The Magazine

What Makes America?

A historian’s lifetime in search of an answer.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Few historians write about the long era of the American Revolution with greater authority than the author of the essays collected in this volume. One of the best-read scholars of his generation, for over roughly half a century Gordon Wood has written with a kind of infectious enthusiasm about what he unblushingly terms here “the most important event in American history, bar none.” As anyone who has ever read or heard him knows, he holds this view out of the not-implausible Whiggish conviction that the revolution started the United States on its way toward being a democracy and open society. If, as Wood admits, he has gradually thrown himself into the camp of so-called Progressive historians who look upon colonial America as a kind of ancien régime, and upon the years after 1776 as a takeoff era for the modern United States, it’s because of what he’s convinced followed the revolution—a new age characterized by (as he termed it in an earlier book) the “radicalism” of American democracy, a theme he reprises in an essay here.

Photo of Gordon S. Wood sitting next to Sandra Day O’Connor in 2011

Gordon S. Wood, Sandra Day O’Connor, 2011

Getty Images

With such convictions, Wood occasionally skirts close to a kind of national triumphalism and exceptionalism—to the view that the United States is the only nation-state and society of its kind under the sun. While Wood does his utmost to keep his work from seeming to adopt this stance, he has not escaped challenge on that score. (Nor have most historians who write of the revolution escaped it. It is the occupational hazard of focus on those extraordinary decades.) Neither has he avoided the criticism that his scholarship sidesteps or underplays the realities of slavery, poverty, the decline of women’s position, and the eliminationist horrors facing the native tribes in the era that has been the focus of his attention, realities that owed much to the advance of the very individualistic democracy that he has emphasized.

Such criticisms, however, arise much more from the approaches to the past Wood has adopted than from any blinkers on his insight. He started out and has remained principally a historian of ideas, vernacular as well as formal. More recently he has taken an interest in cultural history, the large domain that has to do with the created environment and with personal behavior (architecture, manners, dress, discourse, and the like) that are kin to, and draw from, more formal ideas and attitudes. Had Wood devoted his research and thinking to social history—to the history of the structure and operations of society—he would, perforce, have had to confront more directly the shortcomings of the early republic, and there is every reason to be confident that he would have done so. But his interests have been elsewhere.

These essays span much of Wood’s career, the earliest dating from as long ago as 1966. That he includes an essay from 45 years ago suggests the continuity of his thinking. An afterword accompanies each essay, and in only one does he express any regret (and a modest one at that) about what he had earlier written. Nor, while distancing himself from those who argue that ideas directly cause people to act, does he shy away from a muscular defense of the importance of ideas in history. “Our minds are essential to the ordering of our experience,” Wood insists. And so his aim here, as in everything else he has written, is to interpret how the ideas of the early nation affected Americans’ experience of their world and caused them to act and invent as they did.

Consequently, Wood has had to fight against an idealist interpretation both of ideas and of his own scholarship. Even though in his very second published essay (reprinted here) he protested against giving ideas priority in explaining the American Revolution, and insisted on the need to take account of concrete realities as well as the words in which they were explained, others took him to be elevating ideas over events. Rereading that essay today, one is struck by the rich psychology of ideas the young Wood advanced. “Since ideas and beliefs are ways of perceiving and explaining the world,” he asserted, “the nature of the ideas expressed is determined as much by the character of the world being confronted as by the internal development of inherited and borrowed assumptions.”

That was particularly important to bear in mind because “it is perhaps only in a relatively unsettled, disordered society, where the questions come faster than men’s answers, that ideas become truly vital and creative.” Nevertheless, he has always insisted, “Ideas by themselves are never determinative of thought.” The luggage in people’s minds deposited there by the culture into which they are born jostle with new ideas, situations, and events to create an unending dynamic of historical change.

Moreover, the ideas that people possess do not claim human attention simply by being available to them. Men and women inherit ideas and then ransack their intellectual inheritance (as well as any fresh ideas they may have) in order to explain and justify their actions; they are instrumentalists. As illustration of this conviction, Wood here reprints an essay that seeks to explain what Roman history and ideas bequeathed to the revolutionary generation—or, rather, what that generation found useful in that bequest. For those who know of Wood’s long interest in classical republicanism in America, it should come as no surprise that he believes that the American gentry absorbed a particular thread of Roman thought, one of particular appeal to those who thought of themselves as the patriciate. This thread emphasized disinterestedness, avoiding having to work for a living, and accepting roles of leadership as a necessary sacrifice for the common good. It thus, for example, becomes less of a mystery as to why George Washington met such little resistance to his leadership. Roman influences among the gentry had prepared the way for the application and acceptance of his leadership.

Those Roman influences hint at another characteristic Wood theme. While sensitive to the resonance that 18th-century ideas can retain over 200 years later, Wood is always at pains to insist on the “immense cultural chasm” that separates the Founders’ era from our own. This bears emphasis in a day such as our own when claims, from right and left, to direct lineage from members of the revolutionary generation confuse and sometimes soil our politics. We mistakenly invoke the Founders, implies Wood, because of our own misreading of them, not because of their lack of clarity or wisdom. They were not democrats; they were not interest-group politicians: “For them government was not an arena for furthering the interests of groups and individuals, but a means of moral betterment. .  .  . [T]hey were not modern men.”

“Of course,” may be a natural response of any reader to such assertions, as they should be of all historians. But even many historians err in embracing the Founders as if they were our contemporaries, their ideas and government inventions relieving us of the responsibility to think things through and anew for ourselves. Composed not only of unmodern men, the generation of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Marshall was a generation of the 18th-century Enlightenment, indeed of what more and more scholars today refer to as the American Enlightenment, a distinct embodiment of a larger Western phenomenon. Wood devotes an essay to this theme, as he does to the distinction between monarchism and republicanism in the 18th century and to Jefferson’s and Thomas Paine’s kindred kinds of radicalism. And as is required of any student of this period, he considers the distinctiveness and peculiarities of the 1790s, when American politics—bitter partisan politics—first took form. Yet if echoes of those days can still occasionally be heard in our own times, they are echoes whose weakness is more impressive than their relevance.

In recent years, Wood has devoted attention to constitutional issues, jurisprudence, rights, and the courts. In one essay in this volume, this supremely gifted historian finds fresh things to say about the always-difficult-to-define concept of constitutionalism, American version. As typical of him, he bears down on the exceptionalism of American constitutionalism—not the mere fact of embodying fundamental law in a written document (distinctive enough and unprecedented before the revolution) but lodging sovereignty in the people through that constitution. As Wood points out, placing sovereignty outside the government itself has led “to all sorts of strange political institutions and practices” of which a deep mistrust of elected officials, manifest in such mechanisms as recall, initiative, and referendums, is foremost. One might retort that the reverse is the case—that an earlier mistrust of elected officials led to sovereignty’s location outside government—but surely Wood is correct in wondering whether such approaches to governance suit the United States in this particular era of challenges
to governance.

The Idea of America contains three canonical essays—“Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century,” and “Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution”—that are known to most historians and remain accessible to anyone seeking to learn more of the young republic. But in my view the gem is Wood’s essay on rights in early America. The challenge to Americans then, as he sees it, was “the formulating of a defense of individual rights and liberties against the people themselves”—that is, of a defense that could protect people from the representatives whom the sovereign people had elected to govern them.

How that occurred requires Wood to unfurl a line of argument too complex to summarize here. But the development of rights, commencing with that of religious freedom, involved distinguishing private rights (including, of course, property rights) from public rights and then placing the former under the protection of the judiciary. That is, the rise of the judiciary to a place of centrality unprecedented anywhere previously resulted from judges being called upon to limit legislative action and protect individual rights. “The idea,” writes Wood with characteristic force, “that there was a sphere of private rights that lay absolutely beyond the authority of the people themselves, especially in a republican government, was a remarkable innovation.” It’s a feature that continues to set off the American state from almost every other polity.

It can still surprise some people that historical knowledge offers more than the pleasures of well-told tales. In the hands of deeply informed scholars who are analytical while lucid, engaged in their current world without being presentist in the choice of their subjects, or the approaches to them they take, knowledge of the past can often illuminate the present better than any other kind. That Wood has effectively done so throughout his career has helped put him in the forefront of practicing historians today. This work shows him at his very best.

James M. Banner Jr. is a cofounder of the National History Center and coeditor, most recently, of Becoming Historians.