The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. Gordon S. Wood. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
This book is a collection of essays, written over the past half century, by one of the most esteemed historians of the period of the American founding, Gordon Wood. Although each essay stands on its own as a complete work, there is a unity of theme to the essays, which we will try to draw out in the course of this review.
But besides the general theme, there is much to value in the particulars, especially in the way they are treated. Wood is a true historian, concerned first-and-foremost with understanding what really did occur, and only secondarily, if at all, putting his own spin on events of the past, or employing them to bolster some party line.
The careful reader of these essays will come away from them realizing that almost everyone who invokes the American founding today, from the left or the right, is actually summoning up a caricature of the real events of the time, drawn to make it seem as though the Founders were on his or her side.
The portrait we get from Wood is much more nuanced and detailed, and renders the shallowness of the usual ideological sketches of the founding quite apparent by comparison.Let us take, for instance, the issue of what the “original meaning” of the U.S. Constitution was on some controversial point, such as, say, the meaning of the establishment clause or the commerce clause.
Commentators from the left will often argue that their restrictive interpretation of the first and permissive reading of the second is just what the Founders envisioned, while those from the right will argue just the opposite. But when we read a genuine historian like Wood, we discover that both sides are right and wrong: there is no single “original” interpretation, because different Founders meant different things by the wording to which they agreed.
As Wood notes in the essay entitled “Illusions of Power in the Awkward Era of Federalism”:
“The problem can be most fully seen in the ways in which the national government was created in the 1790s. Certainly the political leaders had high hopes for the launching of the ship of state. But though they commonly resorted to nautical image of launching a new ship, they also realized that in 1789 much of the ship existed only on the drawing boards. Not only was the ship of state largely unbuilt, but the plans and blueprints for it were general and vague enough that the size and shape of the ship still remained uncertain; it was not even clear what the ship would be designed to do. Everyone realized that the nature, purposes, and strength of the new national government all had to be worked out, and beneath the outward consensus of 1789 nearly everyone had his own ideas about what these ought to be.” (p. 255)
How in the world are we supposed to return to the Founders’ original constitution when they themselves all had different ideas about what that Constitution was and what it was supposed to be creating?
Hardly a Land of Sturdy Farmers
Of course, for certain procedural matters–precisely the sort of thing for which one can create a “rulebook”–the constitution is unambiguous, and has worked out per plan: members of the House are elected every two years, the president every four, senators every six, and so on. But on most of the more fundamental issues, particularly on those we now fight about, there just was no single, original meaning agreed to by everyone.
Nor was the “America of the Founders” ever really realized at all, even if we take an “average” of all of their views. Many politicians campaign based on getting back to “the America of the Founders”: that America, of course, interpreted through the lens of their own political position. But there never was any “America of the Founders,” except in the minds of the Founders: the actual polity immediately began diverging from their vision:
“The American leaders may have begun their Revolution trying to recover an idealized and vanished Roman republic, but they soon realized that they had unleashed forces that were carrying them and their society much further than they had anticipated. Instead of becoming a new and grand incarnation of ancient Rome, a land of virtuous and contented farmers, America within decades of the Declaration of Independence had become a sprawling, materialistic and licentious popular democracy unlike any state that had ever existed.” (p. 75)
The world you imagine your revolution will bring about is never the world it actually brings about!
Rampant 18th Century Conspiracy Theory
The tremendous effect of conspiracy theorizing on eighteenth-century political thought has been highlighted by Bernard Bailyn and J.G.A. Pocock, amongst others. Wood adds to this body of work in an essay entitled “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style,” where he writes:
“More than any other period of English history, the century or so following the Restoration was the great era of conspiratorial fears and imagined intrigues . . . Pretense and hypocrisy were everywhere, and nothing seemed as it really was. Politics, especially in the decades from the Restoration to the Hanoverian accession, appeared to be little more than one intrigue and deception after another.”
“It had to be a ‘horrid plot,’ said Scrub in George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem of 1707. ‘First, it must be a plot because there’s a woman in’t. Secondly, it must be a plot because there’s a priest in’t. Thirdly, it must be a plot because there’s French gold in’t. And fourthly, it must be a plot because I don’t know what to make on’t.’ With so many like Scrub wanting to know but with so little revealed, inferences if hidden designs and conspiracies flourished.” . . .
“Everywhere people sense designs within designs, cabals within cabals; there were court conspiracies, backstairs conspiracies, ministerial conspiracies, factional conspiracies, aristocratic conspiracies, and by the last half of the eighteenth century even conspiracies of gigantic secret societies that cut across national boundaries and spanned the Atlantic.” (p. 87-88)
The Malevolent British
Similarly, in “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” he notes the wild descriptions of the British that circulated in the colonies:
“[The rebels thought that] the Tories were all ‘wretched hirelings, and execrable parricides’; George III, the ‘tyrant of the earth,’ a ‘monster in human form’; the British soldiers, ‘a mercenary, licentious rabble of banditti,’ intending to ‘tear the bowels and vitals of their brave but peacable fellow subjects, and to wash the ground with a profusion of innocent blood.’” (p. 31)
There is an interesting point here relating to the controversial current presidential candidate, Ron Paul. People who are pro-Paul will tend to view him as a man in the mold of this nation’s founders, a true defender of the views that formed this Republic. Meanwhile, Paul’s detractors respond, “Are you kidding? Ron Paul is a nut, a person who holds wild beliefs about there being massive, dark conspiracies to rob us of our liberty.”
Well, folks, if I am one thing, it is a uniter not a fighter, so I’m here to say, you can both be right, because . . . the Founders also held wild beliefs about there being massive, dark conspiracies to rob them of their liberty!
The Absence of Conspiracy Does Not Preclude Intent
In the essay on conspiracy, Wood forwards a theory of historical causation that reacts to “the paranoid style” by going entirely too far in the opposite direction. Wood quotes with approval Adam Ferguson noting that “in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate . . . and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”
Wood rightly criticizes conspiracy theorizing for ignoring the fact that the emergence of a social outcome certainly does not mean anyone, let alone a whole group of people, designed that outcome. But he oddly ignores the first part of the famous dictum: “As . . . ideas [such as Ferguson’s] evolved, laying the basis for the emergence of modern social science, attributing events to the conscious design of particular individuals became more and more simplistic.” Real historians should not look to individual action to explain what occurred, but to the “deterministic process of history.” (p. 122)
Wood forgets that while historical events are not (always) the result of human design, they are the result of deliberate human action. And sometimes they are just the plain result of design: when Booth shot Lincoln, that was pretty clearly exactly what he aimed to do. But even the aftermath, which Booth clearly did not intend–for instance, he obviously did not desire Lincoln’s subsequent sanctification–was still the result of his deliberate action, along with the deliberate responses to it on the part of a multitude of others.
Wood goes so far as to seem to imply that recognizing the presence of the “deterministic historical forces” means recognizing that no one is really morally responsible for their actions. This, as noted earlier, is to fall into the exact opposite error of the conspiracy theorists.
The Founders and Ancient Rome
The importance of ancient Rome to the colonists is drawn out in an essay entitled “The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution.” Here Wood argues:
“If any one cultural source lay behind the republican revolutions of the eighteenth century, it was ancient Rome–republican Rome–and the values that flowed from its history. It was ancient Rome’s legacy that helped to make the late eighteenth century’s apparently sudden transition to republicanism possible . . . .”
“If the Enlightenment was to discover the sources of a flourishing society and human happiness, it was important to learn what lay behind the ascendency of republican Rome and its eventual decline and fall. The French and American revolutionaries’ view of the past was therefore very selective, focusing on the moral and social basis of politics and on social degeneracy and corruption.”
“Since the eighteenth century believed “similar causes will forever operate like effects in the political, moral, and physical world,” the history of the ancient world inevitably became a kind of laboratory in which autopsies of the dead republics, especially Rome, would lead to a science of political sickness and health . . . matching the medical science of the natural world.” (p. 59)
A Failure of the Founders’ Intentions?
“Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution” is perhaps the most interesting essay of this collection. Wood states a bold thesis to begin:
“We have repeatedly pictured the Founders, as we call them, as men of vision–bold, original, open-minded, enlightened men who deliberately created what William Gladstone once called “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the hand and purpose of man.” We have described them as men who knew where the future lay and went for it. . . .”
“In contrast, we have usually viewed the opponents of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists, as very tame and timid, narrow-minded and parochial men of no imagination and little faith, caught up in the ideological rigidities of the past–inflexible, suspicious men unable to look ahead and see where the United States was going.”
“The Anti-Federalists seem forever doomed to be losers, bypassed by history and eternally disgraced by their opposition to the greatest Constitutional achievement in our nation’s history. But maybe we have got it all wrong. Maybe the Federalist were not men of the future after all. Maybe it was the Anti-Federalists who really saw best and farthest. Is it possible that all those original, bold, and far-sighted Federalists had their eyes not on what was coming but on what was passing . . . ?”
“Is it possible the [the Founders’] Constitution failed, and failed miserably, in what they wanted it to do?” (pp. 127-128)
Wood, with a lead-in like this, of course concludes “yes” to the last question.
Is Anti-Federalism the Wave of the Future?
Someone immersed in the libertarian literature on this period, such as the work of Murray Rothbard, may be inclined to react here by saying, “Well, we’ve known for some time that the Anti-Federalists were the good guys!”
However, two points:
1) “Wave of the future” is not necessarily equal to “good guys”; and
2) Wood thinks the Anti-Federalists were the more modern of the rivals because of, among other things, their advocacy of paper money, credit expansion, and democratic, interest group politics in which factions compete for public backing for their preferred projects. These are hardly the reasons someone like Rothbard admires them!
Wood also refutes a common libertarian notion that the people always choose a “hard, honest” money like gold, and paper money must be forced on them by the government, noting that the exact opposite occurred after the American Revolution:
“Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution had prohibited the states from printing bills of credit, but the needs and desires of all the protobusinessmen and domestic traders were too great to be stymied by a paper restriction. So the states, under popular pressure, got around the constitutional prohibition by chartering banks, hundreds upon hundreds of them, which in turn issues the paper money people wanted.” (p. 26)
In a number of cases, Wood’s work serves to illustrate just how far back we can detect the roots of many elements of “modern” America. In this, he can be read as (unintentionally) offering support for Eric Voegelin’s thesis that the crisis of Western Civilization is not a recent phenomenon, but has root stretching back for centuries. Many things that today’s historically uneducated “conservatives” decry as terrible outcomes of “the 60s” or “liberal Democrats” were present at the American founding.
For instance, redrawing voting districts to create “safe seats” for, say, a black representative, is often denounced as un-American. But the idea that representatives ought to be “like” the people they represent, in as many ways as possible, is as old as America itself:
“Actual representation became the key to the peculiarities of American constitutionalism and government. People wanted elected officials that were like them in every way, not only in ideas but in religion, ethnicit, or social class. The people in Philadelphia in 1775 called for so many Presbyterians, so many artisans, and so many Germans on the Revolutionary committees.” (p. 183)
Escaping Simplistic Categories
Similarly, many conservatives feel that recently–since Freud? since behaviourism? since the 1960s?–our society has “gone soft” on criminals, because we tend to treat crime as a disease or social problem, rather than a moral failing. Well, if by recently, they mean the 1790s, they may have a point:
“If the characters of people were produced by their environment, as Lockean liberal thinking suggested, perhaps criminals were not entirely responsible for their actions. Maybe impious and cruel parents of the criminal were at fault, or maybe even the whole society was to blame.”
“’We all must plead guilty before the bar of conscience as having had some share in corrupting the morals of the community, and leveling the highway to the gallows,’ declared a New Hampshire minister in 1796 . . . ‘Let every criminal, then, be considered a person laboring under an infectious disorder,’ said one writer in 1790. ‘Mental disease is the cause of all crimes.’” (pp. 282-283)
Wood’s American Revolution, in short, continually escapes the simplistic categories into which ideologues of all stripes try to force it. An ideology is an abridgement of political reality, and the study of history–real history, such as found in a book like this one, rather than ideologically abridged history–is one way for us to come to look past the blinders with which ideologies attempt to restrict our view.