Gordon Wood: Favorite historian of the liberal establishment, says conservative

Historians in the News

Gordon Wood is the favorite historian of America's liberal establishment. His essays appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, and liberalism's leading intellectuals—from Michael Sandel to Morton Horwitz to Bruce Ackerman to Cass Sunstein—regularly cite him with approbation. What virtues do they see in his work? In Wood's books, particularly his Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, they see a hammer with which to bash American individualism and capitalism, and to support an ever-growing administrative state.

Wood says that the American Revolution was a "republican" revolution. By that he means that it had intellectual roots ranging from ancient Greece and Rome to the English Commonwealth, and that it was more communal than capitalistic. "Ideally," he writes, "republicanism obliterated the individual." He explains that

"republicanism was essentially anti-capitalistic, a final attempt to come to terms with the emergent individualistic society that threatened to destroy once and for all the communion and benevolence that civilized men had always considered to be the ideal of human behavior."

Given that belief, we should not be surprised that America's liberals look to Wood to find an image of America that suits them. In his interpretation of the American Revolution, they find support for their belief that what is good about the American past is a certain communitarianism, which they wish to marry to the modern state. As Mark Seidenfeld wrote in the Harvard Law Review: "I view the civic republican conception as providing an essential justification for the modern bureaucratic state.... Moreover, given the current ethic that approves of the private pursuit of self-interest as a means of making social policy, reliance on a more politically isolated administrative state may be necessary to implement something approaching the civic republican ideal."

Wood's work has been particularly important to liberal legal theorists. They have embraced key aspects of his argument in Creation of the American Republic as the foundation of a renewed attack on the Constitution's few remaining restraints on government power. Law reviews are packed with articles touting the "revival of civic republicanism" as the new theoretical justification for welfare-statism, and as a substantive alternative to the historical dead-end of modern individualism. Mindful of the defects of Marxism, legal positivism, and Progressive era-style economic regulation, and facing the need to overcome the formidable arguments of constitutional originalism, civic republicanism enables the Left to turn the tables and claim an original intent argument of its own. The Left's enthusiasm for Wood's ideas took off, not coincidentally, in the late 1980s in the aftermath of Attorney General Edwin Meese's elevation of the controversy over original intent. ...
Read entire article at Steven F. Hayward at Claremont Institute website

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