Defense of the American Vision

Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution
by Gordon S. Wood
Oxford University Press
240 pp., $24.95

Why study the history of the United States? Wilfred McClay, author of the splendid Land of Hope (2019), has suggested three reasons. One is Santayana’s famous admonition that those who don’t know the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them; another is that a knowledge of history leads to a deeper understanding of human character; and a third, perhaps most pertinent for our time, is that an understanding of a country’s past can kindle a feeling of belonging and a deeper appreciation of the need to preserve a people’s unique national character.

None of these three objectives are found much in the academy these days, where the study of history is dominated by those who have an ideological mission—to demonstrate the racism, sexism, classicism, misogyny, homophobia, and other purported national ills present since the country’s founding.

God bless Gordon Wood. In his brief summa, our leading historian of the late 18th-century United States has, like McClay, resisted the dominant, politically correct posture and promulgated a positive interpretation of our past. As set forth here, Wood sees the enterprise of the nation’s founders (expressed most prominently in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution) as ruminations on

the nature of power and liberty, the differing ideas of representation, the importance of rights, the division of authority between different spheres of government or federalism, the doctrine of sovereignty, the limits of judicial authority, and the significance of written constitutions.

The story that Wood tells, then, is of a basic human truth recognized by the founding generation: that the essential feature of good government is to limit arbitrary power in order that the government might serve the people rather than tyrannize them. While Wood carefully eschews the temptation to “retrieve a usable past,” he reminds us that, if we are to have any hope at all in our age of a bloated federal Leviathan, a “deep state” powerful enough to ignore the existing law and impose an entrenched bureaucracy and corrupt elite on the rest of us, we must acknowledge how far we have drifted from the Founders’ original conception.

Gordon Wood, Brown University
professor of history.

In our postmodern era, when claims of truth are inherently suspect, Wood boldly states that “without a commitment to objective truth and the pastness of the past, the history of a nation becomes distorted … and ends up becoming out-and-out partisan propaganda.” Because of his efforts at objectivity and truth, Wood ends up as something of a closet paleo­conservative—an honest historian at least willing to consider the possibility of timeless truths as well as the limits, but also the potential greatness, of the human character.

What, then, is so great about the United States? In the first chapter, “The Imperial Debate,” Wood argues that the essential feature of the American Revolution and the break with Great Britain was our decision to reject monarchy and aristocracy, and to embrace popular sovereignty, thus setting in motion forces that would lead to this country being the world’s leading example of a nation committed to democracy, or at least to a democratic republic.

The second chapter, “State Constitution-Making,” is about the 13 earlier constitutions that served as the template for the eventual federal Constitution. Wood suggests that these 13 forerunners were actually more important than the federal document in furthering the American understanding of “constitutionalism,” including “our single executives, our bicameral legislatures, our independent judiciaries, our idea of separation of powers, our bills of rights, and our unique use of constitutional conventions,” and the theory of popular sovereignty itself. Wood limns the chapter’s theme:

In these new republican constitutions, the Revolutionaries’ central aim was to prevent power, which they identified with the governors, from encroaching on liberty, which was the possession of the people or their representatives in the lower houses of the legislatures.

Instead of putting their faith in the workings of the traditional orders in society (as Britain did), Americans put their faith in written limitations on the power of government, particularly executives.

The third chapter, “The Crisis of the 1780s,” a period covered by Wood in his Creation of the American Republic (1969), explores how state legislatures abused their power and how, miraculously, a group of the colonies’ foremost intellects including James Madison, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington decided that the remedy to state corruption was dual sovereignty of federal and state governments, including a new federal republic with power to regulate commerce among the states, to conduct foreign relations, and to maintain a national army and navy.

Wood does a splendid job exposing a profound contradiction at the heart of the framers’ enterprise: that while they believed popular sovereignty was the only legitimate basis of government, they were distrustful of unbridled democracy. For Madison, as Wood puts it, “democracy was no solution to the problem; democracy was the problem.” Wood demonstrates that without the constraints on power in the new state and federal constitutions—constraints that made pure democracy impossible—the nation could not have survived.

Indeed, in the fourth chapter, “The Federal Constitution,” Wood acknowledges the democratic character of early Americans but is equally frank in conceding the aristocratic views of framers such as Madison, Wilson, and Adams, who believed that the mechanisms they had put in place would lead to a rule by an enlightened elite.

The fifth chapter, “Slavery and Constitutionalism,” tackles the great unsolved problem of the founding: what to do about the South’s “peculiar institution” of human property. This chapter is a direct rebuttal to The New York Times’ revisionist history series, the “1619 Project.” Instead of seeing slavery as the poisonous sin of American history, Wood shows how the American version of democracy led not only to slavery’s eventual abolition but also to its amelioration even before the peculiar institution was abolished. While the “1619 Project” authors outrageously and erroneously claim that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery, Wood reaffirms the traditional notion that the American Revolution was about liberty and democracy.

In the sixth chapter, “The Emergence of the Judiciary,” Wood channels Alexis de Tocqueville, the most astute critic of America, and concurs in Tocqueville’s judgment that without the institution of judicial review, which provides a check on the exercise of arbitrary power by democratic elements, American democracy could not endure. Wood also agrees with Tocqueville that, in effect, judges—and particularly justices of the U. S. Supreme Court—function as an aristocratic element in American government.

Unlike many current progressives, who condemn both the Constitution and the Court, Wood asserts that the American judicial system is effective in preserving popular sovereignty (just as Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 78) by adhering to the original understanding of the Constitution. And as the Court’s recent overruling of Roe v. Wade demonstrates, there is still some fidelity to the original document.

In the seventh chapter, “The Great Demarcation Between Public and Private,” Wood describes the American Revolution as having moved public power out of private hands and into state legislatures while at the same time protecting private property—even to a much greater extent—from public authorities. In a complex and well-sourced argument, Wood explains that American cities, to a greater extent than anywhere else in the world, became public institutions financed by public taxation and designed to address public concerns. This urban institutionalism eventually resulted in the democratization of American culture, aided by the exponential proliferation of big-city newspapers and pamphlets, as the foundation upon which modern media was built.

Wood is not blind to the fact that along with democratization came the rise of “new men” and, in some cases, attendant corruption, but with the rise of private corporations and the protection of private property came the crucial notion that there should also be some private rights, beyond governmental interference, and these extended to religious rights as well.

Wood’s neo-Tocquevillian analysis of the American legal profession as an agent of restraint against arbitrary power is dazzling and bold, but, in an epilogue, he finishes by exploring the dark side of American democracy, taking as an example its manifestation in his home state, Rhode Island. In that quirky polity and because of certain characteristics, Wood shows that it was possible for popular politics to degenerate into criminal enterprise. This is an ominous suggestion (although Wood refrains from making it explicit) that what Rhode Islanders began in the late 18th century may now have reached its perfection in the Biden administration.

Thankfully, Wood refuses to weaponize his historical understanding for partisan purposes. As a result, this little book— the distillation of a master’s long study—is a splendid summary for those seeking to conserve the wisdom of the framers and to salvage the republic.

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