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HNN Doyen: Gordon S. Wood

What They're Famous For

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History at Brown University. He is one of the foremost scholars on the American Revolution in the country. His book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. It is considered among the definitive works on the social, political and economic consequences of the Revolutionary War. 

Edmund S. Morgan, Professor Emeritus of Yale University in his review of this book for the New York Review of Books called it "a tour de force. This is a book that could redirect historical thinking about the Revolution and its place in the national consciousness." In the book, Professor Wood gives readers a revolution that transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers. 

Professor Wood has written numerous other books, including The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, which was nominated for the National Book Award and received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes in 1970. He was involved in Ken Burn's PBS production on Thomas Jefferson, is contributing his expertise in the National Constitution Center being built in Philadelphia and regularly devotes a portion of his time teaching history to high school students around the country. Wood was mentioned in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting which Wood in a 2004 Washington Post Interview called "my two seconds of fame."

Personal Anecdote

I was always interested in history, even in high school with a history teacher who taught American history by having the students, up and down the rows, read aloud from the textbook. I majored in history in college but thought that I would enter the foreign service when I completed my military service in the Air Force. But being treated rather arbitrarily by the military (after eight months of training in Texas to become a photo-intelligence officer, I was promptly made a personnel officer when I was assigned to a squadron) made me leery of working for the government. So I applied to graduate school to study history instead. I have never regretted that decision.

I have come to realize that history is not merely an accumulation of information about the past. More important, it is a mode of understanding reality, not just the reality of the past but the reality of the present. Without a deep sense of history a person or a culture lacks perspective and wisdom. Despite the enormous number of history books that are published each year in the United States, most Americans do not seem to have a very deep sense of history. It might get in the way of our enthusiastic ebullience that we Americans can do anything.

Despite the constant repetition of George Santayana's phrase that "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it," I don't believe that history teaches any lessons. Or perhaps better: it teaches only one lesson, that nothing ever quite works out the way the historical participants intended or expected. In other words, if history teaches anything, it teaches humility, something we all need a little more of.

Looking for all sorts of lessons from the past is to misuse history for the sake of the present.  The search for lessons in fact expresses the sort of present-centered, instrumentalist history that we have usually found in the work of most American historians. Many historians today view history exclusively through the categories and values of the present and seek to use it directly to solve our present problems or to criticize our present culture. Rather than trying to understand the past on its own terms, many historians want the past to be immediately relevant and useful; they want to use history to empower people in the present, to help them develop self-identity, or to enable them to break free of that past. These ought not to be the functions of this greatest of the humanistic disciplines. 

Of my books, my favorite is my first, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, largely I suppose because it was the first and because it seems to have been the most influential, even though it has not sold the most copies. Of course, I had no idea at the outset that it would become part of a so-called "republican synthesis." That development only reinforces my view that history is a largely a series of unintended consequences in which the best laid plans of people go awry. 

Quotes By Gordon S. Wood

Gordon Wood in "Creation of the American Republic"

By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be ultimately and genuinely related to differing social interests.  In other words, the Federalists in 1787 hastened the destruction of whatever chance there was in America for the growth of an avowedly aristocratic conception of politics and thereby contributed to the creation of the encompassing liberal tradition which mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics. By attempting to confront and retard the thrust of the Revolution with the rhetoric of the Revolution, the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics. They thus brought the ideology of the Revolution to consummation and created as distinctly American political theory but only at the cost of eventually impoverishing later American political thought.

Gordon Wood in "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin"

It is the image of the hardworking self-made businessman that has most endured. Franklin was one of the greatest of the Founders; indeed, his crucial diplomacy in the Revolution makes him only second to Washington in importance. But that importance is not what we most remember about Franklin. It is instead the symbolic Franklin of the bumptious capitalism of the early republic-the man who personafies the American dream-who stays with us. And as long as America is seen as the land of opprtunity, where you can get ahead if you work hard, this image of Franklin will likely be the one that continues to dominate American Culture.

About Gordon S. Wood

"One of the half dozen most important books ever written about the American Revolution." -- New York Times Book Review reviewing "The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787"

"During the nearly two decades since its publication, this book has set the pace, furnished benchmarks, and afforded targets for many subsequent studies. If ever a work of history merited the appellation 'modern classic,' this is surely one." -- William and Mary Quarterly reviewing "The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787"

"[A] brilliant and sweeping interpretation of political culture in the Revolutionary generation." -- New England Quarterly reviewing "The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787"

"This is an admirable, thoughtful, and penetrating study of one of the most important chapters in American history." -- Wesley Frank Craven reviewing "The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787"

"The most important study of the American Revolution to appear in over twenty years... a landmark book." -- Pauline Maier in The New York Times Book Review reviewing "Radicalism of the American Revolution"

"A breathtaking social, political, and ideological analysis. This book will set the agenda for discussion for some time to come." -- Richard L. Bushman reviewing Radicalism of the American Revolution

"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 reviewing "The American Revolution"

"In this absorbing narrative, one of out premier American historians has captured the extraordinary interaction of a rising American people and the man who rose with them, shaping their aspirations as they shaped his." -- Edmund S. Morgan, Yale University reviewing "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin."

"[Wood] possesses as profound a grasp of the early days of the Republic as anyone now working..." -- The New York Times Book Review reviewing "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin"

"I cannot remember ever reading a work of history and biography that is quite so fluent, so perfectly composed and balanced..." -- The New York Sun reviewing "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin"

"Wood's relies heavily -- though never heavy-handedly -- on psychology. Wood alludes frequently to Franklin's "genius"... giving the patient reader an exceptionally rich perspective on one of the most accomplished, complex and unpredictable Americans of his own time or any other. -- Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post reviewing "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin"

Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wood suggests that behind America's current romance with the founding fathers is a critique of our own leaders, a desire for such capable and disinterested leadership as was offered by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Revolutionary Characters : What Made the Founders Different JPG Provocatively, Wood argues that the very egalitarian democracy Washington and Co. created all but guarantees that we will "never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders." In 10 essays, most culled from the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, Wood offers miniature portraits of James Madison, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine. The most stimulating chapter is devoted to John Adams, who died thinking he would never get his due in historians' accounts of the Revolution; for the most part, he was right. This piece is an important corrective; Adams, says Wood, was not only pessimistic about the greed and scrambling he saw in his fellow Americans, he was downright prophetic-and his countrymen, then and now, have never wanted to reckon with his critiques. Wood is an elegant writer who has devoted decades to the men about whom he is writing, and taken together, these pieces add perspective to the founding fathers cottage industry. -- Publishers Weekly advance praise for "Revolutionary Characters : What Made the Founders Different"

"He's a very distinguished name, and he's increased the public profile of the University. It's very sad to lose someone of Gordon's stature. He's the sort of person who puts Brown on the map... "I'm a big fan of Gordon's, he has been tremendous for the University." -- Timothy Harris, Munro-Goodwin-Wilkinson Professor in European History, Brown University in "The Brown Daily Herald"

"You can see he's so knowledgeable and he just has this clear expertise on the Revolution," he said. "I wanted to take a class with a professor who's basically the authority on a subject, and I know that Gordon Wood is the man... "I took it just because I'm interested in the American Revolution and the beginning of our nation, and because I know we're at a time that we're making a lot of decisions. It's interesting to look back and see where our nation began." -- Evan Brown '06, Brown University in "The Brown Daily Herald"

Beth Hoffman became interested in [Wood's] course when her high-school U.S. history teacher told her that Wood is "the Ben Affleck of the history world. "The teacher told Hoffman that "to pass up the opportunity to take a history class with Gordon Wood would be like passing up the opportunity to meet Ben Affleck." -- Beth Hoffman '07, Brown University in "The Brown Daily Herald"

"Wood is an excellent lecturer and his command of the information is unparalleled."... "I know he is famous, but talent is there. We are lucky to have a living legend who is a great teacher and not just resting on his rep. If he is not the next president of our university we should be thrown out of the Ivy League."... "A smart, well-spoken guy who clearly has come up with an innovative and intelligent interpretation in his field. Even occasionally funny at 9am."... "His command of US history is astounding and scintillating." -- Anonymous Students at Brown University

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: 
Harvard University, Teaching Fellow, 1960-64.
College of William and Mary, Assistant Professor, 1964-66. Harvard University, Assistant Professor, 1966-67. 
University of Michigan, Associate Professor, 1967-69.
Brown University, Associate Professor, 1969-71. 
Brown University, Professor of History, 1971-. 
Pitt Professor, Cambridge University, 1982-83.
Brown University, Chairman, Department of History, 1983-86.
Brown University, University Professor, 1990-. 
Brown University, Alva O. Way University Professor, 1997-. 
Northwestern University School of Law, Pritzker Visting Professor, 2001. 
Northwestern University, Board of Trustee Professor of Law and History, 2003.

Area of Research: American Revolution, Founding Fathers

Education: A.B., Tufts University (Summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), 1955. A.M., Harvard University, 1959. Ph.D., Harvard University, 1964. 

Major Publications:

● The Creation of the American Republic, (University of North Carolina Press, 1969).

● The Rising Glory of America, 1760-1820, (Braziller, 1971).

● Revolution and the Political Integration of the Enslaved and Disenfranchised, (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1974).

● Making of the Constitution, (Baylor University Press, 1987).

● Radicalism of the American Revolution, (A.A. Knopf, 1992).

● Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

● American Revolution: A History, (Modern Library, 2002).

● The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, (Penguin Press, 2004).

● Revolutionary Characters : What Made the Founders Different, (Penguin Press, May 18, 2006).


Pulitzer Prize in History (1993), Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa (1992), and Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award (1992), all for Radicalism of the American Revolution.

Bancroft Prize, Columbia University, John H. Dunning Prize, American Historical Association, and Nominee for National Book Award in History and Biography, all in 1970 for The Creation of the American Republic

Julia Ward Howe Prize from the Boston Authors Club, 2005 for The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.

 John Adams Fellowship, Institute of United States Studies, 2002.

 Doctor of Letters, LaTrobe University, Australia, 2001.

Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, 2000.

Fletcher Jones Distinguished Fellowship, Huntington Library, 1997-98. 

Guest-Scholarship, Woodrow Wilson Center, 1993-94. 

Visiting Fellowship, All Souls College, Oxford, 1991. 

Sunderland Fellowship, University of Michigan Law School, 1990.

Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1987-88.

Douglass Adair Award, 1984.

Daughters of Colonial Wars award for the outstanding article in the William and Mary Quarterly, 1983.

Kerr Prize for best article in New York History, awarded by New York Historical Society, 1981.

Guggenheim Fellowship, 1980-81. 

National Humanities Institute, 1975-76. 

National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, 1972-73.

Distinguished Visitor Award of the Australian-American Education Foundation, 1976.

National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Fellowship, 1967. Toppan Prize, Harvard University, 1964.

Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1964-66.

De Lancey K. Jay Prize, Harvard University, 1963-64.

Additional Info

Wood gave a distinguished lecture on "George Washington," for the Presidential Lecture Series on the Presidency, The White House, 1991. Wood was the president of the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, 1986-87 and Chairman, Board of Advisors, National Historical Society, 1973-. Wood is on the Advisory Committee for the Papers of John Adams, 1990; Advisory Committee for the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1990--; Advisory Board for the Papers of James Madison, 1994--; Administrative Board for the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 1995--. Wood is on the Advisory Board for Northeastern University Press, 1989--.; Board of Editors, Oxford History of the Enlightenment. Board of Trustees, National Council of History Education, 1996--; Advisory Board, Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, 1996--; and Board of Scholars, National Center for the American Revolution, 2002.

Wood also served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, 1955-58.