Thinking In Public

October 6, 2021

A New Order of the Ages Indeed: A Conversation With Historian Gordon S. Wood About the U.S. Constitution and the American Revolution

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Gordon Wood is a renowned scholar of American history. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. He's won the Bancroft Prize. His books have been national bestsellers, but more importantly than that, they have had a decisive impact upon American intellectual life.

Professor Wood graduated with his PhD from Harvard University, and since then, has enjoyed a prolific career in academia. He has taught history at Harvard University, the College of William & Mary, and Brown University. He has also been a professor at Cambridge University in Great Britain.

He's written so many books. Many of them have been award-winning books. His book entitled, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776 to 1787, won the Bancroft Prize in American History. In 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. I've learned a great deal from every one of Professor Wood's books. I am deeply indebted to him as a scholar and as a public intellectual and as a specialist in American history.

Among his books, one of my favorites is, Revolutionary Characters. But today, we're here to talk about his newest book, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Republic. Professor Gordon Wood, welcome to Thinking In Public.

 

Gordon Wood:

Glad to be here.

 

Albert Mohler:

Professor Wood, you are one of the most prolific and respected historians of American history. Your most recent book is, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, published by Oxford University Press. Professor Wood, I have to tell you, I've read, I think, every major book you have written until now, and you really still have a lot more to say. Tell us about this book.

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, it is a kind of distillation of my thinking over the last half century or so. It grew out of a series of lectures that I gave at Northwestern Law School on the founding, on the constitutional aspects of the founding. I'm not saying that the Revolution was only a constitutional revolution. I believe it was far more than that, but I focused on the constitutional changes that took place as a result about Revolution, beginning with the Imperial Debate, going through the State Constitution-Making, the Federal Constitution and the slavery issue and the convention. And then a final chapter that deals with what I think is the, I call it the Great Demarcation of the difference Between Public and Private that emerges as a result of the Revolution. And then I have an Epilogue that happens to focus on my own state of Rhode Island and why they didn't come to the convention and then what happened to Rhode Island, in a very few pages over the next century. So that's a quick summary of what the book is about.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, following your previous writings, and by the way your books have won awards ranging from the Pulitzer Prize to the Bancroft Award. You’ve had such a determinative influence on how we understand the American Revolution and end to that ear. I want to talk to you at two different levels. First, about this book and your argument in this book. And secondly, about history, American history in particular. But about this book, you make the argument that America's relationship, or the relationship of Americans to the Constitution, is basically unique among all the peoples of the earth. I think you make that argument very, very well.

 

Gordon Wood:

Yes. I think that we have a peculiar relationship to our founding, and we hold these founders as being especially important. And I think it's because we lack a normal kind of ethnic base to our nationals. We're not a nation in the usual sense of the term. There's no common ancestry and there wasn't even at the outset, the common ancestry. John Adams was just bewildered by it. He says, “We are an army of gatherum. We have so many different peoples here.” And he's talking about 1,800 little [inaudible]—he would be appalled at the diversity that we have today because we have the whole world in the United States. And so, we're unlike say the French or the Germans or the English who have a sense of being a common ancestry, that nationalism. And of course, this has made us much more able to handle immigrants than the states of Europe.

But lacking a common ancestry, what is it that holds us together? What's our common bond? Well, I think Abraham Lincoln put his finger on it. And at the time, just before the Civil War, he was concerned about the diversity and he mentioned all these people—Swedes, French, Irish, English, so on, and Germans in America—how would we hold these people together? And the immigrants were pouring in. And he said, well, what holds them together is, he focused on the Declaration of Independence and the notion that all men are created equal, but I think by implication, he was implying all of the documents and principles that embodied in those documents. And he said, “These things make us one with the founders as if they are blood of the blood and are flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the documents.” That's incredible image he has.

 

Albert Mohler:

Indeed.

 

Gordon Wood:

And I think that's why we focus on the founders. And it's Lincoln who really called attention to that connection we have. If we didn't have these principles embodied in these documents, I'm not sure how we would hold together. We would be a very different place.

 

Albert Mohler:

And we are, indeed, though continuous in some ways, a very different place than England with its unwritten constitution. And as you mentioned, we really don't have any access to the early constitutional debates in England, but we have incredible access to the constitutional debates in the United States. You point out that not only were the documents known as the Federalist circulated, but they're still cited today even by the Supreme Court justices in rendering decisions.

 

Gordon Wood:

That's right. Yes, they're almost sacred documents the Federalist papers, even though they were essentially high-level propaganda on behalf of the Constitution. But we in addition, we have the debates being collected, the debates over the ratification being collected in, well, I think in 25 or almost 30 volumes now, and I'm not sure they're quite done, by the Wisconsin Historical Society. And it's just an incredible collection of documents about all the principles of politics embodied in these documents. And it's just a wonderful source for political theorists and historians for decades or eons to come. As long as the United States exists, those documents will be studied and used.

 

Albert Mohler:

I tend to read an author through the author's previous works. That's just kind of the way my mind works and probably reflective of the way the author's mind works. And so, I'm very familiar with your argument in the radicalism of the American Revolution. And then we come to this book, and I'll tell you the part I enjoyed the most about your most recent book is how you trace the Imperial debate, and then as we shall see the debate inside the States. But this Imperial debate, when those who would become later known as the founders of the United States of America, had to figure out what their argument actually would be.

 

Gordon Wood:

Right. They stumbled and fumbled their way because they're not quite clear. The English come back with, first of all, they start with the notion that the Stamp Act was a tax on them. And they knew instinctively that they could not allow Parliament to be taxing them, because that would be the first step to losing complete control of their society. So, they immediately reject that. At the same, they had exceeded to promise authority to regulate their trade and do other things, but they just didn't want Parliament to tax them.

 

Well, the British come back and say, look, you can't make these distinctions. If Parliament could do one thing, then it could do everything. And that Parliament appeal to what was called the Doctrine of Sovereignty that must be in every State, one final supreme lawmaking authority, and that was Parliament. And of course, from the British point of view, Parliament is a benign institution. It's the source of rights. It passed the English Bill of Rights. It was the protector of English liberty against the crown tyranny. So, the British found it very difficult to understand the American position because they were attacking Parliament. How could you be good wigs and attack the source of freedom, the source of liberty?

 

So, this is what immediately sets the two sides apart, but couldn't understand one another. They lived two different experiences in the course of the colonial period. They hadn't really understood how different they were and the debate, I think, exposes that difference. And by the time you get to 1774, the time of the Coercive Acts, the Doctrine of Sovereignty forced the Americans to say, “All right, if you say we have to be totally under Parliament's authority or totally outside it, well then, were going to be outside it.” And so, they said, “We're tied only to the king.”

And that's why when you get to the Declaration of Independence, there's no mention of Parliament or no explicit mention of Parliament. They said, “It's all George III, you did this, this, that, and you conspired with others.” That's a reference to Parliament, but they don't say Parliament. They don't invoke the House of Commons or the name Parliament at all. And it's quite extraordinary since Parliament had passed the Coercive Acts, the Stamp Act, the Townsend Duties, all of these things have been passed by Parliament, but when you come to the Declaration of Independence, you won't find any mention explicitly of Parliament. So, it's an extraordinary debate.

 

Albert Mohler:

And that meant that Americans had to come to the dawning realization that tyranny could come from different sources. So, in England, there is no doubt that historically Parliament was the force for liberty, for respect, for rights, and over against the tyranny, the king. But the colonists came to the conclusion that, as much as the king can be a despot, Parliament can be a despot.

 

Gordon Wood:

That's right. And it confused the English and the Americans. Of course, it's not a very …, their final position of course, isn't a very satisfactory explanation of their acceptance of Parliament for trade regulation. In fact, the Congress finally says before the Declaration, they come back and say, “Well, we'll allow Parliament to regulate our trade from the necessity of the case.” And that's the only thing they can do to kind of explain why they allowed Parliament to regulate their trade in the past. So, it’s kind of a weak explanation of that, but they were forced into it by this Doctrine of Sovereignty.

Of course, the Doctrine of Sovereignty comes back ten years later, invoked by the Anti-Federalists in the ratification debates over the new Federal Constitution that's been created in 1787. The Anti-Federalists, they invoke this idea of sovereignty and they say, “This federal government is going to become the supreme authority over us and the states will lose all authority because there has to be in every state one final supreme lawmaking authority, and this, because of the supremacy clause in the Constitution, this will be the federal government, and it'll reduce the states to laying out roads and building fence posts and nothing.” In other words, only trigger affairs will be left to the state.

And the Federalists try to come back as the colonists wants it done and say, “Well, no, no, there's going to be division of power.” And the Anti-Federalists invoke sovereignty. Once again, they say, “The doctrine says there has to be one final, so you can't divide power.”

And finally, the solution is reached by James Wilson, who is, isn't as well known as the other founders, James Madison and George Washington, but Wilson's a smart lawyer from Philadelphia. And he says, “No, we're going to relocate sovereignty. Just as the Congress did in 1774, they relocated sovereignty in their own state or colonial legislatures, we're going to relocate sovereignty in the people.” He's not saying that all power is derived from the people, because that was a kind of conventional wig thought, he's saying that sovereignty, the actual lawmaking authority, is going to be located in the people. And once the Federalists, that is the supporters of the Constitution, grasp this point, they run with it and it solves all their problems. They can see the people doling out little pieces of their power to different agents in the government. And they actually transformed the notion of representation.

In 1776, they thought, as most people did, that only the lower house was the democratic representative body. That is, it’s the House of Representatives. That's the only part in which the people are actually represented. The Senates have no constituents, and the governors are not representatives at all. But by 1787, things have changed in ten years’ time so that people now see all of the agents of government as somehow representatives of the people, and the House of Representatives is left with a kind of awkward name because all of the institutions of government are in some way now considered to be representative.

And in fact, Hamilton uses that very effectively in Federalist ‘78, where he's arguing against some of the Anti-Federalists about who don't like the idea of the courts curving the power of the state legislators. And he says, “Well, who did the state legislators think they are? They're just agents of the people, but someone at the courts,” he said, “someone at judiciary, they're agents of the people too.” Well, this is implying that the people actually has two kinds of agents, not just in the lower house of the legislature, but also in the courts.

And he more or less suggests that that gives the justification for the courts to set aside laws of the legislature, that is exercise judicial review. Well, of course some smart other people pick this up and they begin arguing, “Well, if the judges are agents of the people, maybe we ought to elect them.” And sure enough, it takes a while, but by the Jacksonian period, we begin electing our state judges. And now I think 39 states have elected judges. Now the Federal Constitution doesn't allow that. It would take a constitutional amendment, but nonetheless, that's how ideas get changed and things get developed. And it's interesting. I'm sure Hamilton had no intention of having judges elected, but he put his foot in it by trying to imply they were kind of agents of the people.

 

Albert Mohler:

Right. And in this Imperial debate and in the discussion, there are two things I want to ask you about. First of all, you make the point that by say 1774, the colonists have found themselves, they made their way towards what you called the dominion theory. And, of course, it would later take shape in the British Commonwealth with nations having, at least at one stage, having dominion status, which meant they were actually under one king, but they had their own government, and the king was more or less a symbol of cultural unity, but had no despotic powers.

 

Gordon Wood:

That's right. Well, that's the present situation of the Commonwealth, that is Canada and Australia and New Zealand are all members of the Commonwealth. They have a common queen. They all respect the queen. May have a Queen's Commissioner, but that queen does not exercise any of the authority that King George III would have exercised. But that's the position that the Americans anticipated. Of course, that was based on the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

So, the Americans are 200 years earlier anticipating that Commonwealth notion of the of the empire. It was a desperate attempt.

 

Albert Mohler:

The Commonwealth concept was forced upon Britain, but it also has had some pretty significant advantages because even though they sometimes have different interests, there has never been an armed conflict between the dominion nations, the Commonwealth nations. And you have to, I'm just saying as an intellectual exercise, had George III been able to imagine the advantage of such a system, we would still have Elizabeth's image on our currency.

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, that might be true. I think, of course the Brits do finally by 1778, when the French come into the fight and join the Americans in an Alliance, the British are so terrified by that, that they offer the Americans everything they wanted except independence. That is to say they offered them the Commonwealth status,

 

Albert Mohler:

A bit late.

 

Gordon Wood:

At that point. Yeah, but it's too late by 1778. But that's how desperate they are when the French come in to, that makes it a world war and it totally changes the thing.

 

Albert Mohler:

Right.

 

Gordon Wood:

England is no longer just putting down a rebellion, it's dealing with its historic enemy around the world. And so, this completely changes the nature of the struggle.

 

Albert Mohler:

The Doctrine of Sovereignty, as you discuss, at one point in the book, you make a pretty astounding statement saying that eventually the Doctrine of Sovereignty would mean the end of the British Empire. And you can certainly see that. You said it ultimately destroyed the Empire on page 22. And in retrospect, that was clearly the case.

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, it changes. Once that gets invoked, there's no going back. That changes the nature of the debate. It starts as a debate over representation, but then with sovereignty going to be, and the British are not going to give way on that, Parliament has to be sovereign as far as they're concerned. And they're willing to fight and they sent troops and the Revolution starts in April of ‘75, but the actual Declaration of Independence isn't until a year and few months later, although I think that the introduction of troops and the shooting of people pretty much dictated what was going to happen. I can't see any, there was no turning back for either side, once that happened, once people were killed.

 

Albert Mohler:

You talk about another transition in your book, and I've not seen anyone put it quite this way. It was extremely helpful, I thought, where you talk about the colonists having to make an intellectual jump from English rights to natural rights.

 

George Wood:

Right.

 

Albert Mohler:

Seeing the challenge of England itself as tyranny, they had been talking about rights as the rights of Englishmen.

 

George Wood:

Of course.

 

Albert Mohler:

And then that changed to natural rights. That's fundamentally important.

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, during the course of the debate, somebody pointed out, “Look, we keep talking about English rights,” but they knew they were on the verge of independence. “We can't keep talking about English rights.” So, they just said, “Well, then natural rights.” They're not dependent on, in other words, they weren't any different from English rights. What they meant was no taxation without representation and all of the common law rights that they had been used to. They just turned them into natural rights, but they didn't invoke any new rights at that point. They just knew that it was awkward to keep talking about it.

The debate is so strange because the Americans kept thinking they were defending the English Constitution, that the English didn't understand their own Constitution. So, they saw themselves as defending the English Constitution until almost the very end when they finally realized that well, who we have to break from this English constitution.

 

Albert Mohler:

And they did.

 

George Wood:

Yes.

 

Albert Mohler:

And what followed was a flurry of constitutionalism, especially after the Revolutionary War was won. And you point out something again, that is just really, really important, and I think often missed. And that is the fact that the real constitutional experimentation took place among the states.

 

Gordon Wood:

That's right. And it's not after the Revolution, it's right during the war. They almost immediately in 1776, many of the states, these new states, create their own constitutions. And they are what we're familiar with, of course—a governor, very weak because they see a gubernatorial power, but usually in upper house, which they call the Senate, they pull that out of Roman history. And then they have their House of Representatives, which is what the outset is going to be with the people. And they were used to that House of Representatives in their own colonial legislatures. They didn't have Senates, but they had councils. So, they were used to a triple, tripartite legislature with a governor and an upper house, very small one, usually around 12 men, and then a House of Representatives. But now they're going to be greatly enlarged. These legislatures are sometimes twice or four times as large as their colonial predecessors. And they have these senates, and then they have a weak governance, sometimes having no veto power, of course, no power over legislation, and very few powers to appoint offices.

In some states, Pennsylvania in particular, there’s no executive at all. They have a multiple commission, a committee to handle executive authority, but no single governor because that smacked of monarchy too much. So, it's an extraordinary moment ‘76, ‘77, creating the state constitutions. Now some of them, Massachusetts delays its constitution making until 1780. They have one in 1778, which is turned down by the people. And finally in 1780, they get a constitution. The one in ‘78 is turned down because the people felt that the legislature had drawn up the constitution and it should have a special body, somebody different from the legislature drawing up the constitution. And this is when they hit upon the convention, a separate elected body to make constitutions.

All of these things come, not just by stumbling and fumbling, they don't foresee how everything's going to work out, they knew that the constitution should be a fundamental law, but how can you make it fundamental? How do you amend it? Well, I think in one state, they said, “Well, we’ll elect, two successive legislatures can amend the constitution, or you have to have a super majority.” They had some way of making it more fundamental. That takes a little while to get that straightened out. So, the state constitution making is terribly important, I think, in preparing them for what they do in 1787 in drawing up the Federal Constitution.

 

Albert Mohler:

We do get the Federal Constitution. And just in order to move to some other issues I want to discuss with you, let me just say that you make a really compelling case for how the Americans came to the conclusion that the nation must have a written constitution. Unlike the unwritten English constitution, the United States had to have a written constitution. And so, let me ask you this to lay out that argument.

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, it isn't so hard when you think about it. Now, the English don't have a written constitution, but they have a lot of written documents — Magna Carta, their Bill of Rights, their statutes. And of course, in England, the statute is constitutional, which is exactly the difference between us and the English. Our statutes, our legislative acts, are not constitutional. There's a distinction.

Well, all of those written documents in England gave Americans the notion that you had to have something fixed, and it had to be somehow preserved from the legislature itself. And that's what's different. See Parliament can change the English constitution simply by passing an act. It's only by custom or convention that keeps it. There's no Supreme Court in England to decide, oh, that act you passed last week is unconstitutional. They might say that, but there's no body that can declare that because what is passed by the Parliament is by that fact alone constitutional. That's so different from the American notion.

The legislature can never be sure that a statute that it passes is going to be constitutional until it's passed by the court, the Supreme Court. And so that needed to be worked out, and it wasn't clear how that would be done, not at all. That takes … It's not really until we get to the early 19th century that we have a clearer understanding of the Supreme Court's role in setting aside a statute of the ...

 

Albert Mohler:

Right. Judicial review.

 

Gordon Wood:

Right.

 

Albert Mohler:

But it's interesting Professor Wood that the average American doesn't understand how that works. They would think that the Supreme Court’s just constantly passing judgment on whether laws are constitutional. But our separation of powers, according to the Constitution means that the federal courts only take up an issue as if it is a normal lawsuit. So, someone has to say, I have been wronged by this legislation and and has to have standing, or I'm about to be wronged by this legislation for some kind of a declaratory judgment. But otherwise, in other words, there's no process of judicial review where the Congress sends out its proposed legislation to the Supreme Court in order to get some kind of sign off.

 

Gordon Wood:

Right. No, constitution is treated like a statute that runs in the court system and it has to be litigated. Somebody has to object to a statute and decide that we want to push this in the courts.

 

Albert Mohler:

With some kind of claim of harm.

 

Gordon Wood:

Right. So that's very peculiar. Now, I think the state of Massachusetts has something similar to what I think Brazil has, where you can actually, where the legislature can ask the court whether it's planned law will be declared constitutional. That's peculiar to that one state. By and large, the rest of the states seem to follow the pattern of the federal system, where they … Of course, the states have constitutions too, and sometimes you can have a state court can declare acts of a legislature unconstitutional just for that state based on the state's constitution in the state’s judicial system, not in the federal system. So that peculiar notion of Massachusetts, which I don't know much about, I don't think it's exercised too often, but I remember someone telling me about it and that it's something that's not typical of the United States as a whole.

 

Albert Mohler:

Professor Wood, you also point out that a part of our constitutional inheritance or the inheritance of the constitutional experience and debate of the founders, is this a real demarcation between the public and the private? And again, I think most Americans right now would say, “Oh, it must always have been that way.” But it wasn't.

 

Gordon Wood:

Yeah, that's right. There was a real change. I mean, think of just Harvard University was a public institution prior to the Revolution that is supported by tax money. It was a public corporation. The whole notion of a corporation is transformed as a result of the Revolution. And that distinction between public and private is one of the great, well, I call the chapter ‘The Great Demarcation’ because it refers to a book by Professor Rafe Blaufarb at the University, at Florida State University, who is a French historian, historian of the French Revolution. And he's the one who called attention to an earlier book I'd written about this distinction. And he felt that the same thing that was happening in France in their Revolution happened in the United States. And I think that's true, and I think that needs to be explored more fully than I have. But nonetheless, you can see from the evidence I portray in that one chapter, that there was an extraordinary change.

Prior to the Revolution in New York City, for example, the street cleaning was done by the residents of the city. They were responsible for making sure that this area in front of their shop or their home was clean. After the Revolution, New York City creates under the state auspices a Public Works Department that does that work. That's a big change and that's the kind of change that takes place elsewhere in the States. The Revolution was a real revolution. And I suggest in the book, in the northern states, it’s the emergence of a middle-class, new people moving into authority that transforms the north in a fundamental way. And the south goes off and remains, I think, more or less in the 18th century with a hierarchical society based on slavery and very different kinds of attitudes towards public power. And the sectional split is even enhanced by the Revolution, the differences between the two sections, north and south, not just on the slavery issue, but in a host of other ways in which government is organized and people are related to one another.

 

Albert Mohler:

I want to come back to your latest book, Power and Liberty, in just a moment, but I want to ask you some questions about history and historiography. How, for lack of a better way of putting it, you do history. And there's a great debate in the United States, has been ever since Charles Beard in 1913 and his economic interpretation of the American Constitution in which the argument was, by these progressivist historians, that it was just an attempt to preserve privileged property that the American Constitution, as we now know it came about. And there's an entire set of arguments that flows from that all the way to the 1619 Project. You hope to a contrary understanding of how American history should be understood.

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, the progressive period back in early 20th century was, I think, stimulated by the notion of you need a usable past. People felt that the 19th century history was getting too antiquarian. And a man named Robinson who taught at Columbia actually wrote about this need for usable past, which is picked up by Charles Beard and others. And we have it now, I guess you'd say in spades, the past is going to be very usable.

I like to think of the past the way L.P. Hartley, who's the British novelist who wrote a wonderful novel called The Go-Between. He has an opening maxim where he says, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And I think that should be the first maxim of every historian—don’t go back in the past looking for the present, go back to past the way you would go to a foreign country expecting difference and not try to turn them into some semblance of what you are like.

There's something basically unhistorical about people, especially historians today, going back and judging the past in accordance with the standards of the present. That, it seems to me, is basically unhistorical. So, we have a lot of anachronism at work going back and saying, “Well, they weren't very democratic because they didn't allow women to vote.” But, of course, nobody was allowing women to vote in the 18th century. And in fact, if you want to measure democracy, Americans had the largest electorate in the world at the time, and more people could vote. More people certainly could vote than England, and England was the only country in all of Europe that had elections. So, it's not good. You're not going to find too much democracy anywhere in the world in the 18th century. And America does pretty well. Two out of three adult white men could vote. One out of six in England could vote. So, this is what we're dealing with.

And the idea of going back and finding that people back then discriminated against women makes no sense since everybody discriminated against women, they simply weren't involved in politics, but that's the nature of what you have. Present mindedness is the great danger in historical writing. You have to have the imagination to escape from your present and get back into the past. And that's why Hartley’s statement is so wonderful, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” You wouldn't go to France and expect the French to be like us. You’d be a terrible tourist doing that. You wouldn't understand anything. You wouldn't understand the peculiarities of another culture. And that's how once you approach the past, I think that's one of the biggest problems we have.

 

Albert Mohler:

You belong to, or at least have been associated with, the consensus school of American history. Can you explain that for us? It's an important argument to me.

 

Gordon Wood:

I don't know why I, I think it's because my mentor, Bernard Bailyn at Harvard, got tied in with an intellectual approach to the Revolution. I actually have a very different view. I think the Revolution was quite radical and quite revolutionary. I think it changed our society in a fundamental way. And so I don't see why I should be linked with a consensus school, but it's in the peculiarities of academic politics, I suppose that's what's happened, but that's totally false.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, and I understand that, but I guess a part of why people might think that is that, looking at your historical project, and there's no doubt you point to the radical nature of the Revolution, that's part of the reason why among your books won the Pulitzer Prize. But you also see American history as unfolding in a direction that does go back to the founding era and is the outworking of that logic.

 

Gordon Wood:

Oh, yes. I do think the founders are important, and for the reasons we talked about earlier, that they are the adhesive, their principles are the adhesive that holds us together. So, in that sense, yes, if that's what is meant by consensus, but at the same time, I believe the society, the American Revolution was a social revolution.

 

Albert Mohler:

Sure.

 

Gordon Wood:

The emergence of a middle-class, really quite startling. By 1808, Pennsylvania was electing Simon Snyder as President, as governor who had no education whatsoever. He was called a clodhopper by the elites, and he wore that as a badge of honor. And people began playing down any intellectual or social credentials in the northern states. It became embarrassing to have gone to college, to gone to Harvard or Columbia or Princeton. And you hid your educational accomplishments if you want it to be elected. That's a transformation of immensely important sort that took place.

By the time you get to the Jacksonian era, the society has become, the northern society in particular has become thoroughly democratic, and the Jacksonians are arguing that anyone can hold any office. And it doesn't matter whether they went to college or had any education at all. This is really quite remarkable. And I think you have to account for how did that happen? And I think the, and the south remains really in the 18th century intellectually. They still have slaves, they denigrate work, work is fit only for slaves. The north is celebrating work. It's the only society in the world at the time that celebrates work. Everyone else is suspicious of people who work because they are too much involved with, they can never be good political leaders if you're working because you're too much involved in your own self-interest. So, it's an extraordinary transformation that takes place in the northern states. And so, it's a social revolution. And so, I don't see myself as a consensus historian at all, but who knows how things work here.

Albert Mohler:

No, I understand that you've been involved in, no doubt, many academic political controversies simply by the fact that you've taught in many of the leading academic institutions of the country and served on those faculty. So, I realize I'm talking to a war-scarred veteran in that respect.

Speaking of going back to your book, however, I want to go back because you have a chapter entitled ‘Slavery and Constitutionalism’, and I find it bracingly honest. Can you kind of set out your basic argument there?

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, prior to the Revolution, no one really in any major way is criticizing slavery. There are a few isolated Quakers who are not listened to very much, but by and large, the colonists are accepting slavery as the lowest status in a hierarchy of vertically organized people. In the old society, in the Ancient Regime, if you will, people were organized vertically. They knew who is above them, who is below them, but they didn't take the terms of class. They didn't think about people alongside them, as we would later. And there were degrees of unfreedom all over the place. Half the society was unfree, half the society was in one state or another, both whites, and then of course, blacks or slaves, but there are lots of white servants, but they're not serving for life and it's not hereditary. But there's enough unfreedom.

These white servants were, of course, would be for five to seven years. They couldn't marry. They couldn't own property. They were owned essentially by their master. They could be sold and bought and so on. So, there's so much unfreedom that people didn't see the peculiar nature of slavery in the way they would later. The Revolution changes everything, because it does away with servitude, but by 1800 white servitude is gone. And yet it had been flourishing in the previous period. And people thought, I think, at the time of the Revolution that slavery would slowly decline too, would die away.

Now, there are people in Georgia and South Carolina who don't fit that at all, but there are people from Virginia Northwood who all are confident, sooner or later, maybe it'll take three or four decades, there’ll be no slaves left. What's happening in Virginia is interesting because people like Washington are finding that tobacco is no longer very good for Virginia. The soil has been exhausted. And so, they have to turn to wheat, and the growing of wheat doesn't require the kind of labor that tobacco did. And so, they have excessive slaves and they beginning to rent them out in the cities, in Norfolk or Richmond. And when you rent out your slaves, you begin to think, well, this is akin to wage labor. And this of course, leads people to think that slavery is going to slowly disappear. Now, they couldn't have been more wrong, of course. There are more slaves after the Revolution than there are before, but they were increasingly located in the south. And the northern states, which some of them had considerable number of slaves, but nothing like the plantation slavery of the south. They abolish it.

It's an extraordinary moment in the history of the west because there's no state that I know of that legally authorized slavery that abolished it the way the American states did in 1776 and in the years following. Right up by 1804, all the northern states have abolished, legally abolished slavery. That's unprecedented in the history of the modern world. Now, slavery was, as I say, was not deeply entrenched. It was not a plantation slavery in the south, but nonetheless, that's a momentous step taken.

The southerners, those who are going to keep slavery are put on the defensive for the first time in history. Slavery had been taken for granted so much through all of history, up to that point. It's the American Revolution that makes history, that makes slavery a problem and puts it on the defensive. Now, of course, historians are indicting us for not having done anything about slavery in the south. But as I say, there was this misplaced confidence that it was going to die a natural death. That's why I think Madison, when he goes into the convention, is very scrupulous about not having the word slave or slavery mentioned in the Constitution. He wanted no sense of a property of man, because I think there's a feeling that, well, wait a few generations and we won't have any slaves, that it's going to disappear. But as I say, they were so wrong about that. But they were misled. They were living with illusions. We live with illusions too. We just don't know what they are. And some historians looking back at us will say, how could they have believed that? But we're just not aware of what mistakes we're making.

So, they were mistaken about the future, but it helps explain their attitude towards the Constitution and the compromises they made. And there were a series of compromises that came back to haunt them in the antebellum period, haunt the northerners who were opposed to slavery in the antebellum period, including the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave clauses.

 

Albert Mohler:

Professor Wood, we're deeply indebted to you. I speak on behalf of all those who have had the honor of being in your classroom or the privilege of reading your books. I want to thank you for your massive contribution to our understanding of our own nation. And I appreciate the fact that you take ideas so seriously and I think with such honesty, and I want to thank you for joining me today for Thinking In Public.

 

Gordon Wood:

Well, it's been my pleasure having a conversation with you. Thank you very much.

 

Albert Mohler:

I really appreciate Professor Gordon Wood sharing time with me today and thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking In Public, you'll find more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking In Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. And until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

Topics

Abortion Adultery Anglicanism Animals Art & Culture Ask Anything Atheism Bible Birth Control Books Childhood Church & Ministry Church History College & University Coronavirus Court Decisions Death Divorce Economy & Work Education Embryos & Stem Cells Environment Ethics Euthanasia Evangelicalism Evolutionism Family Film Gambling Heaven and Hell History Homosexuality Islam Jesus & the Gospel Law & Justice Leadership Manhood Marriage Mormonism Obituaries Parental Rights Pluralism Politics Population Control Pornography Preaching Publishing Race Religious Freedom Roman Catholicism SBC Science Secularism Sex Education Sexual Revolution Singleness Social Media & Internet Spirituality Sports Technology The Apostles' Creed The Gathering Storm The Mailbox The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down Theology Tragedy Trends United States Womanhood