Day By Day

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Gordon Wood on the Founders

Given the Right's fixation on the "Founders" it is perhaps important that we try to understand them as they where, not as the idealized our imaginations have constructed. One of my favorite historians, Gordon Wood, has a nice piece in the New York Times on the founders' pre-revolutionary political experience. Read it here and learn.

Wood is quite right to emphasize the fact that the founders were already experienced politicians in 1776. He is also right to note that early suspicion of entrenched power gradually gave way, after a series of abuses, to respect for experience and steady leadership. I do, however, think that he underestimates the extent to which factional antagonisms and class conflict informed this shift; at least that seems to have been the case be the case in Pennsylvania.

I was particularly struck by this passage, which I think is spot on:
If one wanted to explain why the French Revolution spiraled out of control into violence and dictatorship and the American Revolution did not, there is no better answer than the fact that the Americans were used to governing themselves and the French were not. In 18th-century France no one voted; their Estates-General had not even met since 1614. The American Revolution occurred when it did because the British government in the 1760s and 1770s suddenly tried to interfere with this long tradition of American self-government.
At the least it is an interesting proposition.

No comments: