On the Make: Gordon Wood’s Jeffersonia

On the Make: Gordon Wood’s Jeffersonia

On the Make: Gordon Wood’s Jeffersonia

Gordon S. Wood defends Jefferson–again.


The big story of the early American Republic was the advent of a society dominated by “middling” men on the make. Discarding relics of aristocratic privilege, taste and duty that had survived the Revolution, these confident and shamelessly self-interested go-getters embraced a commercialized world of economic growth, technological progress and continuous social and cultural change. The triumph of these middling strivers in the early years of the nineteenth century, decades before Alexis de Tocqueville observed and immortalized them in the 1830s, ennobled the American Revolution by making good on its democratic promise. By 1815 the outcome was “a land of enterprising, optimistic, innovative, and equality-loving Americans.”

Heartwarming, isn’t it? This is the picture Gordon Wood presents in Empire of Liberty, his entry into Oxford University Press’s justly prestigious series on the history of the United States. Graceful, fluid and long (it tops out at almost 800 pages), Wood’s study offers a comprehensive if not encyclopedic tour through the early Republic. Readers learn a little bit about many things: George Washington’s political uses of his regal bearing, Alexander Hamilton’s economic thinking, Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policies (possibly utopian, definitely disastrous). Wood offers striking details about the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Marshall’s defense of Supreme Court autonomy, a “golden age” of evangelical hymn-writing and Benjamin Rush’s intellectually ambitious but physically deadly reliance on “bleeding”–removing as many as five of the body’s six quarts of blood (Rush thought there were twelve) to treat yellow fever, tuberculosis, cancer and mental illness.

Wood, a professor emeritus at Brown University, seems to realize that the happy story he tells about the rise of equality-loving go-getters–a process he calls the “republicanization” of American society–had a dark side. He acknowledges that a dynasty of Virginia slaveholders dominated the government, that the Louisiana Purchase and cotton gin ignited an explosive westward expansion of slavery and that an Indian policy of massacre and expulsion destroyed any hope for a less violent future in the West. Even so, Wood thinks the history of the United States in the era from the adoption of the Constitution to the conclusion of the War of 1812 should be mobilized to instill pride rather than provoke sorrow, to highlight triumphs instead of tragedies. In an opus of book reviews, many published originally in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic and collected in The Purpose of the Past (2008), Wood has been very explicit about the proper role for a historian of the early United States: to empathize with the good intentions and well-meaning gestures of the Founders with a capital F.

But not all the Founders. Instead of showering his empathy indiscriminately, Wood casts his story of egalitarian blossoming in relentlessly partisan terms. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he thinks it makes sense for contemporary Americans to take sides in the fierce partisan struggles of this era–and leaves no doubt about which side we should take. The aristocracy of the past was Federalist, the democracy of the future Republican. Crusty New Englanders held Americans back; gregarious Virginians spurred them forward. Even with the benefit of hindsight, Wood all but endorses the view of the Baptist minister who thought Jefferson’s re-election to the presidency in 1804 was a signal of the approaching millennium: “Thomas Jefferson is the angel who poured out his vial upon the river Euphrates, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.” Or, in Wood’s words: “Despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as there is a United States [Jefferson] will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation’s noblest ideals and highest aspirations.”

What is Wood getting at here? Why does he care if Americans revere Jefferson or not? Aren’t there other good candidates for “supreme spokesman” for our ideals, such as, well, Abraham Lincoln? Do we even need a supreme spokesman? The popularity of “founder” biographies in recent years suggests that many Americans think we do need such political heroes. The elevation of John Adams to hero status may be the most interesting aspect of this trend, though it is hard to imagine Adams (or Hamilton or even Washington) displacing Jefferson as an object of veneration, not least because of those thrilling first paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. In Empire of Liberty Wood’s reverence for Jefferson doesn’t match that of James Parton, whose 1874 Jefferson biography began with this menacing declaration: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.” In his collection of biographical essays, Revolutionary Characters (2006), however, Wood echoes Parton, displaying his contempt for the “present-day academic vilification” that is “defaming” the “elite white males” of American history and “demonizing the founders, especially Jefferson.”

To his credit, Wood does not defend Jefferson as a personal role model. Along with most other historians of the early Republic, he has abandoned the Jefferson cult’s die-hard resistance to the Sally Hemings revelations. There are still a few holdouts–William Hyland, a lawyer, has just published a new brief, In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Scandal. Generally, though, this game was up after the 1998 DNA test and, in the same year, Annette Gordon-Reed’s evisceration, in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, of the cult’s favoring white over black testimony. Wood agrees that Jefferson kept Hemings “as his concubine” (“the evidence is now overwhelming”). He also admits that Jefferson “was in most respects a typical slaveholder” who sold slaves without regard to their family ties and valued the “profit” he made when the women he owned produced more slaves for his plantation.

Wood’s reverence for Jefferson is less personal than political. He can accept some tarnish on the reputation of Jefferson the flawed human being. He can even accept criticisms of Jefferson as a policy-maker. But on Jefferson the politician Wood is unyielding. The significance of this cult of personality, for Wood, lies in how Jefferson inspired his contemporaries and particularly the Northern members of his Republican Party. Jefferson, in other words, matters less than the Jeffersonians. They were the ones who did the “republicanizing,” by which Wood sometimes means a straightforward partisan victory (“Republicanize” with a capital R) but always means a replacement of aristocratic forms of government, social relations and cultural expression with democratic alternatives. The republicanized world was less hierarchical and more participatory, less orderly and more entrepreneurial, less traditional and more inventive, less exemplary and more familiar. Jefferson did not fully understand the nineteenth-century world, but “no one had done more to bring it about.”

To burnish Jefferson’s reputation, Wood casts his opponents as the full-fledged villains of a morality tale. He has some sympathy for Hamilton’s handling of the Revolutionary War debt and Marshall’s work on the Supreme Court. Hamilton preserved the nation’s solvency, while Marshall established the independent judiciary as a defender of minority rights. But siding with Jefferson as much as he does leads Wood to strange judgments about the Federalists. He insists, for example, that they were monarchists. They were not “traditional monarchists,” since they opposed monarchy, but because they favored some policies Jefferson called monarchist and because Jefferson and his supporters attacked them by calling them monarchists, Wood agrees that they must have been monarchists of some kind.

The “monarchist” policies at issue included creating a cabinet of the president’s advisers, establishing a national bank to promote economic growth and deploying executive patronage to attract party allies. “An aristocratic society, such as that promoted by the Federalists,” according to Wood (he tends to use “aristocratic” and “monarchist” interchangeably), “was tied together by patronage and personal connections.” But Wood goes on to argue that when Hamilton refused to cash in on his insider knowledge of the government’s financial operations, it was because he was an aristocrat (or a monarchist) who clung to “the classical conception of leadership.” There is no winning here. If you were a Federalist, you were a monarchist and/or aristocrat–largely because Wood says so.

And Wood says so mainly because Jefferson said so 200 years ago. A remarkably naïve sense of politics pervades Empire of Liberty, as if the rhetoric of partisan combat can be taken at face value (on one side, at least) and as if emotional attachments trumped material interests and policies. So if a rich but unpretentious manufacturer resented college-educated lawyers, he inevitably was not only a member of Jefferson’s party but also a champion of the interests of the “common people.” Worse, if “most American social commentators” described the United States in a certain way, that was how the nation actually was. The elementary historical idea that the population of “social commentators” might be biased toward the powerful is simply not part of Wood’s repertoire. In his world, the winners are supposed to write the history.

Wood’s winners actually win even when they lose. Empire of Liberty ends with a bizarre account of the War of 1812. Wood dutifully reports on just how badly James Madison and his administration bungled the war effort, but he then casts this incompetence as a heroic triumph of political principle. Madison, Wood argues, “knowingly accepted the administrative confusion and inefficiencies, the military failures, and the [political] opposition…calm in the conviction that…strong executive leadership could only endanger the principles for which the war was fought.” Wood then chides other historians for missing the point. Roughly translated, Wood’s argument here seems to be that allowing the British to burn Washington was the glory of Madison’s presidency.

Nor does Wood’s “republicanized” America include the whole United States. No phrases appear more often in Empire of Liberty than “especially in the North” and its close cousins (“at least in the North” and so on). These phrases sometimes appear more than once in a paragraph. There is no point in criticizing Wood for using the term “Americans” to refer only to free white male Americans, since the longer phrase becomes tiresome very quickly. But when Wood uses “Americans” and adds “at least the Northerners among them” every few pages in a lengthy book, he keeps drawing attention to the fact that he is avoiding Southerners–or at least the free white male Southerners among them.

It is not that Wood avoids the South altogether. He devotes one of his nineteen chapters to slavery and the incipient rise of the cotton kingdom. The most important thing about slavery in Wood’s story, however, is the way it forced slaveholding revolutionaries, particularly Virginians, to abandon dreams of universal liberty and equality. “Everywhere in the country,” he writes with considerable exaggeration, “most of the Revolutionary leaders assumed that slavery was on its last legs and was headed for eventual destruction.” But Virginia leaders, starting with Jefferson, were terrified by the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s; the abortive Gabriel’s Rebellion of 1800 (a military-style plan to take Richmond); and, most of all, the debates about Missouri statehood, which lasted from 1819 to 1821 and in which Northerners displayed their disgust for slavery. As a result, these Southerners began to defend the institution by thinking up reasons African-Americans were fit for enslavement. In this sense, Wood writes, the antislavery feelings “that arose out of the Revolution inadvertently produced racism in America.” This is a dubious claim (racism was hardly new in this period), but it represents Wood’s latter-day commitment to the Jeffersonian project of lifting slavery’s persistence from sordid cruelty to high tragedy.

Wood advances several other odd arguments about slavery. First, he credits the Revolution with having “created for the first time in American history the cultural atmosphere that made African American slavery abhorrent to many Americans.” One problem with this claim is that the most influential abolitionists in this period were Quakers, whose enthusiasm for the Revolution had been minimal. Another is that abolitionism spread more quickly in Britain than in the United States in these years. There were several reasons for this, not least the fact that British slavery was located in the Caribbean sugar colonies instead of in Britain. But of all the occurrences that could have motivated British abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and William Wilberforce, nobody would stress the American Revolution. In Britain, a robust abolitionist movement instigated massive sugar boycotts in the 1790s and provided the context for the famous medallion fashioned by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 of a kneeling slave, dressed in a loincloth and chained at the wrists and ankles, asking, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” In the United States, meanwhile, a comparatively anemic movement had produced little more than a handful of genteel manumission societies and a gradual abolition law in Pennsylvania (but not New York or New Jersey). Britain did not abolish slavery until 1833. Everyone knows what it took to abolish slavery in the United States.

Wood makes an intriguing and clearly accurate observation about the slave trade debates of the early Republic. The Philadelphia convention that framed the Constitution in 1787 and then the first Congress, in 1790, struggled with the problem of whether to ban the importation of slaves into the United States. The convention added to the Constitution the clause barring Congress from acting until 1808, and the first Congress shelved a demand to act earlier. Historians have been puzzled by the behavior of the Virginians in these debates, since they condemned the slave trade vociferously while also making sure to defend slavery. Some historians have accepted the rhetoric as genuinely antislavery and therefore as evidence that leading Virginians intended to abolish the institution. Others have called it hypocrisy, since an end of importation would raise the prices of the slaves the Virginians already owned. This was the position of the South Carolinians, who attacked the Virginians for scoring cheap moral points with Northerners while defending their economic interests.

By agreeing that the Virginians’ antislavery rhetoric was hypocritical while emphasizing its impact on Northerners, Wood shines new light on this episode. The significance of the slave trade debates, he argues, lies in how the Virginians “confused many Northerners about the real intentions of the Upper South.” Fooled into thinking that Virginia was close to abolishing slavery, an action that would have influenced neighboring states, Northerners agreed to muffle antislavery agitation so the Virginia leaders could act without seeming to bow to outside pressure. But the Virginians had no intention of abolishing slavery. The South Carolinians had it exactly right: slave trade abolition would be a boon for Upper South slaveholders, bolstering the domestic slave trade in which Virginians and their neighbors sold and moved a million slaves to the cotton kingdom. The problem here is that Wood cannot have it both ways. Either, as this story suggests, Virginians acted the part of proslavery hypocrites from the beginning, fooling antislavery Northerners into backing off, or they had genuinely antislavery aspirations that they abandoned in the wake of Haiti, Gabriel’s Rebellion and the Missouri debates.

Finally, Wood demonstrates how slavery undermined equality and democracy even for white men in the South, aside from its oppression of African-Americans. He agrees with the many historians who have explored how “the master-slave relationship supplied the standard for all other social relationships” in the South. He also describes the peculiarly undemocratic state and local government arrangements that shielded the wealth and power of slaveholders within Southern states. But after noting that Southerners, including the most aristocratic slaveholders, became Jeffersonian Republicans in overwhelming numbers, Wood offers no explanation for the contradiction. Why did elite Southerners join the party bent on “republicanizing” American life? One might take the Southern participation in (really, the Southern leadership of) the Jeffersonian Republicans as evidence that the party was not very egalitarian. Wood, however, does not even acknowledge that there was a contradiction. His Jeffersonians were the Northern foot soldiers, the champions of equality who battled their local Federalist elites–with their Southern leaders somehow along for the ride.

But the most misleading aspect of Wood’s treatment of slavery is the way he crams it into one chapter, quarantined from other subjects. This organizational device allows him to tell his other stories as if slavery had nothing to do with them. The fact that Southerners dominated national politics throughout the period he describes–Virginia was still the largest state in 1810 and the second-largest in 1820–recedes from view as Wood celebrates democratization in the United States, “especially in the North.”

Nor is slavery the only subject Wood slights. Although his footnotes cite scholarship that dates principally from the past decade, he has remarkably little to say about the major subjects of many of the works he cites. Slavery is one example. Indians and women are two others. Although I may have missed something, I think the only time Wood quotes an Indian is in an account of the lopsided battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where Andrew Jackson defeated the Red Stick Creeks in what would become Alabama. “My people are no more,” Chief Red Eagle declared on a plain littered with the bleaching bones of his warriors. Having an Indian announce his people’s departure, of course, is the most traditional way of writing Indians out of American history.

Wood has little more to say about women. It is understandable that women are not the stars of a story concentrating on electoral politics, legislative maneuvering and policy-making. But when Wood describes the formation of a large array of philanthropic societies, we might expect him to notice that women were quite prominent in this field. But, no, the women in this story are overwhelmingly the objects of philanthropic attention–widows and prostitutes in particular. An exception is an anecdote about women who form a “Cent Institution,” dropping pennies into “mite boxes” to finance the distribution of religious literature. Wood does note developments in family relations that gave wives “a new sense of themselves as independent persons” (or, more likely, gave some husbands a sense of their wives as independent persons), but when he finally mentions “feminists,” he quotes only two men as examples.

The reason women play such a small role in Wood’s philanthropy story may be that he uses it, as he uses most other subjects, as evidence for his “republicanization” thesis. In a chapter called “Republican Reforms,” Americans (yes, especially in the North) were “reforming and republicanizing their society and culture” by establishing schools, benevolent associations, Masonic lodges, missionary societies and penitentiaries. These institutions, according to Wood, “were important for creating a civic society and making people more compassionate and republican.” People? The explanation may be that women were more likely to democratize than republicanize (the latter being a more forthrightly masculine project), though women do neither in Empire of Liberty.

Then there is Wood’s troubling identification of equality with capitalism. He made this rather strange argument more than a decade ago in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, managing to empty both radicalism and the American Revolution of their radical content. Here, Wood continues to defend the idea of capitalism as promoting not only freedom but also social equality. Wealth, he explains, “is the least humiliating means by which one person can claim superiority over another; and it is the one most easily matched or overcome by exertion.” Wood celebrates the proliferation of competitive hustling in all fields of life. Only irredeemable elitists–“New England Federalists and visiting foreigners”–found it unappetizing to watch sporting matches in which men tried “to tear out each other’s testicles.” We are not told if women enjoyed these “rough-and-tumble” entertainments.

If Jefferson had known nearly as much about his society as Wood does, Empire of Liberty is the book he would have written. It is no coincidence that the title is Jefferson’s, a phrase encapsulating his brand of velvet-gloved imperialism. Wood seems to know that there was an iron fist lurking inside, but he identifies with an audience that treasures the national fantasy of egalitarian triumph that Jefferson represents. Like Jefferson, Wood nods to the evil of slavery and the violence of westward expansion. Unlike Jefferson, he realizes that there was something undesirable about the way men treated women. But Wood’s focus remains squarely on the subculture of white men–especially in the North–who energetically pursued their liberty and happiness in the “republicanized” world of postrevolutionary America.

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