Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood?

Wood and ObamaGordon S. Wood is perhaps the most prominent of the many Bernard Bailyn-trained historians to emerge from Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s, including Richard Bushman, Michael Kammen, Michael Zuckerman, Lois Carr, James Henretta, Pauline Maier, Mary Beth Norton, and many others. In the late 1960s, Wood’s dissertation-turned-first-book, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, had arguably as large an impact on the field as his mentor’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution did a few years before, both helping to usher in the heady days of the “republican synthesis.” This is all to say that Wood had earned himself a prominent spot in the field of early American history from pretty much the very start of his career. In this piece, I’d like to talk about Gordon Wood, his career path, other historians’ reactions to him, and how that reflects not only Wood but on historians themselves and whether that might give us even a fleeting insight into generational differences between early Americanists.

However, from that period through the 1980s, Wood could hardly be thought of as prolific in any sense—a few articles, a couple of book chapters, some lectures-turned-essays. In 1992, Wood published The Radicalism of the American Revolution with a trade publisher. That book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in History, but it also marks the beginning of the end for Wood as an academic historian and as a historian whom academics take seriously. The criticisms of Radicalism are well-known and are routinely rehashed in graduate seminars. One could argue that Radicalism was the moment at which Wood went from being a neo-Whig historian to an old-school Whig historian. One could also argue that the real change was from being an academic to a more-popularly-oriented historian. Following that book, and the emergence of the Founders Chic market, Wood began writing ever more popular works like Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different and The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. He also took to the historians’ version of the “chitlin’ circuit,” lecturing to sizable and friendly audiences throughout the world (including Russia and China) about the founding and, particularly, the founders.

Radicalism was an attempt at synthesis as is his most recent work, the long-awaited volume in The Oxford History of the United States series, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Academic reviews, as they were for Radicalism, were pointed, even harsh. However, the reviews of Empire of Liberty by John L. Brooke in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 67, no. 3 (2010): 549-57 and Nancy Isenberg in the Journal of the Early Republic 32, no. 2 (2012): 261-78 exemplify how many historians of the generation (or two) following Wood’s see him. Brooke sees Wood’s work as “rooted in Bancroft’s celebratory-Progressive historiographical imperative,” i.e., teleological beyond repair and unabashedly triumphalist. Isenberg attacks his tone as becoming increasingly “preachier in trumpeting the American dream.” They seem to see Wood as having sold his academic soul for a position as the popular prophet of the founding so many Americans want, i.e., a founding devoid of inner conflict, one that removes the founders’ culpability and, therefore, the readers’ guilt over the Indian removal, slavery, and race and gender relations. These critiques are, in and of themselves, wholly valid criticisms of Wood’s work, but there is a harshness to them that is quite rare in academic reviews, in early American history at least, and it would seem to be revealing when a senior historian is described with the use of “Bancroft” as an adjective in the field’s two biggest journals.

Wood came to prominence just before the rise of the New Left social history and the veritable explosion in race and gender studies in early American history. However, the conversation regarding the ideological foundation of the founding would dominate the field for longer than most care to remember. So when, in 1992 and again in 2011, Wood published a synthetic work on early American history that fails to take into account the tremendous amount of scholarship that has been produced on race, gender, and class in the previous decades, this kind of reaction from a generation or two who lived through the civil rights movement, the radicalism of the 1960s, and the women’s movement and whose careers were committed to incorporating race, gender, and class into the historiography and the broader narrative of the founding should hardly have been surprising.

In the previous decades, the dominance of race, gender, and class as analytical categories in the academic profession of history has created something of a stigma attached to the study of elites. To be clear, by “elites” I don’t necessarily mean “high politics” or men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or Hamilton, but a broader group of people who were not middling whites, women of all classes, or slaves and free blacks. This is also not to say that there has been no work done on the various groups and persons who would fit such a broad characterization, but rather as subjects they have not been as appealing either for professional or purely scholarly reasons. In the last decade or so, some early American historians have attempted to focus on elites as a way of drawing out broader social and cultural themes in early America such as Jefferson scholars Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Lewis (among others) who have used him as an entry point to explore aspects of gender and race in early America. Joanne Freeman’s work on the honor culture in early national politics certainly had insights into class and the emergence of a new kind of politician, as well.

At The Junto, there are a few of us who are working on or have worked on elites, political history, and/or intellectual history in early America, including my own previous work on the dissenting intelligentsia and Anglican clergy in the middle colonies, Tom Cutterham’s work on “power and ideology among American elites in the 1780s,” and Michael Blaakman’s work on land speculators and their role in state formation in the early republic. Early Americanists of my generation do not appear to carry the same cultural baggage that the generation following Wood acquired from its experience and the subsequent generation through its graduate education. Or at least we don’t carry it as heavily. For some junior historians, there seems to be less in terms of raw self-identity at stake in choosing their topics, creating a different dynamic in which studying political history or elites is not an implicit statement against historians of race, gender, or class and vice versa. One could argue that this is not a good thing, that historians should have a personal stake in their choice of subject, but the effects of such detachment will remain to be seen.

ADDENDUM (15 Feb 2013): The subsequent debate(s) that occurred over this piece on Twitter have been compiled via Storify here.

61 comments on “Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood?

  1. Tom Cutterham says:

    Michael, I feel like your invocation of e.g. Joanne Freeman hits the mark here. Her book studies the cultural forms that structure the relationship between “elites” and “the people.” It’s a book about elites that seems to ask the question, “what does it mean to be elite, and why?” Wood’s books, Radicalism and Empire of Liberty, aren’t framed as books about elites at all: they’re framed as national history. If that sounds old-fashioned it’s because it is – perhaps the OUP series itself is partly to blame.

    But whereas the object of Freeman’s study is precisely the (contested) line between elites and people, Wood’s whole approach is to elide the difference, and to treat the story of the founders’ tribulations and victories as the story of the whole American people. As you point out, that’s the reason for both its success (as a marketable commodity) and its failure (as historiography).

    • Tom, thanks for the reply. I did not have as much time as I would’ve liked (or needed) to really flesh out much of this piece. Hence, it is highly speculative and not a little haphazard. I think you are right in your characterization of Wood in terms of “national history” (at least in Radicalism and Empire of Liberty), but the piece’s turn to elites was supposed to derive not from the discussion of Wood so much as from the subsequent discussion of the trinity of race, class, and gender. Please forgive me for my either haphazard or non-existent transitions.

      I also think you are spot on about both Freeman and the Oxford History series. And, to continue the love fest, in preparing the article I stumbled upon your JAS review of Wood and Young and was highly pleased to see that you too saw Radicalism as Wood’s attempt to do what he called for in “Rhetoric and Reality,” i.e., to bridge the chasm between neo-Whig idealism and Progressive behaviorism, which is exactly how I’ve always seen and interpreted Wood’s approach to the book.

  2. Herb Sloan says:

    So having a book published by Alfred A. Knopf marks your apostasy from the academy? This will be news to many historians, members of the Bancroft Prize selection committee, and any number of other people.

    • Herb, you know that is a gross misstatement of what I wrote. I was simply saying that Wood’s move to a trade publisher in the early 1990s foreshadowed his subsequent production of more trade-oriented or popular history. Also, I am not judging Wood myself so much as pointing out the things with which I suspect some historians of generations subsequent to Wood’s have had a problem. I myself have written on the falseness of the academic vs. popular history binary and the narrow vision of academic credibility of which it is a part.

      • Herb Sloan says:

        Knopf’s record when it comes to serious American history is as distinguished as that of any academic press I can think of. I fail to see why this marks a change of direction on Wood’s part, any more than, say, Richard Bushman’s move to Knopf for Refinement does so, or Bailyn’s or Alan Taylor’s use of Knopf would indicate a shift in their focus. And those later books of Wood’s to which you refer include collections of his reviews for publications like the NYRB and TNR, neither of which I would describe as reaching a popular audience.

        • Herb, I am not disagreeing with you. I have loads of fantastic history books published by Knopf and other trade presses on my bookshelves. I was writing about my sense of how a generation previous to mine views Wood, not how I myself view Wood. Also, I said the move to a trade publisher “foreshadowed” not “marked.” There is a difference between Wood after starting publishing with Knopf and Bailyn/Bushman/Taylor, the latter group did not then begin publishing a string of works targeted toward popular audiences who enjoy reading about how great the founders were. I’m not saying I find this bad or good, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that historians of the generation before mine (like Brooke and Isenberg) find this highly distasteful, which is the dynamic that the whole piece is (supposed to be) about. Also, I didn’t mention the two recent collections because those are of previous writings.

      • R. B. Bernstein says:

        Michael, here is where I register a qualified dissent. I never thought that RADICALISM represented any kind of declension in Gordon Wood’s writing, whether it was published with a trade house or not. It was a bit more celebratory than I wanted it to be, though at the same time it struck me as the book that Henry Steele Commager planned to write but never got to write as a companion to his 1977 EMPIRE OF REASON: HOW EUROPEANS IMAGINED AND AMERICANS REALIZED THE ENLIGHTENMENT. As for Wood’s 2004 THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, I must register a vigorous dissent. I have used that book regularly to explore the challenge of what it meant to be an American in Franklin’s lifetime, and how Franklin made the bumpy and painful transition from an American-born would-be architect of British Imperial governance to an American patriot and revolutionary.

        I do have considerable disquiet concerning the overtly triumphalist tone of EMPIRE OF LIBERTY, and even more disquiet concerning the tone of his criticisms of younger scholars for not writing in that vein. I had thought that we could all write our differing takes on the past and learn from one another and disagree, when we must, with good-humored courtesy. Sometimes, of late, it seems as if Gordon Wood is casting thunderbolts rather than expressing disagreement. Edmund S. Morgan handled such things better in his reviews, which is why THE GENUINE ARTICLE is a better and more helpful book than Wood’s THE PURPOSE OF THE PAST. (That said, I am grateful for Wood’s recent essay collection, THE IDEA OF AMERICA, because it collects some of his excellent early articles and makes them accessible to students.)

        • Richard, I don’t think that Radicalism itself represented the declension. Rather, I think that it was a sort-of dividing line between his earlier scholarly career and the turn that followed Radicalism toward a more general audience. (See the distinction in the comment above about the distinction between “foreshadowing” and “marking.”) What was foreshadowed about it was the turn to trade presses. That is not to say that all the books afterward are of no value (though, this piece tried to understand historians who think that is the case). Personally, I think the celebratory criticisms are entirely valid but that at the same time Wood is excessively maligned more for what he is seen as representing (i.e., old-school elite political history). P.S. – I agree totally about your assessment of his and Morgan’s NYRB collections.

  3. Dave Mazella says:

    Hi Michael, there’s a push-pull in the blog posts and comments regarding the multiple audiences for history books and historians: a lot of fear about the perceived decline in support for the academic profession among the lay public, but then equal amounts of fear of succumbing to such pressures and ending up writing something that feels like an unsatisfactory compromise between the two, which is how I’d describe Wood’s more recent work.

    You say that you’ve written on the falseness of the binary between academic and popular history, but this post seems to reinforce it. Could you provide more positive example of scholars who successfully avoid these kinds of pitfalls? This might give me and your other readers a better idea of what you’re after.

    • LIke Herb, you seem to be misunderstanding the piece (which is probably my own fault). But it is about my sense of how the generations that immediately followed Wood’s view him. NOT how I view him (or the whole academic/popular history debate) personally.

      • Dave Mazella says:

        OK, fair enough, but it would be helpful, then, for you to lay out here in the comments, or in a follow-up post, how that generation’s view should be revised or modified, and why. I don’t think talking about this simply as a matter of successive scholarly generations is enough. As a lit scholar, I’m less concerned about the characterization of Wood than I am about how history is going to be practiced going forward.

        • Dave, it’s not really my business to tell the previous generation of historians how they should change their views. What I wanted to do, and which could be done in far more depth, was talk about how their own experiences and training may have shaped those views. I thought it would be interesting because Wood looms large in the field and yet there is a fair number of people who think of him as merely a caricature or as the butt of a joke, which I find somewhat sad because he has made significant contributions to the field. Hence, I wrote the piece because I thought it would help me think through why this was happening. As you read, even after thinking about it and writing the piece, I still have just a few speculations regarding the difference between generations. Like most of my pieces here, they are meant more to provoke discussion than to offer a final thought or judgment about anything. Thanks again for your always thoughtful comments, Dave.

          • R. B. Bernstein says:

            I think that it’s possible for academic historians to write for a general public while maintaining rigorous scholarly standards. I know that Joanne Freeman and Annette Gordon-Reed do that and Pauline Maier did that (I hate that past-tense), and I try to do it myself, and I think that Eric Foner does it.

            Gordon Wood challenged me on this point, suggesting (with a good deal of merit) that history addressed to popular audiences tends to be narrative or story-telling history, whereas history addressed to our colleagues tends to be analytical history asking probing questions about the past requiring that its readers have considerable knowledge of the subject and the field to grasp its questions and answers. That said, such books as AFFAIRS OF HONOR or THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO or AMERICAN SCRIPTURE or RATIFICATION or Saul Cornell’s THE OTHER FOUNDERS manage to do the analytical task with considerable clarity and accessibility.

  4. I think it’s fair to say, as Dan Rodgers did in 1992, that the republican synthesis was a product of its time and place, that it was a response, in Rodgers’s words, “not to evidence” but to the “interpretive problematics” of a particular moment. The same, too, I think can be said of our current historiographical paradigm.

    My take-away from Wood’s generation (I include here Daniel Walker Howe, David D. Hall, and other participants in the Wingspread Conference) is an attempt to bridge the gap between intellectual history and social history. Rodgers says as much, writing that the republican paradigm “offered social and intellectual historians a momentary piece of common ground.”

  5. Alec Rogers says:

    Thanks much for this post, Michael. As a layperson who loves to read Wood’s work, I found it fascinating, as well as somewhat distressing in what it says about today’s academic historians. I appreciate that you’re communicating what a particular generation of historians believes rather than necessarily communicating your own beliefs.

    I’d note that much of Wood’s later work was actually collection of essays, many of which predate Radicalism and come from his work in the New York Review of Books. In other words, Woods has always made a point of communicating with the educated lay public. It’s nothing new for him. What is new is the scorn of a newer generation of historians who find themselves increasingly alienated from their countrymen and unable to communicate with them as Wood and his predecessors, e.g. Bancroft, Morris, etc. did.

    Finally, I’m unclear exactly what is meant be the “historians’ version of the chitlin circuit.” According to Wikipedia, it refers to a chain of venues where African Americans were welcome during the era of segregation, i.e. venues where his version of history would be more acceptable to audiences that the faculty lounges of scholars whose own work has (in my view) caused them to pigeon hole themselves into parochial cul-de-sacs.

    Also, any clarification of “neo-Whigs” vs “old school Whigs” would be useful. When we speak of Whigs are we referring to the 19th Century interpretation of history as the envelopment of freedom and liberalism through the ages?
    Again, many thanks.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alec. The chitlin’ circuit was a chain of music venues throughout the South which were safe for black R&B artists of the 1940s and 1950s to play. Wood hit the historian’s version, i.e., the lecture circuit of historical societies, organizations, large book stores, and such that are most amenable to popular history (by “popular” I mean history that is read by a lot of people).

      By neo-Whig I generally mean the group of historians in the late 1950s and 1960s who began taking the ideas of the Revolution seriously after a long period in which ideas were dismissed by Progressive historians. By old-school Whig, I do indeed mean 19th-century historians of whom Bancroft is the archetype, who portrayed the history of America as an inexorable (and divine) march toward democracy and freedom.

      I personally have great admiration for Wood, though I do feel that in the last decade or so he has kind of jumped the shark, in a sense.

      • Alec Rogers says:

        Thanks Michael – that’s very helpful.

        When I thought about the term “historians’ chitlin’ circuit” it made the point much more clearly to me than using the phrase I might have “Rubber Chicken Cirucuit” specifically because it does connote a more hand picked selection of venues specifically chosen for the welcoming audiences. I’ll need to remember that one!

        To me, Wood symbolizes someone who is attempting to reach larger audiences with much more nuanced sophisticated history. He’s the bridge between academics whose work is not readily accessible to those of us who read history as amateurs and those who really simplify things (Jon Meacham’s recent work on Jefferson is something that comes to mind).

        I shudder to think of a world with nothing in between. There really doesn’t seem to be a lot of historians in this category.

      • R. B. Bernstein says:

        I think that it would have been better to use the phrase “rubber-chicken” circuit, which politicians used to mean the usual array of venues where they can give speeches to admiring audiences.

  6. Roy Rogers says:

    Michael, this is a great – fantastic, really – piece. Largely spot on.

    However, I think you might be missing one key point about Wood’s relationship with his academic detractors. Wood, himself, is responsible to “poisoning the well” of his relationship with the academy as much as anyone. Since the late 1980s (getting worse into the 1990s to present), Wood has been reviewing many race/class/gender paradigm books negatively – often in snarky and (sometimes) disrespectful ways. You can watch this evolution in Wood’s collection of reviews – “The Purpose of the Past.” [I would quote from a couple of reviews but my copy seems to have vanished into my library]

    To psychologize, a bit, Wood seems to get some pleasure out of agonizing his critics – “Empire of Liberty” seems like a big FUCK YOU to an entire generation of scholarship.

    • That is quite true. I was at a very small conference with him this past summer where he got up and started criticizing what he derisively referred to as “critical historians.” That moment gave me the idea for the piece as the alienation between him and the rest of the conference (him being one of the “elder statesmen” in attendance) was palpable.

    • I agree — Wood’s essays in the NYRB are deep into stop-picking-on-the-Founding-Fathers-you-guys territory. The opening line of one book review: “James Madison is being subjected to some very hard knocks at the hands of historians these days.” And a key passage in another: “In the end Ferling can’t easily explain how and why the Washington whose character he has tried to denigrate so excessively was honored and extolled by his countrymen. … the people of the early Republic knew the genuine article when they saw it.” This is just an embarrassing attitude for a scholar to take. And the petulance of these reviews (implying that other historians are somehow pursuing a personal vendetta against poor beleaguered James Madison) hasn’t helped at all.

      • That’s a good example of what Isenberg meant when she said he “swoons” over the founders.

      • Matt Karp says:

        I’m something of an apologist for Wood’s Radicalism — it’s got a lot of problems, but is the overall portrait really so different from something much less controversial like Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town? His NYRB writings, though, have really turned sour in the past few years.

        For me the key moment was his review of Lawrence Goldstone and Robin Einhorn, where he began by arguing that early Americanists’ recent emphasis on slavery grows out of ‘present-mindedness’ rather than historical evidence: “Now we have these additional two books under review to help satisfy the seemingly insatiable desire of many historians today to place slavery at the heart of America’s origins.” Oh, those silly historians! What on earth could be responsible for their bizarre need to put slavery at the center of American history? It simply must be our contemporary “race problem.”

        Of course all history reflects the political and social moment in which it was written — that’s a powerful ‘insight’ straight out of the first year of graduate school (or earlier, if you’ve had good teachers). But Wood somehow manages to use this idea to dismiss both Progressive scholarship of the Beardian sort and the slavery-centered works of the past decade, without noting the ways that both Hartzian consensus history and the ‘republican synthesis’ were themselves inflected by contemporary social/political/intellectual questions, as Dan Rodgers noted and Thomas J. Gillan points out above. Instead he simply recurs to the concept of ‘present-mindedness’ as if it’s some kind of intellectual toxin, never pausing to consider the idea in a larger historiographical context, or exploring why America’s “race problem” in the 2000s managed to produce all this recent scholarship on slavery. Even granting his premises, wouldn’t an even remotely intellectually honest approach here involve thinking about why all these slavery-obsessed works didn’t appear in the 1960s or ’70s, when by many accounts the “race problem” was more public and more acute?

        It’s really a shame that he’s taken such a turn toward cheap crankiness, because his earlier work — including much of Radicalism, I think — is quite formidable.

        • I agree, Matt. I too have gotten my fair share of strange looks when trying to defend Radicalism. That said, I think your characterization of his use of charges of presentism is spot on. I don’t think I’d characterize Wood as being dismissive of the Progressive historians. I’ve always seen Radicalism as the culmination of a career’s work, the goal of which was defined early on in “Rhetoric and Reality,” to somehow reconcile the seemingly unreconcilable, i.e., Progressivism and idealism, and show the complex interrelationship between ideas and other forces such as economics, demographics, etc…. We can all argue about how successful he was and about what he left out but, for me, even the attempt merits respect. And while Radicalism is far from being a complete account, it surely is PART of whatever a complete account would be.

        • Roy Rogers says:

          The difference between “Radicalism” and Taylor’s “William Cooper’s Town” is, fundamentally, nuance. “Radicalism” is a sweeping but remarkably flat book. The move from Monarchy to Republicanism to Democracy has all the tension (and interest) of watching an episode of the Love Boat.

        • Robin says:

          I agree with Mr. Karp. In his introduction to WCT, Alan Taylor cites himself and Gordon S. Wood in two successive paragaraphs, dual passages that present his central contentions. His microhistory illuminates, confounds, and enlivens radicalism and rootlessness on both sides of the liberty coin. WCT is a formidable book for both advocates and opponents of Gordon S. Wood, as well as students of research, interpretation, and purpose in the noble dream.

  7. Jimmy Dick says:

    I think this aptly illustrates the historiography within the historical profession itself. I like what Gordon Wood has written. I’ve read several of his books including Empire of Liberty over several years. While writing my thesis on Jefferson and Adams I went back to Empire and noticed things that I had not been aware of the first time I read it. Specifically the lack of gender, race, and class. I don’t cry about the lack because I don’t think that was his focus nor am I upset about its lack of inclusion. His focus is on a different aspect of the historical era. I think that’s fine. Good grief!

    The rest of us out here need something to write about too. I haven’t seen one history book cover the time period of 1787-1815 and deliver every single iota of possible history for every field and subfield of historical research. There is a good amount of jealousy in the field against historians who sell books well compared to generating academic works that don’t sell many copies. We all know this so I’m not surprised that any historian who achieves success outside of the profession or goes outside of the profession to promote their works get lambasted by their peers.

    The simple truth is that Gordon Wood and others are reaching the American public. If many historians want to write books that less than 1% of the population can understand then that’s their problem. There’s a market for good history out there and I think we as historians need to meet that market. In case no one noticed it the historical profession took a massive hit in the last five years due to budget cuts on all levels. You can bet good money that the failure of American historians to connect with the American people played a strong role in that.

    There’s a little ditty on YouTube called “Academic Writer” which is a parody of The Beatles “Paperback Writer.” One line in particular stands out well in describing one of the biggest problems historians are having with reaching people.

    “I use the biggest words at my command…to make it difficult for you to understand.”

    • Herb Sloan says:

      Let us not kid ourselves about who reaches the great American public when it comes to the Early Republic. If Amazon can be trusted (not perfect, but better than other things we have), the top sellers in the Revolution are journalists, exactly whom you would expect, people like David McCullough and Ron Chernow. Poor Gordon Wood makes his first appearance on the list at number 40, with Radicalism. Wood’s non-academic public is a very small slice of the universe of American readers, and I, for one, would be happy to see him at the top of the list if the alternatives are McCullough and Chernow. But that’s not the world we live in.

      • Alec Rogers says:

        It’s hard to categorize authors because we tend to create a binary distinction between academics and popular historians. To me, Chernow is different than McCullough. His work is more original and scholarly. I thought his recent work on Washington was a stellar example of someone who write clearly while incorporating the latest scholarship. I don’t know if McCullough’s ever done much that was original. I didn’t see much of it in Adams. Perhaps his book on Paris was more archival in nature. Let’s take two other historians: William Manchester and Douglas Freeman. The former strikes me as much more of a McCullough while the latter produced works of immense scholarship. In England it seems that there’s much more of a role for the “independent scholar” (i.e. serious historian not affiliated with a University) than we recognize over here.

        • Herb Sloan says:

          I’m not sure I agree about Chernow, but I do agree that the Brits have a somewhat different tradition, certainly when it comes to biography. Think, for example, of Joy Jenkins. The scribbling Pakenhams, on the other hand, strike me as being more in the McCullough category.

      • I agree completely, Herb. I think a good example of a book of solid history meant for a popular audience is Bailyn’s “To Begin the World Anew.” Unfortunately, that has sold far less than even Wood’s more palatable offerings. In a piece I wrote last week on the AHA’s push for more narrative, I tried to make the point that thinking of narrative as the savior of the profession is a bit naive, especially when you consider popular early American history. The majority of readers who devour books by McCullough and Chernow (on whom I also agree with you) read them not because they are narratives per se but because they are a particular kind of narrative about the founding and the founders.

    • “I don’t cry about the lack [of race, class, and gender in Empire of Liberty] because I don’t think that was his focus nor am I upset about its lack of inclusion. His focus is on a different aspect of the historical era. I think that’s fine. Good grief!”

      I don’t think many people would object to Empire of Liberty simply because it’s a history that focuses on white men. Everyone uses, cites, and celebrates books fitting that description. In fact, nearly every other author whose name has come up in this post or discussion has written books like that (sometimes exclusively).

      The supposed problem with Empire of Liberty is that it’s a 700-page survey, yet it’s written as if key parts of the last 30 years of scholarship hadn’t happened. Books in series like the Oxford History of the United States aren’t monographs; they exist in part to bring together the best work in the field, including work that isn’t like the author’s own. To neglect topics that have been organizing principles for much of the best scholarship on “the Early Republic, 1789-1815″ (to quote the subtitle) is to defeat the purpose. And I have to say, I haven’t been using my copy of Empire nearly as much as I’ve used other books in the Oxford series — not because I disagree with it, but because it’s just not useful the same way.

      • I agree, though, to be fair, Middlekauf’s volume on the Revolution is similarly narrow. Synthesis looms large in the field due to its fragmentary nature. That said, is it not understandable that when a synthesis of a period is written and large swathes of the historiography of the last 30 years has been left out that those who helped create that historiography would be upset as if it was an implicit rejection of the importance of their work? In other words, say you spent your whole career working on race in the early republic and then when the Oxford volume comes out (one that will reach far more people than my academic work ever could) it ignores not just your own work but your entire topic. Also, Brooke touched on there being an inherent responsibility in the Oxford series due to its prominence and its reach.

        • That’s a fair observation about Middlekauff — and I’d say McPherson too. (Kennedy’s treatment of WWII is a much better model.) But I do think there’s a difference between a volume that is very clearly written as a history of a particular war, like their books, and a volume written as a history of a republic during a certain span of time, like Wood’s. If Wood had even written a book subtitled “Politics in the Early Republic, 1789-1815,” I don’t think we’d be having this discussion.

  8. Amanda Hendrix-Komoto says:

    Michael, I think you are right in pointing to a return to the study of elite institutions and people. I am uneasy about the consequences, however, partially because I’m not so certain that it doesn’t mark a statement about race, class, and gender. One of the things that I have found troubling about my experience in coursework was the ease with which some of male colleagues made the statement “I am going to defer here to the people in the room who work on gender” or even more baldly, “I don’t do gender so I am not sure I can….” Although it’s possible to read these statements as being modest or deferential, they also contain an assumption within them that white, middle or upper class men weren’t gendered or that the study of elites can somehow be separated from gender, race, and class. This obviously isn’t true in all cases, but I’ve read enough work that makes me ask “How is this different from what could have been published decades ago” that the turn makes me uneasy.

    • Amanda, I too have seen variations of that occur. Yet, I’ve often wondered about it from the opposite perspective. Does it not also say something about the failure of historians who work on gender to effectively integrate it into the larger narrative? This is NOT a level criticism at everyone who works on gender in any way whatsoever. Please don’t think that. But I have read fantastic works on gender history in early America that left me struggling to think of truly significant ways in which it might impinge on the rest of the field. This was, after all, an early concern of many in women’s history.

      It would be almost impossible to be in the academy these days and be largely unfamiliar with gender studies in your field. But if you are the kind of person who would say things like you mention in your comment, I suspect that it is less because of a sense of superiority than a sense of gender studies as isolated from the broader political and cultural history of your period. If that is the case, then is it not, in part, a failure on the part of those doing gender history to make plain their works’ broader significance?

      For an early American example, look at Linda Kerber and Mary Beth Norton’s work on republican motherhood, a topic discussed in all four AmRev classes that I took as an undergrad. An early Americanist who is unaware of it or its place in the historiography is probably very rare precisely because they made plain how their studies related to political history, cultural history, and women’s history, making them useful to those kinds of historians.

  9. Ben says:

    Great post and discussion! For what it is worth: Andrew M. Schocket, “Thinking about Elites in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 25:4 (Winter 2005)

  10. […] Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, Michael Hattem takes up this issue in the context of briefly surveying Gordon Wood’s career and how other historians have responded to him. Here’s a sample (Hattem’s concluding […]

    • Rachel Hope Cleves says:

      It is a dubious proposition to argue that Nancy Isenberg finds biographies of founders published by trade presses distasteful, considering her recent books: a biography of Burr published by Penguin, and a joint bio of Madison and Jefferson published by Random House.

      A more to the point comparison: Isenberg integrates the last three decades of social and cultural history into her biographies, whereas Wood marches blithely past them like _none of that stuff matters_.

      I have no problem with the study of elites. My first book was about Federalists and orthodox ministers. But I won’t assign Wood because I think his depiction of the early national era is misleading. To present abolitionism as an after-effect of a revolutionary “contagion of liberty” without acknowledging the way that the Revolution also strengthened slave power, to present the consequences of Revolution as democratizing without addressing its exclusions, suggests that the history of African-Americans, women, and working people are some sort of spice that can be added or withheld to the taste of the writer. I call bullshit. These are fundamental issues for understanding questions that Wood purports to answer: like how “radical” was the American Revolution?

      • Rachel, I think that you are making a connection in the piece that I did not make. My argument about why people like Isenberg dislike Wood’s work so intensely was exactly because he ignores the social and cultural history that dominated the work of the former’s generation. So I agree with you on your second point as well as your characterization of Wood’s treatment of slavery and abolitionism.

        • Dave Mazella says:

          What Rachel’s point demonstrates, I think, is that the popular/academic divide that began this discussion is less salient here than the scholarly quality of Wood’s syntheses, including the fairness and accuracy of his summaries of recent scholarship and his ability to integrate these key elements of social history into his account of elites/”founding fathers.” According to Rachel, both Isenberg and Wood are reaching for larger-scale syntheses intended for broader, lay audiences, but Isenberg is managing to do so without ignoring several decades’ worth of scholarship on social history. There is no reason to assume that synthetic work like her biographies answers less serious historical questions than other, more specialized academic work, but they do address different kinds of questions, and approach them differently. This seems a more productive way to engage the scholarly/popular issue in historiography than just seeing one as a more degraded version of the other.

          • I think both are part of the broader dynamic of reaction to Wood’s work, which is why I included them both. How to weigh them is something I did not settle on and it is great to get feedback on that. While I appreciate Isenberg’s work on Burr, I don’t think you can equate in terms of synthesis with either Radicalism or Empire of Liberty. Those are works of synthesis on a much grander scale and one in which the demand for inclusion is almost impossible to satisfy.

  11. Paul says:

    It strikes me that as much as historians try to deny it, nevertheless it appears that a certain teleology or more strikingly a whiggishness haunts the profession. There is the understanding that we stand on the shoulders of those who go before us but the fundamental assumption that the previous generations have built an understanding of history that is broken or incomplete and that succeeding generations can right the wrong is inherent in the discipline. Doesn’t revisionism have at it’s heart the presumption of improvement?

    • This is a very philosophical question, but I don’t think that the assumption is that all previous history is broken or even incomplete. Historians acknowledge that the culture and times in which they live affects how they write history. Questions that are not important to one generation (say, questions about race and gender) become important to a generation coming of age during the civil rights and women’s movements and, by extension, to the generation of historians whom they trained. But we are now about 2 generations removed from them and I am arguing that the new generation does not carry that particular cultural baggage making topics that have long been considered unworthy of study or even taboo seem not so.

  12. Jesse Lemisch says:

    IInteresting discussion (and nice title). It’s hardly selling out to publish with Knopf. Wood didn’t sell out. He (along with Pauline Maier) has long functioned to redecorate Bailynesque ideas when changes in the world made the original laughable. (The NYTBR and, god help us, Harvard Magazine) have found the latest volume of “Peopling” too much to swallow.) Broadening the discussion a little, I’ve found it interesting that the supposedly hip NY Revies of Books has had as its stable of reviewers in this area Ed Morgan, Vann Woodward and their slightly younger version, Wood). Review after review has been a diatribe that essentially demands that we take back the 60s. This kind of thing is understandable in Sam Tanenbaum’s vacuous NYTimes Bk Review, but in NYRB reflects a 50s-ish movement rightwards among intellectuals

    • Thank you very much for taking the time to comment, Prof. Lemisch. While those of us who have read your RHR piece on Bailyn are familiar with your critique of the Harvard ideological interpretation, we can’t ignore the fact that Ideological Origins (and Radicalism) is still regularly being assigned in grad seminars (and even upper-level undergraduate courses) and continues to play a fairly important role in the way the Revolution is taught to many undergrads, whether one thinks that is good or bad or both.

  13. pastnow says:

    Reblogged this on pastnow.

  14. […] higher education, Michael D. Hattem recently contributed an piece for The Junto blog, entitled “Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood?” in which he suggests scholars’ opinion on Wood’s work can be “a window into possible […]

  15. Matt says:

    I’m an avid, albeit amateur, reader of early American History. I would profess to be something of a neo-whig and it was Wood’s Creation and Radicalism really introduced me a strain of thought that I found convincing. I hate to be a Wood apologetic, but I think some of the gaps, women’s rights, slavery, socio-economic antagonisms, can be forgiven given the context of the books. The focus on the founders, in my opinion, of course, has more to do with analyzing the intellectual history from the elites’ perspective, the history from which we most derive our sense of national identity, than looking at the forces that would play out most forcefully in the Jacksonian Era.

    I also have to say that his work definitely cemented my view of the framers as Republican warriors, as opposed to Beards’ self interested villains.

    I’ve probably rambled a lot as I’m typing this on my Iphone, sorry! :)

  16. Richard. D. T. says:

    I have no idea what any of you are talking about…. I came here to know a little more about Gordon S. Woods and find a bunch of historians, lol. Have a good day fellas, or ladies.

  17. […] month, discusses the historiographical transformations of the study of early America and notes that Wood is wrong that no one talks about political elites anymore–they just don’t talk about them in the glowing and often uncritical terms Wood can […]

  18. […] Trans-Atlantic studies. Much of the criticism could stem from views like those Michael Hattem wrote about at The Junto in the past. And some simply defended the practice of studying, researching, […]

  19. Robert Jackman says:

    I came across this post while searching for Wood’s work on a lazy Sunday and I know its an old post but I am compelled to respond. I am not a professional historian but I trained as one under Lance Banning at the University of Kentucky. The central issue is not where Wood published his books, its the quality of his ideas. And here I submit, is simply the best historian of the last generation working in his field. Why? Because Wood understands the material better than almost anyone. He is steeped in the period and intellectually has a depth and breadth of understanding that is just much richer than others. I, like some professional historians including Wood, worry about today’s graduate student and newly minted Ph.Ds who are so micro focused on obscure topics with so little primary sources available to do good work. Re Wood, it is easier to explain what I mean with an example. Review this youtube of Wood on what made the founders different: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rNpe1XFqbQ. Listen to how he places Jane Austin’s concept of a Gentlemen in context of the 18th and the founder’s concepts of virtue. There is a depth of understanding that just isnt common among many other historians. Additionally, Wood evolved significantly over time and to call him Bailynesque is very simplistic. In many ways, in the Radicalism and essays that predate it, Wood breaks with Bailyn to see a much more transformative Revolution that gave birth to modernity. In coming to this view,, he again has a richer and deeper understanding of the contemporary sources and intellectual context than others.

    I also worry about the effort on this blog overall. It is great to have young scholars write blogs but without professional review and editing, it seems there is alot of shooting from the hip.

    • Robert, you seemed to have missed the main points of the piece. The central part certainly is not a critique of where Wood publishes his books, it’s simply an observation. Also, you seem to have misread the fact that my point in the piece was trying to understand why contemporary historians criticize Wood in such an uncommonly disrespectful way. Indeed, as I mention in the first paragraph, this piece is much more about other historians’ reactions to Wood and what he seems to represent to them than about Wood himself. You write as if you are refuting criticisms of Wood leveled in the piece, but I just read it again and nowhere in the piece did I offer my own criticism of Wood, as, it should be obvious, the criticisms mentioned are those held by the historians of the generations that followed Wood. Finally, I concluded the piece by saying how despite all that, there are still many junior historians who are working on topics similar to those Wood wrote most about and cared most about (e.g., elites, political history, intellectual history, the Revolution, the state, etc…). Most of the criticism I received for this piece was from people upset because they thought I was defending Wood (which I was to a certain extent). While a few thought, like you, I was criticizing him. If anything, that only proves my point that Wood has become a sort of lightning rod in the field and that people read into him what they want. Those who wanted to be outraged at someone defending him read my piece as a defense. Those who sympathized with Wood, found little phrases to take out of context and accuse me of attacking him (e.g., the thing about publishers).

      As for your final comment about the blog overall, I wonder if your assessment of the blog would have been the same if you had read the piece correctly as an attempt to understand the (prevalence and acceptance of the) vitriol and vehement attitudes toward Wood rather than assumed it was simply another “hit piece” on him. I would hasten you against judging it on a single post alone, though I still stand by this post (perhaps more so in the wake of the last week). Also, it is a blog and therefore is something different than the kinds of 100-year old formats historians have had that require “professional review and editing.” If, by that you mean “peer review,” then that defeats the whole purpose of a blog in the first place, especially one that allows junior historians to have a voice. We write blog posts designed to create conversations around important topics within the field, not research-based journal articles. That said, I would put our book reviews up against those from any academic journal. We also cover digital efforts in early American history in a way no journal or monograph can. In our two-plus years, we’ve had almost three-quarters of a million views (many from fellow academics), and a number of posts that have attracted very large audiences of non-academics, thereby exposing them to early American history and offering our writers audiences much larger than any academic journal.

      • Alec Rogers says:


        A little more fuel for the fire. Wood defends Bailyn in his review of Bailyn’s latest work:

        “a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. …So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.


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