LIBRARY OF AMERICA’S
INTERVIEW WITH HISTORIAN GORDON S. WOOD
Editor's Note: For the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act Crisis, the upheaval that marked the beginning of the American Revolution, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Gordon S. Wood compiled a new two-volume edition of the political debate that led of independence. This
detailed collection--published by the non-profit Library of America--gathers the full texts of 39 of the most fascinating and important of the nearly 1,000 pamphlets published on both sides of the Atlantic, including works by Edmund Burke, John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Hutchinson, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, James Otis, Thomas Paine and Joseph Warren.
LOA released to the
media a recent interview with the editor of the two-volume masterwork. Pillar
to Post reposts here the interview in its entirety.
Background to the upheaval.
In the summer of 1765, anti-tax riots roiled Great Britain’s
North American colonies from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Charleston, South
Carolina, the first stirrings of what became the American Revolution. This
collection captures the extraordinary political debate which led 12 years later
the Declaration of Independence and the end of the first British empire.
Gordon S. Wood, who edited the collection, is Alva O. Way
Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University and his books include the
Pulitzer Prize–winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the
Bancroft Prize–winning The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787. In 2011
Wood was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.
An interview with Gordon S. Wood:
Q. The new Library of America set collects 39 of
the more than 1,000 pamphlets that appeared between 1764 and 1776. What were
your main criteria for the selections you finally settled on?
A. The key criterion was the importance of the pamphlet in
advancing the debate. The goal in assembling this collection was to provide
readers with a clear sense of how the polemical contest over the relationship
between the British government and the colonies emerged and escalated until the
final rupture in 1776. To do this, it was essential to include pamphlets
published in England as well as in America, because they often spoke directly
to one another.
It is one of the ironies of the American Revolution that the
colonies had closer ties to the mother country in this period than they had
ever had before, and this is nowhere more evident than in the pamphlet debate.
These texts were part of a lively transatlantic discourse in which pamphlets
published in Boston or Philadelphia soon appeared in London and were quickly
reprinted, and vice versa. Distinguishing these writers as “British” and
“American” can be tricky, too. Englishman Thomas Paine had been resident in the
colonies for only fourteen months when he wrote Common Sense, the most
influential expression of the “American” position, while Massachusetts Governor
Thomas Hutchinson, who in two pamphlets gathered here presents the “British”
position as forcefully as any writer, had deep ancestral roots in the Bay
Colony. Finally, I took into account the historical significance of the
authors. For some writers, like Thomas Jefferson, the pamphlet debate marked
their emergence on the scene; for others like Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke,
it afforded an opportunity to display their unique rhetorical gifts.
Q. For a
general reader, one of the discoveries here is a nuanced debate about “virtual”
versus “actual” representation that sows the seeds for what became the American
Revolution. What made that debate so important for later events in our
history—and did it have consequences for Great Britain’s political development
A. The pamphlet debate revealed the extent to which American
ideas about representation had diverged from British. Because of the manifest
impracticality of the colonies sending representatives to Parliament, defenders
of parliamentary authority over the colonies were forced to clarify as never
before the idea of virtual representation, which held that Parliament
represents the interests of the empire regardless of how or from where its
members were selected. This became the primary philosophical difference that
animated the controversy. Americans going back to the colonial period have
always thought of the electoral process as the principal criterion of
representation, and we have generally believed that representation has to be in
proportion to population. That is why we have usually placed great importance
on expanding suffrage and on bringing electoral districts into some kind of
rational relationship to population. To underscore the link between the
representative and the represented, we have also required that elected
officials be residents of their specific districts. Conversely, even today,
such a residency requirement does not exist for British MPs.
Q. Much of
the debate turns on the history of the founding of the American colonies and of
the long period during which the mother country’s imperial policy, as Edmund
Burke famously characterized it in a pamphlet included in this collection,
seemed to amount to “salutary neglect.” What did American writers who were
arguing against parliamentary authority hope to gain by this resort to history?
How did their opponents counter their claims?
A. History was always important to Englishmen in
establishing rights. The common law is very much a history-based legal
structure, so it was natural for the colonists to appeal to history, Magna
Charta, the English Bill of Rights, and other important legal precedents to
support their claims. Several American writers, particularly Edward Bancroft,
the future British spy, turned to the seventeenth century, and the reign of the
Stuarts, to make fascinating arguments about the nature of the relationship
between the king and the parliament, and the underlying rationale for
colonization in the first place. Their opponents likewise appealed to history,
but their source material was much more recent, really only including the
decades of the eighteenth century when parliamentary sovereignty developed.
Because of the importance of historical references in the debate, the Library
of America collection includes a 32-page chronology charting the history of the
English and later British empire from its founding to 1776, when its greatest
jewel was lost.
readers may be surprised to find, among the British writers represented here,
that Samuel Johnson is one of the most vociferous critics of the American
position while Edmund Burke is one of the most conciliatory. What do we know
about the motivations behind their respective positions?
A. Johnson, the older of the two, was always Toryish in his
outlook and he never liked America. When he toured the Hebrides with Boswell he
was stunned by the vacant villages in Scotland. He thought that Britain was
becoming depopulated by the massive emigration of Brits to America in the
middle decades of the eighteenth century. One gets the sense that when the
British government came to him to enlist his pen in their defense in the
pamphlet debate, he didn’t need much coaxing. Burke on the other hand was a
fervent Whig, and as such opposed to Crown power. Since the empire had
traditionally been viewed as under the king’s control, he and his party of
Rockingham Whigs were suspicious of what George III was up to in the 1760s. At
the same time the Rockingham Whigs were devoted to parliamentary sovereignty
and thus could never be outright advocates of the American position. This left
Burke in the position of urging the British government to, in effect, let
sleeping dogs lie. He foresaw that by exposing certain fundamental differences
in political theory between the British and the Americans, the government’s policies
could only end in disaster.
pamphlet contains the unforgettable line “How is it that we hear the loudest
yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Did anyone writing for the
American side have a rejoinder to that—and does slavery figure anywhere else in
the pamphlet debate?
A. Slavery was always a latent issue for many in the debate,
but by today’s standards what is amazing is how little it was raised,
especially since the colonists talked constantly of being “enslaved” by the British
policies. Many took African slavery for granted as the lowest form of
dependency in a hierarchy of dependencies, and used the imagery without any
sense of the inherent hypocrisy. But others like James Otis did see the
inconsistency and spoke out against slavery, as when he memorably wrote: “The
colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or
black. . . . Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is
interesting that two of the most prominent “patriot” writers in the first
volume of this collection, Daniel Dulany and John Dickinson, later had qualms
about independence— Dulany becoming a Loyalist and Dickinson leading the
opposition to the Declaration in Congress in 1776. What accounts for this
apparent change of heart?
A. In the 1760s many colonists were opposed to the new
British policies, but certainly did not anticipate breaking up the empire. All
of them had a respect for English traditions of law and rights. In the end most
of them revolted not against the English constitution but on behalf of it, in
what they often characterized as a conservative attempt to retain their
traditional rights. Dulany was a member of the council in Maryland and had a
vested interest in the empire. Dickinson sincerely believed that America’s
breaking free of England would lead to America’s bleeding from every vein.
England after all was the bastion of liberty in a hostile world.
Q. How would
you describe the role that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense plays in the debate?
Does his famous pamphlet seem more or less revolutionary when viewed in this
A. Paine’s pamphlet really was different, and its
extraordinary character only becomes clearer when seen in the context of this
collection. Most of the other writers in the pamphlet debate were elites, with
positions of authority in society. Paine was different. He was our first public
intellectual, and unlike the other pamphleteers, he lived solely by his pen. As
such, he aimed at a much broader audience than did the others, one encompassing
the middling class of artisans, tradesmen, and tavern-goers. Unlike the elite
writers who bolstered their arguments with legal citations and references to
the whole of Western culture going back to the ancients, Paine did not expect
his readers to know more than the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer.
Everyone knew that Paine was violating the conventional rules of rhetoric and
were awed by his pamphlet. More substantively, Paine’s aggressive anti-royalism
marked a major turn in the debate. Recognizing the need to shock his readers
out of their reflexive loyalty to the Crown, Paine employed a pungent style
unlike any other, referring to George III as “the Royal Brute.”
histories of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers appear with ever
greater frequency. Why do you feel it is important for readers to return to the
original writings of the era?
A. The Revolution is the most important event in our
history. It not only legally created the United States but it infused into our
culture our noblest ideals and highest aspirations, our beliefs in liberty,
equality, and the happiness of ordinary people. Since there is no American
ethnicity, these ideals and values are the only thing holding us together as a
nation. As valuable as secondary works about the period are, or can be, it’s
essential that we continually go back to the original writings of the Founders
for nourishment and renewal of what it means to be an American.
Q. These are
the third and fourth volumes you’ve edited for The Library of America, joining
your two-volume edition John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755–1783, published
in 2011. And a third and final volume of Adams’s writings is forthcoming in the
spring. What is it about The Library of America that keeps you coming back?
A. The Library of America is a non-profit cultural
institution that is dedicated to preserving America’s literary heritage. It
makes the great works of American writings available to the general reader in
modestly priced editions; at the same time, Library of America editions provide
enough editorial apparatus to be useful to students and scholars. One certainly
doesn’t engage in these editorial projects for the money, but rather for the
opportunity to make some great writings available to future generations. For
the editors, they have to be projects of love, as this one was for me.
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