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

Jeffrey Brown talks to historian Gordon Wood about his new book "Empire of Liberty," which looks at the lasting legacy of early American history.

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  • 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?

  • GORDON WOOD:

    Right.

  • 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.

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