A Lecture on the Early Republic

Brown University professor and History Pulitzer Prize winner Gordon S. Wood visited the Circle to give an enlightening talk about the early American nation. A universally respected scholar, Professor Wood started  on his path to become one of the great historians on the early American Republic when he graduated from Tufts in 1955 and joined the United States Air Force to serve in Japan. During his service, he earned an M.A. in History from Harvard and later a Doctorate in History.

In his lecture, which was required for all U.S. History students, Professor Wood explained the significance of the American Revolution. He said that it was an important event that marked the beginning of the “American Spring.” The revolutionaries wanted to overthrow a tyrannical British government and replace it with an idealistic democracy while setting the precedent for other countries overseas to follow. Indeed, Prof. Wood sees the American Revolution of 1776 as the event that triggered the start of a series of revolutions internationally which spanned until the early 1830s. The Articles of Confederation, an “interstate treaty” that created the first union of states, were the products of the Revolutionary period. According to Prof. Wood, the United States became relatively democratic and an “intellectual world leader” in comparison to other countries.

However, the Articles of Confederation allowed for too much freedom among the states; state bicameral legislatures had too much power while the federal government could not establish a union. The states, as Professor Wood says, had “excessive democracy.” With no outside power to keep them in check, there was for example so much mutability in laws that often judges hardly knew what the law was. Americans, who previously believed that democratic despotism was impossible, saw the states “running amok” as the popular majorities tyrannized the minorities. According to Prof. Wood, this early stage of government was an experiment in democracy.

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(Union University)

The big debate, he stated, was how to represent the minorities while not restricting the ideas of a democratic majority rule. Furthermore, the national government needed the power to tax for revenue and to regulate trade. The solution to these issues, advocated by the Federalists and particularly James Madison, became the fundamental principle of the present day republican government, or the new Constitution, which was a completely different document replacing the Articles of Confederation.

Although Professor Wood is an accomplished and prominent figure in his area of study today, humble beginnings preceded the making of the great historian. Reflecting on his choice of careers, Prof. Wood admitted that as he was leaving the Air Force in 1958 he “didn’t know he was going to work with early American History.” He originally thought of joining the Foreign Service, but when that choice “did not seem viable,” he fell back on pursuing studies in history.

He had first set his sights on working with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., another scholar who had grown prominent in the field of 19th and 20th century American History when Prof. Wood was starting his studies. However, Professor Schlesinger had no time to teach graduate students because of his active involvement in the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. Wood resolved to work with Bernard Bailyn, a young professor at Harvard at the time who specialized in the pre-Revolutionary era of American history and has since won two Pulitzer Prizes for History.

Looking back on his decision, Professor Wood jokingly conceded that he was mostly attracted to history because he had one of those jobs in the Air Force where he “didn’t have to do anything,” which allowed him to read Schlesinger’s two volumes on FDR. At the time, early American history was a burgeoning field, and it “seemed like an opportunity for research and understanding,” which attracted him. Prof. Wood added that although he was “naive and innocent” and “didn’t know what was involved” in the domain that he was plunging into, he hasn’t “regretted it one bit.”

When asked about what it takes to be a history professor, Professor Wood said that “it’s difficult to predict the future.” He advises students to simply pursue their interests and see what happens. “That’s the whole point of college,” he says, “to test what your interests are.” For Prof. Wood, a liberal arts undergraduate education doesn’t entail a vocational path; it is “simply designed to free your mind. It’s an investment in your life, not in your job,” so that you might have other intellectual pastimes to fall back on in your free time. In Professor Wood’s opinion, in order to become a college professor one has to be very dedicated and “be willing to spend long hours alone in a library,” which is “not everybody’s cup of tea.” He added that there are many restraints to the job, such as being geographically limited: a job opportunity might only be open outside of a geographical study area of interest, leaving no choice but to take it. Although these instances can lead to “morale problems,” Professor Wood remarked that overall, academic life does have many advantages.

Professor Wood did not hesitate to choose George Washington as the most important president in American history. In his opinion, considering that Washington had no precedents to fall back upon at a time when the nation was in its crucial early stages, he was “extraordinary” in keeping the country together. Most impressive was that “he had the confidence of both the Federalists and the Republicans” because of his strong leadership.

Although Washington was not such an intellectual compared to Jefferson or Hamilton (both of whom contended in one of the most significant political battles in American history over the establishment of the First Bank of the United States), “[Washington] was the kind of person who could ask people for advice, weigh it, and then make a decision.” He had “‘the gift of silence,’ to quote Adams,” so that he might keep some distance with his advisors in the making of his own opinion on the subject at hand. In contrast to John Adams and Jefferson, who in their retirement years had a long epistolary discussion “to show off their intellectual credentials,” Prof. Wood sees Washington as a real leader, a great dancer and a superb horseman, vaguely comparable “to the star football quarterback in high school.”

When asked about his opinion on the recent NSA scandal, Prof. Wood believes that nobody outside the intelligence group knew the extent of the surveillance, including President Obama. He saw it as a sad consequence of the 9/11 attacks that “we’ve become so security conscious that we don’t take any risks at all,” costing the government “billions of dollars” in security measures and destroying many aspects of citizens’ lives. Referencing his talk, Prof. Wood warned that “military rule comes in because people want security. And the NSA is a kind of authoritarianism.” He believed that bureaucrats shouldn’t have that kind of power, because “executive power corrupts.”

Gordon Wood’s acclaimed work on the early Repbulic continues to hold great value in the aftermath of Arab Spring and the poltical stalemate in Congress. His work promises to hold invaluable lessons for future generations to come.

 

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