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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