“The American Revolution was not a common event,” John Adams wrote to the newspaper editor Hezekiah Niles in 1818. “Its effects and consequences have already been awful over a great part of the globe.” Adams then inquired: “But what do we mean by the American Revolution?” For Adams, the revolution was not just the Revolutionary War. The war had accelerated the revolution, to be sure, and the break with Britain enabled it to develop more freely. But the revolution itself involved a change in thought—new ideas about who “the people” were, how they interacted with each other and how they related to their government. “This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people,” Adams claimed, “was the real American Revolution.”
How did that radical change occur? By what means had the people of thirteen separate colonies come together “in the same principles in theory and the same system of action”? Adams considered those questions “surely interesting to humanity to investigate, and perpetuate to posterity,” and he hoped that young men around the country would begin to collect sources and write histories to answer them. Since then, plenty have followed that path, but perhaps none has investigated the nature of the revolutionary change in American thought and its consequences as thoroughly as the historian Gordon Wood.
Wood, whose most recent publication, Empire of Liberty, won the American History Book Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, argues that the most important changes of the revolutionary era occurred during the decade that separated the two main founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The most obvious change involved the elimination of monarchy and the establishment of a republic, which turned dependent subjects into independent citizens. This political shift reverberated throughout society, where people no longer felt the need to defer to their “betters.” Different groups began to lobby for their own interests and upstarts known as “new men” displaced established gentlemen in legislatures. Folks like Abraham Yates, Jr., a New York shoemaker, suddenly rubbed elbows with Alexander Hamilton and other educated men as the old ladder of society began to fall flat.
The colonial quarrel which sparked that political shift took shape in the midst of tremendous demographic and economic growth throughout the Western world. Through their low mortality and high birth rates the North American colonists were multiplying more rapidly than any other Western people. The population of British North America quadrupled and pushed westward during the second half of the eighteenth century. At the same time, the colonies grew increasingly wealthy as American producers and consumers were drawn into the Atlantic commercial market, buying and selling goods on a much larger scale than ever before. Overnight, the ports of Baltimore, Norfolk and Alexandria “grew up to distribute this swelling commerce within the Atlantic world.” The rapid changes strained existing political institutions in the colonies nearly to the breaking point, especially after Britain tried to tighten its grip in the wake of the costly Seven Years’ War.
When political change came to this world, it came quickly— and centered on the question of sovereignty. Sovereignty, Wood argues, was the “single most important abstraction of politics in the entire revolutionary era.” For the English, sovereignty resided in Parliament, which represented king, lords and commons in one body. Americans accepted this “absolute” notion of parliamentary sovereignty after some debate in the late 1760s, but the logic of that position, combined with the rush of events (including the famous disputes about taxation and representation), led during the 1770s to a self-imposed ultimatum: “I know of no line,” declared Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, “that can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies.”
Americans opted in 1776 for the latter, but the problem of sovereignty had not been resolved, only relocated from Parliament to the new state legislatures. During the next decade, indeed, people began to feel wronged by the representatives in their legislatures. North Carolina’s Attorney General, James Iredell, regarded that state’s laws as “the vilest collection of trash ever formed by a legislative body.” In New York, Chancellor Robert Livingston thought the state legislature was “daily committing the most flagrant acts of injustice.” Judge Alexander Hanson provided an even broader rebuke: “The acts of almost every legislature,” he wrote in 1784, “have uniformly tended to disgust its citizens, and to annihilate its credit.” This wasn’t supposed to happen: the people in a republic were supposed to share interests with their representatives. They might legitimately disagree with the King or the Lords, the old view of politics had it, but they couldn’t disagree with themselves.
These developments were unexpected and unwelcome for many of the revolution’s leaders, who had hoped for a virtuous republic led by a disinterested political elite to whom the rest of the people would defer. The breakdown of confidence between people and representatives renewed questions about legislative sovereignty and representation. The founders had attempted to retain some sense of separation between the powers of the people and those of a sovereign legislature, but this separation proved untenable. Newspaper writers argued that legislators possessed only “a trust from the people for their good, and in several instances so far from possessing an absolute power, they ought to acknowledge that they have no power at all.” As Samuel Chase told his fellow Marylanders in 1787, representatives ought to be “bound by your instructions, or you destroy the very idea of election and of delegating power.” The people had assumed a new place in politics: no longer just one element of many within the government, they were now its foundation and ultimate source of authority.
As Adams recognized, however, it was not only government that was affected. To describe the revolution in narrowly political terms has been one of the mistakes, in Wood’s view, of those historians who have conceived of the revolution as a fundamentally conservative affair. Wood argues that “if we measure the radicalism by the amount of social change that actually took place—by transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other—then the American Revolution was not conservative at all; on the contrary, it was as radical and as revolutionary as any in history.”
Indeed, for eighteenth-century Americans, political change was always understood to be social change as well; in casting off monarchy, Americans knew they were transforming not only the old form of their government but also the old shape of their society. After the revolution, the king-subject and aristocrat-commoner distinctions disappeared, and new inheritance laws reduced a father’s control over his children. Servants started to think of themselves as equal to their masters; “master” became “boss,” and “servant” became “help” or “waiter.” “Gentleman” became a general rather than a specific term, and the same happened to the title “Mr.” The former weaver William Findley told his fellow Pennsylvanians in 1786: “No man has a greater claim of special privilege for his £100,000 than I have for my £5.” Farmers, artisans and other workers developed what Wood calls “a heightened appreciation of the significance and dignity of labor, which aristocrats traditionally had held in contempt”; soon “there was nobody left, in the northern part of the United States at least, who dared publicly and proudly to claim that he did not work for a living.”
The powerful idea of equality continued to work itself out in American society for decades after its initial revolutionary burst. It effected a more complete leveling of society than almost any of the revolutionaries had expected or even desired. By the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville could claim that “equality of conditions” was an ideal governing all aspects of America: “It gives a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed.” What the consequences of this shift would be, according to Tocqueville, would depend on how far democracy could be educated against its egalitarian excesses; in any event, the change seemed to him irrevocable, a cause for “a kind of religious dread.” “Nations of our day cannot have it that conditions are not equal; but it depends on them whether equality leads them to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”
In the unspoken competition among historians to prove that their own pet revolution was the most radical or the most consequential, the American Revolution usually doesn’t win, show, or even place. Historians of France emphasize the French Revolution’s strong social dimension and its articulation of the modern concept of universal human rights. Historians of England talk about the ways in which the turmoil of the 1640s turned the world upside down, to paraphrase the title of a still-influential book Christopher Hill wrote in the wake of the 1960s. Compared with the French or English revolutions, the American Revolution looks like a calm tea party; compared with the Russian Revolution, the American’s emphasis on private property appears hopelessly retrograde.
Historians of America aren’t inclined to disagree. Wood is highly respected in the field, but many younger professors and students chafe at his descriptions of the revolution’s radicalism and the early republic’s egalitarianism. From our present perspective, it is just as hard to see anything radical in the rise of popular sovereignty and white male democracy as it is to see anything egalitarian in a society that subjugated women, enslaved blacks and betrayed and murdered Indians.
Indeed, the wealthy, white, wig-wearing men who led the revolution can easily be characterized as conservative, and not just because they began their rebellion as an attempt to restore an older understanding of the English constitution. This view goes at least as far back as Charles Beard, whose most controversial book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, was published in 1913. Beard argued that the framers of the Constitution (and, to a lesser extent, the leaders of the revolution) were concerned primarily with securing their own economic advantage rather than advancing a set of philosophical principles. This interpretation influenced “progressive” historians, who emphasized economic conflict in history, until the middle of the century. In the 1950s, so-called “consensus” historians like Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin took a different tack, focusing on the pragmatic continuity between pre- and post-revolutionary America: “The most obvious peculiarity of our American Revolution is that, in the modern European sense of the word, it was hardly a revolution at all,” Boorstin wrote. “On the contrary, ours was one of the few conservative colonial rebellions of modern times.” Wood’s early work entered the picture here, in the 1960s, as part of an attempt to overturn the progressive and consensus interpretations by focusing on the intellectual history of the revolution.
Since then, however, the American historical profession has been transformed, as a more diverse group of scholars started to ask new questions and use new methods. The rise of genres such as social history and microhistory signaled the increasing interest of academic historians in uncovering the experiences of groups and individuals previously absent from the written record. Each community got its own study and took its place on the historical stage. Thanks to this work, we now know a great deal more about the revolutionary era than we did a few decades ago. It has become easy to go to any library and read about the experiences of slaves, Indians and women during the revolution; it is not hard to find, for instance, edited and annotated collections of the petitions that slaves sent the Massachusetts legislature in the 1770s, in which they appealed to the principles of the revolution to argue for their freedom.
This past generation of work has resulted in two basic approaches to the revolution: one that stresses its limitations, another that attempts to uncover actors not previously accounted for. Those who emphasize the limitations of the revolution—most notoriously, Howard Zinn—fault the Founders for not doing more to improve the lot of slaves, Indians, women and the working poor. Wood’s own pet example of this genre—one he quotes from in several introductions and essays—is Valley of Opportunity, Peter Mancall’s 1991 history of eighteenth-century economic life along the Susquehanna River. To Mancall, the revolution is noteworthy primarily for its failures: “Just as the revolutionary generation failed to free the slaves, failed to offer full political equality to women, and failed to offer citizenship to Indians, so it failed to create an economic world in which all could compete on equal terms.”
Those interested in uncovering previously underrepresented historical players have attempted to tell a new history of the revolution, one that does not dwell solely on a few wealthy white men. Gary Nash, for example, has made a distinguished and influential career out of telling the stories of the working poor and the non-white in American history. In The Unknown American Revolution, Nash focuses on what he calls (in obvious opposition to Wood) “the true radicalism of the American Revolution,” which “directed itself at destabilizing a society where the white male elite prized stability because it upheld their close grip on political, economic, religious, sexual, and social power.” Historians like Nash often criticize Wood (and others who focus on the Founders) for ignoring vast swathes of American society. “The elementary historical idea that the population of ‘social commentators’ might be biased toward the powerful is simply not part of Wood’s repertoire,” Robin Einhorn wrote in a review that charged Wood with uncritically celebrating Jefferson’s view of politics. “In his world, the winners are supposed to write the history.”
These views of the revolution are all examples of what Friedrich Nietzsche, in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, called “critical” history. According to Nietzsche, the critical historian dissolves the past “by dragging it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it.” Nietzsche pointed out certain problems that resulted from this approach: “For since we happen to be the results of earlier generations we are also the results of their aberrations, passions and errors, even crimes; it is not possible quite to free oneself from this chain.” Critical history is nevertheless, said Nietzsche, “an attempt, as it were, a posteriori to give oneself a past from which one would like to be descended in opposition to the past from which one is descended:—always a dangerous attempt because it is so difficult to find a limit in denying the past.” Despite its dangers, critical history can be useful or even necessary as an inspiration to someone “who is oppressed by some present misery and wants to throw off the burden at all cost.”
But the basic task of the historian may not be simply to address a particular present grievance. Indeed, even if this were the goal, it is not clear that relentless criticism represents the best way to achieve it. Understanding how the past prepared the way for the present may do more than any amount of criticism to help us make sense of our place in the world. Such an understanding would require a more-than-critical history; it would require a history capable of reconstructing a past world and the lives of the individuals who managed to change it. “Those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults are unqualified for the work of reformation,” wrote Edmund Burke, “because their minds are not only unfurnished with patterns of the fair and good, but by habit they come to take no delight in the contemplation of those things.”
Wood uses history to furnish us with those patterns, to take our myths out of the air and secure them, in somewhat humbled form, on a more solid foundation. By giving shape and structure to our idea of America—and describing in detail how it differs from what came before—he allows us to choose well and, one hopes, to avoid the servitude, barbarism and misery to which Tocqueville feared we might be consigned.
Wood initially laid out his ideas about the changes that took place as a result of the American Revolution in his first book, the Bancroft Prize-winning Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, which appeared in 1969. The book, which originated as Wood’s Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation, traces the shifts in American political thought between the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the Constitution. Creation seems in retrospect to have come from the era of the big dissertation, when ambitious graduate students studied huge transformations rather than narrow variations. In today’s academic environment, students embarking on dissertations are just as likely to think about marketability and ease of completion as they are to consider which questions are truly the biggest, the most exciting and the most important in their field—content to add small bricks to the house of historical scholarship, rather than trying to build whole new wings. But students who came through graduate school in the 1960s—when universities were exploding in size, adding more programs and hiring more professors than ever before—wrote big books that did, in fact, build new wings, books that remain foundational today. They advanced powerful arguments, backed up by hundreds of pages of evidence. Wood’s Creation is one of these books. Like other dissertations-turned-doorstops produced around the same time, such as Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black and Laurence Veysey’s Emergence of the American University, it is still the definitive study of its subject, the place to start for anyone interested in its topic.
The political transformations Wood describes in Creation lay the foundation for the rest of his work. The American colonists initially conceived of their uprising as a revolt on behalf of the English constitution, not against it. They believed in the old division of society into the few and the many, each with its own common interest that should be represented in different branches and bodies of government. Their goal was the establishment of uncorrupt governments devoted to the preservation of virtue and liberty. But the press of events—the formation of new state constitutions after 1776, the “critical period” of the 1780s—pushed them forward, into uncharted waters. Mob action and private interests seemed to threaten the new republic, so reformers attempted to come up with a system of republican government that would function even absent a virtuous people. The Constitution was meant to maintain distinctions and restrain factions in society, but it was based on ideas articulated in the previous decade—written constitutions, constitutional conventions, popular sovereignty—that really gave complete control to the people. A properly balanced government didn’t mix different segments of society; instead, it managed the various private interests of the people so they would be directed toward the public good. Public opinion, rather than self-sacrifice, became the basis of government.
These shifts in political thought are interesting enough on their own, but Wood makes them the stuff of high drama, with historical actors constantly finding their own ideas taking flight in unexpected (and often unwelcome) ways. For instance, the Federalists hoped the Constitution would “confront and retard the thrust of the revolution”—its democratic impulses—but, because the Federalists had to defend their principles with the rhetoric of the revolution, they unwittingly contributed to the formation of “a politics that would no longer permit the members of an elite to talk only to each other.” They could not see the radicalism of their own words. As they explained the logic behind federalism, the separation of powers and the bicameral Congress, they articulated a more powerful notion of popular sovereignty than had been seen before. Though the Federalists believed in the “kinds of natural leaders who knew better than the people as a whole what was good for society,” they ended up helping to discredit and destabilize the aristocratic conception of politics in America.
Wood’s style reflects and reinforces his view of history as an unfolding and multilayered narrative, in which actors often fail to grasp the full meaning of events until long after they have occurred. He asks his readers to recognize the foreignness of the past, the unexpected pressures of the present and the uncertainty of the future. At the organizational level, Wood structures his books such that each chapter unfurls as part of an ongoing drama, in which the “characters” are continually compelled to re-evaluate their previous actions. Thus he concludes the first half of the story he tells in Creation like this:
These were revolutionary ideas that had unfolded rapidly in the decade after Independence, but not deliberately or evenly. Men were always only half aware of where their thought was going, for these new ideas about politics were not the products of extended reasoned analysis but were rather numerous responses of different Americans to a swiftly changing reality, of men involved in endless polemics compelled to contort and draw out from the prevailing assumptions the latent logic few had foreseen. Rarely before 1787 were these new thoughts comprehended by anyone as a whole. They were bits and pieces thrown up by the necessities of argument and condition, without broad design or significance. But if crystallized by sufficient pressures they could result in a mosaic of an entirely new conception of politics to those who would attempt to describe it.
Reading that, we rush onward, just as the men at that time rushed onward, working with imperfect knowledge and not knowing quite what to expect.
Even John Adams misunderstood the significance of the shifts in American thought during the 1780s. Throughout the decade, Adams clung to the old ideas of politics that he had learned so well in his youth. Adams “saw that no society, including America, could ever be truly egalitarian, and he attempted, as no other revolutionary quite did, to come to terms with this fact of social and political life.” He believed basic distinctions were inevitable, so he continued to envision a government that would reflect society’s fundamental divisions. In his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, published in 1787, Adams reasoned his way to a governmental framework similar in form to the Constitution, but his talk of ranks, orders and divisions confused his fellow Americans, who by then had convinced themselves of the basic egalitarianism of their society. “In effect,” Wood concludes, “Adams placed himself not only in the path of the American Revolution but in the course of the emerging American myth.” The revolutionary had become a reactionary, simply by holding fast to the ideas that had once made him a revolutionary.
But what was the “new conception of politics” at which the Americans eventually arrived? The larger purpose of all of Wood’s work has been to explain the origins of modern America—which is not reducible to a collection of historical facts. Empire of Liberty, Wood’s latest publication, is an entry in the Oxford History of the United States series and thus purports to be the definitive volume on the whole country between 1789 and 1815. Like all of his writing, the book reflects Wood’s understanding of the inextricable relationship between the historical fact of America and the idea of America. It is his belief that the origin of America is an idea, or a set of ideas, that lends a unique power and urgency to his project.
This may be why Wood cares more about what the revolution changed than what it failed to change; and at least as much about how people thought about society as the material conditions in which they actually lived. In Empire of Liberty, Wood’s basic task is to chart how the United States evolved from a country that elected George Washington its first president into a country that celebrated Andrew Jackson’s exploits in the War of 1812 (and later elected him its seventh president). In the realm of politics, this is in large part the story of the fall of the Federalists, who tried to hang onto ideas about order and hierarchy in society, and the rise of the Jeffersonian Republicans, who became the champions of democracy.
The centerpiece of Wood’s larger narrative, however, is the Jeffersonian West, which occupies the central chapter of Empire of Liberty and lends the book its name. “The addition of a country so extensive, so fertile, as Louisiana,” Jefferson wrote in 1805, “has secured the blessings of civil and religious freedom to millions yet unborn. By enlarging the empire of liberty, we multiply its auxiliaries, & provide new sources of renovation, should its principles, at any time, degenerate, in those portions of our country which gave them birth.” The West was where ideas about democracy and equality could be rearticulated and reinvigorated, especially in the territories north of the Ohio River, which filled up with farmers, merchants, manufacturers and journalists. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, these “ambitious, go-getting middling sorts” in the North and the Old Northwest were “collapsing into themselves all levels of income and all social ranks and had come to dominate American culture.” Increasingly, they “considered themselves to be the whole nation and as a consequence gained a powerful moral hegemony over the society, especially in the North.”
But the importance of the West in the history of America has depended not so much on the actual opportunities it provided as on the idea of the West, which was for a long time synonymous, in some sense, with the idea of America. Starting with Jefferson or even earlier, the West existed in the American imagination as a place where people could go if the East began to feel too crowded or stratified. In the West, it was thought, the struggle to survive reduced individuals to a rough equality and preserved America’s democratic egalitarianism. The idea of the West as a place where people could begin again as free and equal individuals played a prominent part in John Steinbeck’s dustbowl epic The Grapes of Wrath and has informed countless wagon trains, dime novels and popular films. In his speech at the 1893 World’s Fair on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner argued that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.”
Far from attempting to deflate the “myth” of the idealized West, Wood marshals it as evidence for his arguments regarding the fundamental ideals of the early Americans. He advances his strongest claims about the egalitarianism of the early Republic in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. “Within decades following the Declaration of Independence,” Wood argues, “the United States became the most egalitarian nation in the history of the world, and it remains so today, regardless of its great disparities of wealth.” Such sweeping statements make Radicalism the work of Wood’s that his critics most love to hate. How, they ask, can he speak of egalitarianism in a country that has oppressed women, enslaved blacks and destroyed the Indians? And even if he is wrong-headed enough to write about the development of the idea of equality in such a country, how can he spend only a small fraction of his book on its exceptions and contradictions?
Even readers sympathetic to Wood’s project may see Radicalism as a throwback to a different era of historical writing, an example of a book that seems as if it was written before academic historians between the 1960s and the 1990s shifted the focus of the profession. But as Wood notes near the start of Radicalism, “There is a time for understanding the particular, and there is a time for understanding the whole.” Radicalism is not about the individual groups that make up society; it is about the general idea that a society forms of itself. In the case of America, it is about the monumental shift from a society that thought of itself as hierarchical to a society that thought of itself as egalitarian. Many groups were left out of that society in the wake of the revolution, but not the idea of it. For Wood, it would represent a false realism to reduce everything to the facts on the ground. Particularly in America, Wood suggests, society has always been—at least in part—the idea we have of it.
A few years ago, Steven F. Hayward wrote an essay in the Claremont Review of Books in which he declared that “Gordon Wood is the favorite historian of America’s liberal establishment.” Such a claim, which may seem surprising given Wood’s aforementioned unpopularity with much of the “liberal establishment,” was predicated on the claim that Wood is limited by his view that “one can learn about the past, but never from the past.” Even worse, Wood was “closed to the possibility that the founders might have discovered some political truths that transcend time and place.” Here Hayward was surely taking aim at Wood’s conclusion, in The Creation of the American Republic, that the political thought that emerged from the American Revolution came about almost unintentionally, by fragmentary bits and half-formed pieces, as “a simple response to the pressures of democratic politics.”
Hayward’s criticism is off the mark, and not only because Wood actually agrees that “ideas can, and often do, become political philosophy, do transcend the particular intentions of their creators, and become part of the public culture, become something larger and grander than their sources.” More fundamentally, such criticism misunderstands the methods and aims of historians, who must be concerned less with disembodied thought than with actual people thinking. Unsavory though it may sometimes be, the historian’s job is to catch the thinkers and writers of the past in the act, as it were, and to explain how sets of ideas served immediate needs while at the same time addressing perpetual problems. An historian attempts “to recover a past world as accurately as possible and try to show how that different world developed into our own.” What an historian does not do, at least not in his capacity as an historian, is try to find in the past ideas that he hopes to apply directly to life in the present or future. Which is not to say that such an endeavor is not worthwhile; it is simply not history.
As Wood has noted, reality is historically constructed, in the sense that we live in a world that took its current shape slowly, with small changes accumulating over a long time. In a review of a book about the Declaration of Independence, Wood concedes that historians ought to correct the yarns spun by Parson Weems about George Washington. “But what about the uses that Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., made of Jefferson and his statements about equality?” Wood asks. “By the precise standards of critical history, these uses were part of a false heritage, which it is presumably the responsibility of historians to correct. Yet these distorted heritages are precisely what many people want and perhaps need in order to keep the past alive and meaningful.”
Wood’s work suggests that it is useful to try to encompass both, to explain not only how worlds come into being but also what stories people tell about their worlds. History, of course, is one of the stories we tell about ourselves, and Wood’s work raises the question of how far the serious historian should consider it his responsibility to influence inspirational popular mythologies that might not be rooted in the historical record. Mythmakers of various stripes still exist today, writing simple biographies and narrative histories that ignore several decades’ worth of research by academic historians. On the other hand, academic historians have seemed often to consider the task of synthesizing all their smaller studies either impossible or not worthwhile. This is a problem: in a democracy, the idea society has of itself must be ratified by public opinion. And because the United States was founded on a set of ideas rather than a common ethnicity, language or religion, Americans are more apt than other peoples to return to their founding for their sense of identity as a nation.
Although he is a respected academic, Wood has also worked consciously to bring his story of the making of modern America and of American national identity to as wide a readership as possible. This explains Wood’s late-career turn to biography, the most popular historical genre from Plutarch to David McCullough. To influence the idea a democratic society has of itself, after all, you have to deal with public opinion. In his biographies of the Founders, Wood uses the arc of a life and its legacy to illuminate the particulars of the broad transformation with which he is concerned. He is not in the debunking business; no one who reads Wood will lose any respect for Washington or Jefferson. Instead, Wood tries to humanize the Founders—to show them as intelligent but often conflicted men operating in a particular time and place—and thus to reestablish our admiration for them on less exalted but firmer ground.
At the most basic level, Wood uses these stories to show his readers the unseen constraints and unintended consequences that go along with living as an individual in history. His essays on the Founders, collected in the 2007 volume Revolutionary Characters, emphasize that those characters— Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Paine—“helped create the changes that led eventually to their own undoing, to the breakup of the kind of political and intellectual coherence they represented. Without intending to, they willingly destroyed the sources of their own greatness.” Theirs was a world of enlightened hopes and elitist leadership, but the revolution they led, and that their hopes inspired, resulted in an unexpected wave of democracy and equality. “It turned out that they did not control their society and culture as much as they thought they did,” Wood writes. “They were also no more able accurately to predict their future than we can ours.”
No biographical work better illustrates Wood’s view of the complex interplay between life, legacy and history than his 2004 book about Benjamin Franklin. By emphasizing a few details and drawing out their larger eighteenth-century meanings, Wood deftly demonstrates how far the historical Franklin was from being the democratic capitalist of modern memory. Franklin retired from his printing business before entering public life in 1748, at the age of 42, because he “had come to believe that only those who were free of the need for money should be involved in public affairs—a principle that eventually became a fixation with him.” A few years later, when the colonies of British North America came together at Albany to try to form an inter-colonial union for defense, “Franklin presented a solution that he was to return to time and again in his career—a reliance on a few good men, or even a single man, to set matters straight.”
If that Franklin, the republican Franklin of the eighteenth century who believed in reasonable, disinterested gentlemen, is the historic Franklin, then how did the symbolic Franklin who represents egalitarianism and commercialism come about? The answer is public opinion. Early nineteenth-century Northerners effected this transformation, appropriating Franklin as the folksiest of the Founders. Artisans, farmers and other workers found in Franklin’s Autobiography and other writings “a hero they could relate to.” As laborers gained power in the early nineteenth century, a slightly modified version of Franklin—the democratic, working-man’s Franklin—served to connect these men to the Founding. The symbolic Franklin is different from the historic Franklin because the public opinion of the first generation after the revolution made it so, just as that generation “created a powerful conception of American identity—the America of enterprising, innovative, and equality-loving people.”
Ultimately, Wood compels us to recognize that people do not act independently; ideas do not arise out of nothing; actions have effects other than those intended by their authors. This does not degrade these ideas and actions; it simply shows that they are at least in part the product of circumstances and tend to play out in unexpected ways. If the fundamental problem of reading and writing all history is that “the past is a foreign country,” as Wood has written, then the historian cannot be best served by treating it as a repository of particular lessons that can be applied to specific contemporary problems. Yet neither should he assume that the ideals of the past can serve no positive purpose in the present. History is the story of how our society and our selves came into being; to learn to act as individuals in a complex world is to attend to the lessons that story has to teach. In this sense, good history can teach us the same lessons as good literature: how to live well, with humility and with a sense of the tragedy and irony of life.