I am currently making my way through Gordon Wood’s new book of essays on the Founding Fathers, titled Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. There are a number of things that I like about Wood’s scholarship. While his recent books are accessible to a general audience [see The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin and to a lesser extent The Radicalism of the American Revolution] he hovers just below the level of the more popular historians such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin. His books are written clearly, but they maintain a certain analytical rigor that raises the quality of his work to a higher level. This combination means that I can easily use Wood’s essays in my AP US History courses. My students enjoy reading his articles, and more importantly, they help with focusing the class on important points of discussion.
Wood’s place just below the tier of popular historians is played out in that wonderful scene in the Harvard Square bar in the movie Good Will Hunting. In this scene Will (played by Matt Damon) confronts Clark, who is a graduate student in history, and who has just asked Will’s friend a difficult question about the market economy during the Colonial period in hopes of impressing two young girls who are listening in on the conversation. At this point Will enters the discussion:
WILL: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first year grad student. You just finished some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, and so naturally that’s what you believe until next month when you get to James Lemon and get convinced that Virginia and Pennsylvania were strongly entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That’ll last until
sometime in your second year, then you’ll be in here regurgitating
Gordon Wood about the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming
effects of military mobilization.
CLARK: (taken aback) Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of–
WILL: –"Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inheriated wealth…" You got that from "Work in Essex County," Page 421, right? Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you just gonna plagiarize the whole book for me?
It’s a wonderful scene in the movie and as everyone knows this is his introduction to the Skyler character played by Minnie Driver. This is the kind of publicity that most academic historians can only dream about, but later on in the movie Wood is overshadowed by another historian who turns out lived next to Matt Damon’s family in Boston. The scene is set in Sean’s office (Will’s psychologist and played by Robin Williams) in which they are discussing various books that line his shelves. At one point they get to a history book when Will comments: "If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History of the United States." That book will knock you on your ass." If I remember correctly, Zinn’s book enjoyed a few weeks on the NYT’s best-seller list following the release of the movie.
Even more than Wood’s accessibility, I especially appreciate his focus on trying to understand the Founders on their own terms, warts and all. His judgments tend to be even-handed, never wanting to simply measure their success morally or politically by our own standards. After all they did not occupy our world and many of them would have found it impossible to anticipate the logical consequences of their actions.
One of the more interesting chapters in Revolutionary Characters is on James Madison. Wood addresses the debate over the apparent inconsistency in Madison’s political thought between his support for the new Constitution and his shift to a states’ rights position by the end of the century. Scholars have struggled to explain this shift or whether there ever was in fact a shift in his thinking. Wood takes Madison at his word who maintained to the end of his life that he had remained consistent and that it was Hamilton who had abandoned him. According to Wood, "There were really not two James Madisons":
How to explain the consistency in Madison’s thinking? First of all we have to get back to the eighteenth century to understand exactly what he was trying to do in 1787. It may be that we scholars have been attributing far more farsightedness to him than he was in fact capable of. In our eagerness to make Madison the most profound political theorist not only in the revolutionary and constitution-making period but in all American history as well, we may have burdened this eighteenth-century political leader with more theoretical sophistication than he or any such politician can bear. We want him to be one of the important political philosophers in the Western tradition. If the English have Hobbes and Locke, and the French have Montesquieu and Rousseau, then we Americans at least have Madison. (155)
It turns out, according to Wood, that although Madison called for a strong central government – initially by introducing the Virginia Plan – that would act as a check on the states, he was not looking to prop-up the kind of government that Hamilton and the other Federalists created in the 1790’s. And that government was nothing less than a "real modern European type of government with a bureaucracy, a standing army, and a powerful independent executive." (165) There was in the end nothing inconsistent between wanting the new government to check what he perceived to be the "endless quibbles, chicaneries, perversions, vexations, and delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers" in the state assemblies and the creation of Hamilton’s "modern war-making state."
What I find so valuable about Wood’s focus, which also explains why his publications are so useful in the classroom, is that he ignores the presentist obsession with how the Founders apply to today’s world. Whether you agree with his conclusions and why is worth debating, but Wood forces his readers to step out of the modern world. We assume they created a government and in doing so anticipated the drastic changes that have come to define this nation’s history. Another way of getting at my point is in noticing the importance that contingency plays in his writing. The Founders were uncertain as to what they were creating and differed widely over the Revolution’s success. Wood constantly reminds the reader throughout the chapter on Madison that as much as his Virginia Plan and Federalist Papers anticipated modern politics that he was still deeply committed to maintaining elements of a pre-modern world. In other words, as much as they were looking forward, they were at the same time holding on to important aspects of their pasts. This is an incredibly valuable point to make in the classroom in attempting to get students to think about the dramatic changes that the Founders helped bring about and whose consequences could barely be seen. I use Wood in the classroom to bring home the importance of stepping out of your own shoes when you study any aspect of history. This to me is a crucial part of the imaginative process that is so important for students of history to grasp.
I was recently reminded of this when I stumbled across a blog for Richard Brookhiser’s new book What Would the Founders Do: Our Questions Their Answers. Here is a description of the book:
What would George Washington do about weapons of mass destruction? How would
Benjamin Franklin feel about unwed mothers? What would Alexander Hamilton think
about minorities in the military? Would Thomas Jefferson support assisted
Examining a host of issues from terrorism to women’s rights to gun control,
acclaimed historian Richard Brookhiser reveals why we still turn to the Founders
in moments of struggle, farce, or disaster—just as Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther
King, Jr., and Bill Clinton have done before us.
In the only book of its kind, Brookhiser uses his vast knowledge of the
Founders and of modern politics to apply their views to today’s issues.
Brookhiser also explores why what the Founders would think still matters to us.
After all, the French don’t ask themselves, “What would Charlemagne do?” But
Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and all the rest have
an unshakeable hold on our collective imagination. We trust them more than
today’s politicians because they built our country, they wrote our user’s
manuals—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution—and they ran the
nation while it was still under warranty and could be returned to the
manufacturer. If anyone knows how the U.S.A. should work, it must be them.
I find this approach to be laughable. (Amazon is selling both Brookhiser and Wood together for a special price, which is interesting.) The book is the result of the very popular questions that Brookhiser has had to answer on book tours from people wanting to know where the Founders stand on various issues. I would much rather see Brookhiser respond to the point that he himself makes above which is that people in other countries do not obsess about equivalent historical figures in their own countries as we do with the Founders. Why is that? Wood addresses this briefly at the beginning of Revolutionary Characters:
The awe that most of us feel when we look back at them is thus mingled with an acute sense of loss. Somehow for a brief moment ideas and power, intellectualism and politics, came together–indeed were one with each other–in a way never again duplicated in American history. (9-10)
What Brookhiser seems to miss in the basic assumption underpinning his book is that it is a mistake to pick the Founders out of their material/cultural/political/economic world. The error is even more egregious given that there is no doubt little attempt to understand their world. In the end we learn much more about Brookhiser than anything about the Founding Fathers. I want to understand the Founding Fathers as they understood themselves
and am not interested in what they have to say to us today.
I’ve thought about introducing an exercise along these lines in my classes. The idea would be to ask my students to spend some time debating what various Founders might say about our own problems. Here is why I’ve resisted. First, I am much more interested in hearing what my students think about these problems. More importantly, however, this obsession with the Founders fits too neatly into our tendency to look to others to solve our problems. Go to any major bookstore and look at the size of the Self-Help section. It is one of the largest and reflects how easy it is for most people to surrender to others the task of thinking for yourself through both personal and other external issues.
I am under no illusion that the "noble dream" of objectivity is possible, but it seems apparent to me that we can distinguish between historians who take seriously the task of trying to suspend their own values and assumptions about the past in hopes of gaining a glimpse of a very different time and place as opposed to using them for our own partisan purposes. Historians like Gordon Wood introduce enthusiastic students of history to a group of men who lived during exciting times. In the process students learn a great deal about individuals who helped bring about our modern world even if they did not fully anticipate or embrace it. It is in that little pocket of contingency and uncertainty where real historical understanding awaits.