Is Gordon Wood a Trout Covered in Olive Oil?

Last week the New York Times ran an essay on a forthcoming book which will argue that the American Revolution was a direct result of the economic malaise in the colonies that followed the French and Indian War. The essay, entitled “The Housing Bubble and the American Revolution”, revisits some old historiographical debates. Was the American Revolution influenced by the economic self-interest of the American colonists, a view made popular by progressive historians such as Charles Beard and popularized today by neo-progressives such as Gary Nash and Edward Countryman? Or was it prompted by ideas about self-government, as argued by “neo-Whig” historians such as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood.

The essay’s discussion of American Revolution historiography might prove useful to undegraduates or graduate students. Scholars will be interested in this new book, written by University of Virginia economist Ronald Michener and NYU financial historian Robert Wright. (It will published soon by Yale University Press). History buffs will be intrigued by the comparison between the economic malaise of the 1760s and our present-day economic woes.

Yet what I found most interesting is the way these neo-Whigs and neo-progressive historians are still going at each other. Wood downplays the progressive view of the Revolution, as he has done for most of his career, suggesting that the “reigning interpretation” of the Revolution is still ideological. He also warns us about presentism and the temptation to compare the 1760s economic crisis in the colonies to our present day crisis: ““We are having a very serious crisis right now…but no one is talking about revolution.”

Countryman complains that Wood is hard to pin down, since he incorporates both neo-Whig (Bailyn) and progressive (Beard) views in his interpretation of the Revolution. The article notes that Countryman often tells his students that “trying to pin down Professor Wood is like trying to grab ‘a trout that is covered in olive oil.’”

And the debate continues.

P.S. I am curious–what view of the American Revolution seems most convincing to you? Are you are neo-Whig or a neo-progressive?

2 thoughts on “Is Gordon Wood a Trout Covered in Olive Oil?

  1. Last year at the AHA John Murrin presented a wonderful paper entitled “Self-Immolation,” which most clearly laid out the historiographic lines of debate regarding the coming of the American Revolution. Murrin’s title comes from his point that each school of thought began by rejecting another school’s insight, only to destroy itself eventually and end up affirming what it once denied.


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