Tag Archives: Gordon Wood

Inventing America, part deux

Gordon Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

Yesterday’s authors suggested that emancipation was the single most dramatic event in American history.  Pr. Wood will quibble, stating that the American Revolution is the most important event in the history of the United States.  Wood believes this is the case for the obvious reason that without it the nation itself does not exist and because the Revolution helped to “infuse our culture [with] our highest aspirations and noblest values” (2).  In a way, parts of Wood’s finely crafted introduction read like a speech from Jor-El to his son: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards.  They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fail.  But in time, they will join you in the sun.  In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”  Wood on the United States: “Our believes in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era….The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose we Americans have had” (2,3).  The stumbling part is covered by Wood too, and in essence, he argues we are fascinated with the founding fathers and the period because our identity is “fluid” and by examining this period in history, we get a grounding as to who and what we are, as well as what we might yet become.

Pr. Wood has collected a number of his previously constructed essays in this text and explains their presence clearly and lucidly in the introduction, just as he crafts a wonderfully worded and concise series of statements on the changing tradition of historical writing on the revolution.  Full disclosure: there was a time when I fled from historiography.  In retrospect, I cannot understand why I ever held such an ignorant opinion.  As Wood makes clear, time and time again, we can better understand the past when we begin to unfold how we and those who came before us interpret the events under study.

This text is divided into three parts, covering the American Revolution, the Making of the Constitution, and the Early Republic.  After explaining his thoughts on these three eras of history in the introduction, Wood has placed his essays from the past half century into the appropriate sections.  A vital point that Wood expresses is how it is not ideas alone that drive human action – passion must always play a role as well.  Wood’s passions shine throughout this collection, giving us fifty years worth of thought, analysis, and more.

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Differences and grumpiness?

Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters, What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

Dear readers will forgive me for indulging in some author repetition in the early going of this project.  Professor emeritus Wood will be called up on at least one more time after this piece, though we might take a break from his work for awhile afterwards, if memory of the bookshelves serves.

This text is largely a collection of essays, nearly all of which have been previously printed, though Wood points out that he has expanded and revised the material  for the book (ix).  Wood’s purpose is to create a “written collection of…American worthies,” (ix) a concept he bases loosely on an interesting anecdote about Thomas Jefferson’s collecting portraits and busts of people ranging from George Washington to Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones.  Jefferson began this work in 1784 prior to leaving for France.  Wood is exploring and defining what made these men so ‘different’ from the bulk of Americans in the late 18th century.

Wood begins the series by explaining the connections between the founders and the enlightenment era and he acknowledges a unique nature in the way Americans celebrate these important figures from our early history.  Wood wonders why Americans want to know and understand what Jefferson or Washington or Madison may have thought about such disparate events as September 11, 2001, the current presidential administration (whomever this may be), etc.  Wood provides explanations of his own and from other scholars in the introduction which is a wide-ranging, if at times ‘grumpy-sounding’ historiographical essay (3-28).  Of particular disdain for Wood appears to be the scholars and historians of the Progressive Era who often wrote about the undemocratic nature of the Constitution.  Almost begrudgingly here, Wood allows that at least Charles Beard’s “underlying assumption that people’s consciousness and ultimately their behavior were the products of their social and economic circumstances had a lasting effect on American historical scholarship” (6-7).

Wood is perhaps protective of the founders, I might argue unnecessarily, in this introduction.  Wood is, and this is neither a scientific nor sophisticated observation, sounding a bit like a ‘get off my lawn with your ball you kids’ kind of neighbor.  Newer historians, argues Wood, are bordering on disrespectful, perhaps “because our present-day culture has lost a great deal of its former respect for absolute values and timeless truths” (8).  I’m not certain I agree with this point, nor Wood’s idea that debunking (a word whose origin is briefly explained on page 7) is more common because several generations have been “raised on reading about J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and his condemnation of adult phoniness” (8).  Perhaps I have misread Wood’s intent with this remark, but it seems a bit of an overstatement on the influence of Salinger’s protagonist.

At the very least, Wood answers a question I raised in reviewing The American Revolution.  Remember last week when I wrote:

“Wood is perhaps a little snippy with a “young historian” in his preface, suggesting that their complaints about certain failures of the revolution (failure to free slaves, failure to offer political equality to women, etc) are anachronistic.  Perhaps Wood has a  point, though my larger concern in this case is who was this historian?  In what context did they make this statement?  I wish I knew, but alas, there are no citations in this text so I can’t go back to the source of the offensive observation and check it out for myself.”

Now, through the miracle of footnoting (thankfully included in Revolutionary Characters specifically in this case, #8 on page 9), I understand to whom Wood was referring (Peter Mancall).  While I grasp what Wood is trying to do in this opening essay – arguing that we critique the founders in this manner because we fail to judge them in their own historical timeframe – I find his approach a bit intense and hypercritical at times.  Do most academic historians truly not realize that the founders are of vital importance, “an extraordinary elite” (9) whose work and very existence was crucial to the success of this great republic?

A key idea to much of Wood’s thought process on these giants is summed up on the last pages of the George Washington section.  “He [Washington] was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule” (63).  This statement, combined with those in the introduction and conclusion, argue that men such as Washington, Franklin, etc. will never be seen again because in promoting democracy and the ideas of an egalitarian society, common people came to the fore and they “overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being” (28).  This same notion is repeated and reinforced on pages 272-274.  Did these founders truly contribute to their own demise and the impossibility of their powers being replicated (28, 274)?  I’m not fully convinced that the founders were hoisted on their own petard.

Now that I have removed Wood’s ball from my lawn, I’ll point out that I’m most grateful for his having pulled together this collection.  I’m not in complete agreement with some of the points, but the portrayals of these revolutionary characters are nicely drawn.  As always, Wood’s writing is smooth and worthy of praise.  His discussion of figures like Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr in the collection are interesting, even if Burr is included because his very actions stand in opposition to those of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams.  Revolutionary Characters is a book worth exploring and the concepts are those with which we as Americans and historians, should wrestle.

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Livre, part deux

I don’t believe I’ll be numbering each one of these posts in this manner, but for the first few, why not a little levity?  Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution, A History, from Modern Library Editions in 2002, is the next text for review.  Full disclosure, this book is under consideration for my fall course on Revolutionary America and the Early Republic.  If Wood’s work is compelling, it would replace Edward Countryman’s The American Revolution.  Notice the similarity in titles?

Gordon Wood, now professor emeritus of Brown University, who has won a litany of awards in his long, distinguished career, is perhaps most highly regarded for The Creation of the American Republic and Radicalism of the American Revolution.  The former, I read years ago riding to work on the red line from Davis Square to Quincy.  Creation is also famous because of this classic scene from Good Will Hunting ( you can forward to about 2:20 mark to get the full effect), in which a graduate student is taken to task for his critique of Gordon Wood (semi-stolen from historian Daniel Vickers).

ANYWAY, The American Revolution is a slim, clearly written text that weighs in at 190 pages including the bibliographic essay and index.  In it, Wood outlines the origins of the American Revolution and efforts by the British empire to prevent its birth, the revolution itself, the creation of state and ‘federal’ government systems, and the overall importance of republicanism and a society that embraced republican values.

Wood argues that the origins of the revolution are deep indeed.  The relationship between Britain and its colonies, the physical distance between ‘home’ and the colonies, and the growth of British imperial power all played a role in fomenting revolution.  Further, Wood states that this independence movement “was also an integral part of the great transforming process that carried America into the liberal democratic society of the modern world.” (p 3-4).  The prose is smooth and the pace almost breakneck in some ways, but even familiar events like the Coercive Acts, discussion of transitions in British strategy, or the nature of constitution creation read freshly and clearly.

If there are any complaints, they are minor – Wood is perhaps a little snippy with a “young historian” in his preface, suggesting that their complaints about certain failures of the revolution (failure to free slaves, failure to offer political equality to women, etc) are anachronistic.  Perhaps Wood has a  point, though my larger concern in this case is who was this historian?  In what context did they make this statement?  I wish I knew, but alas, there are no citations in this text so I can’t go back to the source of the offensive observation and check it out for myself.  Other than the few maps at the outset of the text, there are no additional images.  The maps at the outset of the book are helpful, but perhaps a few additional carefully chosen pieces at the outset of each chapter might have been appropriate.

In the end, Wood’s work has accomplished its goal.  The American Revolution clearly discusses how the revolution occurred, its character, and the consequences.  For Wood’s concise handling of this topic, historians should be grateful as this book is reminiscent of Oxford University Press’s excellent “very short introduction” series.

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