June 01, 2018
The OI Book That Made Me a Historian
7 min read
I went to college with political journalism as a career goal. A Watergate kid, I wanted to be in Washington, and I wanted to put together important stories at the ragged edges of contemporary American democracy. Instead, I was captivated by the early modern period, by early American history in particular, and it was Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic that sold me on a new ambition.
In conjunction with the OI’s books team and new Editor of Books Cathy Kelly, our Assistant Editor for Digital Initiatives Joe Adelman is promoting a series of blog posts on how the OI’s books have helped frame the vast early American field. I suspect most of the posts will address books that have played a role in a scholar’s research, method, or interpretation. So my account of how fundamentally Wood’s Creation shaped my career and continues to shape my thinking about the field may be slightly out of step.
I suspect it won’t be any less biographical, but we shall see! I’m excited to read these reflections. When you ask someone to write about a book that’s been important to them, the responses are often pretty intense. I think of the books that I know are critical to my students, to how they conceive of their own research, some that have pointed new directions, others that illuminated a previously dark path. In reflecting on a particularly meaningful book, one of my students once told me “I didn’t know you could write history about that!”
I read Wood’s book my junior year in a course about the Early Republic taught by my advisor, Roger Brown. Roger is an incredible historian and teacher, and he has a wonderful capacity for sharing the fragility and tenacity of the early years of the American experiment. He assigned part of Creation, and as I remember it, he challenged the class to locate the chapters that held what he felt was the core of the argument. I can remember like it was yesterday reading the book in one weekend, not doing much else. Perched on my dorm bed, I marked the book so aggressively with my undergraduate enthusiasm for ink and highlighter that when I started graduate school I bought a second (also paperback) copy, and carefully taped the spine and the cover to preserve it. Chapter 12, “The Worthy versus the Licentious,” was the money chapter, in my view, and it took the brunt of my underlining and marginalia.
It was the extraordinarily detailed accounting for how ideas move politics that gripped me. I already cared about how politics worked, and I already cared about the structures of governance. But what I had only been frustrated by, yet hadn’t been able to appreciate in any analytical depth, was the way that ideas could coalesce with such powerful outcomes. I had read Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; I understood that ideas were important, and that the political ideology of particular types were significant in the eighteenth century. But until I read Creation, and really until I read and re-read that twelfth chapter, I hadn’t grasped how potent a collective sense of moral certitude could be. This was something fundamental about the making of the Federal Constitution, but it revealed to me what I felt was something fundamental about American government. It seemed important enough to want to understand in greater depth, especially in historical context.
“the Federalists’ obsession with disorder in American society and politics accounts for the revolutionary nature of the nationalist proposals offered by men like Madison in 1787 and for the resultant Federalist Constitution.” (476)
Because I had been thinking about political journalism and I had friends in politics, I was able to get an internship doing historical research for a congressional committee. And I wrote a senior thesis about the early committee system. Once I determined that the eighteenth century was even more interesting than the late twentieth, I thought I would go to graduate school to continue that work. In fact, my Ph.D. advisor, Jack Greene, thought that’s the research I would do, too! But no. My interests and my research focus shifted, never fully away from how political ideas and political structures function together, but toward the implications for ordinary people. The first research I did for what would become my dissertation and first book, was about the cultural (gendered) assumptions inherent in colonial British taxation systems.
Over many decades OI books shaped the early American field; Gordon Wood’s analysis of the early nation in formation has been called one of the most important books in American history, and has surely influenced historians’ interpretations of this key period in ways more profound than it did mine. But for me, the lessons of Creation were nonetheless lasting.
I hope you’ll join Joe, me and others as we reflect on OI books.