Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (2 page)

BOOK: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Oxford History of the United States aims to bring the best scholarship to the broadest possible audience. The series is dedicated to making history live for later generations.
Empire of Liberty
handsomely, artfully fulfills that purpose.

David M. Kennedy

Abbreviations Used in Citations

Adams, ed.,

Charles Francis Adams, ed.,
The Works of John Adams
, 10 vols. (Boston, 1850–1856)

Diary and Autobiography

Lyman H. Butterfield et al., eds.,
Diary and Autobiography of John Adams
(Cambridge, MA, 1961)

Papers of Adams

Robert J. Taylor et al., eds.,
The Papers of John Adams
(Cambridge, MA, 1977–)

Annals of Congress

Annals of the Congress of the United States
, comp. Joseph Gales (Washington, DC, 1834)

Papers of Franklin

Leonard W. Labaree et al., eds.,
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin
(New Haven, 1959–)

Franklin: Writings

J. A. Leo Lemay, ed.,
Benjamin Franklin: Writings
(New York, 1987)

Papers of Hamilton

Harold C. Syrett et al., eds.,
The Papers of Alexander Hamilton
, 27 vols. (New York, 1962–1987)

Hamilton: Writings

Joanne B. Freeman, ed.,
Alexander Hamilton: Writings
(New York, 2001

Papers of Jefferson

Julian P. Boyd et al., eds.,
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson
(Princeton, 1950–)

Papers of Jefferson: Retirement Ser

J. Jefferson Looney et al., eds.,
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series
(Princeton, 2004

Ford, ed.,
Writings of Jefferson

Paul L. Ford, ed.,
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson
, 10 vols. (New York, 1892–1899)

L and B, eds.,
Writings of Jefferson

A. A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds.,
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson
, 20 vols. (Washington, DC, 1903)

Jefferson: Writings

Merrill D. Peterson, ed.,
Thomas Jefferson: Writings
(New York, 1984)

Papers of Madison

William T. Hutchinson et al., eds.,
The Papers of James Madison
, vols. 1–10 (Chicago, 1962–1977); Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., vols. 11–(Charlottesville, 1977–)

Papers of Madison: Presidential Ser.

Robert J. Brugger et al., eds.,
The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series
(Charlottesville, 1984–

Papers of Madison: Presidential Ser.

Robert A. Rutland et al.,
The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series
(Charlottesville, 1984–)

Madison: Writings

Jack N. Rakove, ed.,
James Madison: Writings
(New York, 1999)

Papers of Marshall

Herbert A. Johnson et al., eds.,
The Papers of John Marshall
(Chapel Hill, 1974–)

Letters of Rush

Lyman H. Butterfield, ed.,
Letters of Benjamin Rush
, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1951)

Republic of Letters

James Morton Smith, ed.,
The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison,
1776–1826, 3 vols. (New York, 1995)

Spur of Fame

John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds.,
The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805–1813
(San Marino, CA, 1966)

Papers of Washington: Presidential Ser.

W. W. Abbot et al., eds.,
The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series
(Charlottesville, 1987–)

Papers of Washington: Retirement Ser

W. W. Abbot et al., eds.,
The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series
(Charlottesville, 1998–1999)

Fitzpatrick, ed.,
Writings of Washington

John C. Fitzpatrick,
The Writings of George Washington
, 39 vols. (Washington, DC, 1931–1944)

Washington: Writings

John H. Rhodehamel, ed.,
George Washington: Writings
(New York, 1997)


American Historical Review


Journal of American History


Journal of the Early Republic


William and Mary Quarterly
, 3d Ser.


John Adams


Benjamin Franklin


Alexander Hamilton


Thomas Jefferson


James Madison


Benjamin Rush


George Washington
Empire of Liberty

Introduction: Rip Van Winkle’s America

During the second decade of the nineteenth century, writer Washington Irving developed an acute sense that his native land was no longer the same place it had been just a generation earlier. Irving had conservative and nostalgic sensibilities, and he sought to express some of his amazement at the transformation that had taken place in America by writing his story “Rip Van Winkle.” Irving had his character Rip awaken from a sleep that had begun before the Revolution and had lasted twenty years. When Rip entered his old village, he immediately felt lost. The buildings, the faces, the names were all strange and incomprehensible. “The very village was altered—it was larger and more populous,” and idleness, except among the aged, was no longer tolerated. “The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility”—a terrifying situation for Rip, who had had “an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour.” Even the language was strange—”rights of citizens—elections—members of Congress—liberty . . . and other words which were a perfect babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.” When people asked him “on which side he voted” and “whether he was Federal or a Democrat,” Rip could only stare “in vacant stupidity.”

“Rip Van Winkle” became the most popular of Irving’s many stories, for early nineteenth-century Americans could appreciate Rip’s bewilderment. Although superficially the political leadership seemed much the same—on the sign at the village inn the face of George Washington had simply replaced that of George III—beneath the surface Rip, like most Americans, knew that “every thing’s changed.” In a few short decades Americans had experienced a remarkable transformation in their society and culture, and, like Rip and his creator, many wondered what had happened and who they really were.

Before the Revolution of 1776 America had been merely a collection of disparate British colonies composed of some two million subjects huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast—European outposts whose cultural focus was still London, the metropolitan center of the empire. Following the War of 1812 with Great Britain—often called the Second American Revolution—these insignificant provinces had become a single giant continental republic with nearly ten million citizens, many of whom had already spilled into the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The cultural focus of this huge expansive nation was no longer abroad but was instead directed inward at its own boundless possibilities.

By 1815 Americans had experienced a transformation in the way they related to one another and in the way they perceived themselves and the world around them. And this transformation took place before industrialization, before urbanization, before railroads, and before any of the technological breakthroughs usually associated with modern social change. In the decades following the Revolution America changed so much and so rapidly that Americans not only became used to change but came to expect it and prize it.

The population grew dramatically, doubling every twenty years or so, as it had for several generations, more than twice the rate of growth of any European country. And people were on the move as never before. Americans spread themselves over half a continent at astonishing speeds. Between 1790 and 1820 New York’s population quadrupled; Kentucky’s multiplied nearly eight times. In a single decade Ohio grew from a virtual wilderness (except, of course, for the presence of the native Indians, whom white Americans scarcely acknowledged) to become more populous than most of the century-old colonies had been at the time of the Revolution. In a single generation Americans occupied more territory than they had occupied during the entire 150 years of the colonial period, and in the process killed or displaced tens of thousands of Indians.

Although most Americans in 1815 remained farmers living in rural areas, they had become, especially in the North, one of the most highly commercialized people in the world. They were busy buying and selling not only with the rest of the world but increasingly with one another, everyone, it seemed, trying to realize what
Niles’ Weekly Register
declared was “the almost universal ambition to get forward.”
Nowhere in the Western world was business and working for profit more praised and honored.

This celebration of work made a leisured slaveholding aristocracy in the South more and more anomalous. Slavery was widely condemned,
but it did not die in the new United States; indeed, it flourished—but only in the South. It spread across the Southern half of the country, and as it disappeared in the North, it became more deeply entrenched in the Southern economy. In a variety of ways—socially, culturally, and politically—the South began to see itself as a beleaguered minority in the bustling nation.

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. Religion too was democratized and transformed. Not only were most of the traditional European-based religious establishments finally destroyed, but the modern world of many competing Christian denominations was created. By 1815 America had become the most evangelically Christian nation in the world.

Even Washington Irving, despite his deep affection for all things English and his anxiety over America’s national identity, had to concede that the United States was “a country in a singular state of moral and physical development; a country,” he said, “in which one of the greatest Political experiments in the history of the world is now performing.” Obvious to all was “our rapidly growing importance and our matchless prosperity”—due, he said, “not merely to physical and local but also to moral causes . . . the political liberty, the general diffusion of knowledge, the prevalence of sound moral and religious principles, which give force and sustained energy to the character of a people.”
Americans knew they were an experiment, but they were confident they could by their own efforts remake their culture, re-create what they thought and believed. Their Revolution told them that people’s birth did not limit what they might become.

Suddenly, everything seemed possible. The Revolutionary leaders were faced with the awesome task of creating out of their British heritage their own separate national identity. They had an opportunity to realize an
ideal world, to put the broadminded and tolerant principles of the Enlightenment into practice, to become a homogeneous, compassionate, and cosmopolitan people, and to create the kind of free and ordered society and illustrious culture that people since the Greeks and Romans had yearned for.

But little worked out quite as the Founders expected. Not only did their belief in the Revolution’s enlightened and liberty-loving principles, including their dedication to equality and popular government, contain within itself the source of its own disillusionment, but their high-minded promise to end slavery and respect the rights of the native peoples were no match for the surging demographic forces accelerated by the Revolution.

By 1815 the classical Enlightenment in America was over or popularized, and many of the ideals of the Revolution, including the hope of America’s becoming the repository of Western art and culture, had been modified or perverted. Yet the changes were so complicated, so indeliber-ate, so much a medley of responses to fast-moving events that Americans scarcely knew how they had progressed from one point to another.

The transformation Americans had experienced was unintended, for the character they celebrated in Andrew Jackson and the Hunters of Kentucky—the romantic, undisciplined, and untutored heroes of the battle of New Orleans of 1815—was scarcely the character they had sought in 1789. The bumptious nationalism and the defiant abandonment of Europe expressed at the end of the War of 1812 were both repudiations of the enlightened and cosmopolitan ideals of the Revolution and attempts to come to terms with the largely unanticipated popular commercial society that had emerged from the Revolution.

BOOK: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Flirting With French by William Alexander
Splintered Lives by Carol Holden
Tempting Fate by Jane Green
In a Stranger's Arms by Deborah Hale
Chance of the Heart by Kade Boehme
Tainted by Jamie Begley
John Cheever by Donaldson, Scott;