Gordon S. Wood: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you very much.
I'm delighted to be back here at the Book Festival, one of the great--
I think the greatest Book Festival in the country.
[ Applause ]
>> I wanna say a few words about my recent book, "Empire of Liberty"
which is the subtitle, a history of the early republic 1789-1815.
It's part of the larger Oxford Project for the history
for the United States which is nearing completion.
About a dozen volumes and I think there are
about 4-- maybe 4 or 5 left to do.
But they've been commissioned and that it should finally bring
to an end a project that that began in the 1950s,
more than a half century ago.
My assignment was 1789-1815, which is one of the most extraordinary--
if not the most extraordinary period in American history.
I think we should start
by recognizing how important the American Revolution is to us.
It is in my mind, the most significant event
in American history, bar none.
It not only legally created the United States, but it brought--
it infused our culture with almost everything we believe,
our highest aspirations, our noblest ideals,
all of these came out of the revolution.
Our belief in equality, in liberty, in the well being
of ordinary people, in constitutionalism.
So it's understandable why we go back to this period.
I have people asked me at events like this,
what would George Washington think of the-- of our invasion of Iraq?
What would Thomas Jefferson think of affirmative action?
Now, I don't know of any other culture where people would be asking
that about past historical figures.
I'm sure David Cameron in Great Britain is not asked, you know,
what would William Pitt think about what you're doing?
I mean, it just not-- it's just not possible.
So if something peculiar to us-- and I think it has to do with the fact
that that event at the revolution and those people who led it, are--
who created our political institutions by which we still live.
And also the values, the ideals by which we still live.
We go back to them to refresh ourselves,
to reaffirm what we are as a people.
Now, this period that I'm dealing within "Empire of Liberty"--
the term by the way comes from Jefferson.
That's the term he gave to what he thought was the United
States project.
The irony of course in that is that a fifth
of the population were-- wasn't slaved.
But the notion that the United States was a special place begins
in this period.
They're struggling to identify themselves.
After all, they were-- by and large, the majority of the population,
the overwhelming majority was British.
So, how do you become Americans when you're British?
This is why the issue of impressment, the seize--
the British seizing of American sailors and the ambiguity
of citizenship was so important to this period.
James Madison, as president, said the reason--
the principal reason we have to go to war in the war of 1812 is
because of this impressment.
It goes to the heart of American identity.
We didn't even know what to call ourselves.
The term Columbia was tried in 1792 at the [inaudible]
of the-- of Columbus' discovery.
They thought, "Well, maybe Columbia would be a good name."
But that didn't stick, although it sounded good
because the syllables could be fitted into a lot of British songs,
you know Britannia Columbia and so it so very attractive.
Samuel Mitchill who is a senator from New York suggested Fredonia.
We are the Fredonians.
[Laughter] Well, that didn't last either and we were stuck
with Americans, with the [inaudible] a title that really belongs
to people of both hemispheres.
Why are we the Americans--
the Canadians have never forgiven us for taking that title.
[Laughter] So that was an issue running through the whole period.
What kind of people are we.
The government was contested between the Hamiltonians
who wanted a European-type state, a fiscal military state
that could take on the European states eventually on their own terms
with the standing army, a big navy, and a bureaucracy that was equal
to any of the Europeans versus the Jeffersonians, the republicans,
the democratic republicans followers of Jefferson
who wanted a minimal state and wanted to use economic sanctions
as an alternative to the use of military force.
This was the grand embargo that we were involved
in that Jefferson promoted in 1807.
This was what we're still struggling with.
How do you use economic sanctions as an alternative to military force
because the use of military force is so, so violent,
so bloody anything must be tried, that's what Jefferson's rationale.
It's a period of enormous controversy.
We came as close to a civil war in 1798 as we ever have except
for the actual Civil War in the middle of 19th century.
So that-- and people were frightened that the French were going to invade
and that a Francophile president or potential president,
Jefferson was leading a kind of fifth column of Francophiles,
French supporters who would create a--
another French puppet in the United States that was the federalist fear.
So, it was a tremendously-- tumultuous period.
The population was still growing, doubling every 20 years,
the fastest-growing population in the entire Western world.
So, it's-- and this population is on the move.
It's a period of extraordinary democratization.
So much popularization democratization
that at left those founders who lived
into the 19th century deeply disillusion
with what they have brought.
It was a-- as you know a creative period are institutions
that we still live by, the Congress, the Presidency,
the Supreme Court were all created in this period.
It was a period of great instability, violence,
city mobs, all kinds of homicide.
Homicide rates skyrocket in New York City in the 1790s.
It was a period of heavy drinking.
Alcohol became-- we became the highest drinkers in the world,
5 gallons per person which we've never attained since
and was the highest in the world
with the possible exception of Scotland.
[Laughter] These are all signs of instability in the society.
People were simply influx, moving at enormous rates,
migrating to the west, more territory settled
in the single generation following a revolution then
in the entire 150 years of the colonial period.
So people were already reaching the Mississippi
in a relatively short period of time.
It was a period were college rioting which were--
we think the 1960s were bad.
There's nothing comparable to what happened between 1798 and 1808.
Colleges up and down the east coast rioted, students were expelled,
half the student body of colleges like Williams
or Harvard, were expelled.
The colleges weren't large,
be 120 but 60 would be expelled, enormous instability.
Princeton, the National Hall was burned to the ground
by student presumably, no one knows for sure.
This was a period of great instability in all areas.
Religion transformed.
The old European religions, the Anglican Church,
the congregations were surpassed by these new evangelical religions
of Methodist and Baptist.
Growing by leaps and bounds so that by 1810, the Methodist who--
there were no Methodist in America or in 1760.
By 1810, it was the largest religious group in all of America
and growing even more rapidly.
Everywhere, there was a popularization from art, literature.
John Marshall wrote a 5-volume biography of George Washington
which you expected to make some money from
and that people would read.
Nobody bought it.
They bought a Parson Weems' short little biography
which emphasized Washington's youth.
Marshall summed up Washington's youth in one page.
In 5 volumes, he's devoted one page and nobody wanted
to read those 5 volumes, instead they read Parson Weems
which is still the fastest selling,
most popular biography of Washington ever made.
He-- Weems is the one who made up the cherry tree myth.
That's what people wanted to read about.
They wanted to read about this young Washington.
Now, the generation was filled with illusions,
so many illusions they thought political parties where awful
that they should they should disappear.
There should be no political parties.
Faction was bad.
Nonetheless, political parties emerged.
They wanted to do well by the Indians in the Northwest.
>> Henry Knox's letters to Washington
about how we should treat the Indians,
even a modern archeologist would endorse.
But nonetheless, the popular movement was so great,
it just overwhelmed all of these plans laid in the capital
in Philadelphia that knocks head for treating the Indians
in a humane and civilized manner.
There were just too much popular movement in every area.
The-- and of course the biggest illusion of all was slavery.
All the founders, not a single one, defended the institution.
It was so-- such a violation of the meaning of the revolution
that nobody could defend it.
But they all thought that slavery would die naturally,
that with the ending of the slave trade in 1808
that slavery would simply disappear, overwhelmed by free labor.
Now, they could not have been more wrong.
Despite the freeing of tens of thousands of slaves in the north--
the north was not in consequential in the north,
14 percent of the population of New York was in slave.
Nonetheless by 1804,
all the northern states had set slavery on road to elimination.
But in the South, it remained and grew, despite the dreams,
the illusions of the founders.
Now, all of them who lived into the 19th century died this illusion
with what they have brought.
The society was much more democratic,
much more popular than they ever expected.
Now, before we become arrogant
and condescending towards this generation of founders
for their illusions, we should realize that we live
with illusions too, only we just don't know what they are.
Every society-- every generation I think has its own illusions.
In fact, I think history is a record of exploded illusions.
But this leads in my mind to the lesion--
the major lesson of history which is humility.
Humility is the consequence of realizing
that you may not have all the answers to what is happening
and that future generations will look back at us
and say, "What were they doing?"
Thomas Jefferson for example thought that in-- as late as 1821 he said,
there's not a young man now alive who won't die a unitarian."
I mean, how wrong can he be.
[Laughter] And this is one of the smartest men
of that whole generation.
So, we should not be cocky about what we know
and we should be much more humble in our approach to the--
to ourselves and to the past.
I wanna stop there because I wanna have questions.
We only have about 15 minutes to go.
We got a very tight, tight program here because Mrs. Bush is coming
on board right away and then there's a whole succession of speakers.
So, if we can open it up to questions,
I'll be happy to answer them.
[ Pause ]
>> I guess there are microphones here.
Go ahead sir.
>> After reading your book, I have a question about US
and British relations after the war of 1812.
Even during the Civil War,
US relations with Britain were somewhat rocky because the British,
at least some British favored the south.
But then by World War 1, we were their allies, so could you comment
on how the special relationship developed?
>> Well, that's a big-- I mean, first of all,
it's out of my period as we-- we say.
But, there's no doubt that Britain was still a principle enemy
through the 19th century.
I mean, there were people in America who were anglophiles but by
and large, we regarded Britain as an enemy.
It's not until the 1890s-- you're quite right.
The Civil War, we are quite worried
about Britain recognizing the confederacy.
And Adams-- Charles Francis Adams as the ambassador to--
or minister I should say to Great Britain, headed that off.
But, their special relationship did not develop until the 1890.
John Hay as secretary of state-- and it come out of a whole new sense
of anglophilia that does prepare the way for the alliance in World War 1.
But it's a-- there are books on this and it's a very interesting story.
But the special relationship is really a late 19th
century development.
Yes sir?
>> Yes, I know the French monarchy supported us
in the war with Britain.
Can you say something about the relationship
between the United States new government policy
and France during the French Revolution?
>> Well, it's a very interesting-- very important question.
Initially, of course we welcomed--
everybody welcomed the French Revolution because we saw it
as a carbon copy of our own which it was.
Lafayette who was involved in the early stages
of the French Revolution, he wanted simply to reform the monarchy.
He didn't wanna eliminate the king and he later ended
up as the victim fleeing the Jacobins in France.
But initially, he was supportive and he sent
to Washington the key to the Bastille.
The Bastille in the July 14th takeover which is initial--
is the initial event in the French Revolution.
He sends the key to Washington as a symbol of American contribution
to the French Revolution.
It-- well our revolution, our republican revolution came first
and the French liberal saw that.
That key still stands or it's hanging on the wall in Mount Vernon
and many of you may have seen it there.
Now, as soon as the French Revolution turned violent
and especially after the Jacobins took over,
the American society was deeply split along party lines.
The federalist supported England, and Jefferson
and his followers supported France and it contributed
to the party split in the United States.
Jefferson never really lost his feeling for France and he felt
that the American Revolution's future as a republican state
in a monarchical world depended upon the success
of the French Revolution.
So he made extraordinary statements and supported the French Revolution.
When his colleague and successor in Paris wrote back to him and said,
"Mr. Jefferson, some of your formal friends are losing the heads
in the guillotine."
Jefferson's response is quite extraordinary.
He says, "Well, so be it.
If only an Adam and Eve were left alive
and left free, that would be okay."
This led the Irish journalist, Conor Cruise O'Brien to say
that Thomas Jefferson was the Pot Polof the 18th century.
Now, Jefferson never really would have implemented that.
But, he-- his support for the revolution was deep
and it split the society and made the federalists feel
as if they have a fifth column in the amidst.
And that France might invade the United States
as it was invading every other state in Europe
and creating a French puppet, that's what created the crisis of 1798.
Yes sir.
>> Is there anything in the revolutionary and constitutional era
that could illuminate such current political phenomena
as the [inaudible] movement, the tea party movement,
that deep mistrust of government and law?
>> Good question.
One thing you should realize is that the populars--
popular politics is not new.
Let me give one example from 1808.
Simon Snyder, [inaudible] governor of Pennsylvania.
Simon Snyder was a son of a poor mechanic.
He was self-educated, had no formal education but a very smart guy.
But lacking all of the cultural attributes of a Princeton graduate
or a Harvard graduate, and his--
there was no federalist party by 1808 in Pennsylvania.
The established Republican Party--
Jeffersonian Republican Party was appalled
at Snyder's attempted candidacy and it split the Republican Party.
And the-- Thomas McKean who was the former chief justice and himself,
a governor-- a former governor of Pennsylvania called--
he and his followers called Snyder a clodhopper
and he had a followers of clodhoppers.
Snyder took that term and said, "Wow,
what's better than being a clodhopper in a society
of clodhoppers," and he rode to victory with that slogan.
That what's popular politics that appalled many people.
Daniel Tompkins in New York, a Columbia Graduate,
a wealthy lawyer, he knew better.
If he's gonna win the governorship of New York, he had to be what?
A farmer's boy and he used that as his campaign slogan.
Not that he graduated from Columbia
and was a wealthy New York attorney, no.
That would be a kiss of death.
So, he's a farmer's boy.
So you have popular politics of a sort that is being expressed today.
I think in the Tea Party Movement and Christine O' Donnell
and Sarah Palin, there's a class dimension to this resentment
and its very similar to what went on with what--
with American politics in the north
in the early decades of the 19th century.
Yes sir.
>> Yes, good morning professor.
I was wondering to what extent did religious aspects have
on driving revolution, the idea of America as the city on the hill,
the new Jerusalem driving out European control and influence?
>> Right. Well, I think there is a--
certainly an evangelical puritan emphasis during the revolution
but it's a secular as well.
This notion that we were the last best hope as Lincoln said that comes
out of the revolution, that we were the forerunners of revolution
and that it would spread.
That's why they welcomed the France Revolution, that this democratic
or revolutionary republican revolution would spread
throughout Europe.
And so we supported all
of the revolutionary efforts throughout the 19th century
with one exception.
All the revolutions starting with the Greek,
that Latin American Revolutions, the revolutions of 1848, 1870,
the French-- Third French Republic, all of these,
we were the first state in the world to recognize the new regimes.
Most of-- all of which failed except for the Third French Republic.
There was one exception of course, it's the Haitian Revolution,
we didn't recognized that new a black state
until the Lincoln's administration.
But otherwise, we supported all revolutions much
to the chagrin of conservatives.
It's more than just a religious feeling.
It's deeply embedded in our history.
And when President Bush went into Iraq with some understanding that--
by some people at least, that we are bringing democracy
to the Middle East.
He was responding or echoing this kind of tradition
which is deeply rooted in our history.
Now, we didn't invade other states
but we supported them diplomatically.
And individuals actually went off and fought,
for example in the Greek Rebellion against the Ottomans in 1820.
So that's been a deeply rooted part of our heritage.
Yes sir.
>> Can you comment on the role of the Louisiana Purchase.
Did it add to the sense of people becoming Americans or did it add
to the turmoil that you mentioned in that area?
>> The question was on the Louisiana Purchase.
It was of course Jefferson's wildest dream, getting--
doubling the size of the United States.
And it was widely supported.
A lot of federalists, however, in New England were very upset
because they realized that this would just create more Jeffersonian
Republicans, all those states,
western states were thoroughly Jeffersonian Republican.
So, there were some mixed feelings.
Hamilton supported, however,
although gave no credit whatsoever to Jefferson.
So, I don't think it added to American identity.
What was said I supposed about it is that we didn't learn much
by absorbing these multicultural, multiracial area.
New Orleans was a very different place from the rest
of the United States with Spanish, French, black, free blacks,
mixed races, and an understanding of mixed-- racial mixture.
And the American people didn't learn much from that.
It-- we had to wait to an understanding
of diversity to our own time.
So, the Louisiana Purchase was not something that brought--
especially brought us together.
Yes sir.
>> I'm fascinated by the thought that once upon a time,
we thought we could live without political parties.
How is it that we came to become partisan and to think of ourselves
as federalist or republicans?
>> Right. Well, the dream-- parties by the term is partisan, partial,
you're not thinking of the total good and so parties
for 18th century English speakers were always considered
to be a sign of disease in the state.
There's something wrong, if you can't promote the consensus.
And to some extent, we've always believed that.
We've never really been very keen on political parties despite the fact
that we have them [inaudible].
I mean why would we have primaries?
Why would we have open primaries?
I mean, we've always had movements
to somehow transcend parties beginning
with the liberal republicans in the 1870s, the Mugwump movement
of the 1880s and then the 1890s
and 1900 progressive reforms were designed to bypass parties.
When you-- you know, there's no European party
that would allow the nomination of candidates to go out to the people
in general and especially allowing in open primaries opponents.
So the parties had given up control of their--
of the most important function of a party which is
to nominate its candidates.
No European party puts up with that.
So parties have always been suspect.
Now nonetheless, they grew and we finally--
it wasn't until the 1830s and '40s, a new generation that finally came
to terms with party as a normal thing.
The founders never did.
They always felt that parties should be-- should go away.
Jefferson assumed that his Republican Party was a temporary
party and that as soon as the federalist disappeared, he--
there were monarchist in his mind.
And as soon as they disappeared, party government would disappear.
And that was the sense that people had in Monroe's administration.
Air of good feelings, we've transcended parties.
The federalists have been wiped out, discredited
and were entering a new era.
But it was not-- not to be.
Yes sir.
>> My question is sorta along the same lines.
I'm curious as to your feelings
and what your thoughts are regarding the Jackson party machine
and as it relates to sorta undermining the John Quincy Adams
administration [inaudible].
>> Well, although I'm not an expert on the Jackson era.
I think it's open to a revisionist interpretation.
I think Jackson and his administration are attempting
to bring back some monarchical elements
that the federalists had attempted to build in the 1790s.
As you know, Jefferson came into power as president in 1800
and he eliminated almost everything that the--
that the federalist had built up, including the bank.
He allows the bank charter--
or the republicans allow the blank-- bank charter to lapse.
So, all of the efforts to build a quasi--
see Hamilton's program is quasi-monarchical.
He will use his patronage-- within a republican framework,
he uses patronage.
He wants to build a standing army.
He is trying to build a bureaucracy.
He is trying to create a kind of surrogate monarchical substance
within a republican framework, because he believes
that that's the only thing that can hold the sprawling United
States together.
Now, it turns out that Jefferson repudiates all of these.
Jackson comes along and what does he do?
He builds patronage, all within a democratic framework.
But he institutes patronage, the spoil system.
He builds a huge bureaucracy relative to what Jefferson wanted
and he is not opposed to a strong army and military force.
So, I think we could see Jackson trying to--
and of course, he makes the presidency a quasi-monarchical
as Washington had in the 1790s.
So, I think we can see that-- and of course the president remains
as many people thought he was at the beginning, an elected monarch.
Our president, article 2 is extraordinarily strong--
creates an extraordinarily strong executive office.
And so I think we are open to a revisionist of the Jacksonian era.
Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.
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