Posted: January 26, 2007
ordon Wood is the favorite historian of America's liberal establishment. His essays appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, and liberalism's leading intellectuals—from Michael Sandel to Morton Horwitz to Bruce Ackerman to Cass Sunstein—regularly cite him with approbation. What virtues do they see in his work? In Wood's books, particularly his Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, they see a hammer with which to bash American individualism and capitalism, and to support an ever-growing administrative state.
Wood says that the American Revolution was a "republican" revolution. By that he means that it had intellectual roots ranging from ancient Greece and Rome to the English Commonwealth, and that it was more communal than capitalistic. "Ideally," he writes, "republicanism obliterated the individual." He explains that
republicanism was essentially anti-capitalistic, a final attempt to come to terms with the emergent individualistic society that threatened to destroy once and for all the communion and benevolence that civilized men had always considered to be the ideal of human behavior.
Given that belief, we should not be surprised that America's liberals look to Wood to find an image of America that suits them. In his interpretation of the American Revolution, they find support for their belief that what is good about the American past is a certain communitarianism, which they wish to marry to the modern state. As Mark Seidenfeld wrote in the Harvard Law Review: "I view the civic republican conception as providing an essential justification for the modern bureaucratic state.... Moreover, given the current ethic that approves of the private pursuit of self-interest as a means of making social policy, reliance on a more politically isolated administrative state may be necessary to implement something approaching the civic republican ideal."
Wood's work has been particularly important to liberal legal theorists. They have embraced key aspects of his argument in Creation of the American Republic as the foundation of a renewed attack on the Constitution's few remaining restraints on government power. Law reviews are packed with articles touting the "revival of civic republicanism" as the new theoretical justification for welfare-statism, and as a substantive alternative to the historical dead-end of modern individualism. Mindful of the defects of Marxism, legal positivism, and Progressive era-style economic regulation, and facing the need to overcome the formidable arguments of constitutional originalism, civic republicanism enables the Left to turn the tables and claim an original intent argument of its own. The Left's enthusiasm for Wood's ideas took off, not coincidentally, in the late 1980s in the aftermath of Attorney General Edwin Meese's elevation of the controversy over original intent. As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee historian J. David Hoeveler, Jr., observes,
What is at stake is nothing less than a contemporary liberal version of original intent.... These reconstructions of republicanism apply with varying specificity to the role of the Supreme Court in American society. They constitute a liberal original intent providing an ideological outline, or cultural value system, that has direct applications to law and the interpretation of law.
Wood's Creation is invariably the principal source offered as historical support.
The eager extrapolation of Wood's argument is seen not merely among obscure, tenure-seeking adventurists, but also among the leading celebrities of the legal academy. Horwitz, who teaches at Harvard Law School, cites Wood to give effect to his view that "republicanism was a truly coherent political alternative to liberalism in American thought." Sunstein, a leading light at the University of Chicago Law School, is explicit about the project of finding a non-Lockean, non-liberal narrative for America, writing in the Yale Law Journal that
it is no longer possible to see a Lockean consensus in the founding period, or to treat the framers as modern pluralists believing that self-interest is the inevitable motivating force behind political behavior. Republican thought played a central role in the framing period, and it offers a powerful conception of politics and of the functions of constitutionalism.
Sunstein adopts the postmodern formula that property rights are a "social construction," adding that "republicans are hardly hostile to redistribution or to collective efforts to reassess the existing distribution of wealth and entitlements." And he is clear that civic republicanism, as he understands it, involves the negation of natural right: "What is distinctive about the republican view is that it understands most rights as either preconditions for or the outcome of an undistorted deliberative process." In sum,
[R]epublicans see the private sphere as the product of public decisions, and deny the existence of natural or prepolitical entitlements.... The creation of such a sphere, based on a theory of natural rights, coexists uneasily with republican conceptions of politics.
In Sunstein's hands, civic republicanism would entitle the judiciary—especially the Supreme Court—to be more political than it already is, and provide the theoretical basis for radical policy prescriptions, such as a "New Deal for speech" in which access to the media would be "redistributed" to make American politics more "democratic."
Two questions come to mind: is this a reasonable interpretation of Wood's work? And beyond that, is Wood's interpretation of the American Revolution itself reasonable?
It is not clear that Wood himself would go as far as Sunstein, Seidenfeld, or the other legal scholars who use his work as a prop. He is no typical lefty academic, though he has taught American history at Brown University for many years. He assails postmodern multiculturalism in spirited terms: "multiculturalism," he wrote in the William and Mary Quarterly, "not only falsifies our past; it destroys our future." He deplores relativism's "insidious" attack on the idea of objectivity in historical research and writing. He rejects the victimology inherent in the class- and group-based obsession with "oppression"—taking special aim at the prominent oppression-studies specialist Gary Nash (who criticized Wood for not paying more attention to the Left's anointed victim classifications). Wood comments: "What is extraordinary about the American Revolution is not, as Nash suggests, the continual deprivation and repression of the mass of ordinary people but rather their release and liberation."
In 1991, five years after Wood wrote this, he published The Radicalism of the American Revolution, perhaps the most thorough, engaging inventory of the astonishing democratic social changes the Revolution unleashed. "[T]he American Revolution," he declares, "was not conservative at all; on the contrary: it was as radical and as revolutionary as any in history." The Revolution upset social hierarchies and accelerated the social mobility that has always been one of the cornerstones of American character. He suggests that between 1776 and the early 1800s, American culture and society went from republican to democratic. In Revolutionary Characters, his latest book, he affirms that the founders were an extraordinary and admirable group of political thinkers.
One suspects that Wood's conclusions changed between 1969, when he published Creation, and 1991, when he publishedRadicalism. In both books, Wood argues that democratic nationalism triumphed over republican ideology. In that sense, they tell the same story—the one by describing an ideological change, and the other by describing a cultural and social transformation. Even so, his evaluation of the shift to democratic nationalism alters from one book to the other. In the 1960s, Wood, like many others, believed that individualism had ruined America. By the 1990s, however, he thought middle-class democracy was not half bad. So it is not surprising that academic liberals tend to quote the former and not the latter book. In the penultimate chapter of Creation, "The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams," which Wood reprints in Revolutionary Characters, he suggests that America rests upon a false foundation: "for too long and with too much candor [Adams] had tried to tell his fellow Americans some truths about themselves that American values and American ideology would not admit." By the time he wrote Radicalism, Wood had grown less hostile to the American regime.
Even if Wood might not like all the uses to which Creation is put, that does not mean that liberals are interpreting it incorrectly. Wood's account of republicanism is fundamentally communitarian. Yet by citing Wood as they do, Sunstein, Ackerman, and the others neglect something essential in his work. In particular, they ignore the book's conclusion. InCreation, Wood argues that an anti-capitalist concern for civic virtue and some idea of the "public good" lay at the heart of the 1776 revolution. That's what liberals like about it. Yet to win ratification of the Constitution, he argues, the Federalists had to pretend it was rather more democratic than in fact it was, with results both ironic and tragic. The Federalists wrote the Constitution, according to Wood, to insert republican checks on American democracy, and upon democratic individualism. But to get the people to ratify the Constitution, the Federalists had to appeal to the sovereignty of the people. As a result, they secured the triumph of the very democracy they were trying to contain. Necessity and events put republicanism onto the trash heap of history. In the most frequently cited passage from Creation, Wood becomes the heir to, and modifier of, Charles Beard and Louis Hartz:
[T]he Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which the differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests. In other words, the Federalists in 1787 hastened the destruction of whatever chance there was in America for the growth of an avowedly aristocratic conception of politics and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics.... [T]he Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics...and created a distinctly American political theory but only at the cost of eventually impoverishing later American political thought.
After 1789, Wood argues, there was no longer any room in America for classical thinking about the common good, or for the ideas that sustained it. Wood laments the loss.
Unlike today's liberals who quote his magnum opus, Wood does not think that America can return to its republican roots. He may be crying over spilled milk, but he has the fortitude to admit it. On that ground, he criticizes some of the uses to which his work has been conscripted. In a symposium on civic republicanism in the Chicago Kent Law Review, Wood wrote that
the idea that we today can restore some sort of classical politics to our public life strikes me as utterly chimerical.... All of [the legal scholars] seem to speak and write as if we had more freedom and choice in the matter than we do. They seem to suggest that people can actually be talked into restoring classical politics or even aspects of classical politics to American political life.
According to Wood, any effort to return to past ways of life is futile. History moves relentlessly onward. Wood's point is not that America's founding was republican, but that America was founded as part of a historical process that soon rendered republicanism obsolete.
The Virtues of History
If Wood does not quite teach the lessons that liberals often draw from his works, what does he teach? He is correct that America's founders read classical political thinkers with attention and learned from them, particularly about the connection between liberty and virtue. It is also true that, when it was founded, the American regime was something new and distinctive in history. And it is hardly unreasonable to find, as he suggests in Radicalism, that there was something noble in the founding, and something good in American society from the start. In that sense, it is not such a bad thing that Newt Gingrich regularly quotes him, or that Wood's latest book appeared on President Bush's summer reading list.
If one reads Wood closely, however, his work becomes less sound. Consider his treatment of classical virtue. Wood defines virtue simply as submission to the public good—that's why it "obliterated the individual." In other words, he collapses the classical virtues of individuals—wisdom, courage, justice, moderation—into a crude notion of civic virtue. His seemingly exhaustive exegesis of the classical republican sources of American political thought is deficient, too. Critics have impeached his use of sources, noting that he sometimes wrenches quotations out of context in order to bolster his interpretation.
Wood's discussion of liberty in the American Revolution is similarly inadequate. In the hundreds of closely argued pages ofCreation, a book that is supposed to cover the years 1776 to 1787, the Declaration of Independence barely receives a glancing nod, while Locke and social contract theory are shunted aside perfunctorily. Wood does not think it is important to explore the ideas of the Declaration in any detail. In his short book The American Revolution, the Declaration fares slightly better. Here he echoes Lincoln: "The Declaration of Independence set forth a philosophy of human rights that could be applied...to peoples everywhere. It was essential in giving the American Revolution a universal appeal." Wood does not grasp, or does not think it possible to compare, the difference between the founders' understanding of rights and that of contemporary liberalism. Consider this animadversion on Jefferson from the same volume: "Jefferson stood for the rights of individuals, and these rights have been carried to extremes in recent years. So Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence are at fault." (To be fair, it is not clear whether he is speaking for himself here, or describing the views of others with the historian's pose of critical detachment. This is a recurring ambiguity in his writing.) Wood's disregard of the Declaration and Locke's influence is akin to an account of Christianity that left out St. Paul or omitted the doctrine of salvation by grace.
By misreading both the classical understanding of virtue and the modern understanding of liberty, Wood misconstrues the nature of the American Revolution and the republic it helped to create. His readers don't get the tools with which to understand Jefferson's famous remark that the American mind drew, inter alia, upon the principles of the elementary books of public right, such as "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc."
Wood's vices are born of his virtues. He is a good historian who recognizes that the past is fundamentally different from the present, and for that reason, must be understood on its own terms. He takes that idea to such an extreme, however, that it damages his achievement. The fundamental difficulty in Wood's approach to the founding is that he is closed to the possibility that the founders might have discovered some political truths that transcend time and place. The ideas of the founding cannot guide us today, he suggests, because they are ideas from the past, and the past, being different from the present, is irredeemably alien.
This belief animated his full-throated attack in the New York Review of Books in 1988 on the "quasi-religious view of the Founding" and the "fundamentalism" of what he called "the Leo Strauss bicentennial." The Straussians "are wrong to see the Constitution as having timeless and universal meaning embodied in the philosophical aims of the Founders and discoverable through textual exegesis.... [H]istorically there can be no real ‘original intention' behind the document." This makes one wonder why Wood ever devoted such extended attention to the Constitution.
"In the end all the Founders created something that no one of them ever intended," he writes. For him, that conclusion is a truism. According to his premises, historical figures cannot really know what they are doing; and historians who can know, but only in retrospect, cannot do anything with their knowledge. In short, one can learn about the past, but never from the past. Perhaps that goes too far, but only a bit. The deepest truth Wood sees in history is that history never ceases to move. From history, one cannot learn wisdom but at best a certain Romantic longing to be part of the communal whole that is in motion. This is watered-down, very watered-down, Heidegger.
Another way of saying all this is that the same dramatic irony—that the readers know truths about the founding that the founders could not possibly know—which makes the story Wood tells in Creation so compelling, also limits Wood's insight into the era. Thomas Pangle argues that Wood and his emulators read republican political thought "in a spirit which is not only alien, but also inferior in seriousness to the spirit of the eighteenth-century readers." Historian Edward Countryman observes that "Wood comes very close to writing as if a single intelligence lay behind the numerous quotations that make up his book." John Patrick Diggins is more blunt, charging that
Wood has allowed himself to be convinced that the mind is so much the product of social interaction that the ideas that derive from its cognitive operations cannot tell us anything about historical reality.... If one were to follow Wood's advice to its logical conclusion, intellectual history would become not the history of ideas but of opinions and interpretations, and the historian would have no way of judging the accuracy or rightfulness of such opinions and interpretations.
Yet Wood gets angry when his own premises and interpretations are attacked—as though he were somehow in the right. He might deny that John Adams could learn the same things that Cicero or Marsilius did from reading Aristotle's Politics. Yet Adams thought that he could. In short, Adams and the other founders disagreed with Wood's bedrock historical premise. As a result, his assumptions limit his vision, disabling him from giving a full account of the American Revolution and the ideas that animated it; disabling him, indeed, from giving a consistent defense of his own laudable researches.
The Future of the Past
These difficulties make interesting Wood's more recent expressions of dismay over multiculturalism and postmodernism. His own commitment to seeing political ideas as transient products of historical and social context leaves him, finally, no grounds of resistance to the intellectual corruption of our time. He arrives unarmed at conferences and faculty meetings. He betrays this here and there with a throwaway phrase. In a 1981 review of Oscar Handlin's Truth in History, Wood writes: "[A]s we wait for modernism to engulf us, we can only carry on our historian's business as best we can, clinging to Handlin's belief that ‘truth resides in the small pieces that together form the record.'" But Wood never gives the sense that these small pieces will ever fit together into a larger whole, which could correct or instruct us about our present circumstances. For him, political thought remains not even a large jigsaw puzzle, but an ever-changing kaleidoscope. His criticism of multiculturalism is thus of a piece with his dismissal of natural rights. He dislikes the former because it suggests that a culture cannot, or should not, cohere as a historical whole. He scorns the latter because it implies that rights are beyond culture. He has no truck with either conclusion. For him, cultures are comprehensive wholes, and they are constantly evolving.
The most important reason for Wood's wide, enduring appeal is that he cast a much-deserved spotlight on the ways in which classical republican thought infused the founding. Such an inquiry was a needed corrective to the view of America as a wholly modern, wholly liberal regime indifferent to public considerations of virtue. His approach might yield a new synthesis or at least combination of ancient and modern strands of political thought. But though his work raises the question, he does not, and cannot, answer it. In Wood's recreation of the political thought of the founding, the idea of natural right (whether understood in ancient or modern terms) goes missing in action.
As a historian, Wood has many virtues. He writes with becoming modesty. As much as possible, he lets his sources do the talking. But that is what makes the limits of his vision all the more frustrating. His "objective" approach to history simplifies the past in order to make it more susceptible to interpretation. His historicism leads him to affect an apolitical posture when writing about deeply political things. An "objective" historian is not supposed to make value judgments. That is partly what he has in mind when he writes that historians cannot pay attention to philosophers if they are to do their work. This is a pity, for the political philosophers he disdains agree with him to a large extent that the tension between classical republican virtue and modern liberalism is a crucial question for understanding—and preserving—America. Yet those scholars of philosophy speak of moral reason and moral argument, not "value judgments."
By its ambition and scope, Wood's body of work will remain preeminent for some time in the historiography of the American Founding. But it begs to be superseded by an equally large-scale treatment that does not shy away from treating the founders as thinkers and statesmen, rather than as 18th-century ideologues.