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  • The Empire Has No Clothes
  • Nancy Isenberg (bio)

Early American republic, Thomas Jefferson, Founding Fathers, Empire

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. By Gordon S. Wood. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 778. Cloth, $35.00.)
This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity. By Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. 484. Cloth, $45.00.)

To read these books side by side, one would imagine the authors are writing about two completely different countries. In a way, they are. Wood's Empire of Liberty, its heft surpassing most textbooks, promises to synthesize the literature of the period 1789-1815. It is actually a reprise of his 1992 The Radicalism of the American Revolution, though the tone has become preachier in trumpeting the American dream. Wood's narrative is a morality play; his voice blends seamlessly with the overwrought writers of the early republic whom he quotes, exuberant rhetoricians who saw their "rising empire" as a new Elysium, a magical place where compassion, virtue, and belief in equality were omnipresent. His "empire of liberty" is a cultural utopia where the most optimistic effusions of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine somehow reflect what Americans "everywhere" (a recurrent word in this book) actually believed. There are villains in his story: Monarchical Federalists are aristocratic dinosaurs in a democratic age, fated to lose the war of ideas. [End Page 261]

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg sees only discord in post-Revolutionary America. She paints a Dorian Gray portrait of uneasy elites projecting their deepest psychic fears onto a host of dangerous Others. Instead of the dreamy Jefferson whom Wood insists on channeling, Smith-Rosenberg elevates the less prominent novelist Charles Brockden Brown, now the true founding voice of the early republic. If Wood can't help but repeat a familiar (and dated) tale of American exceptionalism, Smith-Rosenberg tends to see herself as a psychoanalyst and America as her troubled patient.1

Wood unabashedly revives the consensus history of the 1950s. After the Revolution, he gushes, "suddenly, everything seemed possible." Americans were "living in the freest nation in the world," where "ordinary Americans" thought of themselves as "anybody's equal." Revolutionary leaders were reaching toward "an ideal world, to put the broadminded and tolerant principles of the Enlightenment into practice, to become a homogeneous, compassionate, and cosmopolitan people." But before we go out and hoist the Stars and Stripes, he reminds us that the Founders' "high-minded promise to end slavery and respect the rights of native peoples" (incidentally, a promise they never made) was no match for "surging demographic forces accelerated by the Revolution." The implication is that we cannot blame the Founders for Indian land grabs and the western expansion of slavery, which only resulted from disembodied forces that could not be contained. Wood contends that these changes were "so complicated" and "fast-moving" that the Founders had no idea what was happening. Yet by 1815, the transformation was complete, leading him to conclude, "democracy and equality were no longer problematic issues to be debated." This amazing coup represents a past that few academic historians accept anymore.2

His rosy picture of a homogeneous people requires that Wood put elite Founders and ordinary citizens on the same wavelength. The Revolution was "such an exhilarating psychological event" that it made "feelings of cultural inferiority" disappear, and in their place emerged a broad consciousness of equality. Jefferson "personified this revolutionary transformation," [End Page 262] insists Wood. "His ideas about liberty and democracy left such a deep imprint on the future of his country that, despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as there is a United States he will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation's noblest ideals and highest aspirations."3 Who are the people that see Jefferson as the prophet of democracy? It is hard to get a straight answer, because sometimes they are the "a new set of folk," "ordinary folk," or "more lowly and poorer"; but it is mostly the "middling sort" who hear Jefferson's "radical utopian" message and run with it.4

Wood provides a sampler of his "middling sort." They are...


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