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Interview with Gordon S. Wood

Historians/History




Ms. O'Neill is an HNN intern.

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. He received his B.A. degree from Tufts University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He taught at Harvard University and the University of Michigan before joining the faculty at Brown in 1969. His book in the Oxford History of the United States, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 will be published in October 2009. Professor Wood reviews in the New York Review of Books and The New Republic. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. This interview was conducted via e-mail

What interested you or compelled you to focus on Revolutionary America in your studies?

In graduate school I took a seminar in early American history with Bernard Bailyn and became immediately attracted to the field.

You initially did not plan on attending graduate school for history but instead served in the Air Force after earning your B.A. from Tufts University.  When you decided to join the Air Force, did you feel any sense of regret that you were not studying history?  What made you change your mind about enrolling in graduate school?

I entered the Air Force to fulfill my ROTC obligations and never intended it as a career.  I planned to go back to Tufts to attend the Fletcher School of Diplomacy in prepartion for a career in the Foreign Service.  Because of my odd experience in the military, I decided I did not want to work for the government.  While stationed in Japan I applied to graduate school to study history, a subject that I had always loved.

When you entered graduate school after serving in the military, did you face any obstacles?  If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

I don’t recall any obstacles in graduate school other than the usual problems of too little money and too many anxieties over passing my oral exams.

Currently many undergraduates in history are intimidated by the amount of time and the monetary cost required to earn a Ph.D., and instead feel as though they should turn to what are seen as more “secure” career outlets like law or business school.  What advice would you give these students who love history but who are guided by outside pressures to find a more so-called “realistic” career path?

Students should not apply to graduate school unless they feel history and scholarship as a calling, as something akin to a religious commitment.  Otherwise they won’t have the stamina to see them through.  Doing history is a lonely business and not everyone has the stomach for it.  If one hasn’t already demonstrated some talent for research and writing as an undergraduate, it will probably not be acquired in graduate school.

From your extensive experience as a professor, what did you see to be the most important goal for your students to achieve as young historians?

The most important goal for a young historian is to acquire an understanding of history and the capacity to convey that understanding to students and readers.

You have emphasized that history has always revealed one important theme:  that nothing happens the way the participants who launched it intended it to happen.  In addition to this underlying concept of history, what did you want your students to understand about history and about how to approach the study and recording of history?

History is the queen of the humanities. It teaches wisdom and humility, and it tells us how things change through time. A novel such as The Leopard can do that too, but history is the ultimate humanist discipline.

You have recognized that recently there has been a lot of pressure on graduate students to address social rather than political history, especially social topics dealing with race and gender.  While social history is crucial as it enriches the previously overlooked aspects of history, what would you say to those students who wish to study political history but are feeling pressured to discount political history as the study of “white men?”

Students should study the subject they are most interested in and not the subjects their graduate teachers want them to study.  The students have to live with their subjects for years, and they need to enjoy what they are doing.  Above all, they should not treat their history writing or history teaching as conducting politics by other means.

What would you say has been the most rewarding aspect of being a historian?  Additionally, what has been the most meaningful insight you have ascertained after writing your latest book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815?

I think the study of history has enriched my understanding of humanity.  The most meaningful insight I gained in writing Empire of Liberty was coming to realize the degree to which the Founders lived with illusions about the future, illusions involving the gradual disappearance of slavery, the saving of the native peoples, the nature of the economy, and so on.  Of course, they did not know their future any better than we know ours, and we live with many illusions too, as future historians will surely point out.  Good history gives us a tragic view of life, that is, not a pessimistic view, but a sense of the limitations of life, that not everything is possible, and few of us understand the situation we are in.

You have highlighted the value of historical monographs as they enhance certain disciplines within history, yet you also have recognized the importance of narrative histories as they are one of the main instruments of informing the public on history.  In your books like The Radicalism of the American Revolution and The Making of the Constitution did you face significant obstacles by trying to reach both groups?  Do you believe it would be more beneficial if historical writing could return to the traditions of Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who were able to reach both academic historians and the general public? 

It is no doubt difficult to write for two different readerships at the same time, both fellow historians and the general public.  In attempting such writing one is apt to fall between the two groups of readers and reach neither.  I think academic historians ought to try more often to write for a general public.  Otherwise, they leave history writing for the educated public to the non-academic historians, whom they then often criticize for being too facile and simple.  Academic historians have no one to blame but themselves for this situation.

As an academic historian, you incorporate analysis within your narrative histories.  What are the major themes or points in the history of the American Revolution that you are trying to relate to the typical American reader? 

The American Revolution is the most important event in American history, bar none.  Not only did it legally create the United States, but it infused into our culture nearly all of our noblest ideals and highest aspirations.  Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolution, as did the political institutions by which we still govern ourselves.  The Revolution is what gives us our identity as Americans, and thus all Americans need to know about it.

Do you believe that a goal for historians should be to both correct distorted memories yet maintain the emotional connection that people have created with the past?  Your book, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, seems to both deal with correcting the vision that most Americans have of Benjamin Franklin while still upholding his momentous impact on Revolutionary America.  What made you choose Benjamin Franklin as opposed to the other Founding Fathers as the topic of your book?  Do you feel that one of your main goals was to address the distorted memories of Franklin while also preserving the emotional links that Americans have formed with him?

There is obviously a good deal of tension between the critical history writing of scholars and the emotional ties of memory shared by the general public, and historians have to treat that tension with sensitivity.  But ultimately our goal as critical historians is to recover the past as accurately as possible, even if it means treading on emotional memories of the past.  My book on Franklin moved between critical history and memory.  I first became interested in Franklin in the 1970s when I reviewed several volumes of the Franklin Papers, those dealing with the late 1750s and early 1760s, a time when Franklin was in love with the British Empire and scarcely thought of himself as an American.  But in the end Franklin became the symbol of American entrepreneurial energy and that needed to be explained.

The ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are championed by many Americans to give a sense of individual meaning and optimism to our democratic nation.  Have you found that your research has given you more encouraging or uneasy conclusions about our democratic foundations and the intentions of the key creators of our government?

For better or for worse, that trilogy of ours is appropriately American.  It tells us and the world what we are about.  The Canadians have their own trilogy, “peace, order, and good government, “ and it is appropriate to their society.  If we want to know the difference between the Americans and the Canadians, who seem on the surface so much alike, we can do no better than to point to these contrasting mottos. 

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/19/2010

In the short run the U.S. Revolution led directly to the French Revolution, which probably had a more immediate effect on the world than ours. (One thinks of the British suddenly returning seized land to the Catholics in Ireland). But in the longer run it was our Constitution which flashed across Eastern Europe after the fall of the iron curtain, and which was used from Ulan Bator to Baghdad to Prague. Unfortunately, the wisdom and utility of that document is no longer sufficiently honored, defended or appreicated in America.