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Gordon Wood
Gordon Wood
The American Revolution:  A History
ISBN: 0679640576
The American Revolution: A History
“An elegant synthesis done by the leading scholar in the field, which nicely integrates the work on the American Revolution over the last three decades but never loses contact with the older, classic questions that we have been arguing about for over two hundred years. -Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers.

A magnificent account of the revolution in arms and consciousness that gave birth to the American republic.

When Abraham Lincoln sought to define the significance of the United States, he naturally looked back to the American Revolution. He knew that the Revolution not only had legally created the United States, but also had produced all of the great hopes and values of the American people. Our noblest ideals and aspirations-our commitments to freedom, constitutionalism, the well-being of ordinary people, and equality-came out of the Revolutionary era. Lincoln saw as well that the Revolution had convinced Americans that they were a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty. The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose Americans have had.

No doubt the story is a dramatic one: Thirteen insignificant colonies three thousand miles from the centers of Western civilization fought off British rule to become, in fewer than three decades, a huge, sprawling, rambunctious republic of nearly four million citizens. But the history of the American Revolution, like the history of the nation as a whole, ought not to be viewed simply as a story of right and wrong from which moral lessons are to be drawn. It is a complicated and at times ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not blindly celebrated or condemned. How did this great revolution come about? What was its character? What were its consequences? These are the questions this short history seeks to answer. That it succeeds in such a profound and enthralling way is a tribute to Gordon Wood’s mastery of his subject, and of the historian’s craft.

"An elegant synthesis done by the leading scholar in the field, which nicely integrates the work on the American Revolution over the last three decades but never loses contact with the older, classic questions that we have been arguing about for over two hundred years."

- Joseph J. Ellis, Author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

—from the publisher's website

The American Revolution: A History
Program Air Date: April 21, 2002

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Gordon S. Wood, author of "The American Revolution: A History," when did you first get interested in history?
GORDON WOOD, AUTHOR, "THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: A HISTORY": That's a good question. Probably in college. I was a history major. I went to Tufts and somehow or other just always had a yearning to study, although I wasn't planning on being a historian. I was originally going to go into the foreign service.
LAMB: Can you remember when you first got interested in history, say, in high school, or even grade school?
WOOD: No, because it was taught so poorly in high school. I can't imagine why I would have been interested in it from the high school teacher. He used to have us read from Muzzey, the textbook. That was how we did history. Each would read a paragraph, and he'd go up and down the row, and I would plan ahead when I would be reading, and then I'd go ahead and read on my own and keep my finger on the spot which I would have to read. But -- so it was not because of the teaching. It was just something I was interested in, despite the very bad high school teacher we had.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
WOOD: I grew up in New England, in greater Boston, lived in Worcester for a while, but graduated from Waltham High School, which is a little town right outside of Boston.
LAMB: And do you remember your first character in history that you got interested in?
WOOD: Oh, that's a good question. Probably in the -- in graduate school, I became fascinated with James Madison. It was that late. I didn't have any hero earlier. I don't think of -- I can't think of one, at least. But in graduate school, I became fascinated with Madison.
LAMB: Why Madison?
WOOD: Because of his intellectual abilities. I've gotten less enthralled by him as time has gone on, but at the time, back in the 1960s, early '60s, I thought he was the most remarkable politician in American history because he was a thinker, as well as a political figure.
LAMB: So why have you become less enthralled?
WOOD: Well, because I think he's actually much more ideological than I had thought and not quite as wide-ranging and as intellectually creative as I had originally thought. But he's still quite a remarkable man.
LAMB: What's his ideology?
WOOD: Well, he's totally caught up in an ideology of what you might call republican -- his notion of an alternative to war, which is quite appropriate today -- that is to say, commercial sanctions, the embargo, which is usually identified with Jefferson, but it's really Madison's embargo that he promotes. That is, using commercial retaliation as an alternative to using troops, which we would call economic sanctions. He's very much a proponent of that and very much caught up in it, which led to his peculiar behavior during the War of 1812 as president.
LAMB: Now, Waltham, Massachusetts, is in the suburbs of Boston, and a lot of the characters in this small book you have here -- I know you've written a lot bigger books on the American Revolution -- come from that area. Let's try one -- Samuel Adams.
WOOD: Samuel Adams, a real Revolutionary, probably the first -- one of the first to aim for independence. I think he probably believed in independence as early as 1768. So he's a kind of fanatic, a rabble-rouser and -- but a very skillful politician, as well, who believed more devoutly than some of the other Revolutionaries in republican severity, ascetic -- they had to fit him out with clothes to send him to Philadelphia because he didn't pay much attention to how he dressed, although he was a Harvard graduate and a gentleman, nonetheless. A very interesting character.
LAMB: How did he relate to John Adams?
WOOD: They were distant cousins. John Adams was equally fanatical, if you will, as a Revolutionary, but a little more skilled, I think, as an attorney and as a speaker and probably much more intellectual than his cousin, Samuel Adams.
LAMB: Have you done the Freedom Trail around Boston?
WOOD: Some of it, but because I was a Bostonian, I took those things for granted. It took me -- it's when visitors come to Boston, they want to go to the -- they wanted to go to the Freedom Trail, I would -- I'd end up going. Often happens when you live in an area where there are a lot of tourist attractions.
LAMB: Well, as you know, one of the things you see in Boston right away is the John Hancock building.
WOOD: Oh, yeah. The new one.
LAMB: Now, when you look at that, what do you think of? Who was John Hancock?
WOOD: Well, John Hancock was probably the most successful Massachusetts politician in the last quarter of the 18th century in the state's history. He had lots of money. He inherited a fortune from his uncle, who was really his -- he was an adopted -- his uncle treated him as a son. And he inherited the fortune and went through it because he was not interested in mercantile business but interested in political career, and he did that by patronizing people.

He bought -- he engaged in patronage that made him a very powerful politician. He built ships. He did need. He distributed money. He held parties on the Boston Common. He had about -- I think John Adams had 2,000 people directly dependent upon him. So he was an 18th century politician of great skill.
LAMB: John Hancock had 2,000 people dependent...
WOOD: Right.
LAMB: Because I think you said John Adams.
WOOD: I mean John Adams said that about...
LAMB: Oh, he said -- OK.
WOOD: ... John Hancock.
LAMB: Go to this book. This is a small version of what you do. Why this small book?
WOOD: Well, it -- editor at Random House asked me if I would be willing to write a book on the American Revolution, 40,000 words. It seemed like a great challenge. That, I think, was the challenge, to compress all of the information we have about the Revolution or the Revolutionary era, which runs roughly 1760 to 1790, into 166 pages. That was a challenge, and to try to make -- to account for every event and still get it within that small compass is a -- was an interesting challenge and since I had been working on the Revolution for, what, 40 years, I said, "Well, I can do this easily." It was a little more difficult than I had anticipated.
LAMB: Is this your specialty?
WOOD: Oh, yes. I've spent my whole career really on the Revolution, although I teach much more broadly, early American history from the beginning, 1607, you might say, or the late 16th century, up through the era of Jackson, I've concentrated my writing career on the era of the American Revolution.
LAMB: You grew up in Waltham. You then went to Tufts. Why that university? What's that about?
WOOD: I went to Tufts because I had a Latin teacher who was a graduate of Jackson, which is the women's college at Tufts, and she was a great influence on me. My parents are not college graduates, were not college graduates. And so I was a little uncertain about what I should do, and she said, "You must go to Tufts," and -- it was a local school. I was a commuter. And that's the long and short of it.
LAMB: What happened to you there?
WOOD: I was a history concentrator. I had a good time there and loved history.
LAMB: What part?
WOOD: I actually was in modern European history mostly, not American history, although I had a good American history teacher, a man named Bartlett, Ruhl Bartlett. But I was in modern European history. And when I applied to graduate school, I was not certain I was going to work in American history or modern European history -- that is, 18th -- or 19th, 20th century American -- modern European history.
LAMB: Where did you get your graduate degree?
WOOD: I went to Harvard. I was in the military for a couple of years and applied from overseas. I was in Japan, stationed in Japan, in the Air Force, and applied to graduate school from there and was accepted at Harvard with a fellowship, and so I went.
LAMB: What's the dissertation?
WOOD: It was the book that resulted in "The Creation of the American Republic," which is a 1776-1787 -- a study of political theory and constitution-making in that decade's time. It was, I think, the most important period in American history and the most -- certainly, one of the great periods of constitutionalism in Western history. And that was the dissertation that resulted in that book.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
WOOD: Well, I've written -- this is the third, if you count books. Articles -- I have lots of articles, but only three books, and edited a couple of things, as well.
LAMB: Now, a couple years ago, I remember Newt Gingrich, when he was Speaker, used your name about every 15 minutes, along with others. He said, "Go out and read `The Founding of America' by Gordon Wood." What was the actual title of the book?
WOOD: "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," which he liked because it had a kind of Toquevillian touch to it, I guess, maybe suggesting American exceptionalism, that he liked. And that's true. In the fall or the spring -- it was the spring of 1994, before he became Speaker, before the big election -- he was actually minority whip -- he invited me to dinner at the House dining hall, and I got to know him from just that one conversation. I knew nothing of him, and I haven't seen him since.

But he liked the book, which was, of course, kind of the kiss of death for me among a lot of academics, who are not right-wing Republicans, and therefore to be praised by Gingrich was not necessarily a good thing from -- among my peers.
LAMB: What did they say?
WOOD: Well, they felt that if Gingrich likes it, it can't be a good book. So I got a little flak from that.
LAMB: What did you say to them?
WOOD: Well, I said, "Well, I can't determine who -- what readers are going to make of my book." I tried to write a book -- that "Radicalism" book was a book that I intentionally tried to reach both my peers -- that is, fellow scholars -- appeal to them by saying something new to them, at the same time, reach out to a more general audience, an educated audience that was not made up of experts.

That's a very difficult thing to do, and yet I think most of us who are professional -- or scholars, as we teach history, have been unable to reach a general audience. And that's lamentable because history is meaningless if it doesn't reach out to large numbers of people.

And there's a good deal of, I think, jealousy in the academic world of people like David McCullough, who have a large readership. And it's our own fault. We're writing for one another, and we've become very narrow and very specific.

There's a place for that, too, but at the same time, I think we have an obligation to reach a large readership, as well.
LAMB: Go back to your comment about your peers not liking the fact that Newt Gingrich was heralding your book. There are conservatives watching this program that are saying, "Yeah, that's what's wrong with academia. They're not the slightest bit interested in the other side."
WOOD: Well, there is, of course, and has been over the last, well, maybe 30 years, a good deal of criticism of ourselves. It's self-criticism. I don't think that's wrong. I think any democracy, any healthy democracy has to have a certain amount of self-criticism, and that often takes the form, for historians, of writing critically about the past. I think there can be excesses in that, and I think people who say that the American Revolution was a failure are making a mistake. But nonetheless, one understands that self-criticism is a healthy thing. And I have no gripe with that.

And it goes on all the time, and I think that's good. I think it goes too far if you begin to see your past as totally full of faults and not see any good at all. As I try to say in the introduction to this book, I don't think our history should be seen as a moral tale, either good or bad. I think historians should try to understand where we came from as honestly as we can, without trying to say this was a great celebration or that this was a disaster. I don't think either of those extremes are true of our history.
LAMB: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but are you saying that a lot of academics think that the Revolution was bad?
WOOD: Well, I -- that's too strong. I think there are a lot of academics who have emphasized over the last 30 years that we didn't do enough. We didn't, for example, free slaves. We didn't change the lot of women. And because those are current issues, there is always a tendency in history to go back and to look at the past through the lenses of the present and lament the fact that slavery was not abolished and that the lot of women did not change substantially and that the lot of Indians was worsened by the Revolution. That -- those are -- those facts are true, but I think it's anachronistic to apply 21st century standards to an 18th century world.
LAMB: Would they rather that we stayed, as a country, under the monarch of Great Britain?
WOOD: I don't think anyone goes that far because that would really undermine the whole history of the country. Nonetheless, there is, of course, the British were much more -- the British imperial officials were much more concerned with the native Americans, with the plight of the Indians than were the colonists. So from that perspective, the British empire looks rather benign.

But from other perspectives -- I don't think there are very many American historians who think that the break from Britain was a mistake. That actually was a feeling of some, I think, historians at the end of the 20th -- at the end of the 19th century, who were thoroughly Anglophiles and felt that the English-speaking world should be brought together, kind of the era that lay behind Wilson's Anglophilia at the time of World War I.

So no, I don't think there's anybody writing today who thinks that this was a terrible mistake. I do think that there were -- there are lots of historians who feel that we didn't do enough for these oppressed or -- oppressed people, particularly black slaves and women. I mean, my answer to that is, of course, that the Revolution did really substantially change the climate in which slavery had existed.

For thousands of years, slavery had existed in the Western world without substantial criticism. And the Revolution marked a major turning point. It suddenly put slavery on the defensive. And I think that's the point that needs to be emphasized, not that Jefferson didn't free his slaves, but that as a man raised as a slave holder, in a world that was dominated by slavery, he criticized it. That's what's new. That's the point that I think needs to be made. Where did that come from? Why did this generation suddenly become critics of slavery and put it on the defensive? That I think is an important point.
LAMB: How many years have you taught at Brown?
WOOD: I've been there since 1969, so that's what, 32 years or so.
LAMB: What did you do in between Harvard and Brown?
WOOD: I went to a -- I had a fellowship at the Institute of Early American History, which is sponsored -- at Williamsburg, which is sponsored by the college there, College of William and Mary, and Colonial Williamsburg. I had a fellowship for two years, then went to Harvard for an assistant professorship for one year, then went to Michigan, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for two years, and then had the offer from Brown. And since I was a New Englander, that seemed to be the place to go. And I've been happy there ever since.
LAMB: Providence, Rhode Island.
WOOD: Providence, Rhode Island.
LAMB: How big a college is it, university?
WOOD: It's about 5,500 students, undergraduates, and about 1,200 graduate students, and now a medical school. That's really the whole of Brown.
LAMB: And you teach what now?
WOOD: I teach three courses, actually, lecture courses, one on colonial history, one on the Revolution and one on the early republic. So I rotate these courses. And I teach seminars and small classes for undergraduates.
LAMB: Now, when the young student shows up in your class, what is their whole attitude about American history, the Revolution?
WOOD: Oh, well, I -- they know something, in many cases, because they've had good training in high school. And other times, they know very little. I think there's a -- generally speaking, not a great deal of emphasis placed on early American history -- that is, history up to the Civil War, in high schools now. That's being taught in many states in the eighth grade, and when they get to high school, they start with the Civil War.

So you have a kind of eighth-grade knowledge, in many cases, among some of these freshmen, which is lamentable because somehow, the implication is that, well, history back then isn't as important as the more recent history, when, in fact, I think the contrary is true -- that is, the Revolution is the central event of American history, bar none. There's just no more important event.

And I mean, the Civil War is important because it saved the union, but the Revolution created the United States legally and infused into our culture almost everything we believe. Liberty, equality, constitutionalism, all of this comes out of the Revolution. So you can't understand what it is to be an American, I think, unless you get back to the Revolution.

So it's lamentable that youngsters in high school are not getting early American history from -- in high school. They're supposed to be disposed of that in the eighth grade, and in 11th grade, they work on modern American history, where all the action is, I guess.
LAMB: When you first meet with them, that first, what, 50 minutes -- how long are your classes?
WOOD: Actually, I have a -- I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I have an hour and 20 minutes to work with, so I have a little bit more flexibility.
LAMB: What are the first things you tell them about the American Revolution?
WOOD: I tell them that it's the most important event in -- for the reason that I've just suggested, in American history, and that I hope they'll come away knowing what this country of ours is about, what we -- why we believe the things we believe.

And I end by contrasting us with the Soviet -- the former Soviet Union because I think both countries had -- have -- or we have still a universalist ideology, with universalist aspirations. And that was -- I kind of account for the Cold War in the last lecture, to bring it all up to the present. And now we have a situation, of course, where we are the only major world power, and it's a very different situation now.
LAMB: What year would you say the Revolution really started?
WOOD: Oh, well, I think most historians would say 1763, with the Peace of Paris, creates problems for the British empire that forces them to take steps to reform the empire, which are the -- which is the trigger, these efforts to reform become the trigger for the Revolution, which goes beyond an imperial revolution -- I mean, an imperial breakdown. It's not -- our revolution is not simply a colonial rebellion. It starts that way, but by 1776, it has really become a world historical event, with larger implications.

So the -- I think 1763 is probably the date that one would pick as the starting point.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many people there are in the world in 1763?
WOOD: In the world? No, I don't right off the top of my head, but certainly, in the -- still -- I think probably less than a million -- less than a billion people, I would think. Who knows?
LAMB: How many people were there...
WOOD: I mean, there are no...
LAMB: ... in the -- in...
WOOD: In the Americas?
LAMB: ... the colonies? Yeah.
WOOD: About -- in 1760, probably almost two million, two million by 1770. So it's still relatively small, compared to the, what, eight, nine, ten million of England. We're about a fifth of that, but we're growing much faster than Britain itself. So there is this prospect, as Benjamin Franklin saw it, that sooner or later, we're going to pass them. The trajectory of the two -- the demographic trajectory of the two parts of the imperial empire is -- the Americans are going to outstrip the British. And sooner or later, he felt, the capital would have to be moved to America.
LAMB: Was there any place in the world then that the population elected their sovereign?
WOOD: No. That's what -- well, there were elections in some parts of the Netherlands and Switzerland, and so on, but no -- no -- election of leaders was simply not -- except for the British House of Commons. That was the one place where you had representative government, not representative by our standards because there's so much corruption and it was -- really only one out of six adult males could vote in Britain. So...
LAMB: Why?
WOOD: Well, because of property qualifications. Whereas in America, in the colonies, because property was so widespread, probably two out of three adult white males could vote. So already, we had a large -- proportionally speaking, a much larger electorate than any other place in the world. There's simply nothing like what's going on in colonial America. And then, of course, after the Revolution, nothing like the kind of electoral politics that we had, simply not matched anywhere, as far as I know, in the world.
LAMB: When did King George III become the monarch in Great Britain?
WOOD: In 1760. His father had died, so he inherits the throne from his grandfather, George II, so he's a relatively young man, I think about 20, rather immature, but full of all kinds of visions of what the empire could be and naive, I guess we'd have to say, as a monarch. He wanted to rule in his own right. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been German-born and really didn't know England. He's the first English -- Hanoverian -- that is, coming from the House of Hanover, who's Englishly -- English-trained, English-born and thoroughly Anglicized, with lots of ambition to be a real king.
LAMB: What was his relationship to the House of Commons?
WOOD: Well, he is -- unfortunately, the modern British party government with the crown being kind of figurehead and really dictated to by a majority leader of the House of Commons, hadn't yet evolved. That would take another half century. At the same time, George didn't quite understand the convention that his ministers really had to get the agreement of Parliament. So he appointed whomever he wanted as ministers. They're his ministers, after all, His Majesty's ministers.

And he ran into a lot of trouble because these ministers didn't have the support of -- at least, at first, of the House of Commons. So he kept -- one ministry after another would fall. He went through several ministries in the 1760s, until he got to Lord North, who did command a majority in the House of Commons.

And it was one of these things where he simply couldn't grasp who -- who could blame him? He couldn't grasp the future, that he had to somehow win the -- have the support of the House of Commons to support his ministers. He simply hadn't fully understood the future. And historians who've criticized him for this, of course, have missed the point. He had every right to appoint whomever he wanted.

And of course, that's still true today. And technically speaking, Tony Blair is Her Majesty's minister. But he -- she just appoints the person who has the majority support in the House of Commons. She doesn't have, presumably, any choice in the matter, at least not politically. Constitutionally, she can appoint whomever she wanted, but it would be a constitutional crisis if she did so.
LAMB: How big was the British empire in 1760?
WOOD: Oh, it was a huge empire, and the richest empire since the fall of Rome. It encompassed from the Mississippi to -- after '63, at least, 1763, from the Mississippi to India. And it's an extraordinary phenomenon. It's the greatest phenomenon of the 18th century, the growth of this little island in the northwest of the European continent becoming a major world power. And people were stunned and surprised by this. How could this little island do what it had done?

And it was the empire that everyone attributed to Britain's success. So they thought the loss -- everyone thought the loss of the empire, or the North American part of it, at least, would diminish England. Of course, it didn't happen that way. Britain went on to have its greatest days in the 19th century, but everyone predicted that that would be the end of Britain when they lose the North American colonies, which is why they stuck so long, eight years, in this long struggle to hold onto their colonies.
LAMB: You almost -- you answer my question. The Revolutionary War was eight years long.
WOOD: Right.
LAMB: How many people from the colonies, soon to be Americans, fought on the anti-British side?
WOOD: Well, that's a hard question to answer. I think we may have had as many as 100,000, 200,000 people participating at one time or another, which is a huge proportion of a population running two to three million people. It certainly was the largest death total. I think about 25,000 men were killed, which was a high -- the highest proportion of any war, except, of course, for the Civil War, in our history, of deaths.

So a lot of people were touched by the war. It was eight years long, the longest war in our history until Vietnam. So it -- I think Americans came out of that -- most families had been touched in one way or another by the war, and it was the great cause that gave them a sense of unity, I think, that helped to make the United States meaningful as a single nation for people, that eight years of experience.
LAMB: You say the Declaration of Independence is 1,300 words?
WOOD: Roughly, yeah.
LAMB: And there's a lot of talk about King George III in there.
WOOD: Most of it is about George III, how he did this and he did that, and so on.
LAMB: Did they mean that personally? Did they hate him?
WOOD: Well, I think there was, at this point, a good deal of resentment. But the reason they focus on the king is because that's the only tie left in their understanding of the empire. They had been forced to cut loose from Parliament earlier because the English said, "You're either under Parliament's authority or you're not under it." And given that choice, they said, "Well, we're not under it."

And they had worked out by 1774 a notion that the empire was a kind of modern commonwealth. They were tied only to the king. So the king was the last tie, and that tie had to be broken. And I think there is resentment of the king, at this point, because he had declared them outlaws. He had -- he or his ministers had made these decisions, these crown decisions to cut American trade, to regard them as being beyond the pale of law. And so I think there is a certain amount of personal resentment.

And Thomas Paine, of course, writing in January of 1776, was the first major cry for independence. And that, I think focused people's attention because he referred to George III as "the royal brute," and "For God's sakes, let's break from this -- royal brute." I mean, that's really seditious talk, and somehow it was left to him to make it, the first statement, even though he's a recent immigrant.
LAMB: When did the press become free in the United States?
WOOD: Well, I suppose to truly say it was free was probably not until the 19th century. Certainly, there were not -- there was no possibility of a Tory or a loyalist press once the Whigs were in control. So -- but you had a good deal of what we might call, relatively speaking, for the 18th century, free press in the 18th century colonies. And the press was very important during the Revolution. But a truly modern free press is a much later development, as we would understand it. And in some cases, not until the 1960s, with the "New York Times" Sullivan decision do you get the kind of freedom that we now take for granted in the press.
LAMB: Do you have people in the Revolutionary period that you think this wouldn't have happened if they hadn't been there?
WOOD: Oh, I think Washington is the crucial figure, unbelievably -- I mean, it just -- people have called him the indispensable figure, and he is as close to that -- I normally don't believe that any individual is indispensable, but in this case, Washington, as a leader, took seriously these responsibilities of virtue, of maintaining himself as disinterested, above interest. And he bought into, if you will, the ideology of the Revolution and was sincere about it.

He could have become king. He could have been a dictator. And he refused all of these blandishments, all of these temptations that have -- of course, every military leader that we can think of, from -- going back to Caesar through Cromwell, through Marlborough, and then, of course, later Napoleon, always expected political rewards commensurate with their military achievements. Not Washington. He had to be prodded into coming to the Constitutional Convention, and then to be president. He didn't want to be president. He was reluctant, always reluctant to assume civil power. And that reluctance gave him his power. That reluctance to take power made him trusted. And he's an extraordinary man, and we -- we just -- we were just lucky.
LAMB: In 1787 was the Constitutional Convention. When was the first Continental Congress?
WOOD: In 1774 is the first Continental Congress, the first meeting of the -- you had a Stamp Act Congress earlier, in 1765, but the Continental -- the first Continental Congress meets in 1774.
LAMB: And where did it meet?
WOOD: It met in Philadelphia.
LAMB: And when it did meet there, what was the status of the colonies at that point?
WOOD: Well, still colonies, and we were still under the king, and there was still a good deal of respect for the king, and there were still lots of people who were loyal.
LAMB: How big -- I mean, which colonies were the biggest?
WOOD: Oh, Virginia is by far the biggest colony. And we forget that now. I think -- we have to understand why first four of the first five presidents were Virginians is because Virginia really was the United States. It made up a fifth of the population of the country and just took it for granted that it was the leader. Once Virginia -- although Massachusetts was certainly, I think, the leader in the radical movement, and that's where -- the Revolution really begins there. But Virginia -- without Virginia's support, the Revolution would never have been brought off because it -- as I say, a fifth of the population of the country is in the state of Virginia. And once the Virginians came on board -- and they were certainly -- they rivaled Massachusetts in their leadership, then the country was destined to break from Britain.
LAMB: What was the motive of people -- Patrick Henry you mentioned, I think, first in your book.
WOOD: Right.
LAMB: Twenty-nine years old, or something like that, in those early years.
WOOD: Yeah. He -- it's hard to know about each of these individual -- the motivations of each of these individual leaders because you reduce it to their various ambitions. They are an ambitious group, these revolutionary leaders. But Henry makes his name in the so-called "parsons' cause" in the 1750s, which doesn't seem to have much to do with the Revolution, although looking back, you can see it as an anticipation because Henry really does attack the established church and imperial power in general and makes some derogatory comments about imperial leadership.

So looking back, you see it as a premonition of the Revolution. I'm sure nobody at the time, in 1758, saw this as revolutionary, but it is a symptom of the kind of willingness of young leaders to take on the establishment, if you will.
LAMB: So in those days, in the -- 1758 and all through that period, how many people in this country were members of the Anglican Church?
WOOD: Well, I think that about 40 percent of the population was tied to established churches, whether Anglican, or in new England, of course, the established churches were Congregational, the old Puritan churches. So you still had a good proportion of the population tied to European-type establishments -- that is, were tax-supported, state-supported churches.

That all changes, of course, in the course of the Revolution. By 1790, in 30 years' time, you have a complete breakdown of this. About 25 percent of the population remains tied to established churches. Not the Anglicans. They are -- they've been -- they're the church -- the Church of England is the one must hurt by the Revolution.

But the -- you have the rise of new churches in the period. The Baptists were relatively insignificant in 1760, have emerged by 1790 as the largest group. The Methodists are coming on strong. There were no Methodists in America in the 1760s. By 1790, they're the second largest church, and within a few -- within a decade or two, they become the largest denomination in America.

So you have a really major shift religiously, as a result of the Revolution, essentially an ending of the crust of establishment and the opening up of popular religious feelings, evangelical feelings that transforms the religious landscape of America, another aspect to this radical revolution.
LAMB: By the way, you live in a state that has...
WOOD: Rhode Island.
LAMB: Yeah. That does not go along through all those years with...
WOOD: Well, that's right.
LAMB: Were they at the first Continental Congress?
WOOD: Yes, they did go to the -- they simply did not participate in the Constitutional Convention. They had been certainly very radical. They were ready to break -- in fact, they actually -- Rhode Islanders see their revolution as preceding the 1776 -- in May, 1776, they change their charter and become a republic. So they actually think of themselves as being ahead of the rest of the country.

But in 1787, they want no part of this consolidation, this effort to strengthen the union, because they see -- they're very localist, very strong sense of -- or very strong fear of far-removed power. And they don't want no part of this convention, and they stay out of the union until 1790. It takes a lot of pressure from the outside and the threat by Providence, the city, which is dominated by merchants, to actually leave the state and join the union on its own, that finally forces Rhode Island to ratify the Constitution belatedly.
LAMB: If you lived in a country right now that had a similar situation around the world that the colonies had to Great Britain -- and I don't know if there is one that you can think of -- based on what happened in this country, what would have to happen -- what are the key things that would have to happen in order to arrive at a constitution and set up a new government and have a democracy and all that kind of thing?
WOOD: Well, I think you have to have an experienced political elite, and this is the one -- that somehow is used to governing itself. It isn't enough to just copy our constitution, and people have tried that. I remember a few years ago, I was in Brazil, in 1987, and they were drawing up a new constitution for themselves, one of many they've done. And I was on a television program or a radio program, and they asked me, "Well, what's the secret to your constitution, which has lasted for 200 years? And what advice do you have for us?" And I said, "Keep it short." Well, of course, that was a mistake because they already had it. It was 350 articles long, and it was page after page.

The beauty of our constitution was that it's short, but it can't be transformed. You can't just take our constitution and impose it on another culture. It won't work. What really was the secret to our success, I think, was that we had this very, very highly educated, relatively speaking, for the 18th century -- highly educated population with a good deal of experience in what we might call representative or democratic politics. And that is what was crucial, and the fact that they were English. That is, the English law, common law, a sense of English rights. All of those things were very, very important and cannot be simply transposed to another culture at another time.
LAMB: How much of the Constitution was written by white men because they owned property and they wanted to keep it and get more?
WOOD: Well, that was Charles Beard's charge. I think...
LAMB: Who's Charles Beard?
WOOD: Charles Beard was a historian who wrote a book called "The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution," probably the most notorious book in all of American history, 1913. He got fired from Columbia for writing it. But that was his charge. And I don't think that's the way to look at these men. They...
LAMB: But why did he get fired?
WOOD: Well, because he was -- such an outrageous book that he had written, you see. I don't know what happened to tenure back then, but that...
LAMB: I thought your -- this is a free country. You can write anything you want to write.
WOOD: Well, they don't -- there's some things you can't say. Even back then, you couldn't denigrate the Founders the way he did. It was the progressive view of the Revolution and the Founders that they were -- there was this kind of selfish economic basis to their actions.

Beard actually was -- transcended that. He wasn't quite as bad as I'm implying here. But there -- a lot of people read him that way.

But at any rate, that's always easy to say, but I think their motivations are much more complicated. They certainly were concerned about the union. They were concerned about this country that they had invested their lives, risked their lives for. And they wanted it to succeed.

Now, true, Madison was concerned about what he called demagoguery, democratic politics that was violating the rights of property in his state of Virginia and elsewhere. But I think his interests are -- go beyond just his own concern for his property. I think he really was concerned for this thing called the United States, as a vision, as a dream. This republican experiment was at stake.
LAMB: What would they have said -- what would the Founders have said if confronted today with the question of "What right did you have to take this land away from the Indians?"
WOOD: They would have said, I think -- and they did say -- that, first of all, the Indians weren't using it properly. That is to say, they weren't farming it. They felt that simply to have this large -- these large expanses of land and hunt on them was a waste, that farming should be -- if the Indians would convert to farmers, they could have the land. They could have land. They were willing to give them land. But they certainly weren't entitled to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of acres that couldn't be tilled. And that was the logic of the case.

And then they resorted to war or treaties. They bought it from the Indians. They would make a treaty with the Indians. Of course, the Indians scarcely fully understood what was involved in these treaties. They didn't think they necessarily were giving up land. In some cases, the agents who had signed the treaties weren't necessarily speaking for other Indians.

So you have a real problem of -- but mainly, it's a demographic tragedy. That is to say, the Indians are declining in population. These colonists are growing in population, and there was just an inevitable tragedy built into the situation. There's no doubt that there was all kinds of shenanigans at the local level.

However worthy the ideals of people like Washington or Henry Knox, who was his secretary of war, and how much they wanted to treat the Indians fairly, at the local level, there was simply a feeling "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." There's too much of that thinking. But given the population developments, demographic growth, it's hard to see any alternative...
LAMB: Do we still owe the Indian something?
WOOD: Well, we're proving that by giving them all kinds of gambling rights that I'm sure lots of people are puzzled by this, that I know in my -- in the state of Connecticut, nearby where I live, there are huge gambling casinos that have risen up which are unique to the state. That is -- and these come from the -- I think the breaking of treaties that we were involved in in the early time -- early part of our history. And this is a kind of belated compensation, not necessarily the best way to do this.
LAMB: Why wouldn't they have the right to gamble as much as the white man would have a right to gamble?
WOOD: Well, they -- many cases, you can't -- your -- white men today can't set up a gambling -- in New London, Connecticut, you can't just set up a gambling casino. It's only at Foxwood, in this little piece of sovereignty that the Pequot Indians have as a result of being mistreated back in the 1790s. So it's a peculiar kind of compensation that we're making, and it's very uneven because there are Indians in North Dakota who don't have the opportunity to set up a gambling...
LAMB: Go back to the -- again, the period of 1760 through the Revolutionary War. Where was the black person in this country?
WOOD: Well, most blacks were held as slaves, and most slaves -- there were about a half a million. Most slaves were held by Southern planters, but everyone -- I think every white colonist in one way, directly or indirectly, benefited from this institution of slavery.
LAMB: How many black slaves were there in the North?
WOOD: Numbers? Well, probably less than 100,000. I haven't got it right off the top of my head, but -- the actual numbers. But they were -- it was substantial. For example, in New York, about 14 percent of the population of New York was enslaved. I think 7 percent in my own state of Rhode Island. Less -- fewer slaves in the New England states and in the other Northern states. But it was still a national institution prior to the Revolution.

So it -- but in the North, it succumbed to pressures, economic and -- it was moral pressures that eliminated it everywhere in the North by 1804, at least on the record books. Now, slaves continued to exist in New York because they were grandfathered in, and so on.
LAMB: But let me ask you, was it a moral question for those who didn't ever own slaves? Were they the ones that said, "You can't have them?" I mean, was -- were very many people to stand up and say, "I've got slaves, but I'll"...
WOOD: There were some who...
LAMB: ..."set them free"?
WOOD: There were many who were slave holders who -- in fact, none of the Revolutionary leaders ever condoned slavery, even though they were slave holders, like Patrick Henry. He said, "I cannot justify the institution. I know it violates everything this Revolution is about. But I can't do without them." And Jefferson, too. He was a slave holder through his whole life but never justified it. He always knew that there was something wrong with it. So none of the major leaders ever condoned it.

But of course, there were many who did not have slaves who were critics, but here were many critics among the slave holders themselves. Actually, there were more anti-slave societies in the South, in the after -- immediate aftermath of the Revolution, than in the North.

So the South -- I think, actually, they -- everyone thought the institution would die. It was an illusion, but they thought it would die. They thought that the ending of the slave trade, which was predicted by -- built into the Constitution -- 1808, they could -- Congress could act on the slave trade. And everyone assumed that once the slave trade was killed that the institution would die away. Well, they were wrong.
LAMB: Is there an example of any white man back in those days who had a considerable number of slaves who said, "They're all free"?
WOOD: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: But a leader?
WOOD: Oh...
LAMB: Leaders?
WOOD: Yeah. Well, a young man, a Virginian, comes to Jefferson, I think it's 1814. The man's name is Cole, and he says, "Look, Mr. Jefferson, speak out. We need you. We younger generation need you. I'm freeing my slaves. I'm moving to Illinois. You speak out, and we can really do something about this institution." Jefferson says, "No, I'm too old. You young people do it." It's one of his weaker moments, Jefferson. But this young man goes on to Illinois, becomes an anti -- becomes an anti-slave -- becomes an abolitionist and later governor of Illinois, a Virginian who did just what he wanted others to do.
LAMB: There were how many of those?
WOOD: Well, there are not so many, obviously. Washington freed his slaves upon his death, but...
LAMB: But they weren't his, were they.
WOOD: Oh, well, yeah.
LAMB: I thought they were his wife's.
WOOD: Well, his wife -- he had some and his wife had some. But whatever his wife's -- his property -- his wife's property is his.
LAMB: But she -- they weren't...
WOOD: But they...
LAMB: ... free until she died.
WOOD: Right. He -- her slaves could remain -- but still, they -- he is ending the institution, as far as his family is concerned, and that's something that others did not do. Jefferson didn't do that.
LAMB: Now, what about women during this period? What role did they play, and why were they subservient? At least, they didn't have all the voting rights and all that.
WOOD: No, no. It's a patriarchal world. It always had been. What I think has to be said is that changes were afoot, in the air. Now, women didn't gain the right to vote until much later, but I think there's a direct line from the Revolution to Seneca Falls of 1848, the first women's convention. There's the first essays appearing in the newspapers claiming the equality of women, coming out of the Revolution.

But women's lot, by today's standards, are just very dependent. They are considered to be as children in the household. Their husbands control their property, control their lives. They are regarded as little more than children legally. Now, of course, in actual fact, lots of women have lots of influence because of their personalities, and so on. But still, legally, they are like children when they're married, they're -- when they marry their husbands.
LAMB: If Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and James Madison and George Washington, all these folks, were sitting around this room now, today, based on what you know that they thought back then, and you told them that there are 40 black members of the House, 60 women or something on that number, there's an -- there are Indians who are members of the House of -- or the Senate and all, what would they really think about that?
WOOD: I think they wouldn't be that surprised, many of them. Like, someone like Benjamin Rush, for example, really believed that -- in the natural equality of people, that if once you could educate people, there was no reason why anyone can't be -- become a leader.
LAMB: But I wonder if, though -- did they know then, when they were writing the Constitution, that with some agitation over the years, what has happened would happen?
WOOD: Well, I don't know if they could have -- they couldn't have predicted everything, of course, but I think they would be really quite pleased to know that the United States had become a great nation. I think that was their dearest dream. They would not -- they couldn't imagine the Civil War, I think. They knew that was a -- there was a possibility of a sectional problem over slavery.

But I think they would have -- they wouldn't be totally surprised by what's happened. They would have said, "My God, this is a magnificent nation that's been created from these very, tiny beginnings." I think that-- so -- and I think that the fact that there were black representatives wouldn't -- and women -- I don't think would have been beyond their imaginations, no. They actually did imagine a world where people could learn.

I mean, that's the Enlightenment. The notion that we come into the world as blank slates and can be educated and taught different things...
LAMB: What has happened...
WOOD: ... is the Enlightenment.
LAMB: ... to your own thinking in the last 40 years of teaching?
WOOD: Oh...
LAMB: Has your own attitude about the Constitution, about the Revolution swung in any direction?
WOOD: Well, I think my attitude towards America has swung. I've spent some time in England. In fact, I'm over there in London for about five months again because I like to go to England for periods of time in order to appreciate America better. And I think that -- a lot of my thinking about the United States has come from contrasting it with a different country that's very similar, England, which has a -- I think a much more stratified society, despite the changes that have occurred in England in the last half century. We are very different. And I want to appreciate that, and I can do that best if I live in England for a while. I think my attitude towards America has changed, of course, by studying history. I have a different appreciation for the country.
LAMB: How's it changed?
WOOD: Well, I think, of course, when you're young, you just take your own nationality for granted. But I think I've got a different appreciation of what it means to be an American, simply by studying history.
LAMB: Good, bad? Are we good? Are we bad?
WOOD: No, no, no. It's not good or bad, it's just that we...
LAMB: Are we fair? Are we objective? Are...
WOOD: Well, we're very self-obsessed, which I think most nations are. But living abroad, you get -- you obviously -- there's much more criticism of the United States than we can appreciate. And that's why September 11 was such a shock to us. We didn't realize that so many people disliked us.

But I think -- I think the thing about the American Revolution is that it created the ideology that holds us together. I think without that revolution, we would be, I don't know, like Argentina, a nation without any kind of adhesive. We have an intellectual, and ideological adhesive that makes us one people, insofar as anything can, because we're so diverse. All these...
LAMB: Are we better than France?
WOOD: You mean -- better? I...
LAMB: I don't like to use the -- but I'm -- what I'm getting at is, is our system better or...
WOOD: Well, I think we're more capable of absorbing diverse immigrant people than the European nations. They're having a terrible problem. I can see this in England now. The French have the same problem. You can have an Algerian Arab who's been living there for two generations, and somehow most French don't believe that he's French.
LAMB: How come we don't hear more about that here?
WOOD: Well, I don't know because this is our great achievement, that we are a nation based on beliefs. To be an American is to believe in something, not to be someone. To be an Englishman is still to be someone. And they have a hard time absorbing all these immigrants, and they've got a lot of them now, and they don't know how to deal with it. We have this marvelous country which is held together, I think, by ideology, by a set of beliefs that came out of the Revolution. It keeps us together. You don't have to be someone. You don't have to have a certain ancestor. You can learn to be an American by coming to believe in these things -- liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and so on. You don't have to come from a certain race or ethnicity. That's not true of most of the world.
LAMB: Why don't we hear much from people who came from other countries that live here, became American citizens, about the very points that you're making?
WOOD: Well, I don't know. Maybe our educational system ought to be emphasizing this. But I think most Americans -- it can't be enough to be an American to go to McDonald's. I mean, that can't be the only adhesive that holds us together. It has to be something else. And it's our history, and particularly the Revolution, but our whole history is what really holds us together. And if people can come to believe in that history or in the ideals that come out of that history, then that's enough of an adhesive, I think.
LAMB: You mentioned Great Britain. Where are you over there?
WOOD: I'm in London.
LAMB: Doing what?
WOOD: Oh, actually, just writing. I'm writing a book on Franklin, just about completing it.
LAMB: And what about Ben Franklin?
WOOD: Well, he's an interesting American because he's the least American, in a way, of the revolutionary leaders. He spent most of his adult life, the last years of his life, the last 33 years of his life, abroad and really didn't know a lot of Americans. When he comes back here to die, all of his friends have either died away or they've become loyalists. So he doesn't have a lot of contacts here. He's a very interesting figure because of that, because he's so European in his background and the least American, although he's become the most folksy of the revolutionary leaders, and that's my story, I think.
LAMB: And when's your book going to be finished?
WOOD: Well, I'm almost done, but I don't know when it'll be completed. We're coming up to the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth, the first Founder to have 300 years. He was born in 1706, and so in 2006, we're going to have his anniversary.
LAMB: So at the end of a semester, one of your students come up to you and says, "Professor Wood, the following happened to me over the last semester," what's the best thing they can say to you about your teaching?
WOOD: What's the best thing they could say about...
LAMB: Yeah. When do you feel like you've done your thing...
LAMB: ... as a professor?
WOOD: Oh, I -- when -- if they say, "Look, you've given me a better understanding of my own culture." If they can say that, then you're -- that's all the reward you need is to have some students say, "I understand what it is to be an American better because I took your course." Wow. How can you do better than that?
LAMB: Brown University professor Gordon S. Wood. This is the book. It's a Modern Library Chronicles book. It's called "The American Revolution: A History." It's available for $19.95. Thank you very much for joining us.
WOOD: Thank you.
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