In an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Willick, we get to hear from a famous American historian, Gordon Wood. Mr. Wood is a professor emeritus at Brown University, a noted history scholar and is often cited as the “dean of the 18th Century historians.” Upon graduation from Tuffs University, he served in the U.S. Airforce before moving to academia. He has accumulated virtually every award available to historians including The Bancroft Prize, a Pulitzer, and a National Humanities medal.
Despite all these awards, today Mr. Wood, age 84, feels he is “on the wrong side” of teaching history stating that today “American History is now a tale of oppression and woe.” As traditional historians retired, social history has become the new standard, with “bottom up” accounts of marginalized groups gaining prestige at the expense of traditional history which is mainly centered on the stories of “dead white males,” who founded and built early America. Professor Wood acknowledges “that we know more about slavery than we ever did” but argues that the teaching of history has become “unbalanced,” neglecting crucial questions about political divisions that shaped the early republic. This imbalance can lead to a lack of historical perspective when considering the present day. Professor Wood adds that “history is consoling in the sense that it takes you off the roller coaster of emotions that we are in the worst of times.”
A case is point in the conflict between Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans and John Adams’ Federalists in the 1790s. Mr. Wood believes the fundamental divide then was much worse than what we are experiencing today and that by comparison “we are going to survive easily.”
In a nutshell, the issue then was what kind of democracy we want and how much power the Federal Government should have verses the power of individual states. Jefferson’s republicans favored stated rights and worried that the Federalists wanted to concentrate power and move back to a monarchy. Neither party “accepted the legitimacy of the other,” and both thought the other posed an existential threat for the country. This 1790’s conflict even has the meddling of a foreign power, France, whose countrymen flooded the U.S. to gain sympathy for their revolution.
And though we hear much of this talk today, Professor Wood believes the flaws in both Adams’ and Jefferson’s arguments illustrate the value of history as a “conservative discipline with the lesson that nothing ever works out the way you think it’s going to.” History teaches us that partisan ideas on both sides are less radical by comparison, that the republic has withstood worse, and that the problems are less insurmountable than they seem. Thank you, Gordon Wood.