Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood

Empire of Liberty Gordon Wood

Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood is a door-stopper, but still very readable history of the United States from 1789-1815. It’s a comprehensive dive into all the political, cultural, and economic trends that were sweeping through the United States after Independence.

It starts with the years leading up to the new Constitution and continues through the Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison presidencies and concludes with the end of the War of 1812.

What I Liked

I liked how much of the cultural and business life he covered. In school (and most history books), the focus is on the big dates, big wars, and big people. But that’s not how people live & experience life. This book was long because he really went into every facet of American life.

I appreciated how authoritative, nuanced, and readable it was. History as an academic discipline has a problem. So many academic historians who do the rigorous work of reading, comparing and processing primary sources either cannot or choose not to write history in a readable, useful, insightful way. That leaves non-historians to write all the popular, readable “histories” that are simply cherry-picked stories based on a loose, out-of-context collection of historical facts leaving everyone worse off. This book was one of those rare books that is interesting and engaging but presents the nuance and complexity of real life well.

On that note, his presentation of the Founding Fathers was fascinating. I appreciated all the quotes, anecdotes, and how all the pull quotes were from specific time periods in their life. I did not fully realize just how much all these people changed, grew, and were very much responsive to their specific time. For example, I like how he showed that while Thomas Jefferson had a generally unified outlook on life, his opinions & quotes during the Constitutional debate were very different from his opinions and quotes from when he was President and had to deal with the great powers kicking the United States around.

What I Did Not Like

Ok, I can’t get around the fact that the book is 738 pages. It’s long, and there are sections that even the best writer just can’t do anything with. For example, the chapter on the judiciary and law discussed all the radical and extremely consequential choices in law that directly affect me to this day. It was still a 40-page chapter…on legal theory…in the 1790s…with so many Latin words. I skimmed it.


History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And America & Americans have been reading the same rhyme for 234+ years. It’s really hilarious how similar the issues, news cycle, and people are now to Americans in the 1790s. This book, more than anything else, suddenly took me out of the angst of the daily news cycle. We’ve been fighting over the same stuff in the same way for hundreds of years. The country makes terrible choices and amazing choices but keeps getting along.

America’s greatest virtue is our hypocrisy. No other country has so many internal contradictions, and no other country has used its internal contradictions to become better. The single largest contradiction was slavery / equality. That “snake that lay at the feet of Liberty” was the only issue that drove Americans into war.

However, that wasn’t the only bit of hypocrisy that drove conflict that led to improvement. Americans – especially the Jeffersonian Republicans – were adamant about commerce and the freedom to trade. They were also adamant about a small State, small spending, and small armies. Ironically, it wasn’t the advocates for a larger State and larger army that won the issue…it was the advocates for more commerce that created the larger State & larger Army. It was Jefferson of all people who had reasons to buy Louisiana (to protect farmers), expand the Navy (to provide for freedom of navigation), spend on infrastructure, and make foreign treaties (both to improve freedom of commerce and trade.

And the using contradictions to make the world more peaceful extended to everything. America’s fundamental focus on religious toleration and religious peace was driven by evangelical fundamentalists rather than the big established churches. The more religious America became…the more secular its “public square” became.

This pattern continues on and on. America was & continues to this day to be a place that should not work. Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum, of all backgrounds, and all outlooks are generally freaking out all the time that something is going to go catastrophically wrong and everything is going to turn to permanent awfulness and a permanent breakup into warring anarchy. And yet…America just keeps trundling along. No one really knows how it works, but it just does.

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