On July 4, 2020, Tom Mackaman and David North of the World Socialist Web Site hosted a conversation on the American Revolution with American historians Gordon Wood, Richard Carwardine, Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, and James Oakes.
On July 4, 2020, Tom Mackaman and David North of the World Socialist Web Site hosted a conversation on the American Revolution with American historians Gordon Wood, Richard Carwardine, Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, and James Oakes.
The historians participating include Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Richard Cawardine, James Oakes, Gordon Wood, and Tom Mackaman. The conversation, moderated by Mackaman and World Socialist Web Site’s David North, will live-stream at 1:30pm EDT.
Here is the press release:
The American Revolution of 1775-1783 and the Civil War of 1861-1865 rank among the most momentous events in shaping the political, social and intellectual history of the modern world. The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, established the United States on the principle that “all men are created equal.” This first Revolution set into motion socio-economic and political processes that led to the Civil War—the Second American Revolution, which abolished slavery.
In the present, a time of social crisis and uncertainty, the first and second Revolutions are the subject of intense controversy. The World Socialist Web Site will be celebrating the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by hosting a discussion with five eminent historians, Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Richard Carwardine, James Oakes and Gordon Wood. They will assess the Revolutions in the context of their times as well as their national and global consequences. Finally, the discussants will consider the possible implications of contemporary debates over the nature of the Revolutions for the future of the United States and the world.
This event will be streamed live throughout the world on July 4th at 1:30 pm EDT at wsws.org/live.
For those unfamiliar, all of the historians participating in this conversation have been critical of The New York Times 1619 Project. A good way to get some larger context is to listen to our interview with Mackaman in Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.
Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Someone sent it to me recently.
I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.
Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way. Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.
Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.
Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes. In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men, the Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.
The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolution, the French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).
Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.
In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.
In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality. But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”
We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.
Read all our posts on The New York Times 1619 Project here.
But here’s what’s most important. Those of us who value the 1619 Project can reclaim our “teachable moment” by excavating beneath the heated rhetoric. There we will discover that the journalists and the historians embrace conflicting but equally valuable historical truths regarding slavery’s power to shape our nations past and present. I will soon articulate why this is so and what we can learn as a result.
First, however, we must move beyond the conflict that erupted when Wilentz, joined by James M. McPherson, Gordon Wood, James Oakes, and Victoria Bynum, eminent scholars all, forgot that they also have an obligation to serve us as educators, not as censors. By so harshly attacking credibility of the 1619 Project in their letter to The New York Times, they squandered the “teachable moment” that the Project itself intended to create. Instead, these scholars appointed themselves gatekeepers charged with the heavy enforcement of their personal versions of high academic “standards.”
Instead of constructively dissenting and inviting dialogue, they berated the 1619 journalists for pushing “politically correct” distortions grounded in Afro-centric bias. “The displacement of historical understanding by ideology” is how one of them phrased it. They demanded retractions, worked assiduously (and failed) to recruit scholars of color to their cause, and sent their complaints directly to the top three editors of the Times and its Publisher A.G Sulzberger. That looks a lot like bullying. Dialogue dies when one contending party publicly attempts to undercut the other with his/her bosses.
Read the entire piece here.
Social media historians (and some non-historians who are advancing informed and not-so-informed opinions) are going crazy. While many ague based on historical evidence and best practices, there is clearly a political dimension to all of this. The 1619 Project has led to some good conversations on race and slavery in the United States. It has also exacerbated political divisions in the discipline over how to do history in the 21st century and how the study of the past informs competing visions of American identity. And yes, as Annette Gordon-Reed tweets, personalities are involved.
Politics and personalities.
— Annette Gordon-Reed (@agordonreed) January 24, 2020
There were two major salvos yesterday.
…many scholars initially greeted 1619 with excitement and effusive praise. In part, I suspect that this was because the basic impulse behind the collection of eighteen articles and many additional short essays—by journalists, historians, sociologists, poets, legal scholars, English professors, artists, playwrights, and novelists—reflects how many, if not most, American historians already teach about that past in the undergraduate classroom….
So why the hostile, if somewhat belated, reaction? Here I admit to being perplexed—hence my initial hesitation to wade into the debate. The initial caveats came from an unlikely precinct, at least for a mainstream public intellectual knock-down, drag-out. In early September, the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) fired a broadside at the Times, denouncing the 1619 Project as “a politically motivated falsification of history” designed, in their view, to bolster the Democratic Party’s alignment with “identity politics” at the expense of any serious engagement with class inequality. This attack came not from the expected quarters of the right, which one imagines would find offensive and unpatriotic the denigration of the American promise as irredeemably racist, but from the Trotskyist left. As good Marxists, the adherents of the Fourth International denounced the project for its “idealism,” that is to say, its tendency to reduce historical causation to “a supra-historical emotional impulse.” By mischaracterizing anti-black racism as an irreducible element built into the “DNA” of the nation and its white citizens, the Trotskyists declared, the 1619 Project is ahistorical and “irrationalist.” This idealist fallacy requires that racism “must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions,” naturally the very thing that any materialist historian would want to attend to. “The invocation of white racism,” they proclaim, “takes the place of any concrete examination of the economic, political and social history of the country.” Perhaps even worse, “the 1619 Project says nothing about the event that had the greatest impact on the social condition of African-Americans—the Russian Revolution of 1917.”4 (Well, OK, I was with them up to that point.) In some ways, the debate merely reprises one fought out nearly half a century ago: Which came first, racism or slavery? Who is right, Winthrop Jordan or Edmund Morgan?5
But that, it turns out, was merely the opening salvo. In October and November, the ICFI began to post a series of interviews with historians about the 1619 Project on its “World Socialist Web Site,” including (as of January 11) Victoria Bynum (October 30), James McPherson (November 14), James Oakes (November 18), Gordon Wood (November 28), Dolores Janiewski (December 23), and Richard Carwardine (December 31).6 As many critics hastened to note, all of these historians are white. In principle, of course, that should do nothing to invalidate their views. Nevertheless, it was a peculiar choice on the part of the Trotskyist left, since there are undoubtedly African American historians—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—sympathetic to their views. Barbara Fields comes immediately to mind, as she has often made similarly critical appraisals of idealist fallacies about the history of “race” and racism.7
If these scholars all concern themselves in one way or another with historical dilemmas of race and class, they hardly are cut from the same cloth. Bynum, best known for her attention to glimmers of anti-slavery sentiment among southern whites, some of which was driven by class grievances, doesn’t always take the Trotskyists’ bait. For example, she points out that “we cannot assume that individual [southern] Unionists were anti-slavery,” even if they “at the very least connected slavery to their own economic plight in the Civil War era.” Similarly, McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, acknowledges in his interview that initially most Union Army soldiers fought to “revenge an attack on the flag.” (As the Green-Wood memorial indicates, that’s how many chose to remember it as well.) Still, McPherson complains that the 1619 Project consists of “a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lack[s] context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Yet it is safe to say that he would not sign on to the Marxist version of the Civil War preferred by the ICFI—“the greatest expropriation of private property in world history, not equaled until the Russian Revolution in 1917.”8
McPherson insists in his interview that “opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.” Sure, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dozen historians who could say, with confidence, yes, but on balance, slavery and racism themselves have probably been just as, if not more, important. In his interview, Oakes, one of the most sophisticated historians of the rise of the nineteenth-century Republican Party and its complex place within an emergent anti-slavery coalition, offers a bracing critique of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, scholarship that underpins sociologist Matthew Desmond’s contribution to 1619. But other than gamely defending Lincoln against the charge of racism, Oakes doesn’t really direct much fire at the 1619 Project in particular. For his part, Wood (described by the Trotskyists as “the leading historian of the American Revolution”) seems affronted mostly by the failure of the 1619 Project to solicit his advice, and appears offended by the suggestion that the Revolutionary generation might have had some interest in protecting slavery. Yet, oddly enough, even he seems to endorse what has become one of the project’s most controversial assertions—that “[Lord] Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots.” Those are Wood’s words, and they are part of his wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of the place of anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment in the Revolutionary era and the Revolutionary Atlantic World more generally.
Taken as a whole, the interviews are of enormous interest, but more for what they have to say about these scholars’ own interpretations of key aspects of American history than as a full-on attack on the 1619 Project. Reading closely, one sees the interviewed historians trying to avoid saying what the Trotskyists would like them to say, offering a far more nuanced view of the past. This certainly entails dissent from some of the specific claims of 1619, but it hardly requires them to embrace fully the Trotskyist alternative, which I suspect at least several of them would be reluctant to do. Frankly, I wish the AHR had published these interviews, and I hope they get wide circulation. Not for the critique of the 1619 Project itself, but because collectively they insist on the significance of historical context, the careful weighing of evidence, the necessity of understanding change over time, and the potential dangers of reductionism. I would urge anyone to read them.
Read the entire piece here. Lichtenstein respects the critics of the 1619 Project who were interviewed at World Socialist Web Site, but he was not overly impressed by the letter these critics wrote to The New York Times.
Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.
This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding(2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republicand has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”
On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.
In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution(2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804(2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.
Read the entire piece here.
Whatever you think of Waldstreicher’s article, it is a wonderful overview of revolutionary-era historiography. Graduate students take note.
Some of you will remember Sean Wilentz‘s letter to The New York Times criticizing the newspaper’s 1619 Project. You can read it here. The letter is signed by Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. With the exception of Wilentz, all of these American historians criticized the 1619 Project at the World Socialist Web Site.
After the publication of the letter, journalist Adam Serwer wrote a piece at The Atlantic titled, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project is Not About the Facts.” The subtitle reads: “A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine‘s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”
Today The Atlantic published a longer piece by Wilentz on the subject. Here is a taste of piece “A Matter of Facts“:
The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.
To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.
On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.
The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.
No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.
Read the entire rest here. Whatever one thinks about Wilentz’s argument, it is hard to say that he is not making a case based on historical facts or offering a critique of the 1619 Project that is within the bounds of historical inquiry.
Over at The Atlantic, David Serwer tells the story behind the opposition to the project coming from historians Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and James Oakes. These historians recently published a letter criticizing the project. Here is a taste:
Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.
In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.
Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.
Read the entire piece here.
And now the same website has published an interview with historian Gordon Wood.
Here is a taste of the interview:
Q. The 1619 Project claims basically that nothing has ever gotten any better. That it’s as bad now as it was during slavery, and instead what you’re describing is a very changed world…
A. Imagine the inequalities that existed before the Revolution. Not just in wealth—I mean, we have that now—but in the way in which people were treated. Consider the huge number of people who were servants of some kind. I just think that people need to know just how bad the Ancién Regime was. In France, we always had this Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities view of the society, with a nobleman riding through the village and running over children and so on. But similar kinds of brutalities and cruelties existed in the English-speaking world in the way common people were treated. In England, there must have been 200 capital crimes on the books. Consequently, juries became somewhat reluctant to convict to hanging a person for stealing a handkerchief. So the convict was sent as a bonded servant to the colonies, 50,000 of them. And then when the American Revolution occurs, Australia becomes the replacement.
I don’t think people realize just what a cruel and brutal world existed in the Ancién Regime, in the premodern societies of the West, not just for slaves, but for lots of people who were considered the mean or lowly sort. And they don’t appreciate what a radical message is involved in declaring that all men are created equal and what that message means for our obsession with education, and the implications of that for our society.
Read the entire interview here.
I love reading Gordon Wood book reviews. I don’t always agree with him, but sometimes I do. Whether I agree with him or not, I must admit that I sometimes take guilty pleasure in watching him whip academic historians into a frenzy with his long and provocative reviews that often challenge historiographical orthodoxy.
At the age of eighty-five he is still going strong, as evidenced from his recent review of books by Sean Wilentz and Andrew Delbanco at The New Republic.
I like Wood’s reviews so much because he always frames them in a larger historiographical conversations. His reviews were invaluable to me in graduate school as I tried to make sense of hundreds of books I needed to read for my comprehensive exams.
In this latest review, Wood shows how Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding and Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War challenge what he calls a “Neo-Garrisonian” view of slavery and the coming of the Civil War.
Here is a taste:
In October 2017, President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, declared that “a lack of an ability to compromise” brought on the Civil War. This remark outraged a number of historians, who told The Washington Post they thought it “strange,” “highly provocative,” and “kind of depressing,” something that was out of touch with current historical research. Kelly’s interpretation carried echoes of a revisionist explanation of the causes of the Civil War that was popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Commonly known as the “blundering generation” interpretation, it held that the sectional conflict arose not from a fundamental disagreement over slavery but from the squabbling of politicians whose demagoguery and fanaticism eventually undermined the political system.
Few historians pay attention any more to the blundering generation interpretation. Not only did it play into the hands of Southern apologists, by implying that slavery was not the fundamental source of the conflict, but it also played down the substantial differences between the societies of the North and South that slavery had created. Most academic historians today no longer think of the abolitionists as fanatical agitators, stirring up hostility between the sections. Instead, they have become the heroes of their narratives. Indeed, many have come to accept the view of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that America’s entire political system was riddled with the evils of slavery, beginning with its founding document. The Constitution, Garrison declared, was “a covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell.”
In a like manner, many present-day historians have contended that the border between the slave South and the free North was not as sharp as we are apt to think. Not only were the North and South economically interdependent, but they shared in the exploitative nature of American capitalism. Despite the fact that the Southern slaveholding planters thought of themselves as anything but bourgeois capitalists, their slave system, scholars such as Sven Beckert and Edward E. Baptist now claim, was just as capitalistic as the industrial system of the North. Northerners as well as Southerners are now seen as thoroughly implicated in the terrible business of slavery, morally as well as economically. It was not just the South that was morally flawed; the North was just as racist, just as antagonistic to black people, as the South.
This is all part of a determined effort by current scholars to ensure that the North bear its share of blame for slavery and for race relations in the nation. They emphasize that Northern delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were equally involved with Southerners in the compromises that protected slavery in the Constitution and helped to make it “an agreement with hell.” Northerners agreed to the three-fifths representation of slaves in the Congress and the Electoral College. And, most lamentably, they accepted the clause in Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution that declared that persons held in service or labor in one state who escaped to another state had to be returned to those to whom such service or labor was due.
In all their subsequent compromises over slavery, white Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, displayed what Ta-Nehisi Coates today calls a “craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people.” The North tended to appease the South at every turn and effectively tolerated Southern dominance of the national government during the antebellum period. Present-day scholars suggest that the North bears nearly as much responsibility for the persistence of slavery as the South. That’s why no one should try to claim that North and South were two distinct societies. The whole nation was guilty.
This is the gist of prevailing neo-Garrisonian scholarship dealing with antebellum America. In different and subtle ways both Sean Wilentz’sNo Property in Manand Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War seek to challenge this scholarship—but not return to the revisionist interpretation of the mid-twentieth century. Both Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, and Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia, accept without question that slavery was at the heart of the sectional conflict. They offer no apology whatsoever for the Confederacy and its system of racial slavery. But both do aim to correct and refine what they believe are some of the crudities in the current interpretations, which have had the unintended effects of reviving a Southern view of the Constitution and of blurring in their own ways the differences between the societies of the North and the South.
Read the rest here.
Yesterday we posted an Author’s Corner interview with Stephen Brumwell, author of Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty.
Over at The Weekly Standard, Gordon Wood reviews the book. Here is a taste:
It was once common knowledge, the story of Benedict Arnold—that extraordinarily successful patriot general who abruptly turned against the American Revolution. Because he had been so trusted by George Washington, Arnold was regarded as the worst of traitors. Indeed, his very name became synonymous with treachery and treason. Not so anymore. Nowadays many young Americans have no idea who Arnold was, and even those who have vaguely heard of the name have little sense of what he did and why “Benedict Arnold” has been a byword for betrayal through much of our history.
This loss of memory comes in part from a changing view of the revolution. In the hands of present-day teachers and professors the revolution is no longer the glorious cause it once was. It is now mostly taught—when it is taught at all—as a tale of woe and oppression, redressing what many academics believe was an overemphasis on the patriotism of great white men. “Those marginalized by former histories,” writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor in a recent introduction to current scholarship, “now assume centrality as our stories increasingly include Native peoples, the enslaved, women, the poor, Hispanics, and the French as key actors.” In his own narrative of the revolution, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Taylor has painted a bleak picture of the event. Most of the patriots were not quite as patriotic as we used to think. The Southern planters, for example, engaged in the revolution principally to protect their property in enslaved Africans, but “implausibly blamed the persistence of slavery on the British.” Ordinary white men were even worse. In the West, where the fighting was especially vicious and bloody, they tended to run wild and slaughter Indians in pursuit of their “genocidal goals.” In the end, writes Taylor, it was a white man’s revolution whose success came at the expense of everyone else—blacks, Indians, and women.
No doubt this dark and sordid side of the revolution needs to be exposed. But unfortunately, this exposure has become so glaringly dominant nowadays that there is little room for the older, more patriotic story to be appreciated. Modern scholars haven’t gone so far as to describe Benedict Arnold as a hero for turning against this rather squalid and nasty revolution—after all, the side to which he defected was by their standards of judgment not appreciably different from the side he left—but since patriotism doesn’t have the appeal it used to have, Arnold’s treason seems not to matter as much anymore.
Yet of course it does matter, which is all the more reason to welcome another account of Arnold’s career, written, as many of the best and most readable histories of the revolution are written these days, by an independent scholar who is not caught up in the academic world’s obsessions with race and gender.
Read the entire piece here.
Whatever you think of Gordon Wood and his scholarship (I am a fan of his scholarship and writing style), it seems as if he cannot review a book these days without turning it into a diatribe on a field that appears to have left him behind. This is a really good review, but it is odd that Wood has to frame it in this fashion.
The Atlantic asks a “big question“: “What was the most influential act of protest in history?” The magazine have asked historians and others to answer this question. Here are some of the answers:
The Stamp Act (This was Gordon Wood)
Pakistan’s 1930 “Army of Peace”
Randy Kehler’s protest against the Vietnam War
Rosa Parks refusal to move to the back of the bus
The Newburgh Conspiracy
The 1980s U.K. miner’s strike
How would you answer this question? You can send your answer to The Atlantic here
JF: What led you to write Friends Divided?
GW: I had just edited three volumes of writings of John Adams for the Library of America and planned to write a book on Adams. My editor at Penguin-Random House, Scott Moyers, asked, why not write on both Adams and Jefferson? The suggestion was intriguing and that’s how the book began.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Friends Divided?
GW: The two patriots, Adams and Jefferson, could not be more different. They represent the strains of conservatism and liberalism in American life, and yet they became friends, divided friends who reconciled late in life.
JF: Why do we need to read Friends Divided?
GW: I think reading the book will give a reader a heightened idea of the difference between conservatism and liberalism in our culture. It will also show why we Americans ultimately have come to honor Jefferson and not Adams.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GW: I originally intended to join the foreign service, but three bizarre years of experience in the USAF convinced me that I would not enjoy working for the government; so instead I applied to graduate school to study history, which I had always been interested in.
JF: What is your next project?
GW: I am not sure what my next project might be. I first have to go on a book tour to promote this book.
JF: Thanks, Gordon!
Check out Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on Barack Obama’s use of history during his presidency. Here is a taste:
True, Mr. Obama may be unlikely to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and follow his years in the Oval Office with a stint as president of the American Historical Association. But some scholars see in him a man who used the presidency not just as a bully pulpit but also as something of a historian’s lectern.
And he wielded it, they say, to tell a story more strikingly in sync with the bottom-up view of history that dominates academic scholarship than with the biographies of great leaders that rule the best-seller list.
“Obama had these confabs with the presidential historians, but I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, referring to the regular dinners Mr. Obama held with leading historians in the early years of his presidency. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”
Obama should be praised for his use of history in his speeches. His usable past is a complicated one. Grossman is correct. Obama thinks like a social historian. He gave a lot of attention to what happened at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. But Obama also thinks like an American intellectual historian. He is a historian of ideas and ideals. When he talks about the common good he sounds a lot like Gordon Wood and the civic humanist tradition. He calls for sacrifice and what the founders called virtue.
In the end, Obama used the past a lot. But let’s remember that he was a politician and a POTUS who used the past to serve his progressive agenda. The fact that most of the historical profession believes that Obama’s progressive approach to history is correct does not make this point any less irrelevant.
Finally, I think we need to acknowledge the great irony of the Obama presidency as it relates to history and history education. For all his magnificent invocations of the American past, Obama did virtually nothing practical to promote the teaching and learning of history. Let’s face it, Barack Obama was a STEM president and the history community and the American democracy that he loves so much is weaker because of this.
Writing in The New York Times, Gordon Wood described Taylor’s work this way:
A major legacy of the Revolution, he concludes, was the emergence of a society dominated by ordinary middle-class white men, the very people he has most criticized as patriarchal, racist and genocidal. In Taylor’s mind their victory seems to have come at the expense of others. By focusing on common white men, he maintains, the Revolution worked against blacks, Indians and women. The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?
And here is Eric Herschthal at Slate:
Taylor…gives a central role to women, blacks, and Native Americans in determining the war’s fate. The wives and daughters of Patriot soldiers took over the shops, farms, and slave plantations of those who left to fight. For the first time in their lives, white women became public participants in politics, organizing boycotts and participating in street protests.
Indeed, Taylor’s new book is not your traditional Whig history of the American Revolution. If the reviews I read are correct, Taylor gives due attention to women, blacks, frontier settlers, and Native Americans, making these groups important actors in the story. (I discussed, and praised, Taylor’s similar approach to the colonial period in Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past). Since I have not yet read American Revolutions, I don’t know how Taylor covers the so-called “founding fathers.” I am guessing that few reviewers, especially historians of a progressive bent, will say much about his treatment of these white men.
But for those who have not yet read the book, I think we get a glimpse of how Taylor treats the founders’ ideas from his recent piece at the American Scholar titled “The Virtue of an Education Voter.”
A lot of folks on my social media feeds are criticizing Gordon Wood’s review of the book (perhaps rightly so–Wood writes with his usual crankiness), but in this American Scholar piece Taylor sounds a lot like Wood in The Creation of the American Republic. Taylor focuses on the role that “virtue” and the common good played in the founders’ thinking, particularly as it relates to their belief in an educated citizenry. Like Wood, Taylor argues that this kind of self-sacrificial virtue was important to the founders.
But Taylor also writes prescriptively about the founders’ belief in the importance of virtue. In other words, he suggests that the founders were correct when they called for a virtuous republic built upon an educated citizenry. He tries to resuscitate these civic humanist arguments and employ them in our current debates over the funding of education.
Perhaps there is more Gordon Wood in Taylor’s book than some reviewers would like to admit.
Here is a taste of Taylor’s essay:
We have come to think and speak of education as primarily economic (rather than political) and individual (rather than social) in its rewards. As a consequence, growing numbers of voters care only for the education of their own children. These conceptual and rhetorical shifts lead legislators to wonder why taxpayers should pay for the education of others—particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color. If only the individual, rather than society as a whole, benefits from education, let the student bear the cost of it: so runs the new reasoning.
During every recession, state governments make budget cuts, and public colleges and universities become the tempting, soft targets. That temptation grows when states feel pinched by rising costs for Medicaid and prisons (places stuffed with the poorly educated). By reducing public support for colleges and universities, legislators and governors induce them to increase the tuition and fees that students pay. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student. During the same period, tuition has risen by 33 percent. The University of California system is the largest in the nation. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the state of California provided a quarter of the system’s budget in 2002. After a billion dollars in cuts, the state now pays for just nine percent of the system’s costs, yet legislators howl in outrage when university administrators admit more out-of-state and foreign students, who can be charged twice as much as in-state students. The same game is playing out in every state.
Increasingly reliant on loans to cover the cost of higher education, students have assumed alarming levels of debt: an estimated $1.3 trillion owed by 42 million Americans. According to the August issue of Consumer Reports, graduates this year average $37,000 in debt per student. The debt burden puts a drag on the overall economy and society, as thousands of graduates delay buying a home or having children. Increasingly, young people from middle-class families question whether attending college is worth the cost.
As a country, we are in retreat from the Jefferson and Peck dream of equal educational opportunity for all. And the future social costs will be high. Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.
Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits. But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders. Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.
Americans lost something valuable when we forsook “virtue” as a goal for education and a foundation for free government. In 1950, a Harvard committee published an influential report titled General Education in a Free Society. The authors wrote that “our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and … a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” But the report struggled to define the “common beliefs” best taught by modern American universities. In the 19th century, most colleges had promoted a patriotism linked to Protestant Christianity. But in our own century, no one creed seems capable of encompassing the diverse backgrounds and values of American students. We also balk at empowering any public institution to teach a particular political orthodoxy. The sole common ground is a celebration of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” where every individual can pick and choose her or his values. Secular universities preach just one core value: the open and free investigation of multiple ideas. Liberal education now favors a process of free choice rather than any other particular belief.
We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeking power through bluster and bombast and pandering to the self-interest of members of the electorate. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He supposedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Read the entire piece here.
Over at the website of The Library of America (the real LOA, not the Randall Stephens version), historian Gordon Wood discusses the life of John Adams. Wood is the editor of John Adams: Writings from the New Nation, 1784-1826.
In this part of the interview, Wood discusses Adams’s view of “American exceptionalism.”
LOA: It has become a commonplace in American politics today to call the United States an exceptional nation. Would Adams have agreed?
Wood: Jefferson believed that the United States was a chosen nation with a special responsibility to spread democracy around the world. More than any other figure in our history Jefferson is responsible for the idea of American exceptionalism. Adams could not have disagreed more. Deeply versed in history, he said over and over that America had no special providence, no special role in history, that Americans were no different from other peoples, that the United States was just as susceptible to viciousness and corruption as any other nation. In this regard, at least, Jefferson’s vision has clearly won the day.
Read the entire interview here.
Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. For his previous posts click here. Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012). Enjoy–JF
My third day at OAH 2016 included a real treat. Not often does a session unite three of my historical passions: documentary editing, the U.S. presidency, and the history of education. “Presidents and Patronage,” however, did just that. Exploring patronage in a broader sense than job appointments (a dismal task that I know ate up much of James Polk’s time and patience), editors from the papers of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson told us some of their exciting discoveries about these men’s lesser-known activities.
I was glad to hear all the panelists, plus the commentator and audience, discuss not only the first three presidents but also the nuts and bolts of a documentary editor’s job. Few people, after all, really know what it is we do. We do not, as some may guess, abridge nonfiction films. Rather, we prepare published editions (in print or online) of primary sources, usually the papers or letters of a major historical figure. As a result, if you wish to draw on the writings of Washington, Adams, or Jefferson, you need not travel to numerous archives, decipher terrible handwriting on water-damaged sheets, and research every “Mr. Brown” mentioned. The panelists have located, transcribed, and annotated the documents so that you just reach to a bookshelf or navigate to a website.
Neal Millikan, discussing the field, focused on the task of identifying major stories for each volume of the Washington Papers. Though the documents address numerous topics, finding the main plot line helps to guide document selection, annotation, and of course writing jacket copy at the end. Dr. Millikan, currently working on the last—the last!—volume in the presidential series, found that plot line for the first president’s final six months in office to involve his concern with the building of Washington, D.C. Worried that it might not be complete by 1800, as required by law, he anxiously corresponded with the commissioners overseeing it. Millikan mentioned what Washington described as a “jocular letter from the Capitol”: a missive from a relative, written from the perspective of Congress’s future building, that lamented no one’s seeming to care about it. The president probably got both a laugh and a pang out of that.
Sara Georgini explained that an indexing dilemma led to further insight into John Adams’s accomplishments while a commissioner to the United Kingdom in the 1780s. (Her remarks touched a chord among the editors in the room, on and off the panel, who shared their own frustration with the crucial but challenging job of indexing an edition.) The Adams Papers try to index his doings as public and private activities, but he did much on the border between those two. This helped Ms. Georgini to discover, and to show through the documents, the importance of Adams’s working on the fringe of formal diplomacy to bend European intellectuals toward support of U.S. culture. She dubbed the job “cultural diplomacy.”
Ellen Hickman, after agreeing on the challenge of indexing Adams, moved the discussion to Jefferson’s efforts in 1818–19—the period of volume 13 of the Jefferson Retirement Series, due out next January—to get Virginia to establish its state university at Charlottesville. She shared the sentiment (with which I’m well familiar) that whichever documentary volume one has just been immersed in seems the most important in the series. But this one, she promised us, really is the most important (until volume 14). Jefferson stepped out of his “self-focused” retirement to engage once more in public life, though trying his best to stay invisible to the public eye. When the legislature created a committee to plan the university, he completed its report before the committee met; later he, anonymously, authored the bill that located UVA at Charlottesville.
As commentator, Gordon Wood heaped well-deserved praise on all three speakers. Reminding us of the sad fact that most historical monographs are forgotten within a few years of publication (thank you, UVa Press, for displaying mine here nearly four years later!), he pointed out that the editions that Millikan, Georgini, and Hickman produce will nourish scholarship and bring primary sources to students and others for many decades to come. Their massive knowledge, gained through close study of their presidents’ writings and broad study of their context, make them sound like they know these men personally. Dr. Wood might even have added that the editors know them better than almost any of the presidents’ contemporaries. Few if any friends learned their thoughts about every topic on which they ever wrote.
My summary does not do justice to the three papers or to Wood’s commentary. I’ve highlighted their insights about the job of editing historical documents, but of course they went into much more depth about their historical findings. Hopefully, as Wood urged, all three panelists will publish their papers as articles. Whether they do or not, they’ve shown us just a few of the fascinating nuggets we can mine in their editions. So explore those editions, online or on paper, and use them in your research or classroom!
Start with the indexes.
Scott Porch of the Los Angeles Review of Books recently interviewed historian Gordon Wood about his new Library of America edited collection, The American Revolution: Writings From the Pamphlet Debate, 1764-1776.
Porch asked Wood how he first learned that his name was invoked by the Matt Damon character (Will Hunting) in a scene from the move Good Will Hunting:
Historian Gordon Wood has edited one of the most recent volumes of the Library of America. The two-volume boxed set is entitled The American Revolution: Writings From the Pamphlet Debate, 1764-1776.
Over at the blog of the Library of America, Wood discusses some of his editorial choices. Here is a taste of that interview:
LOA: The new Library of America set collects thirty-nine of the more than one thousand pamphlets that appeared between 1764 and 1776. What were your main criteria for the selections you finally settled on?
GW: The key criterion was the importance of the pamphlet in advancing the debate. The goal in assembling this collection was to provide readers with a clear sense of how the polemical contest over the relationship between the British government and the colonies emerged and escalated until the final rupture in 1776. To do this, it was essential to include pamphlets published in England as well as in America, because they often spoke directly to one another.
It is one of the ironies of the American Revolution that the colonies had closer ties to the mother country in this period than they had ever had before, and this is nowhere more evident than in the pamphlet debate. These texts were part of a lively transatlantic discourse in which pamphlets published in Boston or Philadelphia soon appeared in London and were quickly reprinted, and vice versa. Distinguishing these writers as “British” and “American” can be tricky, too. Englishman Thomas Paine had been resident in the colonies for only fourteen months when he wrote Common Sense, the most influential expression of the “American” position, while Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who in two pamphlets gathered here presents the “British” position as forcefully as any writer, had deep ancestral roots in the Bay Colony. Finally, I took into account the historical significance of the authors. For some writers, like Thomas Jefferson, the pamphlet debate marked their emergence on the scene; for others like Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, it afforded an opportunity to display their unique rhetorical gifts.
LOA: For a general reader, one of the discoveries here is a nuanced debate about “virtual” versus “actual” representation that sows the seeds for what became the American Revolution. What made that debate so important for later events in our history—and did it have consequences for Great Britain’s political development as well?
GW: The pamphlet debate revealed the extent to which American ideas about representation had diverged from British. Because of the manifest impracticality of the colonies sending representatives to Parliament, defenders of parliamentary authority over the colonies were forced to clarify as never before the idea of virtual representation, which held that Parliament represents the interests of the empire regardless of how or from where its members were selected. This became the primary philosophical difference that animated the controversy. Americans going back to the colonial period have always thought of the electoral process as the principal criterion of representation, and we have generally believed that representation has to be in proportion to population. That is why we have usually placed great importance on expanding suffrage and on bringing electoral districts into some kind of rational relationship to population. To underscore the link between the representative and the represented, we have also required that elected officials be residents of their specific districts. Conversely, even today, such a residency requirement does not exist for British MPs.
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.