The Relevance and Irrelevance of Gordon S. Wood

“You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

—John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

Gordon S. Wood is America’s greatest living scholar of the American Revolution. He sees further and more deeply into the causes and meaning of the Revolution than any other scholar of the last 50 years, and his ability to communicate that knowledge in graceful and engaging prose is unmatched. All of these qualities are brought to bear in his  new book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In classic Wood style, this dual biography is gracefully written and full of his trademark sense of breathless wonder and commanding judgment.

While I appreciate its many virtues, however, I have to say that I do not find Friends Divided to be balanced in its assessment of the relative merits and demerits of its two subjects. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, even when I disagreed with it. One learns more from Gordon Wood when he is wrong than from most other historians when they are right.

Readers of this review should know that Professor Wood and I have a history. He supervised my doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty (1998). Hence I can’t possibly begin this review of Friends Divided without some throat-clearing. Professor Wood has my admiration and respect, and has for many years, but it is also the case that he and I have disagreed about how to interpret the Revolution since that day in 1986 when I first walked into his office in Sharpe House on the campus of Brown University. I’m not sure that I ever had a single conversation with him during my time at Brown that didn’t begin and end in a friendly and good-humored disagreement. That he tolerated me in those days was a sign of his magnanimity and generosity. At the expense of trying his patience yet again, this review is a continuation of all of those conversations from 30 years ago.

The Art and Craft of Historical Writing

Friends Divided is an intellectual biography of the parallel lives and thought of the two men whom Benjamin Rush described as the “North and South Poles of the American Revolution.” The book proceeds chronologically, starting with their early years as they were educated and rose to prominence in a monarchical society that was on the western frontier of the British Empire.

The parallel lives of Adams and Jefferson can be summed up rather simply. Both received the best classical education that colonial America offered. Both were avid readers and deeply learned. Both spent the 1760s as lawyers and private citizens. Both were public revolutionaries during the 1770s. Both were diplomats during the 1780s. Both were Vice Presidents and then Presidents of the United States during the years of the early republic. Both gradually faded into retirement with their books. And, most remarkably, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution. The thread tying these parallel lives together is their friendship, which lasted off and on for over half a century.

Friends Divided reminds one of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (about which Rebecca Burgess has written recently at Law and Liberty), particularly the comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus. Unlike Plutarch, though, Wood sides with the American Alcibiades over the American Coriolanus.

History writing is primarily an art, and the historian’s craft is concerned with selection and interpretation in the creation of a narrative portrait. It is also common for biographers to have a sympathetic or an antagonistic relationship with their subjects. This is certainly true of Friends Divided, where we see all of Adams’s vices but few of his virtues, and we see all of Jefferson’s virtues but few of his vices. To be fair, there are plenty of places in this book where Adams’s virtues and accomplishments shine through and where Jefferson’s vices are portrayed in all of their ugliness. Still, the issue is not just a few strokes of the brush here and there but the overall portrait.

Notwithstanding the attempts at evenhandedness, Professor Wood clearly writes as a “puffer” for Jefferson and as a “trimmer” for Adams. Wood’s Adams is mostly cantankerous, cynical, facetious, volatile, petty, self-serving, obtuse, ostentatious, and, worst of all, reactionary and backward-looking. The Adams of this book is barely in control of himself: he’s driven by deep-rooted and unseemly passions (vanity, envy, resentment, and anger) that come across as absurd and easily mocked. By contrast, Wood’s Jefferson is mostly amiable, polite, sensitive, charming, cultivated, graceful, optimistic, magnanimous, and, most importantly, progressive and forward-looking. Wood’s Jefferson is eminently likeable, full of light and hope, and is the true voice of America’s future.

Professor Wood could have drawn very different portraits. He could have selected different facts to interpret, and interpreted common facts differently.

He could have described Adams’s moral character as Stoic, Roman, and republican, and he could have described Jefferson’s moral character as Epicurean, Parisian, and cosmopolitan. But he didn’t. He could have drawn a portrait of Adams as amiable, persevering, honest, courageous, independent, hardworking, frugal, forgiving, generous, honorable, just, loyal, and a patriot. He could have told the remarkable stories of the many times that Adams risked his life or drove himself to the point of death to promote American independence. He could have described Adams as a man who, even when he was President of the United States, worked his farm with his own hands alongside the manual laborers (including former slaves) whom he employed on his farm. He could have described Adams as the deepest thinker of the American Revolution. He could have described Adams as a hero of the American Revolution. But he didn’t.

By the same token he could have emphasized Jefferson’s weakness, cowardice, dishonesty, hypocrisy, disloyalty, decadence, petulance, vanity, ambition, and narcissism. He could have said a lot more about Jefferson’s sexism and racism. He could have explained Jefferson’s inclination to lie to or about his friends as something more than a desire to avoid confrontation. He could have mentioned that Jefferson sat out the war while living with family and slaves in the lap of luxury. He could have registered the harm Jefferson did to American politics by playing the lead role in dividing the country into hostile political parties. He could have better described Jefferson’s undermining of Vice President Adams, practically to the point of committing treason. He could have condemned Jefferson for his decadent lifestyle and assiduous self-marketing. He might have judged and condemned Jefferson’s support of the genocidal Terror connected with the French Revolution. But he didn’t.

Recycling the Irrelevancy Thesis

By far the greatest weakness of Friends Divided will be found in its central chapters concerning the political thought of Adams and Jefferson. In Wood’s telling, Jefferson is the nation’s greatest advocate of equality, democracy, and freedom, and Adams its greatest advocate of inequality, aristocracy, and monarchy.

Wood first presented this interpretation of Adams’s political thought in 1969, in a chapter on “The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams” in The Creation of the American Republic. It became the dominant view of professional historians for over a generation. In the wake of Wood’s interpretation, most scholars in the 1970s and 1980s could only see Adams’s “irrelevance.” By the early 2000s, though, a new John Adams began to emerge in the scholarship, one that focused on the relevance and even the greatness of Adams’s contribution to the political thought of the American Revolution and the Founding of the new nation. The assessment of Adams’s political thought in Friends Divided is clearly an attempt to make the “irrelevancy” thesis relevant once again.

In both Creation and Friends, Professor Wood argues that Adams’ political thought changed during the 1780s, starting with his sojourns in Europe on public business. Supposedly Adams the revolutionary republican turned, at that point, into a conservative reactionary who rejected the optimistic assumptions of 1776 and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. At the core of this interpretation is the claim that Adams abandoned the idea that all men are created equal, which means that there could be no American exceptionalism or American-style republicanism. According to Wood, Adams was corrupted by European forms and formalities (the British constitution in particular), and was likewise appalled by what he saw as the decline and fall of American moral and political standards during the 1780s. In sum, Wood’s Adams is a thinker trapped in Old World modes of reasoning.

This reorientation, Wood argues, was first worked out in the pages of Adams’ magnum opus, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, which was written and published in 1787-1788 while he was in London as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The Defence challenged the “enlightened premises of the American Revolution,” and it painted a portrait of America that is “dark,” “forbidding,” and, ultimately, “un-American.” In Wood’s estimation, Adams “had worked out a chilling assessment of the moral fiber of his own countrymen, one that prepared him to see the worst of people everywhere.”

Twisting the knife a little deeper, Wood also speaks of Adams’ “tormented soul” and his “long-simmering feelings and opinions—all his irritations, jealousies, and resentments—boiling over onto the pages of the Defence.” The Adams that emerges in Friends Divided thought “in traditional terms of mixed and balanced government” and was a reactionary proponent of aristocracy, monarchy, and the British constitution for America. For Gordon Wood, John Adams was wrong for America.

The Errors and Their Sources

Professor Wood’s interpretation is not true, in my estimation, on at least four counts.

First, the Defence was the culmination, not the antithesis, of the Enlightenment in America. Adams demonstrates this in the “Preface,” where one can see that his views on human nature and political architecture were in the mainstream of 18th century Enlightenment thought.

Second, Adams’ views on equality and inequality did not change over time. They were always perfectly in accord with the principles of the Declaration—and he said so forcefully and repeatedly over the course of 50 years. Adams thought that all men are created equal in their right to freedom, but he did not believe all men are created equal in all respects—and neither did Jefferson! That Adams’ slaveholding opponents (for example, Jefferson and John Taylor of Caroline) libeled him on this subject does not change the reality of what Adams actually thought and wrote.

Third, Adams was never a proponent of monarchy or aristocracy for America, and he made this clear often. He was one of the most vocal and thoughtful of American advocates of constitutional republicanism throughout his adult life. The constitution he wrote for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1780 was the most democratic of the state constitutions, and he wrote the Defence to defend it.

Fourth, his constitutional prescriptions influenced not only the framing of the Philadelphia Constitution of 1787 but also the third French constitution in 1795. (For more detail, see John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty.)

Professor Wood’s errors in interpreting Adams’ political thought are derived from two sources.

First, he does not appreciate the fact that Adams wrote the Defence for a transatlantic audience, which means he was describing and prescribing different things about and for the United States and Europe. Friends Divided confuses what Adams was recommending to French and American legislators. This is can be seen on several counts.

Consider, for instance, the Massachusetts constitution, which Professor Wood has Adams turn into a pale imitation of the English constitution. It was “precisely because Adams thought the governor stood for an order or an estate in the society that he had wanted an absolute veto given to him,” writes Wood. He says that for Adams, the “upper house [Wood’s term] embodied the aristocratic estate of the society.” Neither of these claims is true. The Massachusetts constitution was one of the most democratic constitutions ever written: Its house, senate, and governor were all elected annually. It was also stripped of the sociological-legal underpinnings of the English constitution.

Adams did not think there were European-style orders or estates in America, and so there was no place in America’s Revolutionary state constitutions for that which did not exist. In fact Adams’ arguments for a tricameral legislature consisting of a house of representatives, a senate, and a governor were grounded on his Enlightenment view of human nature—not on any alleged preference for an English-style aristocracy and monarchy. He believed that the one, the few, and the many were naturally-occurring social orders rooted in human nature that enlightened constitutions must take into account. How these naturally occurring social orders became manifest differed dramatically in America as compared to Europe.

To claim, as Wood does, that Adams wanted this country to have England’s mixed and balanced constitution, with its traditional social orders, is not true. In some places in the Defence, Adams was describing the sociological reality of France and prescribing forms of government appropriate to and for France. In other places, he was describing the sociological reality of the United States and prescribing very different forms of government appropriate to and for Americans.

Wood has conflated what Adams was describing about one country with what he was prescribing as the best form of government for another.

The fact of the matter (as understood by Adams) is that the social orders that emerged in United States were vastly unlike those of Europe, where they were overlaid with hundreds of years of social conventions and reinforced by conventional laws. Any resemblances between what Adams thought appropriate for France and what he thought appropriate for America are superficial.

Adams thought it natural for some form of aristocracy to occur in any society. He thought America’s natural aristocracy—the aristocracy of ambition—should of necessity be incorporated into the constitution by “ostracizing” it to a senate, where it could be watched and controlled. This must be done, according to Adams, in order to protect republican government.

The second and ultimate source of Wood’s mistaken rendering of Adams’s political thought is that he has taken it not from Adams’s own self-understanding but from that of his critics. There is much here that is based on the misinformed or dishonest gossip of the Federalists’ Republican opponents. Wood even relies on what Republicans are alleged to have heard Adams say. This is no way to understand or present a thinker’s writings. Nowhere in the book, for instance, does Wood examine or explain Adams’ philosophically serious reasons for advocating honorary political titles connected to various political offices. These Adams drew less from the practices of the English and more from the example of republican Rome. Instead, Wood supports his claims by quoting from the unbuttoned comments of a little-known crank senator from Pennsylvania, William Maclay.

Prophet of History’s Arc

The calumnious charge of Adams-the-monarchist carries a certain irony, for many of his maligners were themselves Southern aristocrats and slaveholders who were born to great wealth and position. And shockingly and disappointingly, the leader of the charge was none other than Adams’ alleged friend, Thomas Jefferson. In describing Adams as a heretic to the republican cause, Wood takes the Jeffersonian-Republican interpretation of Adams hook, line, and sinker. He therefore perpetuates the myth that Adams’ political thought was trapped in the past and hopelessly irrelevant because of its supposed defense of the British constitution. Following Jefferson’s demonstrably false accusations, Wood argues that history passed Adams by, that he was an American troglodyte in an age of enlightenment, that he resisted or didn’t understand the imperatives and processes of American-style democratization.

All of this, of course, is to be contrasted with Jefferson’s political thought. As presented here, Jefferson is the source of all light and good in American life and politics: he is the inventor of equality, democracy, progress, and the American dream. But surely there is something not quite right about this picture. Jefferson’s view that constitutions should be rewritten every 19 years was a little bit nutty. His defense of the French Revolution and the Terror in the infamous “Adam and Eve” letter to William Short (January 3, 1793) was morally indecent. His ultimate defense of agrarianism and states’ rights can be viewed as having served the interests of slave-based republicanism.

By what standard, then, does Professor Wood evaluate and judge the ideas and actions of Adams and Jefferson? Broadly speaking, Wood is a historicist, which implies that past thinkers and actors can’t escape the iron cage of their time unless they accept the forward-looking premises of historicism, and that history moves in a politically progressive direction, with those failing to support the long arc of history to be dismissed as eccentric, heretical, and irrelevant. Because historicism drives his analysis and evaluation of Adams and Jefferson, Wood’s criterion of historical judgment is not an epistemological category such as true or false or a moral category such as right or wrong, just or unjust. Instead, he uses a twofold standard of evaluation: 1) what the social consensus of the time says about particular historical actors (that is to say, the popularity test); and 2) the ability of those actors to anticipate the future.

According to Wood, “Jefferson knew instinctively what his fellow Americans wanted and needed to hear,” whereas “Adams misjudged the future.” Wood’s Adams is presented as tone-deaf to the needs and aspirations of his fellow citizens. By contrast, Jefferson ended up “on the right side of history” because, ironically enough, he opposed “hereditary aristocracies, gross social inequalities” and supported the idea of America as “ ‘the world’s best hope’ for the future of agrarian republicanism.” Jefferson was a prophet of the true arc of history, whereas Adams was a stick-in-the-mud whose ideas were decidedly yesterday. Wood’s concern is not to determine whether Adams’ ideas were truer to reality than Jefferson’s. Nor is it to adjudge whether Adams might have been a better or more accomplished man than Jefferson. These would be inconvenient truths for his narrative.

How to Choose from Among Competing Narratives?

Scholars might reasonably ask if Wood’s standard of historical judgment is the best or the only standard, and if his assessment of Adams and Jefferson is true or not. In my view, Wood uses a form of social subjectivism (for example, what a select group of Adams’ political opponents thought of him) as his standard, but such a standard is arbitrary, biased, and, in the end, unhistorical. It superimposes a Whiggish methodology on the past that privileges the present.

The time has come to reopen the case of Adams and Jefferson, to ask if Adams was really an irrelevant reactionary or if Jefferson better anticipated the future. I would argue that it is an objectively demonstrable fact that John Adams contributed more to the success of the American Revolution than did Thomas Jefferson. One could easily argue that it was Adams and not Jefferson who was the embodiment of the Revolution and the symbol of America’s future. Adams’s views on the role of women and blacks in American society were much more enlightened and progressive than Jefferson’s. Adams, the son of a middling farmer and shoemaker, represented the best that the United States has to offer. While not quite a “rags to riches” story, his was a story of a young man from a modest background who rose to great and greatly significant accomplishments.

And yet, near the end of Friends Divided, we read the breathtaking claim that Adams “knew deep in his soul that the Sage of Monticello had something that he, Adams, would never have, and that no matter how many books he read and how many wisecracks he made, Jefferson would always be his superior.” For Wood, Adams was palpably jealous of Jefferson’s superiority and fame. This is extraordinary, for it is conjecture based on no evidence; and it is demonstrably false to boot. By virtually every meaningful measure, Adams contributed more to the revolutionary cause than Jefferson; he was a sharper, more capacious, and deeper thinker; he was a much better public speaker; and, most importantly, Jefferson was his moral inferior in virtually every possible respect.

Surely there is incongruity in designating as the better small “d” democrat a man whose lifestyle was fit for a minor European prince, who nevertheless put across an image of himself as a “man of the people” and apostle of freedom. Jefferson could have lived the simple and frugal life of the yeoman farmer whom he held up as the American ideal, but he chose to live the profligate life of an aristocratic slaveholder. He was a cosmopolitan dandy who spent an inordinate amount of time and money, while in France representing the United States, shopping for wine, paintings, cutlery, furniture, and fancy clothing. He had the aristocrat’s habit of sparing no expense and going deeply into debt.

Indeed, so profligate was Jefferson that he had to be supported financially by the government and taxpayers of Virginia near the end of his life. At the time of his death he was more than $100,000 in the red. As a result, he could not afford to free his slaves. Two years after his death, the Master of Monticello’s slaves were sold at auction to pay off the debts his acquisitiveness incurred.

Adams was a farmer’s son who despised slavery and hired freed slaves, and whose lifestyle was defined by frugality and industry. This was the Jeffersonians’ aristocrat and monarchist who would deny the people their liberties if he could. The perverse irony of all of this is lost in Friends Divided. It was Adams who was the embodiment of the natural aristocracy, and it was Jefferson whose social standing was determined by birth and wealth. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Jefferson should have been more concerned with America’s slaveholding aristocracy than with an imagined attempt to imitate some of the forms and formalities of the English constitution.

Lastly, I would emphasize that Adams was a man who pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to the Great Cause, whereas Jefferson dedicated very little. The latter rarely practiced what he preached; the former always practiced what he preached. In the end, Adams was a truer representation of America’s new-model man than was Jefferson.

Differing As Friends Should Do

This review began with a quotation from an 1813 letter that Adams wrote to Jefferson. Let me close with this message to my former teacher from an earlier letter, from 1791, that Jefferson wrote to Adams: “That you & I differ in our ideas of the best form of government is well known to us both: but we have differed as friends should do, respecting the purity of each other’s motives. . . . The friendship & confidence which has so long existed between us required this explanation from me, & I know you too well to fear any misconstruction of the motives of it.”

Reader Discussion

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on May 15, 2018 at 09:40:41 am

Simply outstanding!

I have not read Woods' latest book but, based on this highly intelligent commentary on that book, my careful readings of "The Creation of the American Republic" and "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" and my having heard Woods speak numerous times on CSPAN, I share Professor Thompson's conclusion that Woods is an historicist.

My instinct tells me that Woods is also a secular Progressive, and my suspicion is that, like most historians of that intellectual ilk, Woods is prepared to deconstruct or reconstruct where doing so serves an important contemporary political objective. That motivation seems at work in Woods' latest book since T. Jeff's rep, once beyond reproach, is now badly in need of shoring up on the Left.

I would be interested in hearing his views "as an historian" on Presidents Obama and Trump

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Pukka Luftmensch
on May 15, 2018 at 16:00:48 pm

I have to agree with the preceding commenter who says, "Simply outstanding!".

After that, I must politely depart his company. I, too, have read "The Creation of the American Republic" and "The Radicalism of the American Revolution". Instead of labeling Wood as an "historicist", or, worse, instead of suspecting that Wood is a "secular Progressive . . . prepared to deconstruct or reconstruct where doing so serves an important contemporary political objective", I would like to think that, as Professor Thompson says at the outset, "Gordon S. Wood is America’s greatest living scholar of the American Revolution".

Wood has been thinking and writing about the American Revolution since well-before our current political factions hardened themselves into their current form. So I find it difficult to conclude that merely because Wood's treatment of Jefferson may tend to burnish his reputation, Wood does so with the intention of creating someone who modern-day progressives can worship as their own.

None of this is to say that Professor Thompson's analysis of Wood's latest work is wrong. I have not yet read "Friends Divided", so I will have to withhold my thoughts on Professor Thompson's argument until a later time. I would say, however, that if one is inclined to think that the way America's intellectual elite (especially those of a more "left-leaning" persuasion) has remained static throughout the early to mid 20th century, then I would encourage these individuals to read Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s, incredible work, "The Vital Center". I don't say this because I have any thoughts about where on the political spectrum Professor Wood stands. And, obviously, Professor Wood was not teaching or writing when Schlesinger wrote "The Vital Center". But, again, Wood came to prominence long before our current political divide had fully formed. As Schlesinger makes clear in his work, one's political beliefs and attitudes are rarely set in stone.

Obviously, history has a very real effect on the present. Anyone who thinks otherwise, I would humbly argue, will never know history's importance. But I would also like to think that a professional historian of Wood's caliber doesn't write history with an eye towards commenting on current political events--that Wood writes about America's founding and those who made it possible so that we can better understand and appreciate a truly remarkable group of individuals who lived through a truly remarkable period of time in our nation's history.

Thank you, Professor Thompson, for a very thoughtful and thought-provoking review of the latest work of one of this nation's greatest historians.

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David E. Griffith
on May 16, 2018 at 09:25:36 am

Woods is absolutely not a progressive in the modern sense, and my feeling is that he's probably a liberal Republican of the old-fashioned northeast variety. There's an interview with him and Joseph Ellis where they caused controversy by deploring the turn of the historical academy into ethnic/gender history: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4727161/joe-ellis-grodon-wood

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on May 16, 2018 at 11:37:26 am

Thank you, Brad Thompson, for writing the necessary response to Wood’s latest book.

Thompson’s case for the basic agreement between Adams and Jefferson confirms in detail my own work on this subject, based on official documents both state and federal: all the major founders agreed on the principles of justice and natural rights.

I have always found Wood to be a puzzlement, and I gather that Thompson does too. I agree with him that Wood is one of our most serious scholars of the founding. Yet his work often combines superb insights with gross errors.

Example: Wood’s "Radicalism of the American Revolution" convincingly shows the profoundly transformative effects of the founders’ political theory. Male-female relations became more equal; Wood speaks of “the Revolution’s assault on patriarchy.” The Revolution, Wood writes, “ended the cultural climate that had allowed black slavery ... [to exist] without serious challenge.”

Yet the same Wood inconsistently (and incorrectly) denies that blacks and women were included in the Declaration's “all men are created equal.”

The core of Thompson’s argument -- and this is also the core of the founders’ idea of equality -- is this: “Adams thought that all men are created equal in their right to freedom, but he did not believe all men are created equal in all respects—and neither did Jefferson!”

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Thomas G. West
on May 17, 2018 at 16:51:20 pm

I appreciate Bradley Thompson's effort to raise Adams's profile in the pantheon of American Founders.

Thomas West responds that Gordon Wood "often combines superb insights with gross errors."

Perhaps one such gross error occurs on page 239 of "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," where Wood asserts that “The revolutionaries believed in Lockean sensationalism.” However, James Wilson, in his law lecture on evidence, derides the starting point of Locke's sensationalist epistemology as "absurd." Perhaps Wood could identify three or four "sensationalist" founders to support his risky generalization.

It would seem that a more blatant gross error appears in Wood's recent book on Jefferson and Adams.

On page 124 of “Friends Divided,” Wood states:

“As Adams pointed out in 1760, Locke, with the help of Francis Bacon, had ‘discovered a new World.’ He had demonstrated that human personalities at birth were unformed, impressionable things that could be cultivated and civilized. Experience gained through the senses was what molded and created people’s characters; it inscribed itself on the blank slate, the tabula rasa, of people’s minds. Here, said Adams, by controlling and manipulating the sensations that people experienced, their character could be transformed. Adams took the image of cultivation seriously and literally. The ‘Rank and unwholesome Weeds’ that had so dominated traditional society could now be ‘Exterminated and the fruits raised.’ Barbarism could be eliminated and civility increased. This kind of enlightenment had been denied to Cicero and the ancients. The idea that only cultivation separated one person from another was, he said, ‘the true sphere of Modern Genius.’

“In other words, nurture, not nature, was what mattered. This was the explosive eighteenth-century assumption that lay behind the idea that all men were created equal. Not everyone had the same capacity to reason, but since everyone had senses, this Lockean notion that all ideas were produced by the senses was inherently egalitarian.”

In that quote, the essential part is this: “The idea that only cultivation separated one person from another was, he [Adams] said, ‘the true sphere of Modern Genius.'”

Here Wood cited John Adams to Jonathan Sewell, Feb. 1760; which is online at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-01-02-0030

Gordon Wood mutilated his source. Here is what Adams actually wrote: “But in Mathematicks, and what is founded on them, Astronomy and Phylosophy, the Modern Discoveries have done Honour to the human Understanding. Here is the true sphere of Modern Genius.”

In other words, according to Adams, MATHEMATICS (as opposed to the Lockean idea that that only cultivation separated one person from another) was “the true sphere of Modern Genius.”

Is Gordon Wood pursuing an anachronistic partisan agenda, trying to read modern liberalism into the collective thought of the American Founding? Or perhaps is Wood being pressured by publishers who don't want to print his manuscript unless he includes such obligatory Lockean verbiage?

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John Schmeeckle
on May 18, 2018 at 11:33:10 am

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and flip the script. Wood here has been accused of twisting his narrative in Jefferson’s favor. Isn’t this counter to the current “conventional wisdom”? Jefferson’s reputation is in eclipse right now because he was a slaveholder. It’s really never been lower. No need to look at his total body of work: he was a slaveholder, end of discussion, at least according to the identity politics/SJW philosophies currently prevalent. Adams is ascendant. One day, the pendulum will swing back in the other direction, and some balance will be achieved. In the meantime, is it Wood or his critics who are scoring points in the contemporary partisan realm by favoring Adams and taking down Jefferson? No modern day progressive of credentials would ever favor the slaveholder Jefferson.

Just a thought.

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Richard Werther
on May 19, 2018 at 15:22:16 pm

Gordon Wood was born in 1933, so perhaps it is a stretch to label him a "modern day progressive." John Adams was an advocate of government promotion of virtue in the people, something that modern-day progressives and libertarians are strongly inclined to reject. Jefferson, on the other hand, can more easily be painted (rightly or wrongly) as a proponent of small-government non-interference in the economy and government non-interference in individual choices that "don't harm other people."

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John Schmeeckle
on May 19, 2018 at 15:46:48 pm

Woodrow Wilson and FDR were born in the 19th century and both would fit neatly into the category "modern day Progressive," although one's age and era certainly influence one's ideology.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on May 19, 2018 at 15:52:03 pm

I think you’re right about Adams - he took a decidedly dim view of human nature left to it’s own devices (to Jefferson’s overly optimistic view); thus government promotion of virtue is necessary. I would also say that it’s right to label Jefferson as you describe. The catch is that the proponents of today’s victimization culture view almost everything as harming someone, usually themselves.

FWIW - I’m straying off topic a bit - while I’d like to take the Jeffersonian view of the world, alas I have to go with Adams on this one. Greed, lust for power, and selfishness seem to be winning the day, and maybe always have. If not directly promoting virtue we at least need to blunt these for a better society.

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Richard Werther
on May 19, 2018 at 23:08:55 pm

I really don't understand why either Wood or Thompson would need to trash one of these great Americans in order to build the other up. They were different but they complemented each other--as Rush said, the north and south poles of the Revolution.

I haven't read Wood's book so I will hold fire. Regarding this present piece by Thompson, I'm a little bit disappointed by what I see as his clear and glaring mischaracterization of how Jefferson "sat out the [Revolutionary] war while living with family and slaves in the lap of luxury." Good grief. Neither Jefferson nor Adams served in the Continental Army. We should be thankful. It's difficult to imagine either doing a particularly good job leading soldiers; after all, they had different but nonetheless prodigious strengths that each applied, after July 4, 1776, in reforming their home states' laws and constitutions. Jefferson "sat out" the war by serving as governor (a position to which Adams's peers never elected him) and both joined Franklin in Paris before becoming ambassadors in their own right. Okay, so Adams's ship got fired upon while he was crossing the Atlantic. The fact that Jefferson's didn't isn't a character defect.

I really dislike this childish "my founder is better than your founder" stuff. It's fine that they had somewhat different views. It's great, in fact. That's what makes the world go 'round. Rather than choosing sides, I wish that Thompson (and maybe Wood, but I haven't read the book that Thompson [mis?]characterizes) would focus on how these men, through the sharing of their sometimes different ideas, made each other sharper and better. This sort of real dialogue is what we need more of these days.

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Image of Rush
on May 20, 2018 at 08:42:58 am

The charge that "my founder is better than your founder" is a mischaracterization of Thompson's point, which is about cherry-picking by ideologized historians so as to distort history by misleading students and other readers of their work. Thompson's discussion of Adams' vs Jefferson's character is unquestionably correct. Both were flawed, Adams of temperament, Jefferson of integrity (downright devious;) one was cowardly; one was courageous; one was indispensable to the movement toward independence, the financing of the war effort and support of Washington's fledgling, vital administration; the other quick to claim too much credit for the Declaration, quick to disparage the constitution and self-serving, manipulative and deceitful in attempts to undermine the 1st constitutional government. One became unjustly lionized in the 20th century because of historians, like Woods, who ignored the man's flaws and the damage he did and manipulated the facts so as to serve the agenda of Democrat/Progressive politics. (Think Jefferson/Jackson Dinner.) The other was unjustly disparaged by historians and underrated by history for the same reasons.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on May 20, 2020 at 09:49:25 am

[…] weird way Thompson has of always missing the place the argument is actually joined. In the past he has argued that Adams fairly than Jefferson is the legitimate homo Americanus, but since Adams was the far […]

on May 20, 2020 at 10:56:34 am

[…] strange way Thompson has of always missing where the argument is actually joined. In the past he has argued that Adams rather than Jefferson is the true homo Americanus, but because Adams was the more truly […]

on June 05, 2020 at 04:08:57 am

[…] strange way Thompson has of always missing where the argument is actually joined. In the past he has argued that Adams rather than Jefferson is the true homo Americanus, but because Adams was the more truly […]

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