Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: "Empire of Liberty"

The newest volume in the estimable Oxford History of the United States series is Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009). Like the other titles in the series this one seeks to synthesize a chunk of American history into a single volume with a coherent narrative, aimed at a general audience - given the tremendous amount of literature which this (ahem, rather key) time period has spawned, the author's task here seems well nigh impossible.

I'm pleased to say that Gordon Wood has succeeded admirably. This is at once a book which offers any interested student of history a "good read" overview of the era, while also providing specialists with an entirely suitable synthesis of recent scholarly treatments and debate. Empire of Liberty offers a delicate balance between political, diplomatic and economic histories while also paying heed (and not just lip service) to recent work which encompasses race, gender and social analyses as well.

Wood's treatment of the early republic's political difficulties is evenhanded and fair, as is his explanation of the first party system and its origins. His chapters on the organizational of the first government, the early Supreme Court and the roots of judicial review were clearly two of his favorites to write, and the way he's managed to examine the paradoxes inherent in the way Jefferson and Madison governed was both quite apt and fascinating. His research base was clearly vast (the ten-page bibliographic essay clearly doesn't do it justice, but the footnotes will help), and he's drawn judiciously from the deep, wide pool of recent scholarship to create this far-reaching and able work.

I'm sure that anyone, particularly anyone with an interest in this period, will find "something missing" from this book. I would have appreciated a closer look at literature, books, and libraries, and found the sections covering education rather succinct. I'm sure that others will offer up what they felt were the lacunae in Empire of Liberty. But on the whole, given the great constraints he was under, I can offer up nothing but praise for this effort. It's a delight to read (even though its 750-page bulk does make it a rather uncomfortable book to cart around as frequently as I'd have liked to), and a fine contribution to the series in particular and to scholarship more broadly.