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‘Empire of Liberty’ Delves Into Early U.S. History

December 1, 2009 at 5:46 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks to historian Gordon Wood about his new book "Empire of Liberty," which looks at the lasting legacy of early American history.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: the sweep of early American history, as told by one of today’s leading historians. Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1789, with the revolutionary period over, a new nation began to forge its own national identity, with new political and civil institutions and a new sense of the relationship between a government and its citizens. Suddenly, everything seemed possible, Gordon Wood writes in his new history of the era, “Empire of Liberty,” the latest volume in the “Oxford History of the United States.” Gordon Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of numerous books on early American history, is professor emeritus at Brown University. Welcome to you.

GORDON WOOD, author, “Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This sense of change and transformation as a theme, you even invoke Rip Van Winkle in the introduction, the idea that you go to sleep, you wake up, everything is new.

GORDON WOOD: Right. I think Irving felt that in his own lifetime. He wrote that in the second decade of the 19th century. And I think it’s expressing his own bewilderment at what had happened in his own lifetime. And the story, “Rip Van Winkle,” became the most popular of Irving’s stories. And, as a consequence I think people — it resonated with his readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: The questions at this time — this is the big stuff, right? This is the, what will this republic be like? Will it survive?


JEFFREY BROWN: What will it stand for?

GORDON WOOD: What should they call themselves? They experimented. Columbia, should it be Columbia, coinciding with the 1792 anniversary, or Freedonia? Freedonians, they would be. And, finally, they just ended up being Americans.

The popularization of politics

JEFFREY BROWN: In terms of the kinds of changes we saw, you write that -- and this is another theme -- that, by 1815, you say little worked out quite as the founders expected. What had changed? What had come to define the period that comes down to our own time?

GORDON WOOD: Well, I think most obvious was the popularization of politics, the democratization of politics. Ordinary people, in the North, in particular, were getting into positions of power. Simon Snyder, Pennsylvania, a man with no education, becomes governor of the state. And he's called a clodhopper by his opponents. And he turns that around as a badge of honor. Clodhoppers, vote for clodhopper. And he won his election. So, you have that kind of radical change, I think, in the popularization of politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's something very different from what the founders had thought in that era -- in that time before this.

GORDON WOOD: Expected, yes. They weren't opposed to rising up from, you know, social mobility, because they were all first-generation college graduates. But they did expect you to be a college graduate before you became governor of a state.

JEFFREY BROWN: And was there -- by the end of the period, after the War of 1812, you write that Americans thought they had finally -- Americans thought they had finally become a nation. I mean, was there -- there was an actual sense of an identity at that point?

GORDON WOOD: Oh, I think there was an identity crisis. And that comes out in the impressment problem. The British were impressing American sailors whom they thought had, you know, jumped ship and left the British navy to become American mariners. And they had a real reason to get them back. And, of course, they looked alike. They sounded alike. How do you distinguish yourself from the former cousins from the mother country? So, I think that was a real problem for Americans through the whole period. And impressment became the major reason why we went to war -- at least, President Madison said so -- why we went to war in -- in 1812.

Writing American history

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a big volume, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Who is it for? You know, I ask -- you have written a lot and thought a lot about the writing of history these days and the patterns of changing, of scholarship, and who reads history.

GORDON WOOD: It's for general readers, educated readers. It's not for the -- necessarily, for the other historians. It's for a general public. I think that's the goal of the "Oxford History" series, to reach out to a general public.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about for you? Is it a kind of summation of...

GORDON WOOD: I think it's a summation of certainly my understanding of the period over, you know, a half-century I have been working on history of this period. So, it's summarize -- it's supposed to summarize the scholarship of a generation. Now, the scholarship is being reproduced so rapidly, that that's probably not possible. But that I think is the goal, the ideal behind the "Oxford" series.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said you have -- you've been doing this for a long time...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... and this particular period.

GORDON WOOD: Well, this...

JEFFREY BROWN: But how has your understanding of -- of this period changed over time?

GORDON WOOD: Well, I have a greater appreciation for President Madison, for example, because he's not had a good press among historians, because he allowed the capital to be burned. The country was invaded. But he handled himself in the way he wanted to. He did not want to enlarge executive authority in a wartime situation. He was very keen on that. That was a major element in Madison's thinking, to get through the war without arresting anyone for seditious behavior. And he had every reason to do that, because New England was -- was acting treasonously.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you try to put it all -- all this knowledge together into one volume, what's the approach to telling such a large narrative, a sweeping story like this?

GORDON WOOD: Well, I think you have to have some kind of stem line, which is politics, usually. And the politics of this period is especially interesting, because you have the great characters, Hamilton and Jefferson, and Washington, and John Adams, and John Marshall. I mean, these are really heroic individuals. At the same time, you have these ordinary folk, like Simon Snyder, or Matthew Lyon, or William Findley, who nobody knows about, but they are the real politicians who are changing things, so to speak, under the -- underneath the great heroic characters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, and that goes to the changes in the writing of history and the scholarship as well, right, telling the stories of more than just the great leaders, but the social history, the cultural history.

GORDON WOOD: Right. You -- I tried to be as complete as possible, even a chapter on art and literature, painting, chapters on law and the development of the judiciary, slavery. Obviously, slavery is crucial through the whole period. So, you try to bring it all in. It's not easy.

The public's grasp of history

JEFFREY BROWN: So, are you -- I mean, I want to put you in a mode here of someone who has worked with young people and written for -- for a general audience for many years. How do you -- are you worried about our knowledge of, our awareness of, our reading of history these days?

GORDON WOOD: You mean...

JEFFREY BROWN: The American public...



GORDON WOOD: I think it's always a concern, I think, that we all have. I'm not sure that we have less understanding of our past now than we did...

JEFFREY BROWN: You're not?

GORDON WOOD: I don't think so. You know, if you went back and interviewed people in the 1930s, I'm not sure they would know any more about -- they may know that -- the commemorative events, which we do know now, too. I just -- I'm just not sure that we have lost our historical knowledge. There is a sense that that's true, but it may be the youngsters aren't getting it in high schools, and the -- or the grammar schools. But, at the college level, there's a good deal of history teaching going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a good deal of continued ferment in the writing of history?

GORDON WOOD: Oh, among the -- in the profession, yes. In the academic world, there's constant struggles and arguments and debates, and thousands of monographs coming out every year.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. This is the "Empire of Liberty." Gordon Wood, thanks so much for talking to us.

GORDON WOOD: Thank you.