We hear a lot about the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, when conservative (and neoconservative, and Straussian anti-anti-liberal, and pre-New-Left liberal) critics raised the hue and cry against relativizing multiculturalism, which was replacing War and Peace and The Scarlet Letter on college reading lists with just any random thing that wasn’t written by a wealthy straight white man. Or, if you prefer, when left-wing critics advanced the radical notion that women, homosexuals, minorities, and the poor are conscious human beings too. Or when cynical politicians and self-important idealists conspired together to undermine public confidence in higher education and the humanities. Or whatever.
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. Continue reading
The intelligent American of today may know a great deal about his history, but the chances are that he feels none too secure about the Founding Fathers and the framing and ratification of the Federal Constitution. He is no longer certain what the “enlightened” version of that story is, or even whether there is one. This is because, in the century and three quarters since the Constitution was written, our best thinking on that subject has gone through two dramatically different phases and at this moment is about to enter a third.
As well as a continuation of my earlier thoughts on elites, this post is a tribute to a classic article: Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick’s “The Founding Fathers: Young Men of the Revolution,” in the Political Science Quarterly 76, no. 2 (June 1961). When I opened the article to reread it in order to write this post, I was struck by the vigour and assurance of that opening paragraph. It’s writing that hasn’t dated so much as aged, beautifully. Continue reading
One day soon, someone will write the history of the bankers, fund managers, lawyers and accountants who helped make our present financial crisis. When they do, they’ll need to be careful not to lose sight of the far larger group of people – really, everyone – who were also part of that process, the suffering they endured and the resistance they enacted. It would need to be a cultural, intellectual, legal, political, and social history that gave account not only of how the financial elite thought and acted, but how that thought and action was shaped by structures and events. It would see the world reflected in their eyes. In that moment, it might show a little sympathy.
That’s how I feel about my own project, a history of power and ideology among American elites in the 1780s. The first question that troubles me – why study elites? – tends to dissolve into a slightly different one – what does it mean to study elites? To be meaningful it has to be a way of studying how historical change happens and how the conditions of life are produced. Elites are both separate and inseparable from the rest of society, linked in a complex, ambivalent embrace that constitutes a kind of class struggle. And class struggle is history in action.