As the historian Gordon S. Wood notes in the opening pages of his illuminating new book, "Revolutionary Characters," Americans who look back on the Revolutionary War era and the lives of the founding fathers are frequently moved to ask, "Why don't we have such leaders today?"
Following Professor Gordon Wood's recent lecture at the ISI Summer Institute, one of my new friends and fellow participants, a non-historian, posed an interesting question to me and several other Early American historians then present. "So," my colleague began, "how does one become Gordon Wood?" Without altering the substance of my friend's query, and for the benefit of an interdisciplinary audience, I might re-frame and expand the question as follows: Why do some historians of the American Revolution and Early Republic consider Gordon Wood the finest practitioner of their craft, certainly of the last fifty years and perhaps of all time, and how might conservative specialists and non-specialists alike profit from Wood's insights?
In addition to Wood's writing skills and ability to synthesize other scholarly works into a coherent whole, I think Wood's express aversion to presentism and anachronism is not only a mark of his greatness as a historian but is also a key element in his popularity among the general reading public. As Michael notes, Wood's work on republicanism is what made his reputation among academic historians. His first book, The Creation of the American Republic, which won the Bancroft Prize (the most esteemed prize in American historical writing), was his dissertation. Yet, with the winning of the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Radicalism of the American Revolution and his subsequent works, Wood became and has remained a favorite of the well-educated general reader. I think this is because he does not merely repeat tropes or simply retell well-known stories. Rather he offers an argument about how people of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought. This dovetails with Wood's abstention from engaging in contemporary political debates, thereby providing readers with an argument about the past that does not seek to satisfy a current ideological constituency.
Building upon some of the other comments -- Yes, this is a wonderful summary of Wood's influence upon the discipline and his ability to stay above the fray in terms of contemporary political battles. ''Radicalism of the American Revolution'' was published while I was in graduate school and I still remember the impact it had on my thinking and conceptualization of the Early Republic. Lee mentions Wood's ability to provide a well-written grand narrative which synthesizes a lot of information. I would go further: Wood consistently develops in his writings well-crafted and incisive arguments that are articulate, compelling, and persuasive (i.e., a mile deep as well as a mile thick).
Regardless of where Wood might stand on any given political issue--that's rarely the measure of greatness in any case--his approach to history should strike the attentive or inquisitive observer as definitively Burkean in its acknowledgment of the law of unintended consequences. In Creation he reveals the fate of late-colonial republican ideas by unveiling them in their modified, fully Americanized, and altogether unanticipated forms. In Radicalism and Empire he goes further. The Pantheon-level Founders, he tells us, neither expected nor hoped for the rambunctious democracy that emerged in the nineteenth century. Franklin did not live to see it. Both Washington and Hamilton found its birth pangs in the party system deeply dismaying, and of course John Adams never trusted "the vulgar herd" of ordinary people. Even Jefferson, patron-saint of 20th-century democracy, died disillusioned by the rising Jacksonianism of the 1820s. Clearly, then, Wood sees a past filled with complexities and unintended consequences. Prudence demands that the knowledge of such consequences ought to give considerable pause to all would-be utopia builders. Likewise, it should offer comfort to those conservatives who feel, as many do, a profound aversion to well-meaning adventures in radical change.
Students will complete a short paper (3-4 pages) analyzingthe meaning of the American Revolution in its various manifestationswithin contemporary American culture. Students will have a great dealof freedom in choosing their topics, but papers may be written onsuch topics as popular culture (films, theater, television,advertising, etc.), museum exhibitions, recent Supreme Courtdecisions, Presidential addresses or political campaigns, social orpolitical activist groups, and the Internet. A handout will bedistributed outlining the expectations and topics for thisassignment. Due: March 23.
This is a variation, of course, on the central argument laid out in Mr. Wood's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 book, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution": namely, that the Revolution helped smother the patronage, paternalism and hierarchical relationships of the 18th century and usher in a new, democratic, capitalistic world; that it undermined the whole idea of aristocracy and elitist virtue and helped bring about a new society defined by the common man.
As an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Ashland University (Ashland, OH), I teach both sections of the U.S. History survey as well as upper-level courses primarily in Early American History. In 2008 I completed a Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky. My dissertation and current research interests focus on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and U.S. Relations with Great Britain after the American Revolution. I am also a lifelong supporter of the Pittsburgh Steelers. My wife and I reside in Ashland with our eleven-year-old beagle.
A supplementary objective of this course will be to analyze thevarious meanings that contemporary American society and cultureattributes to the American Revolution. Finally, this course isdesigned to expose students to the art of historical research andwriting by exploring an event that left behind a rich and voluminousdocumentary record.
That bitter enemies like Hamilton and Jefferson joined forces against Burr, Mr. Wood writes, was an indication that they believed he "posed far more of a threat to the American Revolution than either of them ever thought the other did."
As Mr. Wood sees it, however, Jefferson and Hamilton, like the other founders, belonged to the past: in a "democratic world of progress, Providence and innumerable isolated but equal individuals, there could be little place for the kind of extraordinary political and intellectual leadership the revolutionary generation had demonstrated." It was Burr, he adds, who embodied "what most American politicians would eventually become — pragmatic, get-along men."
Association with a group of writers responsible for so transformative an interpretation might have persuaded some historians to quit while they were ahead and call it a career, but for Wood it was only the beginning. Many of America's truly legendary historians have achieved their lofty status by establishing, in the minds of scholars and even a few educated laymen, something of a personal identification with a particular view of history--the "Turner thesis" or the "Beard thesis," for example. 1992's The Radicalism of the American Revolution gave us what one might call the "Wood thesis." While Americans are accustomed to thinking of their rebellion against England as a conservative counterpoint to the social-leveling insanities of the later French experience, Wood argues instead for the American Revolution's profoundly radical character. Americans in 1776 began the process of destroying their pre-revolutionary monarchical world of patricians and plebeians, a world in which personal connections and patronage meant more than individual merit, and where social and political institutions reflected a general (though eroding) acceptance of hierarchy as legitimate. After 1776, the Revolution's egalitarian rhetoric unleashed democratizing forces that collapsed this monarchical world and erected in its place the bustling, acquisitive, liberal, middle-class capitalist world that we now equate in particular with the nineteenth-century North, though it is worth noting that this widespread breakdown of traditional authority had consequences everywhere in America. Happily, Professor Wood has now brought this interpretation, largely unmodified, to a wider audience and a new generation of readers by weaving it into his magisterial Empire of Liberty (2009), the latest in the Oxford series on American History.