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Awards & Honors: 2010 National Humanities Medalist

Gordon S. Wood

In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood wrote, “There is a time for understanding the particular, and there is a time for understanding the whole.” This sentence is a window onto why Wood’s scholarship has had such an impact on scholars and nonspecialists alike.

Wood has devoted his career to incorporating the shifting ideas and social and political developments defining the early American Republic into a convincing and riveting whole. His scholarship is distinguished by its grasp of the monographs about the Founding era as well as his extensive use of primary documents. His writing fuses social, intellectual, and political history seamlessly together, and his books are exquisitely written, armed with the power of the best historical narratives.

His scholarship, from the Bancroft-winning The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787, which appeared in 1969, to his 2009 Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, provides readers with a sweeping panorama of early America.

The Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, Wood “read and reread nearly every pamphlet, sermon and tract concerned with politics that was written in the Revolutionary era” while researching The Creation. Wood’s scholarship has profoundly influenced colleagues in his field and attracted a larger audience, who want to read serious studies of the Revolutionary era that move beyond the standard, often hagiographic biographies of the Founding Fathers.

His themes are guided partly by the idea that the Revolution was “the most radical and far-reaching event in American history.” The Revolution achieved numerous things. As he writes in Radicalism, it “made possible the antislavery and women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking.” It “destroyed aristocracy,” inaugurated “an entirely new kind of popular politics,” and “made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people—their pursuit of happiness—the goal of society and government.”

Wood didn’t know that he would become a historian as an undergraduate. In fact, he wanted to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. After graduating from Tufts, he joined the Air Force “to fulfill my ROTC obligations.” While stationed in Japan, he concluded that a PhD in history was a better fit for him than a career in government. History was “a subject that I had always loved,” he told the History News Network.

As a graduate student at Harvard, he took a seminar with a young historian of early America named Bernard Bailyn and “became immediately attracted to the field.” Beyond his stellar research and quiet and arresting prose, Wood has repeatedly demonstrated a subtle open-mindedness that gives his scholarship an almost revelatory feel.

While researching Creation, he concluded that the world he was studying was far more different from his own age than other historians had been able to grasp. He explained in his introduction how his “reading opened up an intellectual world I had scarcely known existed.” That sense of discovery—and the ability to convey the drama of the period—infuses his research, writing, and lectures.

Wood hasn’t shied from the fray either, as he has weighed in on several debates about the role of historical memory and the uses of the past in contemporary American politics. He has praised professional historians for producing countless monographs in the last half-century that have opened up new worlds about the lives of women, African Americans, and others who had been neglected in historical literature.

At the same time, he has encouraged his colleagues not to leave popular history writing to the non-academics. Professional historians, he argued, should “try more often to write for a general public” in order to explain the complex subtleties and provide a more accurate rendering of the past to more Americans.

Wood recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books that historical “memory is as important to our society as the history written by academics”—shaping popular perceptions while informing political and policy debates about government’s role in American society. He affirmed the view of Bernard Bailyn, saying that history, as Bailyn argued, “may be kept alive, made vivid and constantly relevant and urgent by the living memory we have of it.”

Through his teaching, scholarship, and popular articles, Wood has reached a wide audience, keeping alive one of the most revered periods in all of American history. It is his skills as a researcher, his fresh and passionate insights into the shifting character of Revolutionary-era society, and his uncanny ability to capture the sense of turbulence and vast transformation that defined early America that have made him one of the most influential historians of his generation. His writing and teaching will remain paragons for the profession for years to come.

By Matthew Dallek
Matthew Dallek, an associate academic director at the University of California Washington Center, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.