Gordon Wood, the esteemed historian of colonial and Revolutionary history, stirred up serious debate in a recent essay in The Weekly Standard. Throughout that piece, “History in Context: The American Vision of Bernard Bailyn,” Wood praised his mentor for seeing the large themes and movements in American history without being waylaid by minutia, while simultaneously criticizing the current state of the history profession. It seems that Bailyn’s Peopling of British North America series has received a fair amount of criticism because it relegates the experiences of Native and African Americans to the sidelines. Wood asserts that while this criticism is telling, it is also telling on the state of the historical profession. Namely that “[i]t’s as if academics have given up trying to recover an honest picture of the past and have decided that their history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing.” Wood goes on to argue that the academic focus on “inequality and white privilege in America society” via the proliferating studies of race and gender history has distracted the historical community. As a result, many readers lack the ability to gain from historians the full narrative of American history. Wood believes that the attention to African American slaves, women, and Native Americans has fragmented the study of history in such a way that the attention to contemporary moral standards has anachronistically distorted the study of the past, taking it out of context.
Although Wood and Bailyn traditionally study colonial and Revolutionary American history, I think it is important that Civil Discourse tackle a discussion of Wood’s article. I hope that is what this post will turn into...a discussion (or discourse!) about the role of historians. As such, I aim to keep my commentary brief, allowing for and encouraging a thought provoking discussion.
On the surface, I think Wood’s argument that historians should not apply our contemporary moral code on past historical actors or events is fair. Nevertheless, I think that his attention to the “moral hand-wringing” of current historians obscures a deeper complaint: the fact that he has grown uncomfortable with the methodological changes experienced by our profession since the rise of "New Social History" in the 1970s. While there are certainly some historians who bring their own biases and moral judgments to their research, this should not suggest that all scholars who seek to look critically at the American past are being unkind or unfair. There were many Americans, white or black, male or female, who criticized how Americans treated other peoples. Take for example the words of Thomas Jackson, the English-born rope-maker of Reading, Pennsylvania (not the Confederate General) in October of 1862. In a letter to his cousin, Jackson wrote,
The history of the white man in America, is one long tale of terrible outrage & murderous cruelty and oppression of other races of men. While constantly prating about his own patriotism, his great love of freedom & the his vast appreciation of his own rights he has been, in the mass, the bloodiest and most unprincebled despot, known in history.
Jackson is far from alone; others also commented on the discrepancy between the stated American ideals and its practices. Included are people far more influential than a ropemaker—individuals like Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many others. While Wood may find it anachronistic that historians pay attention to the moral ambiguity of American history, is it not more questionable to suggest that such concerns did not exist?
To speak to the broader issue of new forms of historical examination (social, cultural, racial, and gender history), it is important to note that I firmly believe such studies do not distract readers or historians from the general narrative of the American past. Native Americans, women, African Americans, slaves, freedmen, poor whites, rich whites, politicians, men, and immigrants (to name but a few) all shared in the development of the American nation. Some resisted, others went along willingly, but by studying more people and more perspectives, we gain a more nuanced version of the past. Both those who shaped and were shaped by historical trends deserve a spot in any narrative of American history. Furthermore, the job market is already troubling enough—how bad would it be if all historians only studied the “traditional” narrative of American history. I would argue that there is no singular “traditional” narrative, but more to the point, studying different people and perspectives complicates our understanding of the past. It adds to our understanding, furthers our connections, and humanizes the people, events, and ideas we study.
Allow me to illustrate my response with Stephanie McCurry’s monograph Confederate Reckoning. McCurry explored how Confederate political leaders failed to consider the desires and voices of both women and African Americans during the Civil War. Ultimately, the slaves who refused to allow the institution of slavery to serve as an advantage for the Confederates and women, who challenged the notion of “the people” in the Confederacy, undermined the vision of Southern politicians in the creation of a patriarchal slave republic. McCurry did not pen an examination of why the Confederacy lost, but she looked at how the lack of attention paid to Southern women and slaves proved a reckoning for the Confederates. Wood might not be pleased with McCurry’s work; she does pass a moral judgment on slavery and pays less attention to the traditional political history of the Civil War. Yet, she adds deeper understanding to the conflict, one that I do not think would disinterest lay readers or exclude them from academic debate, but one that brings them into a complex discussion and adds a great deal to how we conceptualize Confederate politics during the conflict.
I encourage you to read Wood's article and share your thoughts. This is Civil Discourse after all, and I think we should strive to have more conversations between staff and readers. Have we as historians gone too far away from “traditional” history? Are we too judgmental? You have read my thoughts if you got this far, what do you think?
Chuck Welsko is currently a doctoral student in 19th-century American history at West Virginia University, where he also received his master’s degree. An alum of Moravian College in Pennsylvania, he has also worked for local museums and interned with the National Park Service. Chuck’s research focuses on the mid-Atlantic region, in particular the intersection between politics, rhetoric, and the conceptualizations of loyalty during the Civil War Era. ©
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Thomas Jackson, Letters, 1862-1874, Historic Society of Berks County, Reading, Pennsylvania, October 12, 1862.
Paul E. Johnson, “Reflections: Looking Back at Social History,” Reviews in American History 39 (2011) 379–388.
Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2010).
Gordon Wood, “History in Context: The American Vision of Bernard Bailyn,” http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/history-context_850083.html?nopager=1.
*I would like to thank Jamie Paxton, Associate Professor of History at Moravian College for bringing the article by Gordon Wood to my attention.
*This is an admittedly brief synopsis of Wood’s article, I encourage everyone to read the article at the above link to capture Wood’s full argument.