Gordon Wood says the Constitution was a more radical change than the Revolution itself





As part of the Round Table’s yearlong celebration of our 50th Anniversary, Gordon Wood journeyed to our bailiwick from Brown University to tell our June meeting about his new book, Empire of Liberty, a History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. It is coming out in October, and Mr. Wood gave us an electrifying summary of one of its central theme – the controversy over whether the American presidency threatened the liberties of the country. It is an argument that is still raging today in the historical community, which made the talk relevant as well as illuminating. The new federal government that emerged from the Constitutional Convention, declared Mr. Wood, was a more drastic change in American politics than the Revolution itself. How did it come about? Wood said it was a direct result of the awful ineptitude of the state governments in the 1780s, after the Revolution was won. In fact, he said the 1780s are the most important decade in American history, and unfortunately one of the most neglected. He also noted how many Americans had become disillusioned with so-called popular government during the long struggle for independence. State legislatures repeatedly showed appalling cowardice in passing such things as tough militia service laws and badly needed taxes and governors were powerless creatures. On the other hand, voters also recoiled from Alexander Hamilton and the "high federalists," who wanted a centralized military state.

When James Wilson suggested a single person executive at the Constitutional Convention, there was a long uneasy silence. Only the availability of George Washington made the idea palatable. But even Washington came under fire if he showed the least hint of what small "d" democrats (aka anti-federalists) deemed monarchical style. They condemned the president-elect’s journey to New York to take the oath of office as a "royal procession" because so many towns rushed to hail him along his route with flags and cheers. Washington, for his part, remembered all too well eight Revolutionary years of dealing with a dithering Congress who had among other things broken their word to pay pensions to his officers. He was a wholehearted believer in the importance of the presidency, with as much power as possible. At first he unabashedly favored a royal style. In early discussions of what the president should be called, he favored "His High Mightiness." John Adams went even further with elaborate titles for the vice president and senate. But Washington had the flexibility to accept without demur the House of Representatives decision, engineered by James Madison, to favor "Mr. President." In this light, Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800 was in fact the revolution he claimed it was. He did his utmost to democratize presidential style, as did his Virginia successors, Madison and Monroe. All in all, Mr. Wood gave us a fascinating perspective on the Revolution we’ve been discussing for the past 50 years. The applause was long and resounding as Chairman Jacobs presented the speaker with a certificate for his lifetime contribution to our knowledge of the Revolutionary era.


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