March 28, 2004
Gordon Wood is the Alva O. Way university professor at Brown University and one of America's foremost authorities on the history and philosophy of the American Revolution, reflected by his brilliant books "Radicalism of the American Revolution" and "Creation of the American Republic." Accordingly, when Professor Wood speaks about American history, we should listen closely.
In this NY Times Review of Books review, Professor Wood opines favorably on University of Pennsylvania professor Walter A. McDougall's new book -- ''Freedom Just Around the Corner'' -- that explains America's enormous progress during the period of 1528-1828 to be attributable largely to Americans' propensity to hustle. As Professor Wood observes:
This unusual book by Walter A. McDougall is the first of what will be a three-volume history of America. If this volume, which covers the period 1585 to 1828, is any indication of the promised whole, the trilogy may have a major impact on how we Americans understand ourselves.
''The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past 400 years.'' Imagine, he says, some ghostly ship, some Flying Dutchman transported in time from the year 1600 to the present. ''The crew would be amazed by our technology and the sheer numbers of people on the globe, but the array of civilizations would be recognizable.'' China, Japan, India, Russia, the vast Islamic crescent, South America and Europe are not all that different now from what they were in 1600. ''The only continent that would astound the Renaissance time-travelers would be North America, which was primitive and nearly vacant as late as 1607, but which today hosts the mightiest, richest, most dynamic civilization in history -- a civilization, moreover, that perturbs the trajectories of all other civilizations just by existing.''
Professor Wood remarks further:
[Professor McDougall] unabashedly writes of Americans and assumes throughout that there is something called an American character. Only the character he describes may not be what many Americans would want to admit about themselves. Unlike other national narratives, which he says tend either to celebrate or to condemn America -- and in righteous seriousness -- his book aims to do neither. Instead, he wants to tell the truth about ''who and why we are what we are,'' and to tell it entertainingly. His is thus a ''candid'' history. Its major theme is ''the American people's penchant for hustling.'' We Americans, he claims, are a nation of people on the make.
. . . But we have more con men and hucksters than other nations not because we have a different nature or are worse than other peoples. It is just that ''Americans have enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in history.''
Of course, he admits that there are many hustlers in a ''positive sense: builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, engineers and a people supremely generous.'' These qualities are what justify Americans' faith in themselves and their destiny in the world. But the negative connotations of hustling and swindling are very strong and dominate much of our literary and popular culture, and, indeed, our entire history. ''If the United States . . . is a permanent revolution, a society in constant flux,'' then, McDougall writes, we would expect all periods of American history at all levels of the society ''to be washed by turgid, overlapping waves of old and new forms'' of what he calls ''creative corruption.''
Because our high and noble ideals of freedom and individual rights contrast so vividly with the often grotesque realities of American life, every period of our history, McDougall says, is marked by disharmony. He then quotes Samuel P. Huntington to clinch his point: ''America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope,'' a hope expressed in Bob Dylan's words as ''freedom just around the corner.''
The price of all this hustling was high, and McDougall does not flinch from describing the violence created by the dynamism of white Americans, including the elimination of hundreds of thousands of native people, mostly from disease, and the enslaving of hundreds of thousands of Africans. Other historians have graphically described the chicanery and greed of white Americans in their scramble for power and profit in early America. But these historians have usually written out of anger and righteous indignation. Not McDougall. He cynically, or he would say realistically (since cynicism suggests a moral judgment that human nature might be different), accepts, even celebrates, all the bribery, land-jobbing and double-dealing as the consequence of Americans' having so much freedom.
Professor McDougall's observations particularly resonate with me. Houston has been a wonderful and generous home for my family and me over the past 30 years, and this great city was developed largely by the unwieldly entrepreneurial spirit that Professor McDougall identifies in his book. The freedom that we Americans savor invariably involves risks, and one of those unfortunate risks is the risk of being cheated. But as Professor McDougall reminds us -- just as Sir Thomas More did in this earlier post -- man's attempts to eradicate such wrongdoing often harbors the greater risk of eradicating our freedom.
Posted by Tom at March 28, 2004 12:26 PM |
Nice blog, BTW. I've only been in Houston for 4 years now, Texas for 5, but I love this state and I love this city. I've always been a "grass-is-greener" person, but I think I'd be quite happy to live in Texas for the rest of my life.
I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here just as soon as I could.
As far as Gordon Wood, he is an outstanding historian, in my exceedingly amateur(ish?) view. I particularly enjoyed his refutation of J. Scalia's rendition of the political history of SCT judges in J. Scalia's book, A Matter of Interpretation.
Posted by: TP at March 29, 2004 9:02 AM
TP, thanks for the kind words. I am glad to hear to hear about your experience in Houston. I have found it to be one of the most open big cities in terms of allowing its citizens to grow and prosper. I have not seen Professor Wood's refutation of Justice Scalia's interpretation of the history of Supreme Court Justices, but Justice Scalia is clearly no match for the brilliant Professor Wood in the arena of American History. Finally, thanks for letting me know about your blog, and I have already added it to the Texas Blawgs section of the HCT blog site. TK
Posted by: Tom Kirkendall at March 29, 2004 9:47 AM
That's exactly right, IMO. Houston is so open.
In fairness, Professor Wood's commentary was not directed so strongly at J. Scalia, but at those who believe that the SCT justices were at one time or another "less politicized" than they are now. This is an exceedingly naive view of American history, IMO.
I do think J. Scalia implicitly relies on a similar, although obviously non-naive view of the impropriety of political predilections "unduly" informing the judicial calculus. Wood's point is that as a matter of empirical fact, SCT judges have always been heavily political and heavily politicized.
For the record, though I disagree with 80-90% of his opinions, I genuinely like and enjoy J. Scalia, am glad he is on the Court, and find him to be exceedingly brilliant.
Posted by: TP at March 29, 2004 5:35 PM
No doubt that Professor Wood is correct about the political nature of the SCOTUS Justices.
I agree that Justice Scalia is brilliant and a fine SCOTUS Justice. My only gripe with him is that I think he uses his strict constructionist approach to craft the legal result that he wants. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, except when he criticizes other Justices for using a different approach to achieve the legal result that they want. I do not think that Justice Scalia's self-righteousness in his positions is always justified.
Posted by: Tom Kirkendall at March 29, 2004 5:51 PM
I generally could not agree more. In fact, I've written a law review article specifically on the subject.
My only quibble is that J. Scalia says several times that he is not a "strict constructionist," which he terms a 'degraded form of textualism.' But I do think he is just as susceptible to result-oriented jurisprudence as any other judge. In fact, the point of my article is that textualism and originalism does absolutely nothing to prevent such jurisprudence (I do cite P. Wood).
Posted by: TP at March 30, 2004 9:22 AM
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