Gordon Wood and Woody Holton clash over past and present

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This combination of book cover images shows “Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution” by Gordon S. Wood, left, and “Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution” by Woody Holton. The two American Revolution historians gathered at the Massachusetts Historical Society last weekend to discuss their most recent books and their differing views of the country’s origins. (Oxford University Press via AP, left, Simon & Schuster via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Gordon Wood has engaged in many debates during his long and celebrated career, but rarely had he been confronted so starkly as by fellow scholar Woody Holton last weekend at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The two American Revolution historians had been billed to discuss their most recent books and their differing views of the country’s origins. But midway through the 60-minute event the subject turned to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize winning series from 2019 that placed slavery at the center of the American narrative. The mood soon resembled less a spirited, but academic gathering than a court of law, with Wood on the stand.

Holton’s allegation: Wood’s criticism of the 1619 project, which he and four other historians have condemned for saying the preservation of slavery was a “primary reason” the colonists sought independence, helped make credible the current backlash from such Republican politicians as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, along with school boards around the country.

“You did an open letter putting that project beyond the pale, outside the wire, and making it vulnerable to the attack by these demagogues,” Holton told Wood, who appeared startled but reiterated his criticism of the Times and 1619 project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones even as he acknowledged the language he objected to had since been modified to “some of the colonists” wanting independence over fears of slaves aligning with the British.

“You are a founding father, Professor Wood, of a massive campaign of censorship. You’re not the most responsible, but the five of you are responsible. And that’s why, right now, I want to ask you to write another open letter to Sen. Cotton, and to Gov. DeSantis, and to all the other demagogues who are using your letter to ban the 1619 project, to say, ‘I am Gordon Wood, and damnit, I am not in favor of censorship.’”

During a telephone interview a few days later, Wood called the debate a “disaster,” said he was “blindsided” by Holton’s attack and that Holton was carrying out his role as “the primary defender” among historians of the 1619 project. Asked if he found any positive qualities in the series, which includes essays on politics, culture, criminal justice and religion among other subjects, he criticized it for encouraging a sense of “victimhood” and feeling “aggrieved” that he called understandable but ”self-destructive” in the long run.

The letter Holton asked for will not be written.

“I had no idea of what DeSantis was doing,” he said of the Florida governor, who has labeled the 1619 project “critical race theory” and backed the state’s board of education’s decision last summer to ban the book from classrooms. “It’s out of my hands. We can’t do our historical research … (worrying) that it might be misused by politicians.”

Hannah-Jones declined comment through a spokesperson for the Penguin Random House imprint One World, which next month will publish a book-length edition of the project.

Wood and Holton already have books out this fall: Wood’s “Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution” is a brief summation of his views on the Revolution that centers on the country’s political, economic and legal foundations. Holton’s “Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution” is a 700-plus page account that, as its subtitle indicates, seeks to broaden the traditional story of the country’s founding beyond Washington, Jefferson and other leaders to include the contributions of women, Black and indigenous people among others.

Authors providing blurbs for “Liberty is Sweet” include Hannah-Jones (”His book rightly decenters the almost exclusively white revolutionary narratives that we’ve all been taught”) and Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed (“A deeply researched and bracing retelling of the origins of the American Revolution”). Wood, in his blurb, called it a “spirited account of the Revolution that brings everybody and everything into the story.”

Wood, 87, is likely the most honored living scholar of the American Revolution — “He’s Muhammad Ali,” the 62-year-old Holton says of him — and he has become a prime target for historians who see him as the embodiment of a traditional, top-down view of the country’s origins. During their debate at the historical society, Wood and Holton repeatedly disagreed on the role of slavery in the Revolution, especially the importance of a 1775 proclamation by the Virginia royal governor, the Earl of Dunsmore, offering freedom to any enslaved person who joined the British cause.

“An act of sheer desperation,” Wood called it.

“It was a desperate measure,” Holton agreed, but one that resonated. He backed his argument by handing Wood a printout of dozens of tweets he has sent in recent weeks (he plans 76 in all) that show evidence of ties between Blacks and the British and how it frightened white colonists.

“I know you’re not on Twitter,” Holton said.

Wood does not see himself as a “triumphalist” or champion of “any great white man” and says he follows no agenda beyond where the scholarship leads him. He calls the Revolution both “ironic” and “tragic.” He has portrayed it, most famously in his Pulitzer Prize winning “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” as having a profoundly democratizing effect on the new country, well beyond what Washington and other leaders had desired.

He said he objects to the 1619 Project and to some of Holton’s book because he believes they apply contemporary standards to the past. During the debate, Wood praised Holton as a “superb” narrator of military battles, but said he was misguided in other ways. He cited Holton’s emphasizing that the vast majority of Americans in the early years, notably women and those enslaved, were unable to vote, when the same was true virtually everywhere in the world.

“He does see the past through modern eyes,” Wood said. “Woody’s a good activist-historian who wants a usable past to solve problems in the present.”

Wood and Holton don’t just disagree about the 18th century, but about last weekend. Holton said that Wood had no reason to feel “blindsided” because they had discussed ground rules, raised the subject of the 1619 project and agreed only that it shouldn’t be the primary focus of conversation. Holton’s memory was backed by Massachusetts Historical Society President, Catherine Allgor, who moderated the event, and by Gavin Kleespies, the society’s director of public programs.

Both showed the AP notes they took — showing references to the 1619 project — when Holton and Wood met prior to the debate.

“I’m blindsided that he said he was blindsided,” Allgor said.

Holton and Wood, who at the start of the debate greeted Holton as “my old buddy,” have met before. In 2013, they debated at the University of Carolina over the influence of capitalism on the framing of the Constitution. They had been on friendly terms. Holton told the AP during a recent interview that he had reached out to Wood in hopes of receiving a blurb from him for “Liberty Is Sweet” and called him a “really decent person” when not arguing his own historical viewpoints.

Wood said he found Holton “very charming,” but also “a little underhanded.”

“I get along with the guy and I like him,” he added, “but now I’m not so happy.”

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