- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

By Gordon S. Wood
Oxford University Press, $35, 800 pages

The man who taught me about reviewing history books said one should first state whether the volume at hand significantly advanced our knowledge of the events covered. Then a reviewer should declare whether the book was well-written and edited and, finally, whether it could be recommended. And then stop.

“Empire of Liberty” is the latest in the (Pulitzer, Bancroft and Parkman) prize-laden “Oxford History of the United States” series and could be the most interesting because it covers a critical period in our national development that usually is glossed over by other historians, who slide too quickly from the death of George Washington to the advent of Andrew Jackson.

The author, Gordon S. Wood of Brown University, is one of our more eminent historians of the early days of the republic, and one of my favorite books is his 2004 biography, “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin,” which I confess I studied during my own Franklin foray.

While Mr. Wood does not go so far as to say, as I suspect, that the sainted Founding Fathers would be slack-jawed today at what has happened to the nation they created, he does make a compelling argument that they were both astonished and not a little alarmed at the changes in the American character, culture and political environment that bubbled to the surface almost as soon as the War for Independence was won.

The period from 1789, when the new U.S. government was led by George Washington under the recently ratified Constitution, until the end of James Madison’s bizarre war with the British in 1815 was an all-out struggle over the very soul of the American nation. It was a three-way fight, although the combatants were not aware of it at the time.

One side consisted of the older Founders who clung to a vision of a strong national government led by dispassionate, successful men who would mediate public affairs without much reference to the common citizenry. Their vision was for an activist central government that would undertake infrastructure projects and financial concentration and thereby make America into a continental and world power.

Another side, including younger Founders and a rising urban class of craftsmen, merchants, lawyers and bankers, demanded a national government that was both more inclusive and less intrusive, one that would enable the “middling sort” citizenry to use their state’s advantages for their own advancement.

A third class of newly arrived immigrants, land-hungry farmers with eyes cast westward, the urban poor and the politically eccentric threw the whole contest into a brawl that nearly cost us the nation itself.

But as Mr. Wood concludes, the outcome made us the people we are today.

The hard truth that emerges from Mr. Wood’s narrative is that many of our most marbleized Founding heroes were frightful snobs who were inept at the mechanics of government, ignoramuses about economic realities and fatally estranged from the very people they sought to lead. None of our first three presidents comes out of the story very well.

Washington has the easiest time of it because the Congress was mostly cowed by his majestic reputation and he had no Supreme Court to speak of to question some of his executive decisions.

John Adams, who could be insulted by a rainbow, rushed from one wild extreme to another in an ultimately failed bid to halt the tidal changes sweeping the nation both internally and from abroad.

His successor, Thomas Jefferson, was an odd choice for the pro-democracy mob that swept the old guard from power. The ultimate intellectual snob, Jefferson comes off as an 18th-century version of the late Eugene McCarthy, full of utopian ideas that come and go, full of high-sounding rhetoric and full of himself. But all three were constantly vexed by the American mass populace.

Mr. Wood is at his best when he chronicles the astonishing changes that were occurring in what had been 13 tiny Colonies perched along the Atlantic Seaboard.

After the war ended, the population resumed doubling every 20 years; settled states such as New York saw their citizenry quadruple during this period, and by 1820, what had been the far frontier of Ohio had come to have more people than any of the prewar Colonies. While agriculture still was the predominant economic activity, manufacturing and trade in a cornucopia of products began to reach markets around the globe. As he notes:

“All these demographic and commercial changes could not help but affect every aspect of American life. Politics became democratized as more Americans gained the right to vote. The essentially aristocratic world of the Founding Fathers in which gentry leaders stood for election was largely replaced by a very different democratic world, a recognizably modern world of competing professional politicians who ran for office under the banners of modern political parties.

“Indeed, Americans became so thoroughly democratic that much of the period’s political activity, beginning with the Constitution, was devoted to finding means and devices to tame that democracy. Most important, perhaps ordinary Americans developed a keen sense of their own worth — a sense, that, living in the freest nation in the world, they were anybody’s equal.”

That last is an important point. Contrary to the history learned at mother’s knee, our beloved Constitution was in reality a reaction against the democratic lunacies, self-enrichment schemes and beggar-thy-neighbor enactments of those sovereign states that still insisted that the very phrase “the United States” was a plural construct.

Does this book advance our knowledge of the time? Decidedly yes. Is this book well-written? Yes again. And well-edited? Alas, it is not.

At 738 pages, the narrative is about 200 pages too long, and after a while, the repetitions of Mr. Wood’s main points about the rise of the forces of democracy become tedious and water down the impact of what is important scholarship.

Despite that, this is an important book that needs to be read. Take the time.

James Srodes is a Washington author whose latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.” His e-mail address is: [email protected]

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