Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
I have always enjoyed the escapism of reading a good book about the White Republic. It is a relief to return on occasion to an earlier chapter of American history when the racial and cultural foundations of our national identity were unquestioned. White men once enjoyed the luxury of being able to engage in real politics. Back then, our nation was not yet under the control of a hostile elite of alien parasites.
Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 is a chronicle of America’s youthful innocence. It was a very different time from our own. From 1789 to 1815, the United States was unquestionably a White Man’s Country. The first several naturalization laws restricted citizenship to “free white persons.” Neither major political party considered women fit for the political responsibilities of republican citizenship. The Indians were not thought of as “Native Americans,” but as savages and foreigners allied with America’s enemies, Britain and Spain. Blacks were considered an inferior race who were best enslaved, dominated or deported.
Racial attitudes hardened in this period. After 1800, Jefferson’s hereditarian account of racial differences overwhelmed Samuel Stanhope Smith’s naive environmentalism. In the North, several states passed anti-miscegenation laws, black codes and restricted black voting rights. Southerners passed new laws against free blacks and placed new restrictions on black voting rights and civil liberties. Antislavery sentiment in the South waned and collapsed after the Haitian Revolution and Gabriel’s Rebellion.
In spite of the American government’s professed benevolent intentions toward the Indians, White settlers poured across the Appalachians into the Old Northwest and Old Southwest, violated Indian treaties and soaked the frontier in low level warfare. The Indians suffered several major defeats against the U.S. Army at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794), Battle of Tippecanoe (1811) and the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814). By 1815, the various Indian tribes of Transappalachia had surrendered most of their land and philanthropists were advocating their resettlement on Western reservations.
I believe it was our nemesis Leonard Zeskind who said that America has always had two hearts: one beating heart is White and Christian, the other heart is liberal and democratic. The two have often been at odds. Wood’s Empire of Liberty is more about the latter than the former. Although every major figure in this period was a White male, Wood doesn’t really draw attention to this. The irreducible whiteness of the Early Republic is taken for granted. It is assumed like the water in an aquarium.
The real story that Gordon S. Wood wants to tell is the division of Americans into Federalists and Republicans. The America of 1815 wasn’t envisioned by the Founders. They didn’t anticipate the rise of political parties or the partisan press. They had created a republic, not a liberal democracy. When the Constitution was ratified, “democracy” was still held in disrepute. It had been a discredited political theory since Antiquity. “Democrat” was a pejorative term.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the Federalists began to have second thoughts about the popular forces they had unleashed. Their ideal was a strong European-style nation-state with a formidable military and commercial economy. They looked forward to the day when America would mature into a class-based society like England. The Federalists wanted a Republic presided over by the better sort of men: the wise, learned, propertied, well-born, cosmopolitan. They believed hierarchy was the foundation of civilization and moral virtue the bedrock of the social order.
Some Federalists wanted America to become a monarchy. They advised George Washington to imitate the British court throughout his presidency. John Adams was obsessed with titles and the trappings of aristocracy. Alexander Hamilton called democracy a “disease.” After American independence was secured and a strong national government was created, the Federalists wanted all the revolutionary jargon to go away. They often spoke about bringing “erroneous notions of liberty and equality” to heel.
The U.S. Constitution was designed to reverse the democratic excesses of the state legislatures. The Federalists were appalled by the Jacobinism and licentiousness they had unleashed and saw spreading through American society. Commoners were refusing to show their customary deference to their betters. Parvenus were everywhere aspiring to gentlemen status. “Aristocrat” was becoming an abusive term. It was a charge the Federalists were often slimed with.
The republican social revolution that followed the ratification of the Constitution was a time of ferment and chaos more profound than the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. By the time it was over, the traditional social hierarchy of the 18th century was in shambles. Slavery fell in the Northern states. Patriarchy took a hit. Honor was on the way out. Divorce laws were liberalized. Primogeniture was abandoned. The prison system replaced the mutilation that prevailed in colonial times. Illegitimacy and alcoholism skyrocketed. The mainline Protestant churches were disestablished. Jews were extended rights they previously had not enjoyed. America had taken a gigantic step forward to what it is today.
The acid of liberty and equality systematically eroded every hierarchial institution. The Anglicans, Congregationalists and Presbyterians lost their former dominance to Baptists and Methodists. America became the most commercialized society in the world. Wealth became the primary determinant of social status, not birth, blood, or education. After the triumph of the Democratic-Republicans, a wave of egalitarianism swept away the distinctions that had once existed between White men.
By 1815, America had evolved from an aristocratic republic to the liberal capitalist democracy that it remains to this day. Corporations were sprouting up everywhere. In the North, a middling commercialized society of religious fundamentalists had emerged. In the South, the invention of the cotton gin was creating the Cotton Kingdom of the antebellum era. Slaveowners had lost their previous enthusiasm for revolutionary republicanism. In Congress, the precursors of our familiar cast politicians (i.e., Martin van Buren) were being elected to public office.
Much of Empire of Liberty is given over to what you would expect from a book about this period of American history: the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the XYZ Affair, the Quasi War with France, the Crisis of 1798/1799, President John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts, President Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, the Marshall Court and judicial review, the Louis and Clark expedition, the Burr conspiracy, Jefferson’s embargo on Britain and the War of 1812. I found it to be an excellent introduction to all of these topics.
The seeds of America’s decline were sown in the earliest years of the White Republic. In these years, the Republicans began the practice of celebrating the Declaration of Independence. Centuries later, Americanism would be redefined by their successors as the abstract ideological principles of liberty and equality, which True Conservatism seeks to preserve. The degenerate society that our generation inherited evolved out of the mirepresentation of the flaws inherent in that document. Empire of Liberty is a useful resource in understanding how that ball was set into motion.