Gordon Wood: Historians' obession with slavery is a form of presentism





"Reading the Founders’ Minds" is the title of a review by Gordon S. Wood in the June 28 issue of the New York Review of Books. The review takes up important questions of historical method, and also a critical question about the vision at the nation’s founding. Because of the importance of this review, and also because of the sharpness of the criticism of the reviewed books, I’ve invited the authors of the reviewed books to provide commentary on the Legal History Blog, and I have invited a couple of other legal historians of this period to join in. Their posts will follow, later today and later this week.

The books at hand are Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Struggle for the Constitution by Lawrence Goldstone (Walker) and American Taxation, American Slavery by Robin L. Einhorn (University of Chicago Press), but Wood uses the review to take aim at a broader literature that places slavery front and center at the nation’s founding. Other works on his list are Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power (2000); Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic (2001); Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders (2001); Garry Wills, "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power (2003); Alfred W. Blumrosen and Ruth G. Blumrosen, Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (2005); and Gary Nash, Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (2006). These books, Wood suggests, "help satisfy the seemingly insatiable desire of many historians today to place slavery at the heart of America's origins."

This treatment of slavery, he argues, is an improper form of presentism. He agrees with Bernard Bailyn, who "is keenly aware of the present's need to relate to the past and the power of that need in stimulating historical inquiry and writing. ‘There is always,’ [Bailyn] writes, ‘a need to extract from the past some kind of bearing on contemporary problems, some message, commentary, or instruction to the writer's age, and to see reflected in the past familiar aspects of the present.’ But without ‘critical control,’ this need, says Bailyn, ‘generates an obvious kind of presentism, which at its worst becomes indoctrination by historical example.’"

Wood sees historians as taking to studies of the founding their present-day concerns. Early in the 20th century, when class struggle was a topic of concern, historians like Charles Beard studied the role class at the founding. In the latter half of the 20th century, Wood argues, race has been at the forefront, and so historians have put race at the center of their work on the founding. Wood finds value in this work, but he asks whether "the historians who have written these works exercised Bailyn's 'critical control' and avoided distorting the past with their present-minded concerns?"

Wood acknowledges that "no one can deny the importance of slavery to the development of early America." He emphasizes that "the fact that slavery had been taken for granted for thousands of years prior to the mid-eighteenth century must be the starting point in any assessment of its influence on early American politics and nationhood. With the exception of some isolated people with strong principles, especially Quakers, few Americans prior to the Revolutionary era seriously questioned the institution of slavery. It was the Revolution and its emphasis on liberty that made slavery a problem for Americans."...



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