Finding Its Way: Gordon Wood and the William and Mary Quarterly

007Gordon Wood’s essay, “History in Context,” published in The Weekly Standard in February 2015, whirled up a Twitterstorm. His thoughts on twenty-first-century historians’ scholarship were provocative, and many took umbrage at many of his points. One of Wood’s perhaps overlooked arguments was his statement on the William and Mary Quarterly. “The William and Mary Quarterly,” Wood argued, “now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.” Was Wood’s assessment—or, perhaps more astutely, diagnosis—correct? Has the William and Mary Quarterly lost its way? To answer this question, let’s build upon yesterday’s post and crunch some numbers.

The digital library JSTOR offers its users statistics on journals’ “Most Accessed” and “Most Cited” articles. By using the available data for the William and Mary Quarterly, we can make a rough evaluation of how appealing and relevant its content is. Of course, limitations to this kind of test are obvious: articles published within the past few years might have fewer readers than those that have been up for an extended period of time. Reading lists for summer course might differ from fall or spring courses, too. Nevertheless, the findings, all of which are publicly available, are interesting.

As of September 4, 2015, the top five William and Mary Quarterly articles for the past three months were:

  1. Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Politics of Grass: European Expansion, Ecological Change, and Indigenous Power in the Southwest Borderlands,” Vol. 67, No. 2 (April 2010): 173-208. Accessed 462 times.
  2. John S. Goodwin, “The Goodwin Families in America,” Vol. 6, No. 2 (Oct., 1897): 1–58 Accessed 456 times.
  3. Neal Salisbury, “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” Third Series, Vol. 53, No. 3 Indians and Others in Early America (July 1996): 435–458. Accessed 437 times.
  4. Robin Blackburn, “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution,” Third Series, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Oct., 2006): 643–674. Accessed 414 times.
  5. Jennifer L. Morgan, “ ‘Some Could Suckle over Their Soldier’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500–1770,” Third Series,  Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan., 1997): 167–192. Accessed 338 times.

As per the figures on September 4, 2015, the “Most Accessed” articles over the past three years were:

  1. Daniel Richter, “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience,” Third Series, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct., 1983): 528–559. Accessed 4817 times.
  2. Salisbury, “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans.” Accessed 4040 times.
  3. David Eltis, “The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment,” Third Series, Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Jan., 2001): 17–46. Accessed 3901 times.
  4. Morgan, “ ‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder.’”  Accessed 3490 times.
  5. Margo Burns and Bernard Rosenthal, “Examination of the Records of the Salem Witch Trials,” Third Series, Vol. 65, No. 3 (July 2008): 401–422. Accessed 3421 times.

What does this mean? The first list shows that a significant number of people read the Quarterly each month. And in this instance, people have been reading articles on different types of history—gender, ecology, family history, the Age of Revolutions, and Native Americans—throughout the summer.  This may be reflective of ongoing research, or the numbers may indicate what is being read on summer courses.

The second list offers us a more reflective insight into the field of early American history.  Some of the same articles appear. In this instance, Salisbury’s and Morgan’s articles. Overall, though, the longer lists shows that the Quarterly’s readers are especially interested in Native Americans, slavery, and gender—aspects of the field that Gordon Wood criticized in The Weekly Standard.

Wood alleged that the Quarterly needed GPS to guide its editors back to what he thought the journal should publish—articles focusing on the origins of the United States. If the Quarterly followed Wood’s guidance, however, it would have grave implications. Moving away from its current scholarly mission—“representing the broadest chronologies, geographies, and themes currently explored by scholars of early North America—treating multiple populations and language groups; spanning the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries; and ranging across the continent and around the Atlantic world”—would narrow its reach. Its “Most Accessed” would likely not include many of the above-listed articles. And by putting a scholarly noose around the journal’s editorial team, as well as its peer reviewers, its readership and relevance to a field would diminish. As fellow Juntoist Michael D. Hattem noted over two years ago, in June 2013, early Americanists are working in a field with an expanding spatial and temporal reach. If one of the preeminent journals was restricted to examining the origins of the U.S., it would push junior and senior scholars towards other journals, to the detriment of the field.

The William and Mary Quarterly’s editors should keep doing what they are doing. Wood’s GPS system is not required. The journal is not losing its way. Far from it, in fact. It has evolved over time, following the development and advancement of the field, and it is continuing to do so. Indeed, the journal’s current editor, Joshua Piker, recognizes how important it is for the Quarterly to continue contributing to and engaging with historiographical discourse. Recently, a “special joint issue” was announced between the Quarterly and the Journal of the Early Republic. Each journal’s issue will pick up and explore themes and topics that were the focus of conferences in Philadelphia, Boston, and San Marino, all of which were covered at The Junto. With that issue of the Quarterly, which will hopefully appear in late 2017, it will continue to represent and champion ongoing scholarly debates.

23 responses

  1. Great use of data to get at the heart of the issue. The Wood criticism is ultimately empty because it levels an unnecessary critique at the Quarterly when it is obviously changes in the course of the field that he takes issue with. If the Quarterly has lost it’s way, who hasn’t? The WMQ continues to attract the field’s best scholarship, and in order to do so, it must reflect the field’s (increasingly) diverse composition, regardless of any value judgments that one might place on that transition. A return to publishing only the subfields that Wood prefers would mean compromising the Quarterly’s field position as a publisher of paradigm shifting scholarship. By trying to guilt the Quarterly into adopting a vanguard position, Wood in actuality advises it to martyr itself.

    • Thanks for the comment, Peter.

      You are absolutely right. Spot on! Your comment eloquently gets to the crux of the issue/problem with Wood’s analysis. If the Quarterly pigeonholes itself into studying the origins of the U.S., it would no longer be a field-shaping journal.

  2. Wood’s work was itself game changing decades ago, and it pains me a little to see a senior scholar lose his curiosity in an exciting field. The last few years have certainly not been his best, and his cranky attitude towards his junior colleagues is unbecoming.

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  4. I totally disagree of with all of the previous comments. Gordon Wood is absolutely correct. I have found the W&MQ to be uninteresting. They don’t publish enough Early American history. I mean real good old fashioned quality work like Gordon, Bailyn, Morgan, etc. did. They may be going with the flow, but the quality leaves much to desire.

    • Thanks for the comment, John.

      As a historian who works on colonial British America, I can appreciate your comment. But, as the post indicates, I do not agree. The field of early American history has evolved. It has expanded, and it will continue to do so (e.g., Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost is a good example). The study of early American history no longer focuses on elite white men, as much of Wood’s scholarship did/does.

      This isn’t to say Wood’s, or other historians’ work, is less valuable than it once was. On the contrary, Wood’s scholarship remains invaluable. But, so, too, is scholarship that the Quarterly is currently publishing. It is giving us new insight into underexplored or heretofore overlooked subjects. That scholarship is equally valuable. (On top of that, Wood’s disregard for other historians’ work, as shown in his essay, reminded me of J.C.D. Clark’s English Society, which helped contribute Clark’s academic isolation. Wood’s essay, like Clark’s book, went well beyond the boundaries of scholarly engagement.)

      If the Quarterly printed articles that only looked at “the origins of the nation,” however that is defined, it would lose its status as a preeminent journal. (And if the OIEAHC only published books on the origins, the same thing would happen.) By expanding its geographic reach, the Quarterly is keeping up with shifts in the field.

        • The Quarterly, as per the statement on its website, is “is the leading journal of early American history and culture.” It has helped shape the field since its inception. How could it continue to hold that mantle if it focused on one area of American history? As Joe notes below, the journal’s purview is much larger.

          Also, I believe you misread my use of DuVal’s Independence Lost. I used the book as evidence that scholarship on the American Revolution, as well as the rest of early American history, is expanding and evolving. It’s also a good example of how historians are working on the origins of the U.S., as Joe reinforces below.

          • How ‘historians’ of like-mind are working on the origins of U.S. at the moment, Who’s to say the field wouldn’t have a renaissance and desire to work in a fashion of Wood et al.

            I would imagine many at this blog would write articles in a similar fashion as Mr. Wood, if such a change in the field would occur. Only to meet a like response from the new historians saying, ” it’s a good example of how historians are working.”

            Again, it’s historical bias. What you consider to be “expanding and evolving” other historians consider to be nothing more than attempting to serve ‘justice’ rather than presenting the past as it is in their time, which is basically the thesis of Wood’s spot on essay.

            Your comments reflect that if history turns from this path it will lose its “preeminence,” but still offer little evidence to indicate this assertion.

            It reminds of a story, as I’ve always thought myself to be a true coffee lover, one day I went to the store and Mr. Folger told me that I should stop going to Starbucks because they’ve lost the true purpose of the nature of Coffee concentrating on fringe matters of the business rather than focusing on the bold taste. I told Mr. Folger that Starbucks Inc. was merely “expanding and evolving” Coffee with their lattes, mochas, and frappuccinos. I said, “Mr. Coffee, look at Starbucks website’s mission statement, they expect “More than Coffee” they offer ” a selection of premium teas, fine pastries and other delectable treats to please the taste buds.”

            Mr. Coffee replied, “Of course, they advertised on their own website, but that doesn’t change the fact that their Coffee is overpriced and subpar alterations of the original superior product.

      • I ask because it appears you’re opinion is solely based on your desire for presentism and cultural marxism with your mention of Independence Lost, which is your preferred school of thought and the journals would lose preeminence in your eyes and other like-minded scholars. However, I’m sure those who are more of the Ranke persuasion would just replace you.

      • Hi Chris,

        Expanding the aperture of what is considered Early American history is a good thing (as it is with all other fields of history). But sometimes that turns into assigning importance or historical consequence to certain actors that they didn’t have, and that’s not the way to do it. For example, I’ve found more than one instance where historians try to tie specific Patriot military actions against the British in the Revolutionary South to news of specific slave rebellions or attempted rebellions. Limitations of both time and space make it impossible for these events to be linked, for for one to have caused another, but it furthers the narrative that Southern support for the war came about primarily as a result of British meddling with slaves and promoting slave uprisings instead of opposition to British political and military activity. I suspect for at least some historians this is necessary to justify widening that aperture in ways they prefer since there is a worrying trend of presentism that phadde2 mentions below – historians concerned about their subject in no small part for reasons of activism, or to score a point for a (usually political) cause in the present day.

        Also baffling are the explanations that we have to study underrepresented groups because there are more members of those groups going to college/in academia/etc today, or that members of those demographics won’t be interested in history if they don’t see people who look like them in history books. (No one made this argument here that I have seen, but I have seen it in a number of other places) Not only does this seem insulting to women and members of these other demographics, to suggest they should only be studying themselves (something we’d never say to white men who study non-Western history), but it also incentivizes this mindset that history exists solely to meet our present day objectives. We rightfully have very different ideas about people (among many other things) than people did 250 years ago, but that doesn’t mean we try to reshape history to something we’re more comfortable with. Among the many other problems with this, it obscures the progress that has been made in those 2+ centuries.

        * Please note none of this is about Duval’s new book. I bought it (though I haven’t read it yet), and have seen nothing but good reviews of it so far.

        • Thanks for the comment, Dan, and I agree with most of your points. On the politics of historiography, I think Jesse Lemisch summed it up well, in 1971, when he wrote, “American historians–left, right, and center–are welcome to their politics, but there is no denying that they have politics.” In Fighting Over The Founders, Junto Guest Poster Andy Schocket looks into (some) historians’ politics, including Wood. It’s a great read.

          I haven’t seen the arguments relating to studying underrepresented groups. But I am interested in learning more. I will Google it.

          DuVal’s book is great. Hopefully it will act as foundation for future scholarship on the Gulf Coast. In turn, hopefully, then, the Gulf can be incorporated into histories of the American Revolution more regularly than it is now.

    • So is your argument that current scholarship in the WMQ is not “old fashioned” or that it’s of low quality? These are two different arguments. You can make both, but it’s kind of like the old Catskills joke about the two old women complaining about the food in a restaurant–that it’s terrible, “and such small portions!”

  5. Christopher, this is a good use of big data! (Well, medium data, I suppose.) Thanks to you & the Junto for publishing this.

    What struck me is how OLD most of these articles are, even leaving out the Goodwin family article (interest perhaps driven by a Goodwin family reunion this summer?) Only 2 articles from the last 15 years in the first list, and one in the second list? Contrary to Wood’s complaints and your praise here, what strikes me is that these lists could be read as evidence that Native American and African American history is UNDERrepresented in the WMQ if people are going back to articles published in the 1980s and 1990s on this topic. (That is, the WMQ still publishes a ton of “good old fashioned” history & none of these articles made your list because there are so many WMQ selections to be made, but interest in NA and AA history clusters around the relatively fewer articles on these subjects.

    And let’s not even talk about women’s & gender history, which Jennifer Morgan is holding up single-handedly here. I think it’s great that her work is on BOTH lists, which again may indicate more appetite than the WMQ is satisfying with its more recent articles.

    • That’s a very interesting point. It reminds me of a blog post by Karin Wulf a few months ago in which I seem to recall her saying that, on average, it takes a journal article about 5 years before it starts to begin being cited to any significant extent. So the predominance of older articles in those lists would seem right.

      Wulf’s posts on citation can be found here:

      • Interesting reminder, Michael. It might be different here, though, because it’s not about citations; it’s readership. When you look at JSTOR’s data for the “Most Cited” articles in the Quarterly over the past three years, the articles change:

        1. Steve Pincus, “Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan., 2012). Cited 4 times.

        2. Pauline Maier, “The Revolutionary Origins of the American Corporation,” Third Series, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Jan., 1993). Cited 2 times.

        Alongside Maier (and another article she had published, in 2012), articles by Harry Stout (1977), Seth Cotlar (2012), James Sweet (1977), Ruth Bogin (1988), Colleen Sheehan (1992), Michael Johnson (2001), Gloria Main (1994), Eliga Gould (2003), John Thornton (2003), Jack Rakove (1987), Greg Dowd (1996), Todd Estes (2012), Perry Miller (1953, the oldest), Charles Hobson (1979), Juliana Barr (2004), Gordon Wood (1982), and O. S. Ireland (1985) have been cited twice in the past three years, as per JSTOR’s stats. (Available here:

        Alongside the “Most Accessed” list, this data can be read in a few ways. One could be related to teaching, i.e., students are sent to the likes of Richter and Morgan because of how useful they are within the classroom. And it happens semester after semester.

  6. This is a great use of big and/or medium data, as Historiann notes. I’d add another point that came through from this past spring’s conference: when someone like Wood argues that the WMQ isn’t publishing scholarship on the origins of the United States anymore, they’re often using that as a synecdoche to argue that no one is working on the origins of the United States anymore.

    Which is a nice way of giving a backhanded compliment, but it’s simply not true, as I noted on Twitter in the midst of #RevReborn2:


    The Quarterly has a much broader purview than the Revolution (and its origins, or “deep” origins in colonial politics), and people published work about the Revolution (and its origins, causes, and consequences) in places other than just WMQ.

  7. It’s easy to look at his examples and say, “Wood doesn’t want the Quarterly publishing stuff about slavery and Native Americans.” But actually all the examples he gave were ones that stretched the idea of “early America” temporally and geographically. I don’t read those comments/examples not as being about the topics/subfields in which people work or the Quarterly publishes. Rather, those examples were about asking a very pertinent question: What exactly is “early America?” How do we define it? Wood’s generation would have defined it far more narrowly than we do today and more directly linked in a way to the nation-state that ultimately emerged. That has obviously changed but Wood seems to be trying to point out that no actual (or new) definition has taken its place, leaving “early America” to be whatever anyone wants it to be. Essentially, Wood is asking, “Is there a breaking point here? Or do we just keep stretching early America in time and space until the idea of early America is effectively meaningless?” That’s not a new question or point. In fact, Dan Richter himself spoke about this problem of definition during his remarks at the OAH State of the Field panel back in April. I may not go so far as Wood as to think the field itself is facing an existential crisis of definition, but, as per my previous posts, I do think periodization and definition are important debates to have (both about the Revolution and the field itself).

    As for the Quarterly, it is not just a reflection of the field. It actively (though perhaps unintentionally) shapes it, and this goes to Joe’s point above about work on the Revolution, for example, being published elsewhere. When historians (particularly junior historians) see the Quarterly focusing on specific topics more than others, they will likely be more inclined to pursue those topics, both because of what that coverage implies about the perceived value of those topics and to have a better chance of getting into the field’s top journal. Its being the premier journal in the field also shapes the field through the dynamic created in which people who work on those topics are more likely to be published in the field’s premier journal and, therefore, reap the benefits from that than are those who work on topics of which the Quarterly covers less. To be clear, this is NOT intended to be a criticism of the Quarterly. The journal is certainly not “losing its way.” After all, no journal could wholly cover an entire field as rich and varied as early American history and satisfy everyone. That is just the dynamic that is created by its status as the premier journal in its field. That dynamic is worth acknowledging and is likely true of every journal that is the undisputed pinnacle of its field, as the Quarterly rightly is.

    • “It’s easy to look at his examples and say, “Wood doesn’t want the Quarterly publishing stuff about slavery and Native Americans.” But actually all the examples he gave were ones that stretched the idea of “early America” temporally and geographically.”

      Let’s be fair: there is a long and storied history of Gordon Wood complaining about the perfidy of women’s history and multiculturalism, in addition to his complaints going back at least two decades about the state of the field of early America. Take a look at the forum on his Radicalism book that the (yes!) WMQ published in the Oct. 1994 issue, the same issue in which he’s given space in which to rebut both the critics and appraisers of his 1992, but also space in which to object to James A Hijiya’s strong argument for “Why the West is Lost” which was published in the April 1994 edition of the journal.

      Some flava of the latter rebuttal: “if this is what multiculturalism is all about, then not only is American history in danger but America itself is in danger.” ZOMG!!!11111!!!! He raged, raged against a colonial or early American West as a stalking horse for that malign multiculturalism, because according to Wood and all conservative thinking on this point, recognizing multiple ethnicities and peoples necessarily means stoking division.

      In short, Chris is only responding to Gordon Wood’s published record as a scholar, which goes back some ways before his screed in the Weekly Standard. It’s all there–you can look it up!

      • I realize this wasn’t the primary point of your comment, but I’m not sure the fact that WMQ has published Wood undermines his points, particularly when the article is 20+ years old. Also, Wood doesn’t have to worry about his professional prospects, and hasn’t had to for a long time. I suspect the criticisms he makes are more about 1) making sure a field that he loves remains relevant; and 2) Ensuring younger, less established scholars who study subjects that are not just irrelevant by the field but also possibly a microagression.

      • Ann, of course I am aware of his work, his longstanding critiques of the direction of the field, and subsequent critiques of him by the rest of the field. It wasn’t my intent to “defend” him or comments like the one you quoted. I agree with your characterization of his perspective (but, let’s be fair, he’s gotten as least as good as he’s given). But this specific post wasn’t about his career or his broader perspective; it used a specific quote to frame the piece’s argument. My intent was to find some unaddressed discursive value in the quote as it related to the argument of the piece, rather than just dismiss it out-of-hand (as he himself has done to recent scholarship).

    • There are two things that stand out to me about these lists.

      First is how old several of these articles are, as others have noted. It actually confuses me a bit as to why the methodology of looking up the most accessed articles was used – if we want to know what the current direction of the William and Mary Quarterly is, would it not just be better to read the tables of contents of the last two or three volumes?

      Second is that the articles are, in fact, mostly about events that took place within the territory of the present-day United States. (There can hardly be a more traditional title than “Examination of the Records of the Salem Witch Trials” – although again, it may be popular without being representative.) That was the subject of the original Wood quotation, as you note.


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