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.

The Idea of America

Over at The Wall Street Journal, James Cesar reviews Gordon Wood’s latest, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.  Here is a taste:

The historian has the advantage of hindsight. He can see the development of an idea or principle in a way that the participants along the way never can. In Mr. Wood’s analysis, the force of the democratic principle was bound to undo or modify some of the hierarchic aspects of the Founders’ plan. This does not mean that the Constitution has not defined American politics—it has—but it does mean that the Jeffersonian interpretation of America and its Jacksonian heir were destined to win the day, creating a republic in which the popular will reigns as the highest authority. For this reason, Mr. Wood has conceived the proper period for studying the Revolution as running from the 1760s through the Jacksonian era, since this time span allows one to see the full shape of the event.

The historian’s role is the leitmotif that runs through this book. All history, Mr. Wood notes, is interpretation—indeed, how could it be anything else—if only because “no single historian can know everything.” Yet the inevitable fact of interpretation does not provide a license, as postmoderns argue, to design “narratives” as one likes, as if the past is the plaything for the writer to push an agenda or display his imagination. These creations, Mr. Wood is old-fashioned enough to remind us, are not as important or as interesting as real history itself. Nor does Mr. Wood adopt the view of some of our great romantic historians—George Bancroft comes to mind—who thought that the historian bore the great responsibility to sing the song of his country. As the 19th-century historian Richard Hildreth expressed it, what “is due to our fathers and ourselves” is to present our history “unbedaubed by patriotic rouge.” In the end, as the corpus of Mr. Wood’s works shows, “the best apology is to tell the story exactly as it was.”

John Adams Joins the Library of America

The Library of America has published a two-volume edition of some of the papers of John Adams, edited by Gordon Wood.  Here is a snippet from an interview with Wood from “Reader’s Almanac,” the blog of the Library of America:

LOA: Adams had occasion to work closely with Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington in the Continental Congress—and even more closely with Franklin and Jefferson on his diplomatic missions abroad. What portraits of the other Founders emerge from Adams’s writings? How accurate or skewed do you think they are?

Wood: Actually I think his descriptions of the personalities of Franklin and Jefferson and others were pretty accurate. It is only when he felt he was wronged by them that he lets loose his anger and resentment. He is impressed with Jefferson’s learning, but noted his silence during the debates in the Congress: “I never heard him utter three Sentences together.” His description of Franklin in a letter to Abigail in 1775 is laudatory. Only when he experiences all the adulation paid to Franklin in Paris does he begin to change his tune. Franklin may be a great philosopher, he told his diary in 1779, but “as a Legislator in America he has done very little.” By 1782 he had come to feel for Franklin “no other sentiments than Contempt or Abhorrence.”

LOA: Benjamin Franklin once described Adams as a man who “means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Does this description tell us more about Adams—or Franklin?

Wood: Adams never hid his jealousy and resentment of the other Founders, especially Benjamin Franklin. In 1782 he wrote to an English friend about Franklin, who, he said, “must make himself a Man of Consequence by piddling with Men who had no title. . . . But thus it is, that Men of great Reputations may do as many Weak Things as they please, and to remark their Mistakes is to envy them. . . . His base jealousy of me and Sordid Envy of my commission for making Peace . . . have Stimulated him to attempt an assassination upon my character.” Franklin no doubt knew of Adams’s opinion of him, but what probably led to Franklin’s remark was Adams’s letters to the chief French minister, the Comte de Vergennes, in which he repeatedly lectured him on how he ought to treat the United States.

Read the entire interview here.

2010 Humanities Medals Announced

They include:

Bernard Bailyn

Jacques Barzun

Wendell Berry

Joyce Carol Oates

Gordon Wood

I wonder if this is the first time that a student (Wood) and his mentor (Bailyn) received the medal in the same year.

Of course Wood and Berry are favorites here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  See our coverage of Wood here and our coverage of Berry here.  Also, every now and then we talk about Bailyn, like here and here and here and here and here


David Sehat on Wood and Lepore

The conversation continues.  Over at the Cliopatria award-winning U.S. Intellectual History, David Sehat weighs in on the Gordon Wood review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes.

After reading Sehat’s analysis, I am now closer than I have ever been (but not quite there yet) to embracing William Hogeland description of the review as “almost fantastically, even goofily, unfair.”

Here is a taste of Sehat’s post:

He never quite admits that the Tea Party’s history is bad, or that their stance toward it is wrong-headed. Instead, Wood shifts into a discussion of memory, as opposed to history, and the emotional requirement of memory for, again, “ordinary Americans.” As opposed to critical history, Wood asserts that ordinary Americans need a variety of mythical interpretations by which “humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny.” At one point Wood suggests that “Lepore is correct in believing that historians have a professional obligation to dispel myths and legends,” but then he spends the next eight paragraphs trying to show the emotional thinness of critical history, which seems to suggest that professional obligations run contrary to human need–a somewhat bizarre stance for an intellectual and an educator. Since I’ve just published a book that seeks to dispel a myth (The Myth of Religious Freedom) I read this section of the review with great interest, but the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. It seems to be nothing so much as an intellectual defense of anti-intellectualism. He seems, against all protestations to the contrary, to be faulting the historian Jill Lepore for being (wait for it) . . . a historian!  

More on Wood’s Review of Lepore

I am a fan of Gordon Wood’s work.  (Who else would spend three hours live-blogging his recent appearance on Book-TV, prompting one reader of this blog to describe my efforts as “history dorkitude”).  After I read The Creation of the American Republic during my first semester of graduate school I thought seriously about becoming a socialist.  (I didn’t, but I will save that for another post).  In my second semester of graduate school I read Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic and Nick Salvatore’s Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist and became quite taken by the way Wood’s “republican” synthesis could be applied to other time periods in American history.  (I eventually realized that Daniel T. Rogers had already figured this out).

Like others in the history blogosphere, I found Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s The White of Their Eyes to be a bit unfair. (Thanks to my readers I had three or four copies of the review in my mailbox within an hour after my earlier post).  But I did not find it “fantastically, even goofily, unfair.”

I really like Lepore’s book because I think its central argument is correct.  There is such a thing called “historical fundamentalism,” and it is practiced by many on the Right AND the Left.  There is indeed, to use Lepore’s words, “a distance between the past and the present.” The acknowledgment of this distance is missing from Tea Party rhetoric.  As Barbara Clark Smith and others have shown us, the comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the current Tea Party is a weak one. As Lepore notes, history cannot bear the weight that we place upon it when we use it to solve our contemporary political debates.  I think Wood would agree with all of this.

So why does Wood have such a negative reaction to the book?  It might be suggested that Wood has issues with Lepore that go beyond the content of her book.  Lepore’s November 2009 review of Wood’s Empire of Liberty was fair, but not particularly flattering.  But I am inclined to give Wood the benefit of the doubt here.  He has enough integrity to avoid getting into a pissing match with another historian.

Wood’s negative criticism is born out of a misreading of Lepore’s book.  When Wood concludes that Lepore should have written “a less partisan and more dispassionate account of the Tea Party movement to help us understand what it means,” he misses the point of the book. Lepore did not write a history of the Tea Party.  Her goals were more limited than that.  Instead she wrote an analysis of the ways in which the Tea Party uses (and misuses) American history, particularly the history of the American Revolution, to promote its political agenda. I felt she made a good effort to understand the members of the Tea Party whom she interviewed.  Where she does show “contempt,” however, is in her attack on the way in which the Tea Partiers are using history.  And she is justified in this attack.  Someone had to say this and I am glad Lepore did.  It seems to me that historians have a responsibility to show how the past is being misused or manipulated.  This is part of our vocation. 

As Paul Harvey has noted in the comments section of my previous post, Wood’s use of Bernard Bailyn on the difference between history and memory is a very useful one. Indeed, Wood makes a point here that all critics of the Tea Party (including Lepore) should consider.  Memory plays a powerful role in our society and it is up to the conscientious historian to understand that role.

Wood writes:

Memory, or what Lowenthal calls “heritage,” may be, like the Tea Party’s use of the Founding, a worthless sham, its credos fallacious, even perverse; but, wrote Lowenthal, “heritage, no less than history, is essential to knowing and acting.” It fosters community, identity, and continuity, and in the end makes possible history itself. “By means of it we tell ourselves who we are, where we came from, and to what we belong.”

(Wood has been making these points for a long time. Parts of this review, right down to the The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reference, are lifted directly from a 1997 NYRB review of Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence.)

In the end, Lepore’s book was written by a critical historian.  Wood’s review was written by a fellow critical historian who wanted her to write a book that went beyond critical history to include the powerful role that memory plays in the Tea Party movement. Wood thus committed one of the gravest sins any reviewer can commit–he gave into the temptation to review the book that he wanted Lepore to write rather than the book Lepore actually wrote.

Yet I also learned something from Wood’s review.  Indeed, if there was no collective memory, Lepore’s critical history would not have been needed. Without memory, our job as teachers of critical American history would be a lot more difficult and a lot less fun. Wood is correct in suggesting that memory “makes possible history itself.”

Gordon Wood’s Review of Jill Lepore’s Recent Book

I do not subscribe to the New York Review of Books.  As a result, I cannot read Gordon Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s The White of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History in its entirety. But from what I have been able to read, it is clear that Wood does not like the book.  He accuses Lepore of mocking Americans for turning to the founders for political guidance in the present.

Note: I finished Lepore’s book last month and enjoyed it, but I have not had the time to write anything intelligent about it yet. 

J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 has started a Facebook page dedicated to discussing this review.  William Hogeland of Hysteriography has also entered the fray, calling Wood’s review “fantastically, even goofily, unfair.”

I need to read this review.  I am actually tempted to shell out the six bucks the NYRB is asking for access.

History Dorkitude

If you have been reading the last couple of days you will know that my live-blogging of Gordon Wood’s C-Span talk was described by one tweeter as “history dorkitude.”

Well, that mysterious tweeter has now revealed himself. He is Christopher Graham, a graduate student in southern history at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Christopher has proven to be a fellow history dork. Only a true practitioner of “history dorkitude” would get his picture taken with this book!! I am flattered to say the least…

Where Gordon Wood Writes

In case you missed it, we live-blogged Gordon Wood’s appearance this weekend on C-Span’s “In Depth.” We have received some good responses to our first “live-blogging” session. We even got a live on-air “shout out” from the C-Span host. My favorite response, however, came from “cagraham” who tweeted: “Heh. John Fea is liveblogging Gordon Wood’s C-Span interview. That’s history dorkitude right there!”

Click here for a video of Wood giving a tour of the various places where he writes. (Sorry, I cannot embed it).

Live Blogging Gordon Wood–Part 10

2:16: Caller wants to know if the Founders tried to create a government that kept white males in control. From a historical perspective, Wood accurately notes, more white men were voting in the American republic than anywhere else in the world. Wood concludes that there was never a deliberate attempt by the Founders to preserve the power of white males. I think some historians might differ with Wood on this one.

2:21: Caller wants to know the influence of Voltaire on the Founding Fathers. Wood says not much.

2:22: History teacher calls. Wants to know why so many textbooks focus on the “meeting of three continents.” Wood thinks it is a legitimate way of looking at early American history, but does not think teachers should neglect the origins of the United States. I wish more time was spent on this question. Alan Taylor has recently offered a masterful synthesis of the colonies focused on a more multicultural approach. Taylor’s views and others are informing many school textbooks today. Wood is not ready to surrender a more traditional Whig approach to the teaching of early American history.

2:27: Wood affirms John Fiske’s phrase “The Critical Period” to describe the 1780s. Gives a pitch for The Creation of the American Republic.

2:30: Wood says John and Abigail Adams were not good parents.

2:31: Caller asks about the relationship between the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution. Wood says that the Glorious Revolution and the advancement of English rights is essential for explaining the American Revolution. England was the champion of liberty and freedom well before the United States claimed to be.

2:34: Caller asks how onerous the Tea Act was. The Tea Tax and Stamp Tax, Wood notes, were rather small. The colonies were upset not as much over the tax as they were with the principle of no taxation without representation.

2:37: Caller wants to know what three books all Americans should read to understand American identity. Wood does not give the question much thought. He says all Americans should read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Toqueville’s, Democracy in America.

2:38: Discussion of George Washington’s teeth. Caller wants to know if Washington extracted teeth from his slaves so he could put them in his own mouth. Wood says that selling teeth to aristocrats was a common practice, but does not think Washington forcibly extracted teeth from his slaves.

2:41: No discussion of the American Revolution would be complete without a question about the Iroquois contribution to American government. Wood dismisses this idea as “political correctness.”

2:46: Wood can’t remember how many people signed the Declaration of Independence. I am the last person to say that historians should know a bunch of trivia, but it would seem someone like Wood should at least know how many people signed this document. There were 56, Gordon.

2:47: Caller asks what “grade level” his books are written at. Wood does not know but he does note that he wants his books to be read by an educated public.

2:49: Wood adds Gouvernor Morris to his list of the “most neglected” Founding Fathers. Wood calls for a modern edition of the Morris papers.

2:51: Wood is clearly getting a kick out of all these questions about the Iroquois nation.

2:57: Wood concludes with a word about his wife. She is his editor and the “educated reader I want to reach.”

Live Blogging Gordon Wood–Part 9

1:48: Wood on his mentor Bernard Bailyn: “Greatest American historian of the 20th century.”

1:48: When Wood arrived at Harvard he wanted to study with Arthur Schlessinger Jr., but he soon realized that Schlessinger was more interested in politics than history. Bailyn was a recently tenured professor when Wood arrived and Wood was taken by his seminars and teaching.

1:51: “It is the questions that people ask in the present that enliven history.”

1:55: Wood on the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: “Franklin is a genius.” Franklin was a “celebrity” well-before George Washington was a celebrity. Wood is now discussing the hostile relationship between Franklin and the Penn family.

1:56: Caller asks Wood about the differences between writers who study the past and historians. Wood argues that there is a place for imagination in history, but the facts are what limits the historian’s work.

1:57: Caller asks about “In God We Trust” on money and the use of the phrase “divine providence” by the Founders. Wood reminds us that many of the God phrases were added in the 1950s. “There are no atheists among the founders.” The Founders believed in “God and a divine presence.” Society was much more religious in the 19th century than the 18th century because the people had more control of society.

2:01: Wood argues that the colonies are becoming “proto-democratic” in the 1740s and 1750s. Here, I think, is where he departs from a more Anglicized view of the coming of the Revolution. Wood is looking for the seeds of the Revolution and American democracy in the late colonial period, although he does admit that no one in the mid-eighteenth century would have imagined the way democracy would rise in the decades following the Revolution.

2:03: “The Boston Tea Party is the most significant act in the build-up to the Revolution.” Let me use this as a plug for Benjamin Carp’s forthcoming book, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America.

Wood reminds us that by today’s standards the tea partyers destroyed over a million dollars worth of property. After the Coercive Acts “revolution was inevitable.” Wood argues that if the Crown did not act so harshly toward the tea partyers, Virginia would have never come on board and we may not have had a revolution.

2:08: Caller wants to know about the burning of the Peggy Stewart in Annapolis. Wood has never heard of it. Actually, Philip Vickers Fithian was present at the burning of the Peggy Stewart and some suggest that this event may have inspired a similar event in Greenwich, NJ in December 1774. I am working on a small book on this tea burning.

Live Blogging Gordon Wood–Part 8

1:32: Wood is now expounding on the fact that many of the Founders died in debt. For a nice cultural history of debt and the Founders check out T.H. Breen’s Tobacco Culture. Great book. Wood adds that “businessmen” were often held in contempt in the eighteenth century. They were not and could not be “gentleman” because of their self-interest.

Wood is a walking encyclopedia of the American Revolution. He is obviously brilliant, but I am impressed by the way he is able to speak in such plain language that ordinary history buffs can understand. The callers love him.

1:39: C-Span has now moved into Wood’s home office. He is working on a collection of his old essays which will be published with Penguin. Wood says he does his best writing in the late afternoon. He can’t write in the evening because he too often takes his ideas to bed with him and he cannot sleep.

Wood’s earliest writing projects were done on 5×8 file cards.

We now get a glimpse of Wood’s office at Brown University. He is packing it up.

Wood has a third office in the Brown library.

Wood’s favorite books include: Moby Dick, War and Peace, and The Leopard. He is currently reading The Brothers Karamazov.

Calls Bernard Bailyn, his mentor, “one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century.” Wood had no interest in early American history until he went to graduate school.

Live Blogging Gordon Wood: Part 7

1:05: Wood on Charles Beard and the Progressives: He agrees with Beard that the Constitution was an aristocratic document, although he discredits other dimensions of Beard’s view. Indeed, Wood did affirm a Beardian view in The Creation of the American Republic.

1:07: “Founders lived with the illusion that slavery would go away.”

1:08: Wood says that to defend the Founders for holding slaves is “ahistorical.” The Founders lived in a world where slavery was a given. The historian must try to explain this world, not condemn the Founders for being a part of it.

1:09: He thinks it is “unfair” to paint Franklin as a slaveholder since he founded an abolition society. Wood seems to have David Waldstreicher’s book on Benjamin Franklin in mind here.

1:09: Wood: History, more than anything else, teaches us humility. It teaches us that we do not know what is going to happen in the future.

1:14: Wood: There is no one today who compares with Thomas Paine. He had a tremendous impact on people. Part of his success came from his constant references to the Bible.

1:15: Caller wonders what Thomas Jefferson would say about the mosque in New York City. Wood argues that Jefferson pushed beyond John Locke and wanted complete religious freedom in Virginia. Jefferson was also very pragmatic. He would have defended the right to build the mosque, but would have wondered if it was wise. In other words Wood thinks Jefferson would have responded in the exact same way that Barack Obama did.

1:17: What role did Christianity play in the Republic? (I was waiting for this question). Caller refers to “pseudo-historians” who are promoting the “Christian nation” idea. Wood notes that Founders thought virtue was essential to a republic and religion was essential to virtue. He offers a correct and straightforward answer here that will not make either side of this debate entirely happy.

1:20: An e-mail is read from Ray Soller. Soller is a blogger at American Creation and actually read a few chapters of my forthcoming Was America Founded as a Christian Nation. Ray’s specialty is Washington’s presidential oath and whether or not Washington said “so help me God” when he was sworn in. Wood is not sure that it is a good idea that so many think our politics hinge on whether or not Washington said “so help me God” or not. In the end, we have no evidence that he actually said it.

Wood’s favorite American historians: Tim Breen, Pauline Maier, Alan Taylor, Jack Rakove.

Caller wants Wood to talk about the Russian Revolution. He claims it is not in “his period,” but still responds with a five-minute answer.

1:27: Caller wants to know what role Adam Smith in the American Revolution? Wood says that no one saw him as the founder of capitalism and his role was insignificant.

Live Blogging Gordon Wood–Part 6

12:55: High school student calls in to tell Wood that his class just read The Radicalism of the American Revolution. This is impressive. Kudos to this student’s teacher for assigning it.

12:55: Wood claims he has been attacked from both the Left and the Right. The Left criticizes him for paying too much attention to the Founding Fathers and not discussing slavery enough. On the other hand, liberals like his emphasis on Republicanism for its commitment to communalism. I drew on a lot of this communal emphasis of republicanism in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Wood said that Newt Gingrich’s endorsement of Radicalism was the “kiss of death.”

Wood is now writing for popular audiences, but reminds us that most historical work published today is by academics. Academic work needs to be translated to a general public. He says that monographs are the “building blocks” of the kind of popular history Wood is now writing. Wood does not condemn academic writing, but also encourages more historians to write for a general audience.

1:03: Wood suggests that “by today’s standards” Ben Franklin and Deborah Read would have probably divorced.