Gordon 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. However, subsequent generations of early Americanists have grown increasingly hostile to not only Wood’s work but to the man himself. This leads to the question: Why is it acceptable (or even praiseworthy) behavior among early Americanists to treat one of the most important historians in the field in the last century disrespectfully? In this piece, I’d like to talk about Gordon Wood’s career trajectory, suggest that other historians’ reactions to him reflect not only Wood but on historians themselves, and ask 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. From the perception of many contemporary historians, 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 harsh, with some of them approaching the line between critique and disrespect. The reviews of Empire of Liberty by John L. Brooke in The William and Mary Quarterly and Nancy Isenberg in the Journal of the Early Republic 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 is quite clear that describing someone with the use of “Bancroft” as an adjective is an insult, all the more so in the field’s two most prominent 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 failed 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 important 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 own personal 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 at stake in terms of raw self-identity in choosing their topics, creating a different dynamic in which studying political history or elites is no longer seen as an implicit statement about the validity or invalidity of histories of race, gender, or class and the historians who write them. 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.