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.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.