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The Uses of History

Tags U.S. HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

05/09/2008David Gordon

[The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. By Gordon S. Wood. Penguin Press, 2008. 323 pages.]


Gordon Wood is one of America's most distinguished historians. He is best known for his Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (University of North Carolina Press, 1969) a study that controversially claimed to find a communal, "republican" system of ideas, not classical liberalism, at the heart of the American Revolution. In The Purpose of the Past, he has collected a number of his longer reviews, in pursuit of a larger purpose than that of giving these articles a more lasting setting. He finds disturbing recent trends in historiography that throw into question the historian's ability accurately to reconstruct the past. As if postmodernism were not enough, other types of thought also threaten the historian's effort to study the past for its own sake. Political theorists and ideologists of various stripes seek to subordinate history as it actually happened to their own ends.

Wood's defense of objective history is salutary, and besides this, as one would expect from a historian of his eminence, he makes many illuminating remarks about concrete issues in American history. In addition, he is in one respect an ideal reviewer. However critical he may be of a particular book, he always presents a full and accurate summary of its contents.

Despite its considerable merits, though, his book suffers from a fundamental flaw. He protests against ideologists who impose their own concerns on the past; but Wood himself has definite views about the nature of the past that are as much theoretical impositions as those of the writers he challenges. In a number of cases, he ascribes particular opinions of his own to "the historian," wrongly seeing them as inherent in the study of the past for its own sake.

If Wood defends objective history, he does so in part as a repentant sinner. In one essay, written in 1982, a review of Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, he was prepared to throw into question the ability of narrative history effectively to recapture the past as it actually happened. He argued that the narrative historian necessarily imports a plot to history that was not present in the original:

The plots, the coherence, and the significance of narratives are always retrospective. This recognition lies behind the contempt French social historians have for the unique, unconnected events of traditional narrative history. For a historian to emphasize one of these unique events and not another, writes François Furet, he has to assume some connecting plot in the events, that they are going somewhere; he has given them an "an ideological meaning." (p. 53)

Based on "epistemological problems" like this, Wood concluded, "the narrative form, particularly as Middlekauff has used it, may not bear much looking into" (p. 55).

Wood tells us that he "came to regret" this last sentence, and in any case, his skepticism in that article did not extend to structural, "social science" history. Wood's underlying views come out best in a passage in that same article.

"The historian's vocation," writes [Oscar] Handlin, "depends on this minimal article of faith: truth is absolute; it is as absolute as the world is real." This faith may be philosophically naïve, may even be philosophically absurd in this skeptical and relativist-minded age; nevertheless, it is what makes history writing possible. Historians who cut loose from this faith do so as the peril of their discipline. (p. 60)

Hardly a convincing argument.

However philosophically weak Wood's defense of these "articles of faith" may be, in his own historical writing he firmly adheres to this creed; and he assails ideologists who do not. In doing so, he seems to me to stand on solid ground. To make a case against the ideologists, he does not have to show that the historian can in fact attain objectivity, or even closely approach it. It suffices if we have good reason to think that attempts to yoke the past to present concerns are likely to impede efforts to portray the past as it actually happened. Even if we can't come close, we may know that certain paths will keep us away and avoid them.

In a review of Richard K. Matthews, If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason, Wood shows that Matthews's anticapitalist bias distorts his understanding of Madison. Matthews argues that Madison intended to promote a political system in which capitalist owners would dominate the rest of society. Though he admires the brilliance with which Madison constructed his political vision, Matthews finds it alien and inhuman. Wood points out that Matthews reads a modern-day understanding of capitalism into Madison's thought. Madison was in fact concerned with property owned by landowners, not with entrepreneurs as we know them today.

Madison's conception of property was not quite the kind of modern bourgeois property that Matthews has in mind. Madison was still thinking of property in premodern, almost classical terms: rentier property, proprietary property, property as a source of authority and independence, not as the source of productivity and capitalistic investment. (p. 153)

In similar fashion, he faults the popular historian Barbara Tuchman for anachronism.

She can never quite accept the fact that the papacy was a secular power in fifteenth-century Italy. The popes' eagerness to extend their political strength, and their obsession with "conspicuous and useless expenditure … for the sake of effect" are to Tuchman sheer madness. She has little appreciation of the papacy's political role and its fear of dependency in a world of aggressive emerging nation-states. (p. 67)

This is well said; but in the same essay, it is apparent that Wood is quite willing to impose his own views on history, exactly the fault he finds in Tuchman and others. He remarks that

history is a conservative discipline — conservative, of course, not in any contemporary political sense but in the larger sense of inculcating skepticism about people's ability to manipulate and control purposefully their own destinies…. Historical knowledge … gives people a perspective on what is possible, and, more often, what is not possible. (pp. 71–2)

How does Wood know this? He might, by examining particular episodes of history, show the limited possibilities that confronted certain persons in the past. But this does not suffice to establish a general law that historical possibilities are always limited. Perhaps the investigation of some new episode will show that in it, the main actors faced a wide range of choices and were able in large part to fulfill their goals as planned. Wood says nothing to rule this out: instead, he presents his own philosophical opinion as if it were a fact derived from the study of history. I venture to suggest that attention to Mises's discussion of historical laws in Theory and History would have saved him from this error. (Incidentally, Wood refers to Santayana's famous saying that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it as "fatuous" [p. 71].)

Again, he effectively challenges James MacGregor Burns for assuming that a sufficiently great leader would have been able to solve the sectional and other problems of nineteenth-century America without a civil war:

Over and over Burns reveals his heroic conception of the historical process…. After all, says Burns, "a supreme test of leadership" is the leaders' ability to deal with "the 'impersonal' forces streaming around them." Americans in the antebellum period simply did not produce that kind of leadership. Even Lincoln was "a perplexed and flawed" leader…. This is romantic American optimism carried to extremes. Somehow from somewhere some great hero, some Lochinvar, might have ridden in and rescued Americans from their predicament. (p. 38)

Wood rightly argues that Burns cannot without argument simply assume that leadership of this kind was a historical possibility. Once more, though, he goes too far in ruling out from the start a leader capable of averting conflict. Wood says, "Thus for Burns the coming of the Civil War cannot be a true tragedy, the kind of tragedy that sees the inescapable boundaries within which people have to act" (p. 38). Wood has again imported a particular philosophical vision into history, wrongly presenting it as a given with which "the historian" works.

A similar problem arises in Wood's discussions of intellectual history. In a review of Garry Wills, Explaining America: The Federalist, Wood criticizes Wills's attempt to show that Francis Hutcheson, not John Locke, lay at the root of Jefferson's thought. He does so not by arguing that Locke was the stronger influence, in my opinion the correct course. Rather, he contends that the entire controversy rests on a false assumption:

The kinds of distinctions that Wills and his critics have drawn between Locke's or Hutcheson's respective contributions to Anglo-American thought are too precious, too refined, too academic for the dynamic culture of the eighteenth century. Jefferson was scarcely capable of drawing such fine distinctions or of perceiving any antagonism between what Locke and Hutcheson had written…. There is no possibility of proving the influence of Locke or Hutcheson on the thought of such a person as Jefferson, even if we find Jefferson quoting one or the other. For the ideas of both Locke and Hutcheson had become so mixed up in the discourse of eighteenth-century culture that by 1776 they could never be separated out and their "influence" measured. (pp. 20–21)

As readers will have anticipated, I think that Wood has once again imposed on history a philosophical view — in this instance, a theory of how intellectual influence works. He might respond that he has not done so: he has rather presented what his own study of Jefferson has revealed about his manner of thought. This cannot be ruled out, though it is curious that Wood ascribes to Jefferson an ability to follow a connected argument inferior to his own.

The issue here is clarified in another essay, a review of Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. He says, with obvious approval, that Maier "doesn't bother with hermeneutics or attempt to refute Carl Becker, Morton White, and Garry Wills, the principal scholars who have written about the Declaration in this [i.e., twentieth] century" (p. 162). To do so is unnecessary: these writers were misguided enough to try to trace ideas. Maier knows better. She is "a historian through and through" (p. 162) and knows that the Declaration was a response to local context. Wood, as I expected, does have a view of intellectual history to which he requires the past to conform.

Despite this problem, Wood is a historian of great gifts and readers will gain much from his analysis of particular issues. I shall close with two examples that readers of The Mises Review will appreciate. He notes the radically nationalist aims of Madison at the Constitutional Convention:

Crucial to Madison's plan was a veto power given to the Congress over all state laws and the proportional representation for each state of its people or its financial contributions or some combination in both houses of Congress…. Since states represented as states was what was wrong with the Articles of Confederation, Madison was convinced that retaining any semblance of state sovereignty in the new national government would vitiate it and ultimately destroy it. (p. 298)

Madison in the 1790s reverted to a Jeffersonian position and strongly supported state sovereignty. In warning of a Federalist plot to establish monarchy, Wood tells us in a review of Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism, Madison and Jefferson were by no means deluded:

Yet there was truth in the Republican invective, for Hamilton and other Federalist leaders … wanted to turn the United States into a fiscal-military power that would rival the great European states and achieve the honor and glory that all such great states aspired to … although the Federalists technically did not want to set a king upon an American throne, they were indeed seeking to infuse enough monarchical elements into American life to lend weight to the Republican fears of Federalist monarchism. (pp. 116–17)



Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.