Gordon Wood Strikes Again!

Slavery debates

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.

Gordon Wood Reviews Stephen Brumwell’s *Turncoat*

TurncoatYesterday 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 Most Influential Act of Protest in History?

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


The Author’s Corner with Gordon Wood

41-mB7iaBXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgGordon Wood is Professor Emeritus of History at Brown University. This interview is based on his new book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Penguin Press, 2017).

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!

Obama the Historian

obama-and-historyCheck 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.

Alan Taylor Channels Gordon Wood


By now many of you have probably read a review of Alan Taylor‘s new synthesis of the American Revolution.  (We will be featuring Taylor in an upcoming edition of the Author’s Corner.  Stay tuned).

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.

Gordon Wood on John Adams

AdamsOver 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.

Editing Presidents


CohenMichael 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.

Is There a Bobby Jindal–Gordon Wood Connection?

I am not sure if Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is still running for president.  Since he is not getting much media attention and has become a featured performer (along with Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Lindsey Graham) on the GOP under-card debates, I doubt this post about him and his campaign will go viral.
As I watch Jindal, I have noticed he has made the phrase “The Idea of America” the primary theme of his campaign.  Here he is in Iowa:
When I first heard Jindal use this phrase I thought of historian Gordon Wood’s 2012 book The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.  I am not sure what kind of ideological overlap there might be between Wood and Jindal on the “idea of America” (although I am guessing my more left-leaning readers will jump on the chance to make the connection), but it is interesting that Jindal has also written a book about the American past.  It is called American Will: The Forgotten Choices That Changed Our Republic.
I have not read either book. Perhaps Jindal’s use of the phrase “The Idea of America” and the title of Wood’s book is a coincidence.  But speculation about Jindal’s use of Wood’s phrase gets more interesting when one considers that Jindal attended Brown University, the Ivy League institution where Wood spent most of his career.  Jindal graduated in 1991 with a major in biology and public policy.
I cannot seem to find anything online or in American Will that references Wood as the source of Jindal’s phrase, but it seems logical that Jindal would know of Wood’s work.
For what it’s worth…

More Gordon Wood on the American Revolution Pamphlet War

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:

SCOTT PORCH: Did you realize that when you Google your name, the first autocomplete is “gordon wood good will hunting”?
GORDON S. WOOD: [Laughs.] That’s my two seconds of fame! More kids know about that than any of the books I have written. 
I haven’t seen Good Will Hunting in a while. Does your name come up in the “how ’bout them apples” speech?
No, it’s when a Harvard student in a bar is sounding off on history and the Matt Damon character says he’s wrong and should read Gordon Wood and so on.
Did the producers call you, or did you find out about it when the movie came out?
I got an email from a former student of mine who had gone to the movie opening in Cambridge in, I think, 1997. That was my first knowledge of it. For the next year or two, every time I gave a talk somewhere, some student would raise his hand and ask a question about Good Will Hunting.

Gordon Wood on the American Revolution Pamphlet War

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.

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.

Gordon Wood Is Still Relevant

History-related social media is blowing-up over Gordon Wood’s essay on historian Bernard Bailyn in the recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard.  The fact that Wood, one of the most decorated American historians of the past century, is the center of attention today tells me that what he has to say is still important. It is thus necessary for left-leaning historians (which is most of the profession) to engage his ideas. 

Here is one of the many parts of Wood’s essay that is driving American historians crazy today:

Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.  

And another controversial statement:

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past. 

And again:

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being. 

One more time:

For many of them, the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.
There is a lot I agree with in Wood’s piece.  Large narratives–especially national narratives–are important to the way people understand the past.  Most academics are still favoring microscopic pieces of scholarship over bigger stories.  Wood thinks that such a trend is making history irrelevant. It is hard to argue with that point.  Specialized research, while necessary for tenure, promotion, and one’s reputation in the small world of academic historians, does not reach ordinary people.  But why can’t the new social history, which focuses a lot of attention on race, class, and gender, find its way into the national (or some larger) narrative?  Why must it be an “either-or” proposition?
But I also wonder if something else is going here.  Wood’s work has been attacked by liberal scholars for decades.  I understand honest disagreements.  I am also sympathetic to those who have criticized Wood for being insensitive to the categories of the new social history.  But this attack on Wood reflects some of the more parochial, tribal dimensions of the academic profession, a community that wins points by preaching to the choir and rarely tolerates dissent,
Does Wood write mostly about dead white males? Yes.  Is Wood insensitive to the race, class, and gender?  Probably.  But he has taught thousands and thousands of people–teachers, history buffs, general readers–to think historically.  When his academic critics, safely cloistered in academic offices isolated from the ideas and values of a good portion of the American people, start having the impact that Wood has had on our understanding of American history, I may start to take their critiques more seriously.
And by the way…The Creation of the American Republic and The Radicalism of the American Revolution are great books.  Also, The Purpose of the Past deeply informed my thinking in Why Study History?  We have also spent a lot of time at The Way of Improvement Leads Home discussing Wood’s work.

ADDENDUM:  There is a nice discussion of this post and Wood’s essay at my Facebook page.

Gordon Wood vs. Woody Holton on the U.S. Constitution

Gordon Wood of Brown is the author of the The Creation of the American Republic.  Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina is the author of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

Frankly, I never thought these two historians were that far apart on the origins of the Constitution. Both see the Constitution as an anti-democratic document.  (This is how I have always taught it).

Having said that, there are some differences in their interpretations.  Holton accuses Wood of understanding the economic history of the 1780s through the grid of the early republic.  There is an interesting discussion about who, in the 1780s, qualifies as a merchant, a businessman, and an aristocrat.  I also like the discussion about historical thinking that pops up every now and then during the conversation.  Both historians really hold their own.  This is a treat.

Arguing About Gordon Wood

Gordon Wood will be eighty-years old in November and he still commands attention in academic circles. The simple invocation of his name can get the members of the guild pretty fired up. If you don’t believe me I encourage you to check out Michael Hattem’s recent post (and the comments) at The Junto, “Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood?

Hattem argues that Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution “marks the beginning of the end for Wood as an academic historian and as a historian whom academics take seriously.”  Hattem makes some good points.  Yes, Wood has not published a substantial piece of original scholarship since Radicalism, but his synthetic works such as Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 or The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin do offer macro-interpretations of early America.  I don’t know what the peer review process was like for these books, but only in the most archaic, fundamentalist, and academically-dogmatic corners of the ivory tower would they fail to be considered scholarship.

I know many academic historians who do not take Wood seriously anymore and I wonder how much of this can be chalked up to jealousy, politics, or simply the self-defeating snobbery that some academics show to historians who are willing to craft a narrative that ordinary history buffs will want to read.  Only in the insular and provincial world of the academy can one “lose respect” among his peers for “lecturing to sizable audiences throughout the world (including Russia and China) about the founding and, particularly, the founders.”

I have sat at seminar tables and in restaurants, bars, and conference hotel lobbies where the name “Gordon Wood” has been met with everything from mockery to rolled eyes.  I remember one scholar telling me how happy he/she was when he/she heard that Wood’s replacement at Brown was a labor historian who studied wage labor, welfare reform, and slavery in early republican Baltimore.  (Nothing against this particular historian–I like his work).

Hattem notes that one reviewer of Wood’s Empire of Liberty claimed that the book was “‘rooted in Bancroft’s celebratory-Progressive historiographical imperative,’ i.e. teleological beyond repair and unabashedly triumphalist.”  Another reviewer claimed that the book was “trumpeting the American dream.”  As Hattem writes, these reviews “seem to see Wood as having sold his academic soul for a position as the popular prophet of the founding many Americans want, i.e., a founding devoid of inner conflict, one that removed the founders’ culpability and, therefore, the readers guilt over the Indian removal, slavery, and race and gender relations.”

Fair enough.  These are legitimate criticisms of his work, but I like Hattem’s conclusion:

Early Americanists of my generation do not appear to carry the cultural baggage which the generation following Wood acquired from its experience and the subsequent generation through its graduate education. Or at least we don’t carry it as heavily. For some junior historians, there seems to be less in terms of raw self-identity at stake in choosing their topics, creating a different dynamic in which studying elites is not an implicit statement against historians of race, gender, or class and vice versa. One could argue that this is not a good thing, that historians should have a personal stake in their choice of subject, but the effects of such detachment will remain to be seen. 

The Left and the Right Love Wendell Berry

There are certain artists and public intellectuals whose art appeals to both liberals and conservatives.

Historian Gordon Wood once said that his book The Creation of the American Republic appealed to conservatives who liked the idea that the founding fathers believed that public virtue was important, but it also appealed to socialists and communitarians who liked the idea of sacrificing personal interest for the greater good of the nation.

Bruce Springsteen’s musical message is avowedly liberal, but conservatives like his appeals to community, localism, and the tragic dimensions of life.

And, as John Miller writes in the July 30 issue of The National Review, the fiction and non-fiction of Wendell Berry has the same bipartisan attraction.  A taste:

On July 20, Berry will receive the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, named for the author of The Conservative Mind and awarded by the CiRCE Institute, which promotes Christian classical education, for “cultivating virtue and wisdom.” Last year, ISI Books, the imprint of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, published The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, a collection of essays that seek to illuminate, according to the dust jacket, the “profoundly conservative” ideas of its subject. And although the 2012 Jefferson Lecture was a product of the Obama administration, Berry was regularly a candidate for the same honor during the Bush years.

What’s going on here? Why has this market-bashing prophet of ecological doom won so many fans on the right? On June 17, I drove to Berry’s home in Port Royal, Ky., to find out. He welcomes visitors on Sundays. “There ought to be a day when you don’t work,” he says. He’s well known for these engagements, and for years admirers have made pilgrimages, seeking conversation or advice. On my visit, we sit on his front porch, discussing his life, his books, and his views on everything from farm policy to gay marriage.

Gordon Wood: Does the Past Teach Lessons?

Gordon Wood will be speaking on this topic tomorrow night at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.  J.L. Bell offers his own brief take on the question at hand:

The society’s announcement asks, “Was George Santayana correct when he said that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’?” Or might there be other things to learn from the past? For myself, I’ve concluded that the past, like the present, is too complex for clear lessons, and the most important thing to learn from it is the need to recognize that complexity.

Wood has spoken on this topic before at the Rhode Island Historical Society’s annual meeting last autumn. His talk will probably reflect ideas in his book The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, a collection of reviews.

Some of you long-time readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home may remember my series I did on The Purpose of the Past in the summer of 2008.  You can read it by clicking here and scrolling down until you get to September 10, 2008.

What do you think?  Does the past teach lessons?

David Hackett Fischer on Gordon Wood

One Pulitzer Prize winner praises another Pulitzer Prize winner:

 Gordon S. Wood is more than an American historian. He is almost an American institution. Of all the many teachers and writers of history in this Republic, few are held in such high esteem. Part of his reputation rises from his productivity — a stream of books, monographs, articles, lectures and commentary. Now he has added “The Idea of America” (along with a new edition of John Adams’s Revolutionary writings in two volumes for the Library of America series). 

More important than his productivity is the quality of his work, and its broad appeal to readers of the right, left and center — a rare and happy combination. Specially striking is Wood’s rapport with the young. In the film “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck centered a lively scene at a student hangout on an impassioned discussion of Wood’s work. The television sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” made “Gordon Wood” into an adjective, and used it as a synonym for serious scholarship in general. “Wicked awesome,” one character said, “all that Gordon Wood business!” Through it all, the man himself preserves a quiet modesty, and even a humility that is central to his work. He is respected not only for what he does but for who he is. 

This comes from Fischer’s review of Wood’s The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.  The review reads like an overview of Wood’s career and his place in the historiography of the American Revolution.  (In this sense, it might be useful to graduate students studying for their comprehensive exams).

One more section from Fischer’s review is worth repeating:

And on the “lessons of the past,” Wood is even more restrained. In his new book he observes: “If the study of history teaches anything, it teaches us the limitations of life. It ought to produce prudence and humility.” Gordon Wood teaches that lesson by the strength of his own example.