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The big story of the early American Republic was the advent of a society dominated by "middling" men on the make. Discarding relics of aristocratic privilege, taste and duty that had survived the Revolution, these confident and shamelessly self-interested go-getters embraced a commercialized world of economic growth, technological progress and continuous social and cultural change. The triumph of these middling strivers in the early years of the nineteenth century, decades before Alexis de Tocqueville observed and immortalized them in the 1830s, ennobled the American Revolution by making good on its democratic promise. By 1815 the outcome was "a land of enterprising, optimistic, innovative, and equality-loving Americans."Heartwarming, isn't it? This is the picture Gordon Wood presents in Empire of Liberty, his entry into Oxford University Press's justly prestigious series on the history of the United States....Wood...seems to realize that the happy story he tells about the rise of equality-loving go-getters--a process he calls the "republicanization" of American society--had a dark side....Even so, Wood thinks the history of the United States in the era from the adoption of the Constitution to the conclusion of the War of 1812 should be mobilized to instill pride rather than provoke sorrow, to highlight triumphs instead of tragedies....[He] has been very explicit about the proper role for a historian of the early United States: to empathize with the good intentions and well-meaning gestures of the Founders with a capital F.
Also this week, Richard Posner reviews What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America by Peggy Pascoe, and Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell by Paul A. Lombardo, in The Book (New Republic).