Polarization Is an Old American Story

Gordon Wood, the noted historian of early America, says Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans were far more divided than today’s political parties.

 By Jason Willick

Providence, R.I.

He’s been called the “dean of 18th-century American historians,” but Gordon Wood’s biggest claim to fame is that Matt Damon once mentioned him in a movie. In a barroom scene from 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” a haughty Harvard grad student bloviates in a bid to impress two women. Mr. Damon’s character, a working-class prodigy, cuts him down to size: “Next year, you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about, you know, the prerevolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.”

Mr. Wood says a student told him about the mention immediately after the film’s Cambridge, Mass., premiere. But he is fond of pointing out that he isn’t the historian Mr. Damon’s character most admires: “If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States,’ ” Mr. Damon says in another scene. “That book will really knock you on your ass.”

And the truth is that today the pompous grad student would be likelier to quote Zinn’s progressive indictment of America than Mr. Wood’s work. “I’m considered on the wrong side,” Mr. Wood, energetic and alert at 84, tells me over lunch at the faculty club of Brown University, where he is a professor emeritus. “American history is now a tale of oppression and woe. And if you don’t say that . . .” he trails off.

Mr. Wood graduated from Tufts in 1955, served in the U.S. Air Force in Japan—“I was lucky, I was between two wars”—and enrolled in Harvard’s graduate history program in 1958. He had hoped to study with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. , but the latter was gearing up for the Kennedy presidential campaign. Mr. Wood enrolled in a seminar with Bernard Bailyn, a just-tenured early-American historian, and never looked back.

Over six decades of work on the colonial period, the Revolution and the Founding, Mr. Wood has accumulated virtually every award available to historians—the Bancroft Prize for “The Creation of the American Republic,” a Pulitzer for “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” and the National Humanities Medal, which President Obama presented him in 2010.

But as his star rose, his field suffered an extended decline amid the late-20th-century backlash against “dead white males.” Experts on revolutionary politics retired and weren’t replaced. Social history—“bottom up” accounts of marginalized groups—gained prestige. The New York Times reported in 2016 that in the previous decade universities posted only 15 new tenure-track openings for American political historians of any kind.

“I understand what they’re doing, and it’s important,” Mr. Wood says of the social historians. “We know more about slavery than we ever did.” But he argues the academic literature has grown unbalanced, neglecting crucial questions, including about the political divisions that shaped the early republic. “It’s not that they’re wrong about the killing of the Indians and slavery, but there are other things that happened too, and it’s a question of which ones do you emphasize.”

He describes the attitude of some of these scholars: “I want to show how bad things were so people will wake up and do something about the present.” Many Americans tune out instead. Weary of “one tale of oppression after another,” they turn to popular historians, many of whom have no formal training in history.

Meanwhile, many scholars retreat further into narrow subspecialties and esoteric jargon. These days, he says, professional history is “almost like a science” in that the work is unintelligible to laymen. But whereas “physicists can show us what they’ve done” by engineering real-world applications, historians’ work must stand on its own. They have a responsibility to make it vivid and meaningful for the broader public.

What happens when they abdicate this responsibility? For one thing, a lack of historical perspective can lead to apocalyptic thinking about the present. “History is consoling in that sense,” Mr. Wood says. “It takes you off the roller-coaster of emotions that this is the best of times or the worst of times.”

His latest book, “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, ” provides an illustration. The antagonism between Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans in the 1790s was far more fundamental, and therefore more threatening, than American partisanship today: “I think we’re going to survive easily,” Mr. Wood says. 

By contrast, Adams, Jefferson and their coalitions came close to killing the republic in its cradle. They disagreed on as fundamental a question as whether the new republic should be democratic. Jefferson had a romantic faith in democracy and the wisdom of ordinary people; Adams predicted that “democracy will infallibly destroy all civilization.”

Jefferson’s view was partly self-serving. “The leadership of the Republican Party, which is the popular party, is Southern slaveholders,” Mr. Wood says. “They don’t fear the people,” because the gentry-aristocracy effectively controlled electoral outcomes. Jefferson was akin to today’s “limousine liberal” in that he was insulated from the policies he promoted. (Eventually, his ideas would prove potent in arguing against slavery.) Meanwhile, Adams’s Federalists “are coming from New England, where you have far more egalitarian societies, far more democratic societies,” he says. “But for that very reason, the leaders are more scared of populism, of democracy.”

That may make Adams sound like a member of today’s “establishment.” Yet some of his other ideas would be more amenable to populists like Donald Trump. Adams said to Jefferson, in Mr. Wood’s paraphrase: “You fear the ‘one’ of monarch, I fear the ‘few,’ meaning the aristocrats.” Adams argued that domination by oligarchs was a grave threat to liberty. “It’s his way of justifying the strong executive who will act as a check on the few,” Mr. Wood says. Adams wanted the executive to have some of the powers of the Crown.

That was anathema to Jefferson, whose life mission was “the elimination of monarchy, and all that it implies, which is hereditary rule, hierarchy and corruption.” He saw around him “a world of privilege in which ordinary people are abused. . . . From our point of view, he’s very sympathetic because he’s destroying that world,” Mr. Wood says.

The Federalists feared that Jefferson’s leveling vision would prove destructive to mediating institutions. Mr. Wood cites a recent book by political scientist Patrick Deneen, “Why Liberalism Failed,” which argues that the West’s commitment to individual autonomy—in both markets and culture—has undermined communal connections, leaving people lonely and isolated. That’s what the Federalists feared—“this awful kind of world, where the individual is alone and without any kind of connections with anyone.”

Another Jefferson-Adams disagreement that still resonates is what we now call “American exceptionalism”—the idea that “we’ve transcended the usual definition of a nation, and that we had a special responsibility in the world to promote our way of life.” Jefferson strongly believed it. He thought that “war is caused by monarchs” and “republics are naturally pacific,” so peace would follow if the American model were adopted everywhere. In that sense, he sounded very much like today’s liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. To Adams, meanwhile, America was “just as sinful, just as corrupt as other nations”—a view both Presidents Trump and Obama have sometimes echoed in different ways. 

The most poignant comparison, however, is the bitterness of the divide. For much of the 1790s, neither Adams’s Federalists nor Jefferson’s Republicans “accepted the legitimacy of the other,” Mr. Wood says. “And of course, the Federalists never thought that they were a party. They were the government,” and Jefferson’s Republicans a malignant faction trying to take the government down. The Republicans, for their part, “thought that the Federalists were turning us into a monarchy and reversing the American Revolution.”

We hear plenty of similarly apocalyptic rhetoric today, but much of it is cynical and self-consciously exaggerated. What was striking about the 1790s, Mr. Wood emphasizes, is the extent to which each party sincerely believed the other posed an existential threat.

The differences came to a head as Americans split over the French Revolution, which Jefferson saw as vindicating his idea of human liberation and Adams as confirming his fears about how a society might be rent apart. The Federalists alleged Republican collusion with France—and unlike today’s skirmishes over Russian meddling, there was then an acute fear of invasion and mass defection. There was organized violence in Philadelphia, the capital, which to Federalists “seemed to be dominated by all these Frenchmen.” The terrified Federalist Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress dissent. “We came close to a civil war in 1798,” Wood says. “It didn’t happen, and therefore historians don’t take it seriously.”

Adding to the chaos were Alexander Hamilton’s imperial designs. “Hamilton is full of visions of what he’s going to do with this army,” Mr. Wood says. He’s going to “go into Mexico maybe, and he’s going to ally with some of the leaders in South America” in a grand anti-French alliance. In a swipe at popular history, Mr. Wood says the “Hamilton” musical offers a “distorted” picture of a man who was really an antiliberal “Napoleonic figure”: “Things might have gotten to a point where Hamilton actually sends an army into Virginia,” the Republican stronghold.

In the campaign of 1800, Adams’s allies viewed Jefferson much the way opponents saw Donald Trump 216 years later—“stirring up trouble” and “destroying legitimate leaders.” Jefferson won, and Adams declined to attend his successor’s inauguration—to this day, the only such snub in history. The transfer of power was so momentous that Jefferson called it “the Revolution of 1800.” At that point, Mr. Wood observes, the Federalists “assume that he’ll fail so badly that they’ll be back into power before long.” They assumed wrong—the Federalists never won the presidency again and faded altogether by 1820.

Mr. Wood has written that most of the Founders “who lived on into the early decades of the nineteenth century expressed anxiety over what they had wrought.” Federalists rued the excesses of democracy, which undermined their aspirations for classical deliberative politics. “People began saying, look, if I don’t have people of my own kind in the government, I don’t feel confident,” Mr. Wood says. “You don’t trust people who aren’t like you, and that’s what feeds the anti-elitism,” which today takes the forms of populism and identity politics.

As for the Republicans, the federal government grew beyond anything they imagined. Today, limited government is associated with conservatism, “whereas in the late 18th century, it’s the radical position.” Jefferson believed a strong state would exacerbate unearned privilege and lead to monarchy. Yet America’s sprawling government today—the welfare state at home and military abroad—largely exists to promote Jeffersonian values of equality and American exceptionalism.

The ways in which both Adams’s and Jefferson’s visions have been frustrated illustrates one of Mr. Wood’s broad insights about the value of history. “History is a conservative discipline in that the one lesson that comes out of it is, nothing ever works out the way you think it’s going to,” he says. “That’s why Nietzsche said if you want to be a man on horseback, forget history, because it’ll stifle you—you’ll get full of doubts.”

History could teach today’s partisans on both sides that their ideas are less radical than they think, that the American republic is stronger than they fear, and that the nation’s divisions are more surmountable than they imagine. At a time when serious historians are proving less and less capable of reaching the wider public, Americans could do worse than to regurgitate lessons from Gordon Wood.

Mr. Willick is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

Appeared in the February 3, 2018, print edition.

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