quinta-feira, 6 de junho de 2013

Gordon S. Wood, Historian of the American Revolution By DAVID HACKETT FISCHER

Gordon S. Wood, Historian of the American Revolution


Reflections on the Birth of the United States
By Gordon S. Wood
385 pp. The Penguin Press. $29.95.

Gordon S. Wood is more than an American historian. He is almost an American institution. Of all the many teachers and writers of history in this Republic, few are held in such high esteem. Part of his reputation rises from his productivity — a stream of books, monographs, articles, lectures and commentary. Now he has added “The Idea of America” (along with a new edition of John Adams’s Revolutionary writings in two volumes for the Library of America series).
More important than his productivity is the quality of his work, and its broad appeal to readers of the right, left and center — a rare and happy combination. Specially striking is Wood’s rapport with the young. In the film “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck centered a lively scene at a student hangout on an impassioned discussion of Wood’s work. The television sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” made “Gordon Wood” into an adjective, and used it as a synonym for serious scholarship in general. “Wicked awesome,” one character said, “all that Gordon Wood business!” Through it all, the man himself preserves a quiet modesty, and even a humility that is central to his work. He is respected not only for what he does but for who he is.
Wood’s latest book is a collection of 11 essays, along with an introduction and conclusion, that encompass his entire career. It reveals more of the author than any of his other work and creates the opportunity for an overall assessment of his achievement. Wood introduces himself with a familiar line from the poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He celebrates the foxes who flourish in his field, and adds in his modest way, “By contrast, as a historian I fear I am a simple hedgehog. . . . Nearly all of my publications have dealt with the American Revolution and its consequences.”
That one subject has occupied Wood for half a century — a concentration span that few can match. And after many years of labor in that field, he has transformed it. Scholars before Wood had offered many interpretations of the Revolution, but none seemed quite right to him. He concentrated his work on the years from 1776 to 1828, an unusual choice. When he began, Wood remembers, this period had “a reputation for dreariness and insignificance,” as “the most boring part of American history to study and teach.” Historians of early America tended to think of the Revolution as a colonial insurgency and lost interest after 1776. Scholars of the “middle period” believed that the real revolution happened in the Age of Jackson, and thought of the preceding years merely as prologue.
Progressives like Charles Beard and Carl Becker had tried to bring life to the history of the early Republic by writing about a transition from aristocracy to democracy, but Wood did not share what he called “their preoccupation with economic and other underlying interests.” He also disliked “the partiality that plagued their histories, a partiality that was prompted by the need to find antecedents for the divisions of their own time.”
Even less satisfactory to Wood was the scholarship of the mid-1950s. It was a time when liberals followed Tocqueville’s idea that America was born free without having to become so. Conservatives took up the argument of Edmund Burke (and John Quincy Adams) that the purpose of the American Revolution was not to promote social change, but to prevent it. Radicals compared the Revolution with the French and Russian Revolutions, and proclaimed that it was not a genuine revolution at all.
Wood rejected all of these approaches. He went deep into primary materials and made an open-minded effort to understand the language and thought of 18th-century Americans in their own terms. After 10 years of research he reported his results, first in a short essay reprinted in this collection, then in the 1969 book “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.” Leading his readers into the ­sources, Wood demonstrated that Americans in those years invented “not simply new forms of government, but an entirely new conception of politics.” They rejected ancient and medieval ideas of a polity as a set of orders or estates. In their place they created a model of a state that existed to represent individual interests, and to protect individual rights. To those ends, Americans invented radically new ideas of representation, and new models for the “parceling of power.”
Wood also made another discovery: This revolutionary way of thinking did not derive from small elites or large treatises. He wrote that it was “not delineated in a single book; it was peculiarly the product of a democratic society.” In newspapers and pamphlets he found evidence that Americans of all conditions joined this great debate — men like William Findley, a weaver and farmer in Pennsylvania, and William Thompson, a tavern keeper in South Carolina.
To all this, Wood added a third finding. From the start, this new way of thinking was consciously conceived as an open process. Wood quoted Samuel Williams, a country clergyman in Vermont, who observed in 1794 that the American system “contains within itself the means of its own improvement.” It created a process of permanent reform that proved more durable than Trotsky’s permanent revolution.
“The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787” was much admired for its craftsmanship and for its substantive contribution. It won both the Bancroft and John H. Dunning Prizes. But Wood did not rest on his laurels. In 1969 he also published a small book on the founders’ complex and highly creative thinking about political representation — a pivotal problem in the American Revolution. Other short pieces followed, and many appear together for the first time in this new volume. One essay included here, originally presented as a lecture in 1974 on democracy and voting in the new Republic, reversed the customary wisdom on that subject. Wood found that “it is not suffrage that gives life to democracy; it is our democratic society that gives life to suffrage.” That theme has important implications in our own world. Other essays in this book take up problems on constitutions and constitutionalism, democracies and republics, political power and human rights, always in Wood’s careful and very creative way.
In 1992 these small essays led to another big book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution.” Here Wood enlarged his earlier idea of a political thought-­revolution, circa 1776-87, into a model of a sweeping social revolution from 1760 to 1825. He argued that this transformation “was as radical and social as any revolution in history, but it was radical and social in a very special 18th-century sense.” Wood wrote that “one class did not overthrow another; the poor did not supplant the rich. But social relationships — the way people were connected one to another — were changed, and decisively so.” The book altered the way historians thought about their field. It won a Pulitzer Prize for history.
In the 1990s, Wood followed it with another wave of small studies on the large figures who dominate our memory of the Revolution. Several of these essays appear in this volume. A piece on Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine rescues them from “some very brutal and often deserved bashing” by exploring an idea of humanity that these very different men shared. Another empathetic essay studies Alexander Hamilton and George Washington on the problem of monarchy in the new Republic.
Wood published many other articles on the founders in 2006, in a lively collection called “Revolutionary Characters.” He added a separate volume on Benjamin Franklin, the most complicated founder of them all. Always, Wood’s purpose was not to celebrate or condemn these leaders, but to understand them. His results lead us beyond the hagiographers who celebrate the founders as demigods, and iconoclasts who revile them as racists and sexists, an approach Wood believes to be inaccurate and anachronistic.
Wood expanded the scale of his inquiries yet again in 2009 in another big book, “Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815,” a volume in the excellent Oxford History of the United States. Here he links his earlier themes to an even larger transformation of an entire culture in its deepest values and purposes. This year he was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Altogether, Wood has done more than anyone to make the era of the Revolution and early Republic into one of the liveliest periods in American history.
His work has made a difference in one more way. It reinforced the center when it was under heavy attack from both extremes. In a gentle reproof to scholars on the left, Wood has offered evidence that “what is extraordinary about the American Revolution is not . . . the continual deprivation and repression of the mass of ordinary people, but rather their release and liberation.” To conservatives on the right he makes very clear that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were conceived by their framers in dynamic terms, and were intended to grow.
In all of this work, the strength of Wood’s scholarship derives from qualities of caution, balance and restraint that are uniquely his own. He avoids questions that cannot be answered by research, even questions of causation that engage most of his colleagues. Wood writes that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to apply the physical notion of ‘cause’ to human action.” He is mistaken here; other causal ideas go far beyond that physical model. But Wood’s approach is fundamental to his success. As a historian he asks not why people do things, but what they think they are doing, and how their thoughts have changed through time. Ideas are studied not as underlying motives for action, but in another way. Wood believes that “ideas and language give meaning to our actions, and there is almost nothing that we humans do to which we do not attribute meaning.”
And on the “lessons of the past,” Wood is even more restrained. In his new book he observes: “If the study of history teaches anything, it teaches us the limitations of life. It ought to produce prudence and humility.” Gordon Wood teaches that lesson by the strength of his own example.
David Hackett Fischer teaches history at Brandeis University. He is the author of “Champlain’s Dream” and the forthcoming “Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States.”

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