A solo voyage to vast horizons

An Empire for Liberty
July 26, 1996

At first glance, this massive middle volume of a history of the United States seems the product of an author set to demonstrate that 2,000 pages of academic narrative and analysis are still within the bounds of individual effort. A solo history, fashioned on this scale, would seem to represent the scholarly equivalent of a single-handed Atlantic crossing in a craft of unusual design.

In fact, once the courage has been summoned up to embark on the reading of an account that extends from the revolution to the civil war, it becomes a memorable voyage. Esmond Wright began his study of American history at the University of Virginia before the second world war. Since then, with breaks for duty in the Eighth Army and in politics, he has remained committed to a subject on which he now conveys the fruits of a lifetime's reflection. This volume is far more than a conscientious account of events in the years leading up to the civil war - or, as he prefers to entitle it, the war between the states. Not that this should be taken as a sign of southern sympathies.

But there are inevitable difficulties in writing on the grand scale: no matter how extensive and balanced it may be, omissions will be perceived and emphases questioned. Here, the role and significance of religious factors secure too little attention, the nature and complexity of Jacksonian democracy is insufficiently explored, John Brown is frequently mentioned and inadequately assessed, and the opening and closing chapters fail to supply an unprepared reader with a clear statement of conditions at the beginning and end of the period under review. Innumerable further points could give rise to debate and some assertions might seem plain wrong. Editorial committees, had this been a textbook, would have addressed these putative defects.

But this, as his method makes clear, was not Wright's purpose. He finds room for topics ranging from the sexual relations of Jefferson and his slaves to the text of the Gettysburg address. If these offer grounds for criticism, the benefits deriving from personal views must also be considered. No reader, no matter how familiar with the period, will be fully familiar with the host of details, examples and illustrations amassed by Wright in the course of his study.

Wright has produced a work that justifies his many years of scholarship and, by virtue of its magnitude and vigour, makes it difficult to recognise their duration. It is unlikely that a comparable achievement will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future.

Peter Marshall is emeritus professor of American history and institutions, University of Manchester.

An Empire for Liberty

Author - Esmond Wright
ISBN - 1 55786 260 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00
Pages - 732

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