Gordon Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown. His most recent publication is the two-volume edition The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate, 1764–1776. (January 2016)

Federalists on Broadway

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway musical Hamilton
Although Alexander Hamilton never became president of the United States, he is more famous than most presidents, and these days is doubly famous because of the impending decision to remove him from the ten-dollar bill and, more important, because of the hit Broadway show Hamilton. Indeed, the response to this …

A Different Story of What Shaped America

During the past six years or so Sam Haselby has taught history at both the University of Beirut and the University of Cairo. Perhaps the experience of teaching at these two Middle Eastern universities convinced him that religion tends to trump politics every time. For that is a major theme …

A Different Idea of Our Declaration

Danielle Allen at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 2008
This is a strange and remarkable book. There must be dozens of books on the Declaration of Independence written from every conceivable point of view—historical, political, theoretical, philosophical, and textual—but no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

The Bleeding Founders

‘George Washington in His Last Illness, Attended by Doctors Craik and Brown’; colored engraving, 1799
The history of medicine, like the history of science, is a highly bifurcated and contentious field. Some historians of medicine, Lewis Thomas and David Wootton, for example, believe that the past is decidedly inferior to the present and that nothing much good happened in medicine until the mid-nineteenth century and …

In Quest of Blood Lines

Grace and Calvin Coolidge, center, with Mrs. Alfred Brousseau, president-general of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Mrs. Josiah Van Orsdel, national president of the Children of the American Revolution, at the White House, late 1920s
The United States was born in a sudden and decisive repudiation of blood. By abolishing monarchy and becoming republicans in 1776, Americans turned their backs on the age-old tradition of birth and patrimony. No longer would it matter who your father was or who your ancestors were. In the new …

Was the Big Revolution in 1775?

Etching of the Battle of Bunker Hill, fought on Boston’s Charlestown peninsula, 1775
Explaining why the North American colonists revolted from Great Britain in 1776 has never been easy. The eighteenth-century colonists probably enjoyed the highest standard of living of any people in the Atlantic world. The white colonists were certainly not an oppressed people; they had no crushing imperial shackles to throw …

Mr. Madison’s Weird War

Allyn Cox: British Burn the Capitol, 1814, a 1974 mural on the ceiling of the Hall of Capitols in the US Capitol, Washington, D.C.
The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is now upon us and most Americans don’t know what to do with the occasion, whether to celebrate it or simply disregard it. The war that began two hundred years ago was such a strange and partisan war and one that was waged …

Radical, Pure, Roger Williams

Alonzo Chappel: The Landing of Roger Williams in 1636, 1857
It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the “priestcraft” were always in alliance …

American Dream Money

A one-hundred-shilling note printed by Benjamin Franklin and David Hall, 1759
We place a lot of confidence in paper money. We trust in pieces of paper that seem to have no intrinsic value whatsoever. We pass paper bills from hand to hand with little or no questioning of their worth. During some periods of American history people were able to turn …

Those Sentimental Americans

A scene from Tristram Shandy (‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’); painting by Charles Robert Leslie, 1831
Although these two works of history, one by Joseph J. Ellis and the other by G.J. Barker-Benfield, are ostensibly about the same subject—John and Abigail Adams—they could not be more different. Ellis’s First Family: Abigail and John is a narrative account of the life of the couple from their marriage …

Good Losers

The surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781; painting by John Trumbull
The loyalists of the American Revolution, that is, those who remained loyal to the British crown during the Revolutionary War, have not gotten much of a fair shake from historians. They were, after all, the losers in the Revolution, and history is usually not kind to losers, especially exiles or …

No Thanks for the Memories

Demonstrators at a rally against health care reform, Washington, D.C., March 16, 2010
America’s Founding Fathers have a special significance for the American public. People want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or how George Washington would regard the invasion of Iraq. No other major nation honors its historical characters in quite the way we do. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts to find out what a historical figure of two centuries ago might think of David Cameron’s government in the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington about our current policies and predicaments.

The Real Washington at Last

George Washington; painting by Charles Willson Peale, 1776
How many books on George Washington do we need before the monument finally becomes a man, before the remote and impenetrable statue is at last brought down to earth and made into an accessible human being? Right from the beginning Washington seems to have been a distant and unapproachable figure. “Did anybody ever see Washington nude?” asked Nathaniel Hawthorne. “It is inconceivable. He…was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.”

The War We Lost—and Won

E.C. Watmough: Repulsion of the British at Fort Erie, 15th August 1814, 1840
The War of 1812 was the strangest war in American history. This second war by the recently established US government against the former mother country of Great Britain was, said Virginia’s John Taylor, the philosopher of Jeffersonian Republicanism, a “metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not …

Was Washington ‘Mad for Glory’?

George Washington as Colonel of the Virginia Regiment; painting by Charles Willson Peale, 1772
No two generals in the era of the early Republic appear to differ from one another more than George Washington and James Wilkinson. Although each man possessed considerable personal, political, and military skills and each at different times became commander in chief of the United States Army, the two generals …

Praying with the Founders

In March 1801 the newly elected vice-president of the United States, Aaron Burr, was criticized for his neglect of religion. A close political associate warned Burr, who was the grandson of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards, that if he wanted to continue to have a successful political career, he had …

What America Started

Living as we do in this postmodern age, we have become increasingly interested in the origins of our predecessor, the modern world. Consequently, we have recently had a spate of historians writing on the beginnings of “modernity,” that catch-all word for modern society, political institutions, technology, and much else. Although …

Reading the Founders’ Minds

It is a truism that history writing tends to reflect the times in which it is written. All history is “contemporary history,” wrote the Italian historian Benedetto Croce, by which he meant that history is seen mainly through the eyes of the present and in relation to its problems. The …

Without Him, No Bill of Rights

James Madison is being subjected to some very hard knocks at the hands of historians these days. Not only has he been pictured as a lifelong apologist for slavery, but he has even been replaced as “the Father of the Constitution” by none other than John Rutledge of South Carolina.[^1] …

American Religion: The Great Retreat

It’s never been easy to reconcile religion with politics. We know that not only from the bloody sectarian strife taking place today in Iraq but also from the passionate disputes we ourselves are having at the present time—though as yet we haven’t been bombing one another. From stem cell research …

Apologies to the Iroquois

In 1700 the native peoples, whom the Europeans called Indians, demographically dominated the North American continent north of the Rio Grande. If we are to believe the best estimates, they numbered at least 1.6 million, nearly five times the 330,000 or so Europeans and Africans huddled along the Atlantic coast.

How Democratic Is the Constitution

If it weren’t for the law professors who teach and write constitutional history we wouldn’t have much constitutional history being written or taught in the academy these days. Most universities have long since given up teaching undergraduate courses in American constitutional history, and most of those few remaining professors who …

Founders & Keepers

Every month, it seems, we have a new book on one or another of the founders who more than two hundred years ago created the United States. This is something peculiarly American. No other major nation celebrates its past historical characters in quite the way we Americans do, especially characters …