Gordon S. Wood: An Excerpt from "Empire of Liberty"





[Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University. His new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789 -1815, offers a brilliant account of the early American Republic which was marked by change in all aspects of American life–in politics, society, economy, and culture. In this excerpt from the introduction, Wood explains how the classic American story, Rip Van Winkle epitomizes this time period.]

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 American 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 breakthrough 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. . .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 believe. Their Revolution told them that people’s birth did not limit what they might become.

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  • Jill O'Neill: Interview with Gordon S. Wood


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