Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen, Review of Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Nov 29, 2009 8:27 pm

Jim Cullen, Review of Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009)

[Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book is Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History. He blogs at American History Now.]

The Oxford University Press History of the United States, for which eight of a projected twelve volumes, each well over 700 pages, have now been published in non-chronological order, is certainly among the most ambitious enterprises of its kind in modern times. No one, however, could call it a quickly realized one. First conceived two grand old men of the profession, C. Vann Woodward and and Richard Hoftstadter, a half century ago, the first volume, Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause, covering 1763-1789, did not actually appear until 1982. (A revised edition was issued in 2005.)

It took another six years before James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, on the Civil War era, appeared in 1988, though it was well worth the wait: winner of a Pulitzer Prize, it remains the standard one-volume history in the field twenty years later. The next title to appear, James Patterson's Grand Expectations, covering 1945-74, did not surface until 1996; it won a Bancroft Prize for the best work of history that year. In 1999, David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear, covering the Great Depression and World War II, won a Pulitzer Prize. By that point, Hoftstader, who died in 1970, was long out of the picture, as was the remarkably productive nonagenarian Woodward, who finally died in 1999. So Kennedy himself took over editorship of the series.

The pace picked up significantly in this decade. Patterson reappeared in 2005 with Restless Giant, covering 1974-2000. In 2007, Daniel Walker Howe published What Hath God Wrought, covering 1815-1845; it won the third Pulitzer of the series. Last year witnessed the only book in the series to cover a single topic comprehensively, George Herring's survey of U.S. foreign policy, From Colony to Superpower. Future projected volumes include Peter Mancall on the early colonial era, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton on the British empire in North America, and Bruce Schulman on the early twentieth century. An H.W. Brands volume covering 1865-1900 was withdrawn under ambiguous circumstances (though the same might be said of any number of prospective authors who have come and gone in the last four decades). That segment is now apparently to be written by Richard White.

All of this is a long way of introducing the latest volume in the series, Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, which spans from ratification of the Constitution to the end of the War of 1812. Yet rehearsing this history of the series seems important in understanding the book and its larger significance. Like its predecessors, Empire of Liberty is a huge work of synthesis by a major scholar and represents the distillation of a lifetime's worth of study. Like its predecessors, too, it is a book notable for the clarity of its prose, something that can be attributed to the strong editorial hand guiding the project as well as the liquid smoothness that has always characterized Wood's work (he's long been a fixture at the New York Review of Books, among other publications). Magisterial, authoritative, comprehensive -- these are words you can apply to this book, just like you can the rest in the series. If Empire, perhaps more than others, illustrates some of the limits of grand visions, it must be said that the book is an achievement of a very high order, among the highest in two centuries of American historiography dating back to David Ramsay's history of the revolution published in 1789.

As Wood makes clear at the outset, Empire is less an extension than a recapitulation of his earlier work, notably his groundbreaking The Creation of of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991). In those books and elsewhere, Wood, reflecting the influence of his mentor, Bernard Bailyn, as well as the generational temper of his historiographic generation, emphasized the role of ideology as a force in provoking and sustaining the American Revolution. Radicalism in particular was notable for its conceptually elegant narrative arc, which moved across a tripartite social transition from monarchy to republic to democracy in the half-century after 1776.

In Empire, Wood provides much more detail about a much shorter stretch of time. The key transition here is from the dominance of the avowedly elitist Federalist faction led by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s (which he views as largely necessary, but necessarily doomed) and the somewhat paradoxical celebration of the people emphasized by the Republican faction and embodied most vividly by the aristocratic, slaveholding Thomas Jefferson. This transition is captured at either end of the book in mentions of the arch-Federalist Noah Webster, who starts out by defining a"gentleman" as a person who has a liberal arts education and is not in engaged in trade, and ends up defining gentleman simply as a courtesy title to describe"men of education and breeding of every occupation." Wood expands upon this well-established historiographic framework in chapters that take him to relatively fresh ground, in particular a pair on the evolving U.S. judicial system, and others on evangelical religion, Republican foreign policy, and a notably provocative foray into cultural history. In all these cases, Wood traces the powerful egalitarian currents that course through early American society, even as he notes the counter-currents and paradoxes that result.

But those counter-currents and paradoxes never overshadow what Wood considers the bright mood of the times -- and Wood's own bright view of early American history. He of course is careful to consider the blight of slavery, which he discusses periodically over the course of the book and focuses on in one chapter. Yet given that 1789-1815 is the period in which slavery changed from what seemed to be a fading fact of life to a newly revitalized and nearly fatal cancer in the body politic, it's not hard to imagine another historian making much more of it. Ditto the treatment of U.S. Indian relations in the West. Or the role of women in society. These are, on the whole, subjects handled with both more depth and facility in what is the next chronological volume in the series, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought -- which, in its full-throated affirmation of Whig ideology, has a somewhat sharper argument, beginning with its dedication to the oft-overlooked John Quincy Adams. In reading Wood's book, I found myself wondering what a younger historian like Woody Holton might have said on such subjects if he had this assignment, particularly since Holton's just-published book, a biography of Abigail Adams, casts her in a distinctively new light as a financial speculator. And I find myself asking -- as well as whether I should be asking -- how big a problem it is that every one of the published or projected volumes in this series is currently assigned to a white male historian.

In some sense such questions go to the core of what makes this project important and problematic at the same time, and to a great extent why it was conceived in the first place: a perceived need for synthesis in an age of ever-growing diversity. Given the demographic as well as intellectual pluralism that has characterized the profession in the last forty years, the series is bucking the tide of History. This is true in terms of its evident belief that U.S, history can be rendered in a fully integrated narrative. And it's even more true in terms of affirming the role of narrative itself in an age of monographic literature in which mastery of a discrete sub-specialty, coupled with a carefully wrought analytic apparatus, are regarded as the highest, and most readily rewarded, forms of historical writing in academe.

The people writing these books are hardly mavericks; indeed, they are among the most celebrated and esteemed in the profession, precisely because they've mastered the game as it's been played in the second half of the twentieth century. In their ends, they are throwbacks to a consensus era; in their means, they implicitly accept that the post-1960s academic scholarship they lean heavily upon (much of it their own) has not really been able to communicate effectively with a broader public without the kind of mediating function that they serve here. Which raises another issue: Who has time these days to read a single 800-page doorstop, never mind a dozen, even if you can download them all on a single Kindle?

Of course, for many in the profession, the situation I'm describing is hardly a problem, but rather a solution: having everybody write synthesis would be too many chiefs and not enough Indians. A career track in which junior historians write monographs that become grist for the mill for the senior ones makes a lot of sense, whether or not the Holy Grail of"the general reading public" is ever found. Looked at in this way, this series demonstrates what was was possible during what may well come to be known as a Golden Era of American history.

If so, however, it is an era that may be rapidly drawing to a close. The now well-publicized upheaval the University of California at Berkeley, along with the financial pressures at university presses (though not, apparently, at Oxford University Press, itself a wily survivor of earlier imperial buckling), are undermining the intellectual infrastructure that that made this series possible: Taxpayers and tuition payers are unlikely to maintain current support of the sabbaticals, fellowships, research assistants and other perquisites that make books such as these possible much longer. The Oxford History of the United States has been a long time coming. It may be even longer before we see anything like it again. We should savor these books -- as books -- while they're being bound and printed in the present tense.

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