the War of 1812, the United States became "A World within Themselves", to use the title of Wood's insightful concluding chapter, as Americans looked to themselves rather that to Europe as the source of trade, economic growth, and culture.
Wood's long, thorough, and comprehensive study develops his themes in a variety of ways. He offers a political history of the United States beginning with the administration of George Washington and concluding with the administration of the fourth president, James Madison, through the end of the War of 1812. The tumult of this early period frequently is overlooked by those with only a casual familiarity with American history. Political disagreements were sharp, personal, and violent. There were near-wars with both France in Britain and an actual war with Britain in 1812, which sealed the result of the first war - the American Revolution. The era included a disputed presidential election in 1800, the trial of Aaron Burr, Jefferson's first vice-president, for treason, the impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice and much else. With the possible exception of the Civil War era, the early days of the United States were the most difficult time in our history.
Wood also offers insightful chapters on the development of American law and of the doctrine of Judicial Review under the John Marshall, the Great Chief Justice. He spends substantial space on slavery, with both the North and the South tragically miscalculating how this institution would come close to destroying the nation. In several chapters, Wood explores the growth of American culture during this period, a subject frequently overlooked. And there is an important chapter on the Second Awakening and on American religion. Wood shows that the separation of government from denominations, gave religion in the United States its own non-hierarchical, individual character and strengthened it, rather than having religion become a casualty of the Enlightenment.
Wood offers stories of commercialization, ambition and drive on behalf of his "middling" class with anecdotes of people who succeeded through their own efforts and of some individuals, such as Robert Fulton whose inventiveness and ingenuity made them famous. With slavery and its treatment of the Indians, Wood shows that the United States had serious failings. But the overall tone of this book is one of optimism, exuberance and hope for the promise of America. Thomas Jefferson is the single most dominating figure in this book. For all Jefferson's faults and for all the changes in his historical reputation, Wood clearly admires Jefferson immensely. Jefferson's vision, with its goal of democratization and independence, forms the heart of Wood's picture of what the United States could become.
Wood's book is the latest in a series called the "Oxford History of the United States." Each of these volumes is written by a distinguished scholar and presents, for the specialist and the interested lay reader, important and informed studies of periods in our Nation's history. It is a rare pleasure to be able to study American history through these books and through the differing perspectives of their authors. Wood's book, with its scholarship and emphasis on the Jeffersonian vision, is an exemplary addition to this series.