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The Historians are (Still) Fighting

People who don’t obsessively follow the ins and outs of the American history profession may have missed the news that, last Saturday, two leading historians of the founding period, Woody Holton, McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina, and Gordon Wood, Alva O. Way university professor and professor of history emeritus at Brown University, had a rowdy public throwdown over the role of slavery and racism in the U.S. founding, among other things. The debate, as it was billed, was hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society for a live audience and streamed live on the internet. It devolved into a long, loud sequence when a revved-up, happy-warrior Holton started fast-talking over and relentlessly haranguing a clearly irritated Wood, who was reduced to defensive sputtering.

Given the tone of today’s public affairs TV, that might not sound like much. For those accustomed to the sometimes strained collegiality of more typical academic panels, the moment was memorable, in part for intensifying a recent trend in modes of dispute among scholars of the founding period. The August 2019 publication of the New York Times’ 1619 Project has changed everything—and, some might argue, not for the better. Battles among scholars have typically been waged in the pages of peer-reviewed journals that most members of the public never see. For generations, consensus achieved in the remotest groves of academe has trickled down to public consciousness through curricula, textbooks, trade publishing, museum exhibits, and other highly curated channels. Venerable traditions of academic history haven’t usually included mano a mano contests on fine points of interpretation, held for the excitement of the baying crowd or, as in this case, the edification of decorous history buffs.

An immediate contingency, for Holton and Wood: They’ve both recently published books—Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution and Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, respectively—and are making the promotional rounds. These new books build on significant careers. Wood is a lion of the “republican synthesis” interpretation of the founding, in which the multitude of social conflicts that marked the period are eventually resolved, if roughly, in a small-capitalist, anti-deferential ethos emerging in the Jackson era; the American Revolution thus represents world-changing, even human-consciousness-changing progress and should, for all of its flaws, be celebrated as such. Holton, a feisty inheritor of the “bottom-up” school of founding studies, has cracked open the frame adopted by Wood and others, asserting and documenting the multitude of contributions to the Revolution of free and enslaved Black people, Indigenous people, women, artisans, small farmers, laborers, and others traditionally left out of the synthesis, whose elitism Holton’s work criticizes.

The debate got off to a pretty rollicking start. Wood called Holton’s book “very malproportioned” and took issue with its focus and premises (he had also blurbed it, which might tell you something about blurbs); Holton, illustrating colonists’ ideas about their place in the empire before 1775, sang a line from Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” When Wood claimed Thomas Jefferson had no intention of exterminating Native nations, Holton pounced, quoting a letter in which Jefferson said he did intend extermination. (For some of us, at least, this qualifies as fun stuff.)

The moderator, historian and Massachusetts Historical Society president Catherine Allgor, then focused the discussion. These two historians had recently come at explicit odds, she noted. In July of 2021, a group of historians, including Wood, published an open letter disputing Holton’s claim, made in a Washington Post op-ed, that a desire to protect the institution of slavery was central to the colonists’ decision to rebel against Britain.

That, of course, is also a claim of the 1619 Project. In December of 2019, Wood joined in the crafting of an open letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine (there’s a lot of open letter–writing going on), objecting to the project’s claim that protecting slavery served as a cause of the Revolution and asking for various editorial corrections. While Holton’s Post op-ed didn’t mention the 1619 Project, in many public statements, mostly on Twitter, he’s been explicit about his intention to defend statements regarding the centrality of slavery to the American decision to rebel, as made by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s editor, in her lead article. On his Twitter, Holton has associated Liberty Is Sweet both with Hannah-Jones’ essay and with the imminently forthcoming book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. As Allgor reminded the two pugilists at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the 1619 Project and its cultural impact provide key context for their contest.

So were Holton and Wood fighting over the role of slavery in causing the American Revolution? Or were they fighting over the relative validity of the 1619 Project, and the impact of both the project and Hannah-Jones’ work in general, on public understandings of American history? Or are those fights now more or less the same fight?

Read entire article at Slate