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Gordon Wood and the Right to Crank

Wood remains a crucial part of that story. It is not just the “Radicalism of the American Revolution,” but Wood’s first contribution, 1969’s “Creation of the American Republic.” Wood is now seen as a neowhig, part a school of 1960s historians alongside Bailyn and Edmund Morgan who resurrected the world of ideas. Wood did that and gave us the sense that the framers could not entirely control the Revolution they helped unfurled — democracy, as a force, tended to take its own course and overthrow hierarchy beyond the intentions of its elite caretakers. Wood, no different than any other thinker or creative force, eventually lost control of his contributions and ideas and as an older man, has become more embittered with the direction of the academy. Perhaps Wood would rather we only talk about his work or world of ideas or perhaps he is indeed worried that his work will become irrelevant. The most human fear is that we inevitably become irrelevant ourselves and fade away into oblivion. Wood should take stock that his ideas, and not his self, will remain forceful into the future.

My only defense of Wood is simple that — he is like most other aging humans facing the end of their lives and careers. I opt to show some empathy for Wood, even if I think he’s wrong in his position. Wood should be able to understand that academics are not turning away entirely from his intellectual world, but exploring new avenues and adding to Wood’s contributions. Maybe I’m wrong and the future will show historians of the Early Republic only interested in social history, but I doubt it. In any case, histories of the Early Republic focusing on women, African-Americans, and the poor can be filtered through the lessons of the neowhigs to show how other actors in the Early Republic understood their world. Think about, say, the recent scholarship on the Latin American Revolutions and Haiti in particular and the global intellectual event that was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is intellectual history that takes the ideas of the framing generation seriously, but from a different point of view. That middle-class merchants in Buenos Aires cared about the ideas of the Revolution tells us exactly how powerful a force it was.

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