Historian Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 is a grand, comprehensive, inclusive story of this country's early years -- a picture that calls my skepticism about an enduring "national character" into question. It is fascinating.
The title phrase -- "empire of liberty" -- is an expression used more than once by Thomas Jefferson without irony, in fact with vast enthusiasm and hope. At times he was referring to the western territories he acquired as President with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase that made for a continent spanning nation. Other times he seems to have meant the young Republic itself. There was no contradiction in his thinking between "empire" -- which many of us scorn as implying military occupation and repression and "liberty" -- a polity of expanding human freedom. No wonder this sometimes seemed a confused country. That contradiction has lived among us from the get-go.
This sprawling book defies easy summary, but I did want to highlight a theme that has implications for current struggles. Woods portrays those early years of the nation as the era when the idea of a "middle class" society superseded European notions of class stratification. Until perhaps the immediate present, the belief that this was a middle class nation in which hierarchies were fluid, most people lived neither at extremes of wealth or poverty, and industrious people had a chance formed part of the national psyche. It is interesting to read how this looked back then.
It turns out there was both a material and an intellectual support for this confidence:
Over the decades covered by this volume, rule by people who were neither "gentlemen" nor "commoners" but rather "middling" folk flowered. The Founders of a hallowed memory were actually mostly slave-holding aristocrats, so creating the national mythology required lionizing another improbable figure. The "middling" sort went looking for their own champion:
They started paying elected representatives a living wage and thereby invented professional politicians. The rest is history ...
Obviously I found all this quite fascinating. As I did, you may once have skimmed over the history of this period lightly in some long past class -- it bears revisiting.