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"Do you know the difference between a hedgehog and a fox?" asked Professor Emeritus of History Gordon Wood in a recent interview.

While the fox knows a lot of different things, the hedgehog knows only one major thing, Wood explained: "I'm a hedgehog."

The American Revolution expert recently wrote "Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815," the fourth book of the twelve-volume Oxford History of the United States.

"I've always been interested in the revolution and its consequences," he said, adding that he considers himself a colonialist.

Wood said he had the opportunity to work out the ideas in his book when he taught a class at Brown. "It's been with me for a long time," he said.

Each volume of the Oxford series, published since 1982, covers 25 years of American history. Wood said he was given free rein over the content of the book, except for its time period. When his editors requested that 100 pages on art and literature be cut, Wood said he spent four months cutting pages throughout the book. "That was hard to do," he said.

Wood calls the period covered in his book a time of "extraordinary transformations" and unprecedented democratization — the North abolished slavery and women's rights gained momentum. But the dreams of the revolutionaries were perverted, he said.

"It's a period of great instability. Culture becomes more vulgar. Drinking reaches an all-time high. The whole college scene, including Brown, experienced a series of riots. Nassau Hall was gutted by fire, presumably set by students. There's been nothing like that since," he said.

In the book, Wood said he challenges the perception that democratization didn't occur until the Jacksonian era.

"I think it happened much earlier," Wood said, "The Jacksonian era was one of consolidation."

The Founding Fathers held varied views on democratization. President Jefferson celebrated democratization while President John Adams was cynical about it, said Wood. While Jefferson never lost an election, Adams did.

"Many revolutionaries were disillusioned with what they had wrought," he said. "They were surprised by how popular and vulgar society had become. It took a new generation of leaders to come to terms with it."

Wood said he believes the Revolution is the most important event in American history because the country's noblest ideals emerged then.

"We go back to the revolution for our identity," he said, "We want to know where we came from." This shared identity, not individual ethnicity, is what holds Americans together, he said.

Wood said there are probably no immediate lessons to learn from history, but it is important to study where we come from to understand who we are.

"History teaches us humility," he said, "They lived with illusions and we live with illusions too."

He gained a new appreciation for President Madison's tenure while writing the book because Madison "refused to enhance executive power under wartime conditions," he said. "He has not had good press amongst historians."

At the moment, Wood said he is compiling some of his past essays and is working on a Library of America volume on Adams.

Wood, who retired last year, had for many years been the only scholar at Brown studying the period from Christopher Columbus to Jackson until Associate Professor of History Seth Rockman and Assistant Professor of History Linford Fisher joined the department.
Wood is about to embark on a book tour for his latest book.

"We don't expect just scholars to read it," he said. "We hope that it reaches an educated audience. Most books that historians write are monographic, but the Oxford series is designed for this."

Though the Oxford series is considered a stalwart, Wood said he believes there is nothing definitive in history.

"This may last for a couple of decades at most," he said. "It's not the end."


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