Book Review 'Power and Liberty': Gordon Wood Illuminates Constitutional History

The Signing of The Declaration of Independence, c. 1873, by Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq. (Public domain/Wikimedia)

No living historian has done more to illuminate the origins of our constitutional heritage in the Revolutionary era. His latest book adds to this record.

Legislators pandering to populist mobs, printing endless supplies of devaluing fiat currency. Lenders worried that rampant inflation will corrode their assets, diminishing their wealth through irregular means of de facto appropriation. Proliferation of legislation, each new act superseding the previous at such a pace that no one can understand the law, much less act upon it with confidence. A chronically divided Congress unable to agree upon a coherent, stable, and effectual foreign policy. Men of good taste and reputation politically sidelined by scurrilous demagogues. What could possibly rescue America from such a dire political crisis?

Framing and ratification of the United States Constitution, of course. To be clear, we are discussing the crisis of the 1780s — what late-19th-century historian John Fiske termed The Critical Period of American History. Gordon Wood has devoted a prolific career to the better understanding of this era. As he began his undergraduate career in the early 1950s, economic historians typically agreed with Patrick Henry’s assessment of American life in the Confederation period. The Anti-Federalist firebrand urged his fellow-delegates at the Virginia ratification convention to “go to the poor man and ask him what he does. . . . He enjoys the fruits of his labor . . . in peace and security. Go to every other member of society — you will find the same tranquil ease and content.” How, then, to explain the dramatic transformation wrought in the constitutional framing? Following the thesis of Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, neo-progressive historians of that era tended to “picture the move for a new national government as something of a conspiratorial fraud,” as Wood puts it in Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, his latest work on the early history of America.

In his influential The Whig Interpretation of History, English historian Herbert Butterfield warned against the distortive influence of culturally egocentric evaluative criteria: History is easily misunderstood when tendentiously presented as a glorious march leading upward to ourselves. This is sound advice for professional historians; it is for good reason that Butterfield is still assigned to graduate students. Unfortunately, this necessary corrective for uncritical chauvinism combined with Progressive economic determinism to discourage scholarly interpretation of the American founding as either unique or — that dread word! — good.

Bernard Bailyn, Wood’s graduate adviser at Harvard, was the first prominent American historian in decades to take the Founding generation’s political ideas seriously. In 1967’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bailyn asserts that Patriot triumph “introduced a new era in human history.” From his encyclopedic survey of 17th- and 18th-century British and American colonial political literature, Bailyn concludes that the Revolution’s leaders intended “not the overthrow or even the alteration of the existing social order but the preservation of political liberty threatened by the apparent corruption of the constitution, and the establishment in principle of the existing conditions of liberty.” Chapter one of Power and Liberty succinctly summarizes this ‘American Whig’ view of British constitutionalism, and the revolutionary crisis it produced. “The proper location of sovereignty — this supreme lawmaking power,” Wood writes, “became the issue that finally broke up the empire.” A more precise statement of the American Revolution’s causes is impossible. To the British, representation meant Parliament. But by the 1760s, American colonials “because of their different experiences . . . had come to believe in a very different kind of representation.” To Americans, “the process of election was not incidental. . . . People had to actually vote for their representative.” If this seems an obvious truism, that is testament to the Revolution’s epoch-making and ultimately world-shaping nature.

As the colonials appealed first to British law and their own written charters, they grew increasingly frustrated at London’s unwillingness to concede any portion of sovereign authority to their local assemblies. Finally, they “despaired of trying to divide the indivisible,” appealing rather in abstract terms to the people’s ‘natural rights’ and locating sovereignty only in their directly elected representatives. The result of this gradual but precipitous evolution is best expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which Wood calls “the most important document in American history.”

We might call this “neo-Whig” understanding of the Revolution’s constitutional ideology the “Bailyn–Wood thesis.” Power and Liberty is a masterfully succinct survey of that thesis. But Wood is not a triumphalist purveyor of hagiographic “Founder-worship.” He wrote in The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History that “to understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life.” This is not “a sad or pessimistic sense of life,” rather a nuanced “sense of . . . limitations.” The American founders are not mythic giants, predestined to inexorable works of eternal greatness — or at least, imagining them as such does little to help later Americans understand and utilize the institutions they bequeathed. Yet this generation brought about extraordinary and lasting progress. In chapter seven of Power and Liberty, Wood summarizes the transition from gentry-dominated government in a colonial world where power functioned as a private and often hereditary right, to a republican era of popular government circumscribed by private rights. “For the Western world in general,” Wood claims, this “great demarcation,” this “sharpening of the difference between private and public marked the transition to modernity.”

By invoking the rights of all men, the Revolution’s leaders unleashed a tidal wave of change. They aimed “to create republican governments that would abolish the abuses of patronage . . . that had plagued the old society,” creating in their place “republican citizens who were equal and independent.” Perhaps counterintuitively, the Revolutionaries’ assertion of “the primacy of the public good over private interests . . . compelled them to conceive of state power in radically new ways.” Soon, newly republican state governments “carved out exclusively public spheres of action and responsibility where none had existed before.” One unintended consequence was the emergence of a populist political style. Where colonial elites had made claims to public office based on their wealth and social standing, republican candidates flattered the great mass of farmers and artisans by affecting the “common touch,” often falsely. As Wood has detailed at greater length in The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, the Revolution’s elite, gentry-class leaders unwittingly created a world with no place for men of their description.

But if the American Revolution brought about radical social change, how to account for the survival of and subsequent proliferation of that greatest of inequalities, slavery? Wood has publicly criticized the controversial 1619 Project, joining four other scholars in urging the New York Times to review factual oversights in its fundamental claims. In her introductory essay to the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones identified the preservation of slavery as a central motivation for Revolutionary leaders, at least in the southern colonies. Wood et al. responded emphatically that “this is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”

Considering this public dispute, perhaps Power and Liberty’s sixth chapter, “Slavery and Constitutionalism,” will generate the greatest interest. Wood begins that chapter by observing that in colonial societies where half the population “at any one moment were legally unfree . . . the peculiar character of lifetime, hereditary black slavery was not always as obvious.” Critical race theorists might bristle at the comparison of black slavery to white indentured servitude, but Wood’s point is clear and fair. The radical rights-based language of the Revolution first swept away legal distinctions between classes of unenslaved people, all now theoretically equal citizens. “Unfreedom could no longer be taken for granted as a normal part of hierarchical society,” Wood writes. “Before long . . . indentured white servitude disappeared everywhere in America.” This made the continued enslavement of blacks stand out the more starkly. As Sean Wilentz has compellingly demonstrated in No Property in Man, the American Revolution inspired a sweeping anti-slavery politics unprecedented in human history. Within a generation, slavery was abolished in all states north of Delaware. Even in Virginia, then by far the greatest slave-holding state, there was serious criticism of the institution that seemed destined to end in abolition yet continued well into the 19th century. When Americans did finally abolish slavery — tragically late and at immense cost in requiting blood “drawn with the sword” — it was the Revolution’s ideals to which abolitionists appealed.

But neither this concise book nor the wider corpus of Wood’s work is best understood as a narrow response to radical theorists of race relations. As Wood outlines in chapters two and three of Power and Liberty, the Revolution unleashed what constitutional reformers such as James Madison viewed with alarm as “excessive democracy in the states . . . a problem the confederation, however amended, however strengthened, could not handle.” Madison fretted in his “Vices of the Political Systems of the United States” (1787) that the “multiplicity and mutability of [state] laws prove a want of wisdom,” an unjust “defect still more alarming . . . because it brings more into question the fundamental principle of republican government, that the majority . . . are the safest guardians both of public good and of private rights.” This is the core dilemma of the American constitutional tradition. The manner of the Framers’ resolution of that dilemma is the purpose of Wood’s magnum opus, The Creation of the American Republic, published in 1969.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In the American political tradition, legitimate consent is direct representation through the electoral process. How, then, to safeguard the private rights of individuals from potential abuse at the hands of democratic majorities? Through their colonial and English heritage of written charters, and their Revolutionary experience of resistance to overbearing and unelected government, Americans developed a new constitutional theory. In Britain’s imperial structure, central authority had restrained the local, and crown-appointed executives restrained the legislative. The American Revolution consciously threw off those restraints, only for the Framers to reimpose analogous mechanisms less than a decade later. As Pennsylvania’s James Wilson claimed amid the ratification debate, this was no antidemocratic counterrevolution. Instead, the U.S. Constitution “shrewdly avoided choosing between the federal government and the states,” thus evading the conceptual dilemma that rent Britain’s empire asunder. “Sovereignty in America, [Wilson] said, did not reside in any institution of government, or even in all the institutions of government put together. Instead, sovereignty, the final, supreme, indivisible lawmaking authority, remained with the people themselves,” Wood writes. In striking upon this idea, “Federalists could scarcely restrain themselves in drawing out its implications,” chiefly that “locating sovereignty in the people themselves makes possible the idea of federalism.”  Sovereign power is not divided against itself. Instead, each layer and branch of government is a mere instrument of the people empowered to some particular and limited purpose. Thus, written constitutions themselves are not external restraints upon the people but supreme expressions of the people’s own will. The constitution is then, in the words of George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” “until changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, sacredly obligatory upon all.”

The whole genius of this constitutional heritage is perhaps nowhere more aptly stated than in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural: “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, . . . changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.” No living historian has done more to illuminate the origins and emergence of that tradition in the Revolutionary era; I can imagine no better or more potently concise introduction to that historian’s work than Wood’s own Power and Liberty.

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Sam Negus is an independent educator and “basic dad.” He lives in Asheville, N.C.

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