A Longer View of 2008: Historian Gordon Wood

What does a real historian make of this 2008 election that we all (reflexively now) call “historic”?

Gordon Wood: a lot of Lincoln in Obama

This is our opportunity with Gordon Wood – ace historian of 18th Century America at Brown, the trump card that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck invoked in the famous Cambridge bar argument in Good Will Hunting.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Gordon Wood (32 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Gordon Wood won the Pulitzer Prize for his account of The Radicalism of the American Revolution. He puts a critical lash to the best of the modern crop of historians in his new collection of review essays, The Purpose of the Past.

I was looking for an antidote to campaign talk and coverage that’s mostly about polls and operatives, to the exclusion (almost) of the past that got us here, the future unfolding. Journalists, including me, are trained to see presidential campaigns as gang warfare: the Gangs of New York playing Capture the Flag. Or Ajax, Odysseus, Achilles & Company on the ringing plain of Troy – a chaotic struggle of freelance heroes, now with expensive consultants and ad agencies, spearing their way from the Iowa caucuses to the White House. How differently does an eminent American historian of the Founders see what’s happening? It’s in the nature of this game, Gordon Wood says, that the players on the field have often the least idea of the struggle. Historians will have the last word on what happened to our country in 2008, but their judgment will take a while.

I think that all of these candidates will find that they have been carried along by forces that they can scarcely understand. Now we are coming up to the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. I think that Lincoln, of all the presidents in our history — for good reason because he confronted the civil war — had a deep tragic sense: that he was scarcely in control of all of the events that carried him along. And I think that is a kind of wisdom that Lincoln had. He wasn’t an educated man in the sense that he went to Princeton or Harvard, but he had educated himself. And he had a deep brooding sense of the tragedy of life, and that made him the ideal president for such a catastrophic event as the civil war… It didn’t paralyze him. But he always felt that things were hard… that it was hard to make a decision that you could be completely confident in because there were pressures bearing in on him. As a consequence, I think that he made the right decisions with a sense of the limitations of life. That is important, it is what we mean by wisdom. It leads to humility. Something that I think our political leaders need, they should be more humble in the face of this complicated world. And cautious, and prudent. All of these things Lincoln had, and I think politicians need them. And I think that Obama is demonstrating that kind of temperament: he is cautious, he is pragmatic, he seems prudent, and his temperament seems to be right for the world, the dangerous world, we are in.

I had the privilege last summer of reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace with Gordon Wood in a group of Providence wise folk and wits — eight weeks and much good wine spent on Napoleon in Russia and the transformations of continents and cultures, which, in the end, Tolstoy found to be an irrational and indecipherable process. But I had to ask how Tolstoy would try to scope out the larger dimensions of what is happening in America?

GW: He would take the line I am taking and be pessimistic about any individuals changing anything. He had a very deterministic view of the historical process, far more deterministic than my own. But I think that he is more right than wrong in that he looks at the past and the way he plays down the importance of great heroes and looks at what the masses are doing, for they have a very powerful affect. And Obama, for all of his superb campaigning, couldn’t have achieved what he has achieved if hundreds of thousands, if millions of people, hadn’t changed their minds about race over the last half-century. And I think that structural change has taken place—as I say, sports have been very influential, the military, the whole culture has changed. Bill Cosby was the most popular show on television for a while, that was a big deal. And I think that Obama is reaping the rewards of that transformation. But, I think we’ve got a long way to go and we don’t want to believe that once he is elected our race problems are going to disappear.”

CL: Tolstoy was absorbed by this fifteen year sweep of Western Europe into Russia, and Russia’s march back, in these giant tides of men at war. What do you suppose Tolstoy see about us in the wider world?

GW: Well I think he might take the view that we’ve been full of hubris, too proud, too arrogant — believing that we are capable of doing whatever we wanted to do. I think he would take that kind of line, that the United States was acting in an arrogant fashion, Napoleonic, if you will, and that we’ve had our comeupance: that we are not going to be able to control the world in the way that we thought we could when we went in to Iraq. I mean: the naïveté, the innocence of America, in a sense, was being exposed over the last decade. We’re always losing our innocence, it seems: if you go back to the 1890s or earlier, and then World War One and then World War Two, and Vietnam. We don’t seem to be able to shake our own innocence. We are just as blundering internationally as we were in Vietnam. And what we need is just a little more caution, a little more prudence. It is not that we haven’t done great things internationally. I think that World War Two was our most successful venture, and the aftermath of that was truly a generous moment in American history: the Marshall Plan. And overall I think that the United States has played a significant role in the in the last sixty years, but I don’t think our intervention in Iraq was a wise move. We’ve been hurt by that and we will find it difficult to deal with its aftermath.

Gordon Wood in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 28, 2008

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  • nother

    It’ll be an honor to attempt to play a bit of the contrarian to Mr. Wood’s subtle contrarianism. I will stick to three areas of contention:

    1. “Circumstance are far more important than the individual.” -Gordon Wood

    MLK’s whole mission and success was to turn circumstances on their head. Alan Greenspan’s mission and failure was to create the circumstances that lead to universal wealth. Maybe circumstance vs. individual is a chicken and the egg argument, and if it is, I guess I side with the chicken/individual.

    2. In response the question of the U.S. being “overextended” with 700 bases in 40 countries Mr. Wood states: “there is nobody really ready yet to take our place.” We won’t pull back because the world needs our leadership and “the worlds too scary” to back off.

    To my mind this sounds neo-con lite. It’s exactly this hubris that we must expunge. We do not operate all those bases to protect the world from scary things, we are there to protect our trade (and thus our standard of living) from scary things. And this is what Ralph Emerson thought of our trade even back 1841:

    “I content myself with the fact, that the general system of our trade, (apart from the blacker traits, which, I hope, are exceptions denounced and unshared by all reputable men,) is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity; much less by the sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage.”

    -Man the Reformer

    3. “He will have a transformative effect simply because he’s black.” “He will change race relations.”

    I find this view very narrow. Barack Obama’s transformative effect is because he’s black – and it doesn’t matter. The whole of Mr. Obama’s movement is the idea that we are transcending categories…that is the change. To say that youth are enthused with this candidate because they want to eradicate the race problem – severely sells the youth short. By and large the youth have already moved on…pass the race problem. They are enthused with Barack because Barack is enthused, and in the words of my man Emerson:

    “Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm.”

    -Man the Reformer

  • nother

    I’m astonished and disheartened at the lack of actual accountability from Washington and Wall Street and main Street and media. That is why I think the following Emerson quote from “Man the Reformer” is so apropos:

    “One plucks, one distributes, one eats. Every body partakes, every body confesses, — with cap and knee volunteers his confession, yet none feels himself accountable. He did not create the abuse; he cannot alter it. What is he? an obscure private person who must get his bread. That is the vice, — that no one feels himself called to act for man, but only as a fraction of man.”

    GoBama! Yes We Can!

  • olivercranglesparrot

    I’ll see your Emersonian quotes Mr. Nother and raise you with some from that crusty ol’ sage Henry Miller:

    All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.

    Analysis brings no curative powers in its train; it merely makes us conscious of the existence of an evil, which, oddly enough, is consciousness.

    I have never been able to look upon America as young and vital but rather as prematurely old, as a fruit which rotted before it had a chance to ripen.

    It is the American vice, the democratic disease which expresses its tyranny by reducing everything unique to the level of the herd.

    I like to think about President Reagan when I think about this one:

    It isn’t the oceans which cut us off from the world – it’s the American way of looking at things.

    And from this quote, this is what for me is a core message from candidate Obama:

    No man is great enough or wise enough for any of us to surrender our destiny to. The only way in which anyone can lead us is to restore to us the belief in our own guidance.

    Political banter:

    One has to be a lowbrow, a bit of a murderer, to be a politician, ready and willing to see people sacrificed, slaughtered, for the sake of an idea, whether a good one or a bad one.

    And …

    One can be absolutely truthful and sincere even though admittedly the most outrageous liar. Fiction and invention are of the very fabric of life.

    What I find most intriguing about the affect of candidate Obama is that his rhetorical strategy and tactics have us once again courting expectations as ritual. After President Clinton and President Bush I find this a fascinating ritual to observe. Hope/fear spring eternal. Some things may never change.

    One day America is going to retire its Empire and elect a Zorba person who teaches us to live in joy moment to moment and move beyond the abundance of scarcity and conflict. A bridge too far at the present foreseeable.

    Thank you Chris and Mr. Wood. Great interview, left me full of conflicted thoughts and feelings, as real life often does. Decisively I still put one foot in front of the other in spite of such attempts of self inflicted paralysis.

    Game Day Tuesday November 4, 2008. Everyone, GO VOTE. To much blood and treasure has been spilled to deliver this right and franchise.

    Peace to all and may the next victim(s), er, President and Congress serve us all well…

  • thomas

    brother nother from another mother,

    I was just passing through, I happened to glance at your post, especially the last point. you wrote,

    ““He will have a transformative effect simply because he’s black.” I find this view very narrow. Barack Obama’s transformative effect is because he’s black – and it doesn’t matter. The whole of Mr. Obama’s movement is the idea that we are transcending categories…that is the change.”

    I certainly share your general view that the transformation that Obama represents transcends the issue of race but nevertheless, brother O will have a transformative effect simply because he’s black. This sentiment comes from a young person (25 yrs) from my narrow perch in Fairburn, GA outside the perimeter of Atlanta.

    With all due respect there is no issue as deeply painful for black folk and wounding for white folk (see Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound) as race. It more than simply a ‘problem’ that can simply be ‘passed’ by the young or any other people by a transcendence of categories.

    Obama does transcend categories out of both expediency and idealism but I would imagine he is also well aware of the transformative effect he, as a black man, would have simply as the resident-n-chief in the White House.

    The larger question for me in this issue of race in the national narrative as a southern white pastor in a largely black middle class suburban area is how does this race present an opportunity, if obama is elected, to not merely see it as a transcendence of categories on the way to just all getting along, but an opportunity to be truthful in our discourse about the brokenness in the narrative which must be acknowledged, confronted, and reconciled if the common good which looms radiantly on our horizon towards which we all yearn is to have any integrity at all. To do less than this would be to dawdle in illusion when the reality could be so much more beautiful.

  • “We’ve had this (global leadership) thrust upon us” – that’s not true. That’s the excuse the USA gives whenever confronted with its bullying nature which again is the result of a series of policies aimed at global intervention and domination. and the demolition of all forces of opposition by throwing international laws to the winds.

    Today, the point at which the United States naturally resides echoes Plato’s contention that “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy”. Obama is hoping that he can return the USA to some semblance of democracy post proto-fascist dictatorship, pulling away from the paranoid Bush legacy.

    Obama is important because if he doesn’t win, the world is going to see not just a dictatorship that subjugates the people of the USA but also other cultures and nations.

    Americans do not realise that the country is in the condition akin to the decline of the Roman Empire. The George Bush era is reminiscent of the reign of the Roman Emperor Andronicus III (c. 1296-1341) in its negative jingoistic engagement with Islam and the Middle East (Iran-Iraq) and other expansionist achievements across the globe. Obama then is most likely to fall into the role of John V (c 1332-1391) – the successor of Andronicus III. He will have to deal with increasingly resurgent Islamic forces, Russia, China and other cultures and nations seeking an assertion of self-respect and dignity (Venzuela).

    It will be turbulent times and if he wins, perhaps Obama will have the opportunity, more than any other preceding US president, to attain the “deep tragic sense” of a Lincoln.

    That is, if some white racist supremacist madman doesn’t “off” Obama!

  • Seven score and eight years ago . . .A scholarly lawyer from Illinois, distinguished in his profession yet with little executive experience, rises from humble origins. The unlikely nominee of his party, he edged out rivals with far more impressive legislative records than his own. He was an inspiring orator, thoughtful, cool under pressure, and confidant enough of his own abilities to listen to divergent opinions in a nation divided against itself. The year was 1860.

    [submitted by a local writer and originally appeared on the editorial page of the local paper.]


  • Wasn’t it Mark Twain who remarked, “history may not repeat itself but it rhymes!”

  • Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm. — Emerson, Man the Reformer

    What better endorsement for the theory of Intelligent Design?

    enthusiasm from enthousiazein “be inspired,” from entheos “inspired, possessed by a god,” from en- “in” + theos “god” (see Thea)

  • nother

    Ahh brother Thomas, I’m more than pleased to get your view from that sunny perch in GA. Yes you’ve set me straight to an extent. Obama will have a transformative effect on race. My reactionary reaction was a fear that the acknowledging this point could take away from the content of his credentials – in the same way that affirmative action is disparaged (even when the person was not a product of affirmative action).

    The example I hold up is Jackie Robinson. He had a transformative effect on the game but would anyone say he wasn’t qualified? In fact, he was the best player on the field. And that’s what it took to finally break the color line…the best player by far. It could never have been an average black baseball player breaking that barrier. And it’s the same with brother O, he is sooo good that even the prejudiced in our society are forced to stand back…stand back in the way the white Civil War troops stood back as the 54th marched first into Fort Wagner.

    You write: “but an opportunity to be truthful in our discourse about the brokenness in the narrative which must be acknowledged, confronted, and reconciled if the common good which looms radiantly on our horizon towards which we all yearn is to have any integrity at all.”

    Thank you for the beautiful sentiment, Thomas. With every individual water cooler conversation struck up about brother O, we get closer to that elusive summit where your horizon of common good will stretch out and envelope us – even the most disillusioned of us.

    “To do less than this would be to dawdle in illusion when the reality could be so much more beautiful.”


    “the unities of Truth and of Right are not broken by the disguise. There need never be any confusion in these. In a crowded life of many parts and performers, on a stage of nations, or in the obscurest hamlet in Maine or California, the same elements offer the same choices to each new comer, and, according to his election, he fixes his fortune in absolute Nature.”

    -Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Illusions.”


  • potter

    Thank you for mentioning Hadrian and Abraham Lincoln.

    Gordon Wood with Andrew Bacevich both said ( or seemed to say) that one man cannot make that much of a difference.

    By “not making much of a difference” they were talking about certain forces and policies that cannot be changed dramatically by any one so quickly. But there are other realms……

    There will be too many high expectations riding on an Obama presidency already and that would bound to disappoint. So perhaps it is good to have this reality check from historians. But again, as Al Gore reminded us the other day, that he would have made a difference in 2000, quite a big difference.

    The word being used is “transformative” in connection with Obama ( Colin Powell used it) but it’s more about who he is and what he brings as a person: his innate qualities, sensibility, wisdom to that leadership position. Eugene Robinson says it is more “confirmational”. The change has been happening for decades.

    But some thanks belongs to John McCain for showing the devils in our nature that are alive and well.

    Gordon Wood spoke about this country being ever naive, and young, needing to learn it’s lessons again and again. It would be good to discuss why.

    Here is the Eugene Robinson column:

    A New Kind of Pride