Gordon Wood — Again

Here’s an excerpt from Founding Finance (2012). It’s about the outsized influence — perhaps less on the academy than on commonly held public ideas about the founding — wielded by the elder postwar consensus historians, with a special focus on the work of Gordon Wood. I’m posting it in response to recent Twitter discussion of Wood’s criticism of the New York Times 1619 Project, in an interview Wood gave to the Trotskytist site World Socialist Web Site.

Ironies abound. I wrote Founding Finance during the days of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. As this excerpt makes obvious, I was trying to re-frame the entire U.S. founding around the class and economic conflict that Wood’s work has been dedicated to minimizing. Now the 1619 Project is reframing the founding around racial slavery. The WSWS people dislike that framing because they see it as undermining class-struggle interpretations (like mine), so Wood now gives WSWS aid and comfort by doing to the slavery-centering effort what he’s spent a career doing to the class-struggle-centering effort they promote. And WSWS gives Wood aid and comfort in return. . . . 

Strange bedfellows, etc.

The section preceding this excerpt focuses on the fatal erasure of class and ecomomics and their politics in popular biographies by David McCullough and Ron Chernow. Now I shift gears: 

. . .  It may seem as if I’m frowning on popular history because it relies on narrative, instead of offering academic analysis and argument. No. Not me. Some readers, critics, and historians do make a sharp distinction, reasonably enough, between what they classify as “heritage,” on the one hand, which would include some of the popular biographies, and serious history on the other. Yet to get at certain hard truths, my money will always be on pop, at its best, and dramaturgy, properly applied, over high training and elaborate argumentation. I like action. Not the Vin Diesel kind (not necessarily), the Sophocles kind.

The problem I have with today’s popular narrative history is that so much of it fails to benefit from what’s especially illuminating about the popular and narrative modes. I don’t think English heritage is all Shakespeare was after in “King Lear.” I miss the terror and pity.

And yet it’s really in certain aspects of professional academic history that I think the real culprit may be found and charged with causing our general vagueness about conflicts over founding-era financial and economic issues. If scholars were more inclined to delve into such issues, maybe popular authors would be too. Even on the list of scholars I’ve cited in support of my narratives, only the least well-known focus on early American struggles between wealthy founders and non-wealthy free white people. The elder academic historians of the founding era who are best known by the informed general public, the ones whose viewpoints have been so widely disseminated, repeated, and even lionized in the past fifty years — Richard Hofstadter, Douglass Adair, Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, to cut a swath — are the ones whose moods and conclusions find their way most readily into public and popular history, and those historians have spent more than a half-century weaving a very tricky denial of the real-world economics and the real-world politics of the period that they study and present to us.

* * * *

Their trickiness does get us into some controversy. One instance has to do with something I said in Chapter Two: that early American governments, both before and after independence, imposed property qualifications for voting, and imposed even higher property qualifications for holding elected office. I noted that the qualifications worked with other systemic barriers keeping unrich free white men out of the franchise: inconvenient polling places, slow creation of new counties, greater representation for more prosperous areas, etc. John Adams — with Madison our leading founding thinker on republican government — explained with great clarity why it was important to keep power in the hands of the reasonably well-propertied. Representative government requires independent judgment, a relative freedom from influence. If tenant farmers could vote, Adams said, their dependent condition would influence them to vote with their landlords; women, for the same reason, would vote with their husbands. Associating representative rights with the independence that comes from owning sufficient property accorded with the highest ideals of the men who signed the Declaration.

So I should acknowledge a widely cited study by Robert E. Brown, conducted in 1955 — the year I was born, a fact I mention only to underscore the degree to which it’s affected the influential American history of my lifetime — concluding that in Massachusetts, and by implication generally throughout 18th-century America, virtually all white male adults could vote legally, and that those who couldn’t vote legally voted anyway. The premise and conclusion of Brown’s work is that American society was always essentially middle-class; and that legitimate, representative American politics was therefore always exceptionally democratic.

Brown’s work thus marginalizes economic struggle in founding-era America of the kind I’ve been talking about in this book. His implication is that the major public events of the period had full support of ordinary free white Americans; also that the republicanism of the elite founders was fairly sympathetic to the desires of those Americans. Thus any rioting, protest, petition, or insurrection can only be seen as misguided at best, dangerous lunacy at worst. Elementally, for Brown, American society involves a consensus among a vast, flexible, pretty liberal middle class. Since it’s easy to wish that were true, Brown’s study had legs.

The problem is that its methods and conclusions seem to be nonsense. A number of historians and economists, including Robert McGuire and Robert Ohlsfelt, have criticized Brown’s methodology. And Jesse Lemisch cites a study that successfully employed Brown’s exact statistical approach to arrive at the absurd conclusion that nobody in early America was enfranchised at all. Lemisch goes further. He shrewdly notes that whether or not Brown’s statistics have any validity (they don’t, he says), Brown leaves unchallenged the fact that even higher property qualifications prevailed for office holding. That’s a key omission. It undermines the work of many who suggest that the early American franchise was pretty open to free white men. Even if property ownership in early America were as widespread as Brown wishes it were, and even if the unqualified often managed to vote illegally (gee, thanks), you couldn’t vote for anybody who wasn’t substantially propertied. Brown also leaves out all of the other systemic barriers to equal access to the franchise for free whites we’ve already seen: county size, eastern-county overrepresentation, distances to polling places, etc. The historian David Hawke, hardly a leftist like Lemisch, rejects Brown’s conclusions on still another basis, citing reliable sources suggesting that about 90% of the taxable white male population in Philadelphia, for example, was unenfranchised in 1776.

There’s nothing wrong with economic studies. Yet here we might also take advantage of the benefits of narrative. The story I’ve told in Chapter Three reveals many thousands of working-class Pennsylvanians rallying so fervently to suffrage and office holding for the unpropertied that they overturned a government. The Pennsylvania Committee of Privates, rank and file of the state militia, represented a huge group of people with an articulate agenda. It stopped taking orders from the assembly because, it announced, its members weren’t represented there. Such agitation went on, unsuccessfully, in Massachusetts too, and elsewhere around the country; the North Carolina Regulators, the New York tenant rioters, and many others wanted the same things. If the less economically advantaged in eighteenth-century America had wielded representative power, they would have legislated the very things those people historically protested and rioted for: debt relief, small-denomination paper money, land banks, and other policies restraining the wealth of the lending and landlord class and promoting the aspirations of ordinary people. When they got such power, in 1776 Pennsylvania, that’s exactly what they did.

The Brown-influenced answer to all those founding episodes must always be that egalitarian agitators represented a misguided, terminally discontented minority, pandered to and stirred up by power-hungry demagogues. That’s what elites of the period said too; most of them, I think, believed it. While many high Whigs did express regard for an economy in which property was, they said, pretty evenly distributed, they were including even in that discussion those with some property; in any event, their ideas of “pretty even” remained abstract enough to permit themselves comparative fabulousness. Thomas Jefferson hailed the glories of independent yeoman farmers. That doesn’t mean he would have endorsed their passing laws restricting his ability to pursue and sustain wealth far greater than theirs. Jefferson expected to live at the top of the hill; his view downward could get hazy. Jefferson flat-out feared and loathed the unpropertied masses of the cities; John Adams’s horror at the openness of the franchise in the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 was just as natural (despite, or perhaps because of, his having secretly helped to enable it). And Adams strenuously resisted the push by citizens western Massachusetts for the equal access that they and other democratic activists called “manhood suffrage.”

Understanding the place of democracy in the founding period really just can’t come down to whether Robert Brown can prove that somewhere or other in America, property ownership was so reasonably, to him, widespread that the franchise was reasonably, to him, democratic. He can’t prove that, it seems. But the important issue to me has to do with the hostility of the famous founders to any franchise not qualified by property, and the demand by the vast majority of less advantaged people for a franchise not so qualified. Call those populist demands misguided and their protests dangerous, as many have who endorse what’s called the moderation of the American Revolution; that’s a matter of complicated opinion. The importance of widespread populist economic critique and action, and the famous founders’ natural hostility it, can’t be so easily dismissed. Paying attention to the struggle between economic populists and the famous founders seems especially relevant to issues we’re fighting about today and the fundamental American values we lay claim to.

* * * *

Yet here’s the interesting thing, even in its way shocking, at least to me. The Brown study on founding-era voting has been embraced without any critical examination by the historians of the period who have been most influential on public understanding, from Hofstadter to Morgan to Wood. In The Progressive Historians, Hofstadter asserts that Brown proved that loose enforcement of voting rules made colonial suffrage widely available. In The Birth of the Republic, Morgan says that Brown demonstrated a majority right to vote in two states. Wood, citing Brown in The Creation of the American Republic, says that before the Revolution, much of the white male population in America had the right to vote. You can almost hear these historians heaving sighs of relief as they permit themselves to imagine, by welcoming Brown’s results, an early America lacking the economic barriers to political participation that might, in those same historians’ terms, at least explain the kind of social unrest I talk about in this book. Morgan also praises Brown’s work debunking Charles Beard; he says that Jackson Turner Main’s work “renders meaningless any interpretation of the period resting on class conflict.” Wood says that Brown and Forrest McDonald so utterly demolished Beard’s work that “no further time should be spent on it.” (Hofstadter, by contrast, does spend much interesting time on Beard.) Making any issues raised by the undemocratic nature of the eighteenth-century American franchise simply disappear, these historians are free to explore the more edifying issues they prefer to consider anyway.

Once you’ve invoked the Brown study, that is, tenant farming, for example, fades from the founding picture — fades, at least, as a form of suffering that might make rioting by the under-enfranchised esprcially worthy of consideration when discussing founding-era America. The creditor-debtor conflict I’ve described, which I think manifestly obsessed the founders themselves, becomes a side issue, or but one of many equally important issues; founding fights about the power of money get swamped by more abstract subjects like the nature of various classical and Whig influences on the various American elites  and non-elites, and the birth of American liberal capitalism out of the spirit of the early republic. On the misery and peonage of debt, Hofstadter’s complacency is summed up in his glib remark that if you had debt, that meant you at least possessed some property and enterprise. Things were fine. Everybody who counted was in the middle class.

Both Morgan and Wood must have the news of McGuire’s and others’ dissent from Brown’s now 56-year-old study. They must have the news of McGuire’s and Ohslfelt’s dissent from McDonald’s and Brown’s attacks on Beard.  Neither addresses that dissent, neither bothers to argue it down; they blithely cite Brown and McDonald as if they’d had the last word long ago. Hofstadter didn’t necessarily know about arguments against Brown, but the lack of interest shown by all of the consensus historians in giving any critical thought to the preconceptions and omissions in Brown’s study tells us not that Brown was right after all, but that consensus history prefers to see founding-era America in the terms Brown’s study describes.

I should note that I admire the work of the historians I’m criticizing here. Hofstadter’s idiosyncratic, narrative The American Political Tradition is one of my favorite books. That’s why I find it so depressing to read Hofstadter, in The Progressive Historians, relying wholesale on Brown’s study of founding-era voting to come up with this: “Only a minority of adult whites were disenfranchised.”  I think it’s revealing that even if Hofstadter’s intended point were correct, and I don’t think it is, he says “adult whites” when he must mean “adult white men” (Morgan makes the same mistake). He knows women weren’t enfranchised. For the purposes of his discussion, they don’t even exist! I only wish Hofstadter were alive, and reading this book, so I could imagine the eye-rolling impatience with which he would greet that little quibble.

And then, even while he reassures us that most white people were enfranchised, he piles on, defending in the same breath eighteenth-century Whig rationales for barring the unpropertied. He’s saying, really, that adult white men in the founding period did get to vote — except for the minority whose insignificance is defined by their not getting to vote —  and yet the qualifications that would have kept people from voting, if those qualifications had in fact succeeded, wouldn’t be anything to worry about anyway. From there, Hofstadter can caricature Beard — and along the way, anyone else exploring how economic class might have affected founding politics — as mistakenly presuming the founders’ attachment to property qualifications reveals something dark and sinister about the founders’ characters. Suddenly we’re among the loony, anti-intellectual conspiracists who populate Hofstadter’s always dim view of American political culture. Adopting the measured, slightly exasperated tone of someone doing his best to talk an idiot off a ledge, Hofstadter presumes sheer delusion on the part of anyone seeing any significance in founding-era class issues, yet his discussion relies less on closely examining the evidence he cites than on an apparent wish to keep us from delving into matters he considers less important than the things he likes to talk about.

* * * *

I see a related tendency in Gordon Wood’s work. Wood’s thinking is even more complex than Hofstadter’s, more complex, I think, than pretty much anyone else’s, at once overwhelmingly influential and too thorny for anyone to fully embrace or fully reject.  The thorniness is among Wood’s many admirable qualities.

In the 1960’s, Wood was seen by some as a “neo-Beardian,” because he does focus on conflicts among Americans, even on economic conflicts. To Wood, as to James Madison, those conflicts represent factional interests, with the two groups in society I’ve been focusing on — poorer and richer — only two of many competitors: merchants, planters, southerners, northerners, urbanites, rural dwellers, etc. Wood has thus been among the leaders of the historians who identify a founding “republican synthesis,” in which factional interests either get balanced via representation or, thanks to various invidious factors, fail to get balanced. In focusing on the attempts of our founding government to cope with a multitude of social and economic conflicts, Wood’s work in certain ways challenged the consensus history of writers like Louis Hartz and Edmund Morgan, who tended to ignore conflict in favor of an easier consensus.

In that context, Wood has scolded left historians for presuming that the only kind of economic conflict worth talking about is class conflict between rich and poor, ownership and labor. Where a Marxist historian might discern an eighteenth-century worker-capitalist conflict between, for example, a poor artisan shoemaker and a rich manufacturing employer, the shoemaker and the manufacturer themselves, according to Wood, believed the essential social conflict of their time prevailed not between them, but between those who have to go to work every day and produce something — both the poor shoemaker and the big employer — and aristocrats who laze about in idleness and extravagance. In founding America, the shoemaker and the factory owner are as one against inherited wealth and position.

It’s therefore nothing but anachronistically “presentist,” Wood says, for historians to insist on seeing in the founding period any pitting of richer industrialists against their poorer employees, or, I think, by logical extension, the merchant creditors (indeed often busy and hard-working) against their debtors who labored on subsistence farms. The cardinal historical error, in Wood’s view, is making the rich-poor competition a central one, and subordinating other competitions to it (just what I’m doing in this book). There was indeed a radicalism in the American Revolution, according to Wood, but it had nothing to do with the labor radicalism that, he says, only came later. Wood’s Revolutionary radicalism was social, as defined separately from economics; it had to do with an end to class deferences, longstanding in Europe and colonial America. Wood’s American Revolution supersedes strife between Hamilton and Madison, and between upper and lower classes, and between classical republicanism and high-Whig libertarianism, and resolves in Andrew Jackson’s accession to the presidency, which ushered in a liberal, rowdy, small-capitalist America, culturally independent at last.

Wood can deploy, to dazzling effect, quotations from various factions and strata, showing for one thing a republican-inflected language shared by the poorer laboring artisans and the rich industrialists in decrying aristocratic privilege. And of course it’s true, as we’ve seen, that men as radical in their economic egalitarianism as Herman Husband and Thomas Young employed a vocabulary similar to that employed by, say, Alexander Hamilton. We might ask, then, and just for example, whence all the mutual hostility, and more importantly the all-out political warfare we’ll see in later chapters here, and have seen in earlier ones, between a Hamilton and his constituency, on the one hand, and a Young and his, on the other? Hamilton certainly didn’t come from an aristocratic background; he represents the height of hard-working American meritocracy. Yet Young saw exploitive laziness in things that Hamilton prized as sheer virtue; Hamilton found the egalitarianism reprsented by Young horribly destructive of republican liberty (so did Adams and Madison and Washington and so on). When Herman Husband inveighed against the luxury seekers who live by the labor of others, he meant speculators like the constitutional framer James Wilson, whom I doubt Wood would cast as a European-style aristocrat.

I’ll note that when untangling matters like that, Wood will always have a thought-provoking answer. You’re never going to get ahead of him on the level of abstraction. But he won’t talk much about an extreme activism like Young’s; or he’ll define that kind of radicalism down, making it only an extreme version of republicanism. Hamiltonianism gets similar treatment. Anything suggesting a special historical significance for opposition between big business on the one hand and labor and small enterprise on the other, Wood will either push out toward the margins, re-shape to fit nearer the center, or set aside for resolution in the Jackson era.

And he ignores or plays down the many, many other quotations, easily found, in which people of various social strata, well beyond a Young and a Hamilton, on all sides of all founding economic conflicts, did define those conflicts in terms of a war between labor and business enterprise, between small business and big business, between small farmers and small artisans on the one hand and diversified commercial famers and factory owners on the other, between American creditors and American debtors, and between those barred from the franchise and those using the right of the franchise to crush ordinary Americans economically. Quotations aren’t proof. They’re illustrations. Selections from the same evidentiary base can be stitched together to appear to prove many conflicting things.

Wood’s depth of research, and his expository adroitness in exploiting it, along with his occasional storms of apodictic, aggrieved defensiveness — “I know it is naive and old-fashioned to believe that our responsibility as historians is merely to describe the past as it was, and not to manipulate it in order to advance some present political agenda” — make his work a daunting edifice. He’s telling us that his way of looking at these matters defends history “as it was”; those who differ are, by definition, distorting it for their own ideological reasons. Readings that challenge Wood’s view he thus condemns a priori as anachronistic, politically motivated hopes of modern writers.

* * * *

It will come as no surprise that I have a number of problems with all that. One of them has to do with any historian’s claim to be “merely” describing “history as it was,” and thereby living up to responsibilities, rather than applying an interpretation based on the usual concatenation of evidence, insight, inspiration, analysis, personality quirk, and yes, politics. Wood’s claim that his work, in distinction to the work of those he criticizes, springs from sources unpolluted by “present political thinking” is an astonishing one, weakening for me the compelling challenges he poses.

in real life, the political context in which Wood’s work has developed and succeeded would make an interesting study of its own. He reveals a sharp political bias when, for example, he does note the existence of what here I’ve been calling a founding American movement for radical economic egalitarianism. He reflexively calls that movement “egalitarian resentments.” He never bothers to argue that ordinary people’s desire for equal rights came solely their from resentment; he seems to presume that envy and aggrievement are the only possible causes for egalitarian agitation: not hope for personal independence, say, or for participation in being governed, or for economic development. He reflects on egalitarianism as only one perversion of founding republicanism, undermining the era’s sought-for balance of interests.

But where I find I really dissent from Wood’s approach comes down to how his brand of interpretation, though cast by him as transparent truth, fails him every time he’s forced to confront founding action instead of founding thought. One of those actions is how the Continental Congress came to declare independence. Here’s Wood on how independence came about: “With all this fighting between Britain and its colonies taking place, it was only a matter of time before the Americans formally cut the remaining ties to Great Britain.” That’s from his The American Revolution, a slim volume for a nonspecialist readership, and the book’s brevity and intended audience might excuse such clichéd shorthand, if it worked as shorthand. But independence wasn’t, as we’ve seen, a matter of time. It came about as the result of a series of human actions, in which reconciliation wasn’t somehow swept away, amid the fighting with England, but defeated, politically, both legitimately and extralegally. The romantic looseness in Wood’s formulating some invisible spirit of change is just what Wood roundly condemns as wishful thinking, and outright falsehood, in the work of authors with whom he disagrees. Here it enables him to suggest, without ever having to argue explicitly, that more or less everybody in America, or everybody worth talking about, was swept along in the winds of war rather than acting on others and being acted upon in identifiable, possibly revealing ways.

We might expect Wood’s magisterial work, The Creation of the American Republic, to air out the political fight over independence, or at least to take a position on not airing it out. Here again, though, when Wood arrives at Philadelphia in 1776, we get nothing but the simplistic formulations he typically resort to whenever action gets in the way of the ideas he traces with such complexity. The Pennsylvania radicals who took over the Pennsylvania assembly from outside, and set American ideas about money and government on a trajectory opposed to that set by nationalists in the Congress, were only “broadening,” Wood says, a republican dislike of ostentation into a “general denunciation of all differences.” Similarly, Wood wants Paine’s “Common Sense” and John Adams’s “Thoughts on Government” — written in flat-out opposition to one another’s views on democracy, even as the men were secretly collaborating in overthrowing Dickinson — to flow into one great stream of American republican ideology.  That’s not how Adams and Paine saw the matter, putting it mildly.

How people saw things at the time isn’t necessarily always the decisive consideration, but Wood will invoke it when it appears to help his argument, and it seems to me especially relevant here. Adams’s and Paine’s collaboration, as we’ve seen, was tactical.  It didn’t involve mutual sympathy. In fact, in the late winter of 1776, the two had a shouting match about proper government. Neither thought the other a true republican. Of course you can, if you want, see their competing ideas as more similar than different.  It all depends on your frame of reference.  Compare them both to Joseph Stalin, or to Uther Pendragon, and Paine and Adams look more alike. Or you can say each was wrong to condemn the other. But it’s important to me to note than in forming our nation, Paine’s ideas about government lost. Adams’s won. It took politics, not discussion, and not some sweep of ideological synthesis, to make that happen.

Wherever action occurs in the founding period, Wood’s Creation rides an updraft to the birds-eye view. “Americans came to believe,” he says, in declaring independence. He’s got to be using shorthand here, making “Americans came to believe” mean “some Americans in the delegations to Congress and in some in the state legislatures, along with some of those legislatures’ constituents, and some of the unenfranchised, came to believe.” Yet even framed that way, they didn’t really just “come to believe,” as if persuaded by pure argument or observation. They made efforts, and they responded to the efforts of others.

Wood’s preference for ideas over action can get weird. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, his promotion of social change as the radically American thing gets him into trying to explain why Virginia’s new constitution disenfranchised the unpropertied — the usual fear of their political dependency, as raised by Adams and many others — even as he’s also trying to tell us, literally on the same page, that republican ideas made not only money and land but also a carpenter’s skill, for example, a form of property. Skill alone wouldn’t have admitted a landless carpenter to the franchise in Virginia. That fact doesn’t give Wood pause, though it might have made the carpenter wonder what good all these supposedly radical republican social ideas were.  It’s hard for me to see Virginia planters congratulating themselves on expanding their conceptions of property, yet only just radically enough to continue barring landless carpenters from power. Every time people in the founding do something, enact something, or attack something, instead of just think or believe something, Wood seems to me to lose his grip. . . .

2 thoughts on “Gordon Wood — Again

  1. Who is “Douglass” Hofstadter? Do you mean Richard Hofstadter, the author of The American Political Tradition? Douglas Hofstadter is a professor of cognitive science, so I presume you don’t mean him.

    • I have a habit of mixing up the two famous Hofstadters’ first names. The copyeditor for the book caught the slip, happily, but when I pasted an excerpt from my original manuscript into the blog I’d forgotten about it. Someone else called my attention to it yesterday, and I made the correction last night.

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