Wood discusses Civil War’s Revolutionary origins

Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War tore apart North and South. For Gordon S. Wood, an author and lifelong scholar of the American Revolution, it had been a long time coming.

He will be the first speaker for this week’s theme of “The Path to the Civil War,” and at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, he will lecture on “The Revolutionary Origins of the Civil War.”

Wood is professor of history emeritus and Alva O. Way university professor at Brown University, and before that, he taught at Harvard University and the University of Michigan.

It was in graduate school at Harvard that Wood became interested in the period.

“I came to realize the Revolution was not just the war; it was a transformation of the whole society that carried on into the early 19th century,” he said. “It became a world historical event; it wasn’t just a colonial rebellion against Great Britain.”

He is the author of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, an authoritative text that won the Bancroft Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize in 1970 and that he continued in 2009 with Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.

Wood won the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize in 1993 for his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution. One of his latest books is 2008’s The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History.

Wood spoke at Chautauqua in 2009 during a week on “The History of Liberty” and discussed the global implications of the Revolutionary War.

“Even though it seems strange that the Americans should have thought of their little colonial rebellion as a major world event, they nonetheless did,” he said. “They thought they were launching the beginnings of democracy around the world.”

Though he is a leading historian of the Revolution, Wood said it is then that the Civil War was first born.

For the most part, most of the leaders at the time knew that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the Republic, but they could not rid their hands of it.

“Dealing with it would have broken the union apart,” Wood said. “They hoped it would go away itself. They were wrong.”

By 1860, this glaring discrepancy had put a wedge between the aristocratic South and the middle-class North. They had become two very different cultures.

“One has slavery and contempt for labor and the other has a celebration of labor and a middle-class celebration of commerce,” he said. “By 1860, though they were both Americans — at least they both claimed to be Americans — they nevertheless were in two different places,” Wood said.

When the South seceded, the real question became, why should the North care?

Because President Abraham Lincoln cared. Looking out across the world, he saw monarchies everywhere. It seemed the U.S. was the only democracy around, and therefore it was the last stronghold of the democratic experiment, he said.

“If this secession succeeds, than the United States will have failed and democracy will have failed,” Wood said. “He mobilized with this message, looking back and drawing upon that message of the revolution.”

For Wood, the Civil War extended the ideals of the Founders, something many Americans still do today when looking back to the revolutionary feeling, he said.

Yet the war also came with a tremendous sacrifice of more than 600,000 American deaths, he said.

“It displayed courage and loyalty, and all kinds of virtues were expressed in the war, but it was really the first modern war in the western world,” he said. “So from every angle, it is always going to fascinate Americans.”