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.