Possibly the right response to Gordon Wood’s “History in Context” in The Weekly Standard – a “get off my lawn essay,” as one historian says – is parody. After all Wood does begin the essay by saying his mentor Bernard Bailyn is woefully under-appreciated, and then proceeds to mention that Bailyn has two Pulitzers.1 What else can one do but mock?
Well, one can take Wood earnestly, as is one’s wont, and ask, what happened to the younger Gordon Wood? How would he fare before the stern tribunal of Weekly Standard Wood?
I ask because Wood the elder expresses dissatisfaction with those historians “obsessed with inequality,” who
see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. They criticize Bailyn’s work for being too exquisitely attuned “to the temper of an earlier time” and, thus, for failing “to address the dilemmas of its own day.”…
These historians need to read and absorb Bailyn’s essay on “Context in History,” published in this collection for the first time. Perhaps then they would be less eager to judge the past by the values of the present and less keen to use history to solve our present problems. In some sense, of course, they are not really interested in the past as the past at all.
But, as another Bailyn student pointed out to me, Wood was not always so scornful of judging and using the past for present purposes, nor so principled about letting the past be past. Consider this important passage from Wood’s remarkable first book, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787:
Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments.… In effect they appropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests.… and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics.… the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics.
Listen to what Wood the younger is saying, here: “disingenuous” surely sounds morally critical, as does “appropriated and exploited.”
Talking about what might “never again” be, and even about “the future” certainly doesn’t sound like thinking about “the past as the past.”
And bringing up “differing social interests” and “real social antagonisms” sounds like it might entail concern about, if not obsession with, inequality.
Perhaps Wood the younger would have to get off Wood the elder’s lawn.
I am actually more interested in what Wood the younger would say to his older self, concerned as he was with arguments that foreclosed discussion of genuine social antagonism. I have never really found persuasive Wood the younger’s argument that 1787 marked some kind of end-of-Eden, after which honest political discourse was never again possible in the United States. Rather, I think the Federalists’ disingenuous behavior has constantly to be emulated and that initial foreclosure reenacted to keep differing social interests unexpressed.
1A feat rarely matched, and then only by the likes of another giant among colonial historians, Alan Taylor.