Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Free Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood

Book: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood Read Free Book Online
Authors: Gordon S. Wood
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Editor’s Introduction
    Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty takes its place in the Oxford History of the United States between two other notable volumes: Robert Mid dlekauff’s The Glorious Cause , which masterfully covers the Revolutionary War era that immediately preceded the period covered here, and Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought , which vividly evokes the cultural ferment and technological transformations that marked the years between the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the end of the Mexican War in 1848. The present volume addresses the astonishingly volatile, protean moment that lay between the achievement of national independence and the emergence of a swiftly maturing mass democracy and modern economy in the Jacksonian Era.
    The two and a half decades bracketed by the signing of the Constitution in 1788 and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, which ended the War of 1812, constituted one of the most precarious and consequential passages in American history. As the period opened, some four million Americans, one-fifth of them black slaves, dwelled between the Atlantic seaboard and the Appalachians, many of them itching to spill over the mountain crest into the untamed interior. They inhabited a new nation struggling to establish itself on a continent still coveted by hostile imperial powers, and still seething with Indians ever more determined to resist white encroachment. Their governments were founded on inspiring but untested political principles. They aspired to shape a society modeled on its European, especially English, antecedents, and yet unlike any seen before. Few seasons in American history have been pregnant with more momentous uncertainties.
    Usually referred to as the “early national period,” the era was clamorously contentious, urgently creative, and teeming with possibilities for failure. To the men and women who lived though that time, the fate of their fledgling republic was by no means secure, and the character of their communities was disconcertingly labile. History offered little guidance as to what the future might hold for a polyglot, restless, self-governing, and assertive people. They were rebellious by nature, rootless by circumstance, and ravenous to possess the vast territories that beckoned to their westward.
    History’s shores are littered with the wreckage of nascent nations that foundered before they could grow to stable maturity. Why should the fragile American ship of state, launched in 1776 and relaunched in 1788, be expected to enjoy a happier fate? In little more than a decade, the American people had thrown off the British yoke and jettisoned the Articles of Confederation—a record of bellicose lawbreaking and political inconstancy that gave scant promise of their ability to sustain viable governments or even a coherent and orderly society.
    Yet somehow those mercurial and sometimes irascible Americans managed to lay the foundations of a resilient democratic political system that has endured for more than two centuries. The story of that remarkable and in many ways improbable accomplishment lies at the heart of this book.
    In a series of admirably lucid chapters, Gordon Wood explains the formative origins of the nation’s major governmental institutions and political practices. His account of the ways in which Congress evolved the protocols and procedures that would allow it to make law for a diverse and footloose people is particularly instructive. His analyses of the peculiar characteristics of American law, the role of the federal and state judiciaries, and the development of the signal doctrine of judicial review are exemplary, as is his deft discussion of the role of political parties—or “factions,” as contemporaries called them—in determining the young republic’s political destiny. So too is his analysis of the novel institution of the presidency, a tale in which George Washington figures prominently. Washington, along with Alexander

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