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?

Gordon S. WoodWood and Obama 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