Putting “Republicanism” in Its Place

“By 1990,” wrote Daniel Rodgers, the concept of republicanism in American historiography “was everywhere and organizing everything, though perceptibly thinning out, like a nova entering its red giant phase.” A quarter of a century later, it can seem barely more than a dull glow—and in part, we have Rodgers’ essay to thank for dimming the lights. If republicanism’s 1970s high-water-mark was followed by a decade of furious debate over republicanism-versus-liberalism, scholarship after 1990 often framed itself as moving beyond precisely that anachronistic question. There was, apparently, no such conflict in the minds of revolutionary-era Americans. The problems that troubled them were different ones entirely.[1] Continue reading

Pauline Maier and the Republican Revolution

FRTROne of the things that set Pauline Maier apart was the exuberance she brought to the work of history. That joyful zeal is charmingly expressed in the metaphor she used to evoke the intellectual atmosphere in which she wrote her dissertation and first book, From Resistance to Revolution (1972).[1] “In the heady days of the 1960s,” she recalled in 1991, a group of Bernard Bailyn’s graduate students shared the exciting “conviction” that “a great historical paradigm, an interpretation of the Revolution that had stood for most of the century, was collapsing like some great empire, and that another, equally powerful, was already coming into view” (v-vi). It was, indeed, a “‘revolution’ in historical understanding” (ix). Continue reading

Wood & Holton on the Constitution

Was the purpose of the constitution to protect democracy from being ruined by the people or to protect commerce from being ruined by democracy? This was one of the questions put to Gordon Wood and Woody Holton in a debate held a few weeks ago at the University of South Carolina. A full video of the event has just been released on YouTube, and is embedded below. For anyone familiar with the work of these two historians, the debate will constitute a useful recap of the distinction between their two interpretations of the origins of the federal constitution. And for others, I hope it might be a kind of teaser for their excellent books! Continue reading

Constitutional Interpretation and Historians

Yesterday I learned that some Republican state legislators in North Carolina have sponsored a bill to declare an established religion—or at least, to declare that the federal Constitution wouldn’t prohibit such a declaration. In doing so, of course, they disregard a mainstream of constitutional jurisprudence on the issue that goes back into the ninteenth century but was really firmly established in the middle of the twentieth century. I’m not here to talk about that question, but I found it particularly interesting in light of the conversation I’ve been having by email over the last few weeks with Dr. Sean Wilson, an assistant professor of law at Wright State University, about his new book The Flexible ConstitutionContinue reading

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. Continue reading