Why I Still Stand By My Gordon Wood Post

As some of you may recall, I wrote a post last week on Gordon Wood’s essay in The Weekly Standard.

I want to thank all the historians who e-mailed privately with encouraging words. I also realize that my post was not popular among many in my profession. The community of academic historians does not tolerate dissent very well.

The discussion was especially lively on my Facebook page.  Several historians criticized my post. Others defended the idea of the “nation” as a scholarly category that remains worthy of exploration.   Some offered very thoughtful critiques of Wood’s work, especially Radicalism.

I  re-read Wood’s essay the other day.  I still found some of it troublesome.  In my original post I suggested that Wood has failed to understand that historical work on race, class, and gender should be an essential part of any national narrative.  But I continue to think that very few practitioners of social and cultural American history seem to be making any effort to construct national narratives or even write in a way to convince the general public that this approach to doing history is largely correct.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  I am thinking here of Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. It is not really a “national narrative,” but it is certainly an attempt to explain the multicultural origins of the United States.  I am also thinking about the recent attempt by the College Board to bring some more diversity to the AP US History exam.

I still believe that if academic historians don’t like Wood’s founding-father driven national narratives, they should step up to the plate and start writing their own narratives before moaning and complaining.

As I reread Wood’s essay, I also realized why I agree with so much of its general sentiment.  For the last few decades Wood has been crusading against two related practices:  First, the practice of condemning the past because it fails to meet the moral standards of the present.  And second, the practice of using the past to promote political agendas in the present.

I realize that the study of history is politicized.  We cannot escape our present-day convictions when approaching the past.  But a historian should at least try to understand the past on its own terms.  This is what makes our work a discipline.  It takes hard work to lay aside our own agenda in order to understand people or places that are different.  Perhaps this is a naive approach, but it is still the way I approach my encounters with the past.  I learned this from reading Gordon Wood.

Though Wood often overstates his case and makes unnecessary swipes at younger historians, in the end he is correct.  I am not willing to go as far as Wood in saying that all practitioners of race, class, and gender history are guilty of superimposing their own values on the past.  In fact, a lot of the social history I have read conforms to the standards that Wood is setting out for us.  But if overt politicization of the past is happening, then it fails to respect what Wood calls the “pastness of the past” and may be a form of historical malpractice.

I also agree with Wood’s belief that historians must avoid using the past to promote political agendas in the present.  I have learned this lesson first-hand as I engage the entire Christian America crowd. Folks like David Barton and others cherry-pick from the past to argue that we are a Christian nation. Their politically-charged views of the past influence lawmakers and have a profound influence on public policy.  Similarly, those on the Left, such as the late Howard Zinn, do/did the same thing.

Most of the critics of Wood are offended by his remarks about social and cultural history.  They should be.  But let’s not miss his larger point about respecting the “pastness” of the past.

Addendum:  Again, some good discussion happening at my Facebook page.

7 thoughts on “Why I Still Stand By My Gordon Wood Post

  1. “I also agree with Wood's belief that historians must avoid using the past to promote political agendas in the present.” There's certainly a fine line there, but going too far out of the way to respect the “pastness of the past” runs the risk of ignoring the fact that the past continually influences the present.

    People like Barton appropriate (in bad faith) the past to push their present agendas, and by countering their arguments with reality backed by good scholarship, we, if not in intent then at least in function, are using the past to influence the present.

    Granted, historians should always maintain a certain distance (at least in scholarship) from contemporary politics. That said, however, historians' knowledge of the past makes them uniquely qualified to comment on the present. How many false notions held by millions of Americans, for example, are the result of a poor understanding of history, and a poor understanding of how the past shaped many modern issues?

    The idea of “staying above the fray” entirely strikes me as noble, but not especially realistic, and doing so denies historians the chance to influence public policy debate in a way that would greatly benefit our current political system.

    Perhaps it really is a generational thing. Wood’s essay makes some good points, but his criticism seems ill targeted and, frankly, outdated. For example, is saying that white supremacy in large part driove Manifest Destiny a criticism of the past just because such a statement is true? I suppose so, but then again, it's worth pointing out that white supremacy was a bad thing (some people in the 19th century even thought so), and it’s important to emphasize why it was a bad thing in the past so that we can help tamp down on present-day attempts to revive it.

    So again, historians should certainly use discretion when critiquing the past, but they shouldn’t be afraid to invoke the past, when appropriate, to influence the present.


  2. Others defended the idea of the “nation” as a scholarly category that remains worthy of exploration.

    Richard Rorty called attention to the elephant in the room back in 1994. It was not well-received.


    But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of “the politics of difference,” it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism. Pluralism is the attempt to make America what the philosopher John Rawls calls “a social union of social unions,” a community of communities, a nation with far more room for difference than most. Multiculturalism is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.

    Academic leftists who are enthusiastic about multiculturalism distrust the recent proposal by Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, to hold televised town meetings to “explore the meaning of American identity.” Criticizing Mr. Hackney on this page on Jan. 30, Richard Sennett, a distinguished social critic, wrote that the idea of such an identity is just “the gentlemanly face of nationalism,” and speaks of “the evil of a shared national identity.”

    If we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways. If American leftists cease to be proud of being the heirs of Emerson, Lincoln and King, Irving Howe's prophecy that “the 'newness' will come again” — that we shall once again experience the joyous self-confidence which fills Emerson's “American Scholar” — is unlikely to come true.

    If in the interests of ideological purity, or out of the need to stay as angry as possible, the academic left insists on a “politics of difference,” it will become increasingly isolated and ineffective. An unpatriotic left has never achieved anything. A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country's politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt.


  3. Well put, Ben. I agree. I was troubled by the “some scholars who do the latter as well.” The *Weekly Standard* piece is unfortunate. But I think even that piece has a bit of truth in it. Thanks for commenting.


  4. I don't see why Gordon Wood can't be correct and incorrect at the same time. He can be respected for his work as a historian and also arouse anger through his disdainful reviews. If there's an academic consensus about Wood it is 1) that he has written valuable books and has taught us valuable things about the practice of history, 2) that these aren't the only works of American history one should read (which applies to every history book ever written), and 3) that it's rather poor form to write such savage reviews about more junior scholars, and stereotype the entire profession with such a broad brush. Condemning Wood for his remarks in the Weekly Standard piece isn't the same as condemning Wood's entire oeuvre, though there are some scholars who do the latter as well.


  5. Great quote, Ben. I agree with it. But it seems to be only one side of the historian's work. (I made this argument in my *Why Study History*). Wood offers a caution for those who want to make the past so useable that it loses its “pastness.”


  6. “I can think of no bramble bush more thorny than the difficulty problem of relating past and present. It is not incumbent upon all historians to do so. it is more or less appropriate, depending upon the subject under investigation. It is more or less desirable, depending upon the temperament of the individual historian…. There has never been a consensus among astute historians concerning the meaning of history and historical knowledge for those living in the present. … Over the past three generations or so, historians (a great many of them at least) have moved from the quest for a 'usable past' to a profound respect for the 'pastness of the past.' On the whole, that has been a salutary swing, although I do not believe that we ought to discard entirely a judicious concern for usable pasts.” Michael Kammen, “Historical Knowledge and Understanding,” _Selvages and Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture_ (Ithaca, NY, 1987), 58-61.


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