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

Related Content