Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Idea of America

Over at The Wall Street Journal, James Cesar reviews Gordon Wood's latest, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.  Here is a taste:

The historian has the advantage of hindsight. He can see the development of an idea or principle in a way that the participants along the way never can. In Mr. Wood's analysis, the force of the democratic principle was bound to undo or modify some of the hierarchic aspects of the Founders' plan. This does not mean that the Constitution has not defined American politics—it has—but it does mean that the Jeffersonian interpretation of America and its Jacksonian heir were destined to win the day, creating a republic in which the popular will reigns as the highest authority. For this reason, Mr. Wood has conceived the proper period for studying the Revolution as running from the 1760s through the Jacksonian era, since this time span allows one to see the full shape of the event.

The historian's role is the leitmotif that runs through this book. All history, Mr. Wood notes, is interpretation—indeed, how could it be anything else—if only because "no single historian can know everything." Yet the inevitable fact of interpretation does not provide a license, as postmoderns argue, to design "narratives" as one likes, as if the past is the plaything for the writer to push an agenda or display his imagination. These creations, Mr. Wood is old-fashioned enough to remind us, are not as important or as interesting as real history itself. Nor does Mr. Wood adopt the view of some of our great romantic historians—George Bancroft comes to mind—who thought that the historian bore the great responsibility to sing the song of his country. As the 19th-century historian Richard Hildreth expressed it, what "is due to our fathers and ourselves" is to present our history "unbedaubed by patriotic rouge." In the end, as the corpus of Mr. Wood's works shows, "the best apology is to tell the story exactly as it was."