The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States
By Gordon S. Wood
Penguin Press, 385 pages, $29.95
Reading history allows one to escape the blindfolds and categories of our day and enter into another time, when people thought and acted in different ways. Like the experience of foreign travel, it can refresh the mind and provide a sense of distance from the familiar. How sad it is, therefore, that so much academic history today does just the opposite, projecting current issues back onto the past, invariably for the purpose of promoting a contemporary ideological viewpoint. Instead of freeing us from the present, "history" of this kind ends by imprisoning the past.
Fortunately, there are still historians who deplore, to borrow Gordon Wood's unvarnished language, the "gross presentism of much current history writing" and the "effort to use history as an ideological weapon in contemporary politics." And Mr. Wood certainly has reason to complain, for it is in his field of inquiry—the period of the Revolution and early republic—that the politicization of history has gone furthest.
So great is the temptation to score points by invoking or attacking the Founders that most historians, whether consciously or unconsciously, have been unable to resist. Progressive writers like Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington railed against the robber barons and big corporations of their day and found it helpful to their cause to tarnish the Founders' reputation, accusing them of designing the Constitution to promote their economic interests.
The Progressives' unitarianism in opposing economic injustice has broadened in our day into a trinitarianism that focuses on concerns of race, class and gender, producing a host of studies treating the Founders' "sexism," "homophobia" and "racism." Thus Thomas Jefferson, who received a pass from some Progressives because of his hostility to finance capitalism, has become a favorite target today. "Much as most historians continue to dislike businessmen and the commercial classes, they dislike slaveholders and racists more," Mr. Wood wryly notes in his latest book, "The Idea of America."
Mr. Wood is our premier student of the Founding Era. He has been writing history for about a half-century, roughly a fifth of the days since the origin of the republic. He has scrupulously avoided appropriating his subject for modern-day political purposes and instead tried to understand it on its own terms and as a whole. Historians will of course bring to their study certain questions and concerns of their own time—no one can or should avoid this—but the greatest historians are those, like Mr. Wood, who do not make our criteria of importance the main theme.
"The Idea of America" consists of 11 essays on different aspects of the Founding that are drawn from the full span of Mr. Wood's career, to which he has added a substantial introduction and conclusion. All of the essays have been updated or re-configured, with an afterword appended to each. What the book may sacrifice in overall unity it more than makes up for in the richness of its reflections on the character and import of the Founding. It is Mr. Wood's most "personal" work, providing us, along with much fine history, glimpses into the thinker and the man.
Referring to Isaiah Berlin's famous classification of writers into the categories of the fox (one who knows many things) and the hedgehog (one who fixates on one subject), Mr. Wood describes himself as "a simple hedgehog." Yet his lifelong concentration on the Founding period is no mere result of animal instinct. It stems from his belief that the "Revolution is the most important event in American history, bar none." The centrality of the revolution derives from the fact that it created the political state—for Mr. Wood, "we created a state before we created a nation"—and even more from the fact that it supplied us with "our highest aspirations and noblest values." The ideas that underpin these aspirations and values supply Mr. Wood with the key to the whole American experience, and are the nucleus of the adhesive force that has formed and forms the American people: "The Revolution made us an ideological [i.e., idea-based] people. . . . We Americans have been as ideological as any people in Western Culture."
Within the little band of brothers and sisters in the academy who stress the centrality of the Founding ideas to the American experience there is a long-standing family feud. On one side are those who identify the content of the idea with a "republican ideology," an inheritance of classical, Renaissance and a strand of English Whig thought that subordinates the individual to the community. Arrayed against them are those who emphasize the centrality of the doctrine of natural rights, an Enlightenment discovery that stresses individual liberty as a universal principle. This debate has had important implications for our polity, with republicanism being warmly seized upon by many modern-day egalitarians and communitarians and natural rights being cited by many conservatives. While the origins of Mr. Wood's view lie more in the "republican ideology," this book makes it clear that his understanding of republicanism is supple enough to embrace the enlightenment idea of natural rights as well. In the end, Mr. Wood is content to avoid much of this debate and describe the core principles generally as "liberty and democracy."
The germ of these principles is the notion of equality—a concept akin to the egalitarianism Tocqueville identified as the catalyst of American development. For Mr. Wood, it produced an explosion of energy that reshaped the America of the early republic and has been reshaping it—and the world—ever since.
Mr. Wood fully acknowledges all the hierarchies based on race, class and gender, but unlike so many other historians he views the battles against them as deriving from within the Revolution's principles, not from outside. His idea of democracy is perhaps best grasped in a negative formulation: In America no principle of hierarchy can ever openly be sustained as a title to rule. The "natural" America that Mr. Wood describes has a populist tinge to it. In its cruder application it can appear as the celebration of ordinariness, but it can also accept, and even reward, any individual's accomplishment of wealth, education or merit, though never as an a priori claim of a title to govern.
The historian has the advantage of hindsight. He can see the development of an idea or principle in a way that the participants along the way never can. In Mr. Wood's analysis, the force of the democratic principle was bound to undo or modify some of the hierarchic aspects of the Founders' plan. This does not mean that the Constitution has not defined American politics—it has—but it does mean that the Jeffersonian interpretation of America and its Jacksonian heir were destined to win the day, creating a republic in which the popular will reigns as the highest authority. For this reason, Mr. Wood has conceived the proper period for studying the Revolution as running from the 1760s through the Jacksonian era, since this time span allows one to see the full shape of the event.
The historian's role is the leitmotif that runs through this book. All history, Mr. Wood notes, is interpretation—indeed, how could it be anything else—if only because "no single historian can know everything." Yet the inevitable fact of interpretation does not provide a license, as postmoderns argue, to design "narratives" as one likes, as if the past is the plaything for the writer to push an agenda or display his imagination. These creations, Mr. Wood is old-fashioned enough to remind us, are not as important or as interesting as real history itself. Nor does Mr. Wood adopt the view of some of our great romantic historians—George Bancroft comes to mind—who thought that the historian bore the great responsibility to sing the song of his country. As the 19th-century historian Richard Hildreth expressed it, what "is due to our fathers and ourselves" is to present our history "unbedaubed by patriotic rouge." In the end, as the corpus of Mr. Wood's works shows, "the best apology is to tell the story exactly as it was."
Mr. Ceaser, professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of "Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought."