Professor of history emeritus at Brown, National Humanities Medalist, and WEEKLY STANDARD contributor, Gordon S. Wood, here discusses his latest books, The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate (Volume I, and II), both published by the Library of America.
How did this project on the American Revolution come about? How were the pamphlets selected?
The Library of America consulted me. This is the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act, believe it or not. People haven’t paid much attention to that. Since I did an earlier thing with them on John Adams, which is going to be completed next year, they asked if I would be willing to do a couple of volumes of pamphlets on the American Revolution. We tried to get both sides of the debate. So when one pamphlet appears, another writer responds directly to it. This makes for a real dialogue, a nice back and forth. It took quite a while.
The debate over the American Revolution is one of the great constitutional debates of Western history: it deals with power, liberty, equality, representation, constitutionalism, sovereignty, etc. I think it is very crucial to know these things, and of course all those issues are discussed in these pamphlets.
Is there a modern analog to the spirit of pamphleteering? The advent of “blogging” seems to come closest, but it falls short in a few crucial respects.
Well that’s the problem. Everything is so instant. It would take at least a couple of months to get a pamphlet that was published in America to London, and vice versa. So there was a lot of time in between, but they just accounted for that. The intended audience of these pamphlets was also fairly elite. An outlier was Tom Paine. He really was reaching out to a middle-league sort, a kind of tavern-centered society. He has no references to anything but the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer. So he’s very self-consciously aiming for a much larger audience. He sold 150,000 copies in a few months. That’s incredible for a population of 2 - 2.5 million. That’s millions of sales today, in proportion to the population.
If the educated of the day were the intended audience, how were the ideas getting disseminated on to the local blacksmith?
Well, obviously ordinary people were inspired, because they turned out in great numbers during crises. Many people were aware of Patrick Henry’sfamous phrase—all of that had percolated down to ordinary people. Now, they weren’t necessarily reading the pamphlets, but the same thing is true of today. Most people don’t read the political exchanges, but they have a sense of what they believe in. Often it’s some kind of slogan that’s emphasized by a leader. And what’s true now, was also the case during the Revolutionary War years.
It’s interesting, we’re not an ethnically homogeneous society, but there is homogeneity in our adherence to a few key philosophic principles.
Precisely, that’s the only thing we got holding us together. The belief in these certain things—life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, equality. All of the great notions that are part of the American Dream or American ideology come out of the Revolution. These are our highest aspirations, our noblest ideals. That’s why the Revolution is the most important event in our history. It’s too bad it’s not being taught everywhere.
The people who came out of the ‘60s are currently in control of the profession and it’s has become essentially race-class-gender issues. Now, a new generation will come along and they’ll want to contest that. But for the foreseeable future we’ve got a lot of courses and a lot of books on race. And it’s understandable, because the civil rights movement and the women’s movement are of great importance. But you can’t do much else and still have a career. It’s very difficult for young people to want to work on more traditional subjects.
Perhaps we are only temporarily in this spot? Do you view historical interpretation as cyclical?
Oh, definitely. For a while people who were disillusioned with Marxism and wanted a kind of communal ideology, so they picked up republicanism. Law professors in particular, picked this up. That went on for, I don’t know, about 20 years. People began finding republicanism everywhere. It finally died in the early ‘90s and was replaced by race-class-gender issues. We are again top-heavy in some sense.
I also think that academic historians neglect history books for the general public, and it’s being filled by a whole bunch of non-academics. When I came of age in the 1950s, people like Daniel J. Boorstin, C. Vann Woodward, and Richard Hofstadter wrote for two readerships simultaneously. They wrote for each other, which advanced the discipline, but they also wrote for the general public. Nowadays it’s impossible for the general public to read the monographs that come out because they’re so specialized, so quasi-scientific. You try to inject yourself into the conversation, but you don’t know what’s come before, you just don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s like a layman trying to read a physics paper. We are cutting ourselves off from the general public and that's lamentable.