Gordon Wood: Empire and Liberty, then and now

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Gordon Wood (27 minutes, mp3)

Gordon Wood, the wonderfully plain-spoken Pulitzer and Bancroft prize historian at Brown, thinks that Thomas Jefferson would find Barack Obama obnoxiously, over-reachingly Hamiltonian… and that Alexander Hamilton would likewise dismiss Obama as a Jeffersonian dreamer.

Empire of Liberty is the title of Gordon Wood’s magisterial new history of the early American republic, 1789 to 1815: boom and transformation on our shores, the rise and fall of Napoleon in the wider world. “Empire of Liberty,” Jefferson’s phrase, is also a neat capsule of the contradiction between a republic of free and equal mostly rural yeomen and a hegemonic global idea wrapped into the American flag. But Jefferson, the libertarian and slave-holder, was nothing if not paradoxical: he was a small-government man and a devotee of peace, but he would have been happy to see the French Revolution invade England, end monarchy and free the world.

CL: Gordon Wood, if there’s a connection to be made across more than two centuries to the “realism” and “idealism” of President Obama’s peace-prize speech, you’re the man to make it.

GW: If we can talk about these historical characters having present-day relevance, which Americans like to do, which is strange in itself. People ask me, what would George Washington think of the invasion of Iraq! … Hamilton would think it was too Jeffersonian. In the sense that he’s already intending to pull out, he’s really making that promise to cover his base, his democratic base, and that his intentions in Afghanistan are essentially to get out in the best way possible, without creating too many political problems for himself. I think Hamilton would take that rather cynical view of what Obama is doing. Jefferson I think would believe that we should avoid war at all costs and I think he would be in favor of getting out.

CL: Your book underlines for me what seems to me the main, if largely unspoken tension in our policy and politics today, which is the difference between the republic that the founders put together in Philadelphia (“if you can keep it,” Ben Franklin said) and a notion of an ambitious world empire.

GW: Well I think obviously Hamilton would be most pleased with the modern America: huge burocracy. He would love the Pentagon, the CIA, all of the million plus men and women under arms. This was what he dreamed of : that we would be a great power. Jefferson would be appalled by the extent of Presidential power for example, and just general Federal governmental power would appall him. But I think he would also believe that we have tried to maintain our sense of ourselves as being the spokesmen for democracy in the world, and that’s been an important part of our history. The critics of Bush were appalled not so much by the use of troops, but it was the torture, it was the brutality, the un-American aspects of the War on Terror that bothered a lot of people. Jefferson would have been on that side.

Idealism comes out of the Jeffersonian tradition. We’re full of paradoxes. Jefferson himself is the greatest paradox in American history: that our supreme spokesman for democracy should be a shaveholding aristocrat has to be ironic. And he is a spokesman for democracy. He did believe at heart that every person is the same. Not just that people are created equal — everyone can belive that, and everyone did in the 18th century — but Jefferson believed that despite the inequalities you could see everywhere in our society, beneath the surface, at bottom, we were all the same. And he included slaves in this. That makes him a spokesman for democracy.

I think Obama had a little bit of Hamilton and a little bit of Jefferson in that speech. He’s a peacenik, but he’s also a realist in that speech. That is, he says: “there’s evil in the world and war comes out of that evil.” Jefferson would not have believed that. Jefferson was devoted to the idea that we could eliminate war, we could eliminate the use of military force. Hamilton, on the other hand, is the realist. He says “no, war is not caused by monarchies. War is caused by human nature. There are evil people.” So there was a little bit of each — a little Hamilton, a little Jefferson, a little realism, a little idealism — in that Nobel Prize speech.

Gordon Wood in conversation with Chris Lydon in Providence, December 17, 2009

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  • Potter

    I think Obama had a little bit of Hamilton and a little bit of Jefferson in that speech. He’s a peacenik, but he’s also a realist in that speech. That is, he says: “there’s evil in the world and war comes out of that evil.”

    I am still having a hard time swallowing that Nobel speech. It seemed too much like he was trying to convince the world of what he can’t convince himself. I guess I am officially disappointed in Obama after holding off saying so and defending him for months.

    We know Obama is not a peacenik nor did he claim to be. But in this instance I think he uses “there is evil in the world” as an excuse to avoid standing firm for what he believes in, if he does, which he should, that we don’t go to war unless there is no other way and it’s absolutely vital to do so. That there is evil in the world does not mean that we have to be evil to fight it- Nor does it mean it can or even needs to be fought. He said during the campaign that he was not against war, but he was against dumb wars. He never told us why he has sent so many to fight what to many Americans still seem a dumb war now. If it is to appease the generals and avoid Republican criticism and then to make moves to get out before the next Presidential election- then that also can be called evil.

    A realist ( a Hamiltonian) would know what the Jeffersonian knows, the futility of war…. a nasty human habit.

  • nother

    I’ve seen the following quote attributed to Abigail Adams:

    “I’ve always felt that a person’s intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting points of view he can entertain simultaneously on the same topic.”

    If she indeed said it, I’m sure it was inspired by her husband’s rival/friend, Thomas Jefferson.

    Maybe the best critique of Jefferson’s contradictory nature came from Thomas Jefferson himself, in his “Head vs. Heart” love letter to Maria Cosway.


    At one point his heart tells his head:

    “When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced; when the arch of greatest strength, or the solid of least resistance is to be investigated, take up the problem; it is yours; nature has given me no cognizance of it. In like manner, in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their controul. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.”

    Could it be that in the cohabitation of our new country, Hamilton was the head and Jefferson the heart? And could it be that Jefferson’s rationalization for keeping slaves came from his head, and writing the words, “all men are created equal,” came from his heart?

    And could it be that 2009 will go down as the year the world waited out a Battle Royale between the Head and Heart in the “divided empire” of Barack Obama’s mind?

  • Potter

    Hello Nother- I do believe you have it right… I would add that the mind and the heart must be together, inform each other, in a good leader…and that leader must have courage to risk.

    Obama has the intelligence certainly, and a capable heart… but I don’t feel they are working together towards the same goal. Again tonight in the Lehrer interview on PBS- in a question posed about how bills are being held up by the need for a super majority upon threat of filibuster- Obama removed himself from using his bully pulpit to pressure Congress to end this gridlock. This is a major problem now… that and campaign finance/money interests. Obama kept saying this was a bad situation and that if it continues something will have to be done…… he said that after he spent a long time deflecting a straightforward response to Lehrer bringing up ( in a timid way) the (now general) criticism that Obama does not seem to want to fight for what he says he believes in.

  • Randy

    I believe one of the contrasting features here is that people feel with their hearts but speak with their minds. Obama’s entire political campaign was about the exaltation of the heart without regard for the mind. That’s why he’s in a quandary today of diminishing credibility on both sides of the fence. As anyone, who’d lived through the prior century knows, the US did not engage Stalin, Pol Pot, or General Suharto in an armed conflict. The evil these men had inflicted exceeds that of the entire terrorist cadre in the world today. Thus his argument is that of American ascendancy which is at best, a recourse of Reagan’s bully pulpit of the 80s. So true, there’s evil in the world and likewise, the western sphere doesn’t like evil (see Reagan/Thatcher or FDR/Churchhill), but like any rational person knows, one has to pick one’s fight strategically.

  • zeke

    Great show as usual. You might be interested in this blog post by Tom Ricks which elicits two different answers:


  • nother

    Hello, Potter. I hope the holidays were especially happy for you!

    You write:

    “Obama has the intelligence certainly, and a capable heart… but I don’t feel they are working together towards the same goal.”

    Personally, I’m confident that while his head and heart wrestle in front of us, the endgame is the same. I see our President as a follower of Dewey and James. In the book “The Metaphysical Club,” Menand writes that Dewey’s pragmatism was based on the hypothesis that “thinking and acting are just two names for a single process – the process of making our way best we can in a universe shot through with contingency.”

    For instance, the progressives criticize Obama for his attempt to be pragmatic in Afghanistan…getting out immediately, they say, is “morally the right thing to do.”

    Dewey’s would be/could be answer to the Obama critics lies in “pragmatism’s most basic claim, which is that what people choose to believe is just what they think it is good to believe.”

    For many progressives, it simply sounds like something “good to believe”…that we should be out of Afghanistan right now, so they ask Obama to fall in line.

    Potter, you lament that Obama is not using “his bully pulpit,” but wasn’t the man’s whole campaign in response to bullying? Obama did not run for office to change some laws in the short term…he ran to change America in the long. Sure he could muscle in some of these laws by tapping into partisanship, but those tactics would divide us more, and thereby embolden the far right, thus compromising his principle (“what he says he believes in”) of a united nation. Those tactics would be an impractical strategy for sustained change.

  • Potter

    Thank you Nother and to you too a Happy New Year.

    While it’s hard for me to agree that progressive’s want to get out of Afghanistan immediately- I don’t think they all agree- I would say that many are of the view that sending more troops and even more contractors ( mercenaries) to in effect “nation build” is not the way to go. What is not moral is the killing of innocents and subjecting our soldiers to the horrors of war while instilling the belief in them that this is necessary for our security. That is by no means unquestionable. As well there is the question of being at war without the country feeling it or wanting it or sacrificing for it. I think many progressives would like to see a draft.

    Regarding Obama not using his bully pulpit- that is different from bullying. Using the prestige and power of the President to push for goals that Obama lead us to believe he believes in, is the minimum. What we have been seeing is capitulation. His opponents in the Congress and equals abroad smell weakness and take advantage of it. Look at what happened in Copenhagen. Look at what happened with the Israeli’s and Palestinian’s. Look at what happened with healthcare reform.If Obama is looking to change things in the long term don’t you think we should be seeing some direction/leadership? Instead we have been seeing attempts at arbitration between forces he feels impotent to influence?

    Of course he’s just one year in and he could evolve. I think this criticism by Drew Western is very strong but not far off, if off at all.

    Leadership, Obama Style, and the Looming Losses in 2010: Pretty Speeches, Compromised Values, and the Quest for the Lowest Common Denominator

  • Potter

    Sorry- no question mark intended above. That should read:I

    nstead we have been seeing attempts at arbitration between forces he feels impotent to influence.

  • Potter

    Sorry again but this time to post a third in a row – Last night Russell Mead impressed me on the Newshour and so I sought out his latest article for the CFR and I think it’s good and on topic. He divides presidents and the American people into 4 categories (or combinations of categories): Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian and Wilsonian- and then he fleshes that out and takes it a bit through history also referring to Obama in a hopeful, favorable light but cautions about the challenges. It’s called The Carter Syndrome but Carter only comes into his discussion at the end. I found myself sympathetic only partly with what he characterizes as Jacksonian ( Fox News viewers he says- that’s not me) at first but much more in tune with his Jeffersonian description. We seem to be past the point in this world where pure Jeffersonian-ism is possible.

  • Emily Corwith

    great conversation … will listen again … thanks