The beating death of Tyre Nichols has renewed calls for reforming the police. But can anything really change?
Historian Gordon Wood has devoted his career to studying the Revolutionary era. His book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Wood’s newest book is a collection of essays written over the past half century. In it, he makes the case that the American Revolution remains the most significant event in U.S. history. Not only did the Revolution help create the U.S., but it also gave us our “highest aspirations and noblest values.” Throughout the centuries, Americans have returned to the Founders’ ideas as a way to better define ourselves and our nationhood. Gordon Wood’s new book is titled “The Idea of America.”
- Gordon Wood Alva O. Way University Professor at Brown University. His book "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993.
Read an Excerpt
From “The Idea of America” by Gordon Wood. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright Gordon Wood, 2011
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood says, the American Revolution is the most important event in U.S. history, bar none. He makes the case in his newest book, it's titled "The Idea of America." It's a collection of 11 essays written over the past half century.
MS. DIANE REHMBrown University Professor Emeritus Gordon Wood joins me to talk about the lasting influence of the founders and the Revolutionary era. Of course, we do invite your calls, comments, questions, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Dr. Wood, it's good to see you again.
MR. GORDON WOODGood morning, Diane.
REHMThe word idea is key here. Talk about why you've titled this "The Idea of America."
WOODWell, because America is an idea and that's all we are, really, now especially because we're -- there's no American ethnicity. We are made up of -- the whole world is here in the United States and if we are to be a people, it's a people that is made by an idea. And the idea is -- well, it's more than one idea, but it comes out of -- they come out of the Revolution.
REHMBut you say in the book that America was formed by an ideological movement, a collection of ideas and values. What were those values?
WOODThose values were liberty, freedom, equality, constitutionalism, the well-being of ordinary people, the pursuit of happiness. Those things that come out of the founding are what hold us together. They are our noblest ideals, our highest aspirations and they all come out of the Revolution. Lincoln knew this, that's why he appealed to them, to the founding.
REHMBut it took quite a long time before we got around to the idea of equality and put it into practice.
WOODWell, it was there at the beginning and it was used in -- at different stages. At first, it was for white males who wanted to be equal to other white males, but then it could be applied. It was a permissive ideology or an idea. And it could be used for women in 1848, it could be used for black Americans, for slaves at the time of the Civil War and it's been -- and for the Civil Rights Movement in the 18 -- in the 1960s. So the idea of equality has persisted right from the beginning.
REHMBut it's evolved...
WOODOh, of course, of course.
REHM...in its -- our understanding of exactly what equality stands for.
WOODRight, and it's being used now by gays. It's a powerful, powerful idea.
REHMBut it's fascinating to me that you write that there was really no underlying dissatisfaction here in this country, no feeling of being cut off, no feeling of being controlled and yet, this Revolution sprang up.
WOODWell, in the sense that the comparison with the French Revolution, there were no -- other than the black slaves, by and large are -- white Americans were living with highest standard of living of anyone in the Western world, and presumably, the whole world.
WOODSo in that sense, the Revolution didn't come out of poverty or out of the usual things that we think that cause revolutions, depravations of that sort. There were psychological depravations, a sense of not being treated equal in the Empire by the home country, by the mother country, but the depravations that we usually think that lie behind revolutions were not here.
REHMNow, how would you compare your views about the Revolution today to your views when you began researching all this 50 years ago?
WOODWell, I thought of the Revolution as much more limited in time really from the 1760s through the formation of the Constitution. But as I began doing research and began teaching a course in The Early Republic, my notion of the Revolution expanded into the early 19th century. I think the ramifications of the Revolution went well into the early decades of the 19th century.
WOODWell, because of the idea of equality. They began to -- people began to picking it up, middling sorts of people began picking it up and using against the Gentry to the point where in 1807, the governor of New York, a man who campaigned -- he was a Columbia graduate, a lawyer and he campaigned as a farmer's boy, denying his background because that was becoming appropriate.
WOODThe anti-intellectualism, the anti-elitism, as we would say, was already present in the first decades of the 19th century. It was a disadvantage to have gone to Princeton or Harvard or Columbia for a politician. That was already evident in the first decade of the 19th century.
REHMWhat about politics at the very beginning? Who believed in the efficacy of political wrangling and who did not?
WOODWell, I think the Gentry, as they would've called themselves, took it for granted that they would be called to office, they wouldn't have to run for office, they wouldn't have to campaign. That was considered to be not appropriate. Electioneering was something that was frowned upon, so people thought that the worthy should be called to their position, but that soon changed.
WOODBy the early 19th century, in the North, in particular, American politics was already very democratic by Western standards. Not democratic by our standards. Women, of course, could not vote, could not hold office and many -- and, of course, black slaves and even black free men could not hold office. But in comparison with the rest of the world, we certainly were the most democratic policy. Two-thirds of -- or more of the white adult males could vote, in comparison to England where only one out of six adult males could vote in 1800.
REHMYou also talk about capitalism and its birth because at the time of the Revolution, much was based on barter and not he exchange of cash.
WOODWell, I think that was one of the consequences of the Democratic Revolution. Rather than capitalism, I would talk about commercialism. Certainly, in the North, we became the most commercially minded people in the world. More people engaged in trade, in the hustling and bustling of getting ahead to -- then elsewhere in the world. And I think this is what lay behind the enormous productivity and prosperity of -- particularly of the northern states in the decades following the Revolution.
REHMBut the Revolution itself cost a lot of money and produced a lot of things.
WOODYes. It disrupted the economy, new things had to be found, new avenues of trade, but nonetheless, I think it was -- in the end, it was a liberating experience for many people. It opened up opportunities for people that hitherto had not had. You can think in terms of Boston, all those Brahmin families of the 19th century came down Newburyport and Salem and moved into Boston to replace the Loyalists of the old established sort, houses, merchant houses.
WOODSo you have a kind of breaking out of old crust ridden established houses and merchant families that opened up opportunities, I think, for countless numbers of people. That's how middling sorts of people saw the consequences of the Revolution.
REHMGordon Wood, he's Professor Emeritus at Brown University. His new book is title "The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. What did the Revolutionaries think they were doing?
WOODI think they were breaking with the old customs of Europe. They were repudiating blood, that is who your father was, whom you married didn't count, it's merit only. All men are created equal, said Jefferson in the Declaration. That was conventional wisdom for Whigs or Patriots and I think for lots of enlightened people in the 18th century.
WOODSo they thought they were breaking from that old tradition of hereditary power, hereditary power, hereditary office and they're going to open it up to anyone who had merit or talent. Now, that's the question, what (laugh) is talent?
REHMWhat constituted talent?
WOODWell, I think -- I think they came to realize that talent became just the ability to get elected. And that was not quite what they had -- many of them had in mind. I think many of the founders, I think, died disillusioned with what they had wrought.
REHMHow much did money play a role?
WOODWell, money always plays a role in politics and in life and I think they didn't want wealth to be the criterion of success and I think they fought against that, but it was assumed, Washington, for example, served as Commander in Chief without salary because he thought that that's what a gentleman, an aristocrat, does. You don't draw salary, but John Adams opposed that because he knew didn't have sufficient wealth to ask...
REHMWhereas Washington has plenty of it, yeah.
WOODWashington was a very wealthy man and he thought that he could. And Franklin, who was also wealthy, proposed in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 that all members of the elected branch, the Executive Branch, should serve without pay. Now (laugh), can you imagine what would've happened if that had remained in the Constitution or had been proposed? Madison, who took notes, said there was a long pause after this proposal was made and more out respect for the old man than for the practicality of the proposal.
REHMGordon Wood, his new book of essays is titled "The Idea of America." Do join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Gordon Wood is with me, he's Professor Emeritus at Brown University. His new book is titled "The Idea of America." He has been writing about the birth of the United States for 50 years. This book is a collection of his essays over that period of time. Here's our first email from Emmett. Actually, it's a Facebook post and it says, "I'm curious to know if the American Revolution could have occurred without France's support. We always demonize France. but it seems we would not be here today without their troops or financial backing."
WOODI think that's correct in terms of the military victory. If you think of the Revolution in those terms, defeating the mother country, Great Britain, without French aid, it seems unlikely that we could've done it in the way we did. Now, we would've -- I think there would've been a break sooner or later from Great Britain, but whether it had to take the form of an eight-year war that was successful, I think, because of French aid. I think without the military aid -- Yorktown was a French victory, not an American victory.
WOODAnd the money that came from France kept us alive. The Dutch also contributed, but it's French aid that made it possible.
REHMAnd why? The French had their own ideas as to what they wanted to see happen.
WOODWell, yes, of course. They're out for revenge over their defeat in the Seven Years War, which had concluded in 1763, and they had lost a hold in the new world. And now they had a chance to get back at Great Britain and so that was their self-interest that led to their participation.
REHMNow, the thing we talked about earlier, the idea that the Revolution affected commercialism, you talk about the fact that the country also began to know debt. How did that come about?
WOODWell, we knew a lot of debt during the Revolution, of course. We were borrowing money and the government -- the federal government had no ability to pay it back. And that was one of the crises that led to the formation of the Constitution. And with the new federal government that came out of that Constitution in 1789, Alexander Hamilton put together a program for paying off that debt or using that debt. He didn't want to pay it off, he wanted to keep it as a kind of adhesive holding the country together, but we -- he put us on a path towards fiscal stability.
WOODAnd every president from that moment on sought -- especially the Republican presidents, leading with Jefferson, sought to do away with that debt climaxing with Andrew Jackson, who finally did pay off the American debt in his tenure.
REHMHere's an email from New Jersey. Joseph asks, "What ideals of the United States have been most distorted over the years?"
WOODThat's an interesting question. I suppose you could say all of them, in some sense. They didn't know how equality would play itself out. They had no idea of gay rights, for example, and they certainly didn't -- many of them didn't expect women to be participants in politics.
WOODJefferson certainly just shook his head at the idea that women would be involved. So they had no idea of what the future would be, any more than we know what the future would be. They live with illusions, the biggest being, of course, that slavery would naturally disappear and that it was on its way to extinction. They simply couldn't have been more wrong.
REHMHow do you compare what you see happening around the world, this so-called Arab Spring, with what America went through back then?
WOODWell, I think there's a big difference. We had -- we forget that we were Englishmen with 100 years in the colonies of self-government. We were doing -- we were electing people. We were experiencing Habeas Corpus and the Bills of Rights, English rights, for 100 years. And this prepared us for a Revolution in a way that even the French, for example, 10 years later were not prepared. And certainly prepared us better than the Arabs in the Arab world are today for...
REHMSo it's going to take them a long time is what you're saying.
WOODRight. I would be pessimistic about the ability of the Arabs to sustain a Democratic polity. It's hard work. Democracy is hard work.
REHMBut couldn't they create their own version?
WOODWell, I think that's what will happen, but it's hard to predict what form it will take. We'll see. We're still worrying about the former Yugoslavia putting itself together, so -- and they're connected with Europe, so we'll have to wait and see what's going to happen in the Arab world.
REHMNow, here's another email from William. He says, "I've heard the Revolutionary War was in some ways our first civil war. Since many sided for the colonies while the others sided for England, aka the Tories, do we have any record of what happened to most Tories? Did they move to Canada, England or move West or did they just simply melt back into the population?"
WOODWell, there's a new book out by Mar Chasnoff (sp?) which traces what happened to the Tories. There were about 500,000, which was -- for a population of 2 million, was a considerable proportion of people who were loyalists. But of those, maybe 80 to 100,000 left the country to various parts of the British Empire, many to Canada, many to Jamaica and the West Indies. Some went to Florida until they found out that Florida was seeded back to Spain by the British, to much surprise of the Loyalists. And also went back -- some went back to England.
WOODSo -- and some did come back, I think, to the United States quietly. We don't have good figures on that because they didn't advertise their return, obviously, but they scattered throughout the British Empire, most I think going to Canada. Really, the Revolution created two nations, one the United States and also what became Canada.
REHMInteresting. You also talk about what you see as the terrifying gap that exists between us today and the Founders. What do you mean?
WOODWell, we're in a different world and there is a tremendous difference between our world and there's. We try to close it all the time and...
WOODWell, yes, because we feel we're not living up to their ideals and that, I think, is what drives a lot of current interest in the Founders. I understand that interest because people ask me, you know, what would Jefferson think of affirmative action or what would Washington think of the invasion of Iraq? I think we have this connection with these people. The Tea Party had exploited that.
WOODAnd I think Lincoln did as well. I mean, he talked about these Founders as being flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood because we draw on them to reaffirm who we are, but when we get back to look at them, you know, many of the Founders were slave-holding aristocrats, Jefferson, the prime example. When we really look at that, we say, well, that's not us.
REHMAnd yet you say that they represent the highest ideals that this country had to offer.
WOODI think what they said about equality, liberty and freedom, constitutionalism is -- are part of our -- I think make up most of our ideals. Now, they didn't always live up to what they said, but they set it out on the table for us to exploit. And we go back to those ideals, I think, to reaffirm, refresh ourselves who we are.
REHMAll right. We've got a great many callers. Let's open the phones. First to Dayton, Ohio and to Pam. Good morning, you're on the air.
PAMGood morning, Diane. I love your show. I'm glad to be on. Good morning, Dr. Wood. I am a white female. I'm a graduate student in Social Justice. I don't know if you're familiar with Ronald Takaki's book "A Different Mirror." But there is some sentiment that American history is told only from a white male colonial perspective. And as I listen to you, I hear you give some lip service to women got the vote in the 1900s, blacks got their rights -- some of their rights, at least on paper, in the 1800s and then with Civil Rights.
PAMAnd I would like to ask you, do you feel that things would have been different if the Founding Fathers had also included the Founding Mothers and given more awareness and inclusion to those people of color and Native Americans who were actually here and upon which much of the United States was built with their energies?
WOODWell, that would've been wonderful, but I think that is the kind of question that historians would bock at. It's just impossible to imagine that. There was no place in the world that was offering women the vote in the late 18th century, so -- and slavery, of course, was objected to by many people throughout the world and it is the Revolution that made slavery a problem. Up to that point, slavery was taken for granted for thousands of years.
WOODSo the American Revolution opens the question, but the idea of bringing these people into -- these deprived people into the polity is just simply a-historical. It's just not conceivable. Since it was not happening anywhere in the world, it's hard to imagine it happening in the late 18th century.
REHMTo what extent could it, might it have been happening behind the scenes?
WOODWell, there were women expressing...
WOODAdams, but others even more explicitly calling for equality. We had our own Mary Wollstonecraft-type advocates, so there were women calling for equality. So the thing was there in the -- out on the table, if you will, particularly in the North. And it would bear fruit another 70 years later or so in 1848 with the Women's Rights Declaration, so I think the ideas were there but the implementation of it needed time. It simply wasn't possible I think in the late 18th century.
REHMThank for calling, Pam. Let's go to Devin in Baltimore, Md. Good morning to you.
DEVINHi. I just had a quick question. There's been a lot of talk of equality and I guess in the last question, it was entered to some degree. But certainly, you know, as mentioned with the blacks and Native Americans and women and so on, it wasn't implemented. And we see today a lot of people, you know, trying to get that in various parts of the world. I was kind of wondering, you know, how we can continue down this path to ensure that people are treated equally and how historically that's actually played out as far as timelines and things like that.
WOODWell, I would think that we have, in legal terms, more equality now than we've ever had in our history and we've seen recent developments with gay rights that suggest the way in which equality can be used by groups that feel deprived. It's hard to imagine what might -- how the future might spin out the notion of equality even further. Children, rights of animals, there are lots of rights out there that are demanding -- by some people demanding equality. We'll see.
REHMGordon Wood, the book is titled "The Idea of America." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, to Roxboro, N.C. Good morning, Patrick.
PATRICKGood morning. I hope you're doing well.
REHMI'm doing quite well, thank you.
PATRICKVery good. My question is what was the role of the rightwing Puritans in propagandizing the Boston Massacre in which five colonists were killed?
WOODWell, you've got these loaded phrases, rightwing Puritans. They certainly -- Massachusetts was formerly a Puritan colony. Of course, by the late 18th century, it was a very different place from what had been 100 years earlier. But the Congregational Establishment was in control and there's no doubt that they made the most of that massacre. It was five colonists and that doesn't seem like a massacre to many of us, but it was exploited by Paul Revere in his famous sketch and was used by the colonists to invigorate, stimulate opposition to the English Establishment.
REHMI hope that answers it.
PATRICKYes. Opposition to King George called the Father of Nations. I just wanted a honest return on his investment.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. And to Brick, N.J. Hi, Jim.
JIMHi. I just want to commend Dr. Wood for being so even-handed and greetings from New Jersey. Our last colonial governor was Ben Franklin's son...
JIM...who was a Torie and split with his father and went back to England. My question was about the idea and as I told the screener, was it in the Federal Papers -- Federalist Papers that the -- one of the Founding Fathers had written that one of the most dangerous things, I think he said it would poison the well, to the idea was cynicism.
WOODWell, I don't remember that particular phrase, but certainly when you're leading a Revolution you don't want cynics in charge. We did have a few cynics. Gouverneur Morris was very cynical, but he was not one of the Founders.
WOODWell, cynical in that he questioned everything and had a realistic appraisal about how things were going to work out. He didn't -- he wasn't all that excited about democracy and giving the common man the vote. But most people, and especially Jefferson, had this unbelievable trust in common people, in ordinary folk. And you needed someone like that to speak for the future. And that's why Jefferson has remained, I think, for Lincoln and for most of us despite being a slave-holding aristocrat, the greatest spokesman for American democracy in our history.
REHMBut who were the first voters?
WOODWell, in America, we have the highest proportion of voters than anyplace in the world. About -- well, two out of three colonists could -- white -- adult white males could vote, so those were the first voters and then property qualifications fell away very quickly and...
WOODWell, within several decades following the Revolution.
REHMSo it was only property owners who could vote initially.
WOODRight, they happened to be the same property qualifications that you had in England, but since property was so much more widely held in America, then more people could vote under English property qualification rules.
REHMSo it always began with that property question.
WOODRight, yes. The idea was that only property holders could be independent. That was the justification for not allowing children or women to vote, that they were not independent. They would follow the leads of their patriarchy and therefore, not independently vote.
REHMGordon Wood on America's Revolutionary Era and we'll take a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd, by the way, an excerpt from Gordon's new book, "The Idea of America," is up on our website. You can go to drshow.org. Here's an email from Melissa who says, "I'm wondering what the professor thinks of the current Tea Party Movement and their calls to restore the ideas of the Founders. I think that the movement mistakenly thinks the Founding Fathers all had a single unified idea on these issues, for example on the role of religion in government when in reality, they were often as divided about these things as we are today."
WOODYes, well, I think Melissa's right. In that sense, they certainly did not have a uniform view of things. They had some uniform views that they repudiated hereditary qualifications and repudiated the role of blood in political office holding, but they certainly differed among themselves in many cases.
WOODBut the Tea Party is -- I have more sympathy with it, I think, than many scholars because I understand that they're looking back to the Founders for some kind of reaffirmation of who we are, what we're doing and it's easy to mock that and it has been mocked, but Lincoln did the same thing and that's how we got through the Civil War, by appealing to them. As I say, he said, they're flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood. Now, that's pretty serious identification.
WOODBut he was trying to invoke the notion of equality to justify what he was doing and why slavery was impossible. It just was made no sense at all in what America should stand for. So I understand what they're doing, but they certainly make historical mistakes and, of course, it's the role of critical historians to correct them, but I understand the feeling, the emotion that's involved because it's part of what Lincoln did and what American's in general have done over the last 200 years.
REHMFred sends an email asking, "What is your reaction to Shelby Foote's believe that the defining moment was the Civil War?"
WOODNo, the Civil War saved the nation, but as Lincoln recognized, the Revolution created the nation that had to be saved. The interesting question, I think, about the Civil War is not why the South seceded, but why did the North care? Why did they why was Lincoln willing to sacrifice 300 plus thousand lives on behalf of this dream? And I think he made it clear that we were the last best hope, we stood for something that could not die, in Lincoln's mind, and I think many American's in the North agreed with him.
REHMAnd, of course, since then, the people who have come to this country seeking those same ideals has just been phenomenal.
WOODWell, that's right. Between 1820 and 1920, 35 million people crossed the Atlantic to come here, making us a chosen people in a literal sense, not just figuratively.
REHMAll right. To Indianapolis. Good morning, Ryan.
RYANHi, how are you?
RYANI was hoping your guest could comment on the secular ideology, this kind of follows up on Melissa's email, of the forefathers. We hear a lot today that we were founded as a Christian nation, but it seems that the personal writings of men like Jefferson and Franklin and even Thomas Paine had a general disdain for Christianity.
WOODWell, that's true. Jefferson was certainly -- well, he didn't have a disdain for it, but he was not a believer in the divinity of Christ. He was a Proto-Unitarian, as was Franklin and many others, but there were others who were conventionally religious, like Washington and John Jay and Samuel Adams. They were divided on religion, but they did accept, more or less, the neutralization of the State in religious matters simply because of the multiplicity of sex.
WOODAnd Jefferson's bill for religious freedom in Virginia in 1786 was a major achievement that I think has come to define our feelings about State and religion, but it's a complicated issue and the Supreme Court, of course, is all over the place on this issue.
REHMThanks for calling, Ryan. To Jeff in Orange Park, Fla. Good morning.
JEFFGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Dr. Wood. Real quick, a comment and a question. The comment was that it was my understanding that about 1000 A.D. in Iceland was the Egalitarian society that did indeed support women's rights to vote on property. I mean, (word?) was founded by a woman named Outh (sp?). Just didn't know if that was ever brought up into the discussions in the Federalist Papers or in the Federalist because they went through a lot of historical references to try and justify the system that they finally came up with.
JEFFAnd then the question, George Washington as a junior officer in the British Army had sworn an oath to king and crown. And has there been any indication anywhere along the line that he regretted making that decision or was remorseful or was difficult for him to make the decision to join the Continental Army?
WOODWell, as to your first question, I don't think they were reading any of these Icelandic sagas and I don't remember any references to Beowulf or any of this that women were voting in Iceland. Now, they may have, but it certainly wasn't playing a part in their consciousness.
WOODNow, Washington was never in the Royal Army. He had a Colonial Militia. He was a colonel in the Colonial Militia and therefore he always wanted a commission and if they'd given him one, it might have made it more difficult for him to leave, but I think he would've because he was so much part of the Virginia Society, but he never had a commission in the Royal Army. It was not a difficult thing for him. The other Virginia plan is to break. There was a kind of uniformity that they simply did not want to be told what to do by the British government.
REHMBack to historical references, however, Rome plays a great role here.
WOODYes, I think they saw Rome as a model and the term Senate and capital, these are -- and of course the naming of towns and cities in that period, Troy and Syracuse and Athens are all symbols of our connection with the classical world.
REHMAnd then the construction which came later on, but nevertheless.
WOODWell, the capital of Virginia, Jefferson saw a model of a Roman temple from the first century in Nimes and he said, this has got to be our capital and he called his colleagues in -- or wrote his colleagues in Virginia, stop everything. They had already begun breaking ground for a capital and he made them go back and start over to build this classical temple in -- on a hill in Richmond, Va.
WOODAnd, of course, it's acoustically impossible to -- and impossible to heat, but nonetheless, it mattered to Jefferson because it showed so much. He wanted it to look Roman and therefore, Republican.
REHMYou really are a hedgehog about this Revolution, aren't you?
WOODWell, that's right. I think because it is the most important event in our history, I've focused my entire career on it.
REHMAnd you just keep going.
WOODWell, I enjoy -- I enjoy it.
REHMAnd do you keep making new discoveries?
WOODWell, I'm reading John Adams right now because I'm editing the Library of America volumes on John Adams and I've two have just come out and I'm continuing from 1784 'til his death, with two more volumes. He's going to have four volumes. That's going to make him feel very happy. Compared to Jefferson's single volume and Washington's single volume, he's going to have four in the Library of America.
REHMWho among these great do you regard as the pinnacle leader?
WOODWell, I think it's Washington and Washington, of course, for them stood out. They all blur in our minds, they're all the half dozen big Founders, but in their minds, Washington stood head and shoulders, not only literally, but in every other way.
REHMHow tall was he, 6'2?"
WOODWell, 6'3," somewhere no one knows for sure quite, but around that, but he certainly was big, too. He had huge shoulders and hips and stood -- gave a sense of strength, but he stood way above them because he lived out the (word?) model. He retired to his farm at the end of the war. That was unusual, unique in modern history.
REHMBut do you believe any or all of these men, and they all were men, could've withstood the scrutiny of our present day?
WOODProbably not. Well, Washington was attacked, of course, in every conceivable way. During his presidency, he was accused of being a mole, of being a spy for the British government during the Revolution, so he was thoroughly disgusted with the media, with the press and he probably -- so if weren't free from that, then no one was free. But he -- but I think he was regarded by his peers and by the people as being a different sort of man, a different order of man, and I think justly so. He really went out of his way to live up to the image of a classical hero.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Acton, Mass. Good morning, Jane.
JANEGood morning. I was -- Benjamin Franklin is a hero of mine and I don't think a lot of -- enough credit is given to him. I understand that he got money from France for us when France was bankrupt, that there had been some sort of a scheme of an Englishman, kind of like a Ponzi-type scheme and France lost a lot of her money. I don't know if that's true, but I'm -- is it?
WOODWell, certainly, you're quite right that Franklin was able to extract loan after loan from a -- France, a government that was going broke. They didn't realize how badly financially they were and certainly the American Revolution and the war, course they had a vested interest in that war 'cause they're fighting Britain, their rival, but they bankrupted themselves and that was a direct line to the French Revolution that broke out in 1789. And Franklin was instrumental in extracting these loans. And for that reason, he is, I think, the second most important Founder of the group.
REHMTo Liberty, N.C. Good morning, Pete.
REHMMorning, sir. Go right ahead.
PETEOkay. I'd like Professor Woods thoughts on the idea that America remains on the cutting edge of the ideas of liberty, fraternity, equality and is the standard for the Arab Spring and all around the world.
WOODWell, you've raised a really fundamental question. I think we have a conflict now between our aspirations, our idea that we should sponsor democracy throughout the world and our responsibilities as a Quasi-Imperial power to maintain stability throughout the world. So those two are in conflict and that is causing our problem, our hesitancy in Afghanistan and also in other parts of the Middle East with our problems of trying to decide how far should be promote democracy, if it's going to create instability.
REHMAnd can there be a democracy like ours if it's not created by us?
WOODWell, I think the Europeans would think they have democracies and...
REHMWell, but they were there first.
WOODNo. Well, we were there first. Our Revolution preceded the French Revolution by a decade, much to the chagrin of the French. They've never really quite gotten over that. And our model, that's what Lincoln was talking about by 1861, we were the only democracy left in the world. The revolutions of 1848 had failed, monarchy was everywhere and France was also an empire under Napoleon the Third. So when Lincoln says, we are the last best hope, he was speaking accurately.
REHMGordon Wood and his new book is titled "The Idea of America." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And finally, to Gainesville, Fla. Good morning, Dane.
DANEGood morning, Diane. I wanted to ask the professor just strictly an intellectual type question. Does he feel that the principle of democracy, where everybody should have a vote, has gotten almost to the point of a ridiculousness, with the average voter who has absolutely no idea about the complicated economic problems, things of this nature and vote more because some pundit's on the radio or television, like the Limbaughs and the rest of them seem to sit there and get people to believe that debts were caused by the present sitting president and don't even talk about the fact that...
WOODNow, I gather what you're -- I know what you're driving at, but I do think that there's no substitute for what we have. We have to trust the people. You can't start deciding that they've got to have college educations. In fact, it's not at all clear that people with college educations vote more intelligently than people without college educations.
DANEWell, I agree with that (laugh).
WOODSo I don't think we can get beyond what we have. I think we have adults, 18 and above, voting and I think that's about what we're going to remain with.
REHMDo you think there should be some form of education that serves as a qualification?
WOODWell, there used to be civics courses taught in high schools...
WOOD...and those have declined and I think that's lamentable and we need to have more history courses, more courses in civics. People need to understand what our country's about, what we stand for and they can't really be intelligent citizens without having courses in American history.
REHMDane, what would you do?
DANEThat' an interesting question, that's why I posed it. I run across too many people that come up with their hair-brain ideas, not even knowing what the issues are, and they just listen to people telling them what to do and that's how they vote, instead of reading their paper or taking an interest in articles on various things like economic issues.
REHMAre you concerned about that, Dr. Wood?
WOODYes. I think it is a concern and many people, of course, are raising that issue all over the country. Their decline of civic courses. Sandra Day O'Conner, the former justice, is raising that issue everywhere and I think that's something that we ought to be concerned about, the lack of history courses, the lack of civics courses in high schools.
REHMThanks for calling, Dane. And here's a final email from Joe in Florida, who says, "Dr. Wood said Andrew Jackson paid off the national debt. How did this impact the economy of the time?"
WOODWell, the government -- the federal -- he paid off the federal debt. The federal government did very little back then. You wouldn't know that you were living in the United States and had a federal government, except for the delivery of the mail. It -- there was no taxes. They had tariffs, but of course, you wouldn't notice those tariffs on your goods.
REHMHow early did the delivery of the mail begin?
WOODOh, right with the national government. It really was one of the great accomplishments of the new federal government.
REHMBut very little else.
WOODThat's -- that's right. Under Jefferson, he wanted nothing -- the federal government to do nothing if he could help it. And so we had -- he had minimal government and people did not notice the government, except for the mail delivery.
WOODWell, until, I suppose you might say, the Civil War made a difference, but then finally the 20th century with FDR and the New Deal, then the government has really been involved in our lives.
REHMAnd people have been fighting about it ever since.
REHMDr. Gordon Wood, he's Professor Emeritus at Brown University. His new book, a collection of essays, "The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States." Thank you so much.
WOODThank you, Diane.
REHMGood to have you here. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm" show is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
Most Recent Shows
Veteran diplomat Richard Haass turns from foreign affairs to threats from within. He argues Americans focus so much on rights we forget our obligations as citizens -- and the country is suffering because of it.
Behind the lies of Congressman George Santos. Diane talks to the owner of the small weekly paper that first broke the story, and a Washington Post journalist who is following the money to see who financed Santos's political rise.
House GOP members launched a new committee this week to investigate the “weaponization” of the U.S. government. These lawmakers claim federal law enforcement and national security agencies have targeted and…