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Gordon Wood Talks Examining the U.S. Constitution Through a Historical Lens

We should evaluate history with the same mindset we have when traveling to a new country— by being willing to acknowledge differences—according to Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and professor at Brown University.

“You wouldn’t go to France—unless you’re a jerk—and start complaining about the food,” Wood said. “You go to a foreign country expecting it to be different, and that’s the way you should focus on the past.”

The John Marshall Project of the Boston College political science department welcomed Wood to speak about his latest book, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, on Thursday night.

Wood began by painting a picture of 18th century America when colonists were separating from aristocratic England and the Founding Fathers were developing the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists opposed the proposed constitution, arguing it would concentrate too much power in the federal government.

“The whole issue through the whole period is power and liberty,” Wood said. “Power takes away from liberty, but you need power, but you don’t want too much power. You need to control it. … That’s why democracy is the wrong term to apply to this period.”

When crafting the Constitution, the Founding Fathers worked to prevent the country from regressing back to the authoritarianism Americans faced under the British crown. They worked to form a system based on republicanism and popular sovereignty, unlike the strict hierarchical structure of the British Parliament.

“[Supreme Court Justice James Wilson] says, ‘no, we believe in sovereignty and we are going to relocate it,’” Wood said. “‘We are going to put it in the people at large.’”

Though the Founding Fathers wanted to achieve liberty for the United States, Wood argued they were fully aware that the practice of slavery there did not align with these notions of liberty and freedom.

“The revolution created the first anti-slavery movement in the history of the world,” Wood wrote in his book. “The revolution and anti-slavery were entwined and developed together.”

The founders saw slavery as a dying practice, but Wood explained how that soon proved to be wrong. They did not anticipate the cotton gin boom of the late 18th century, which prolonged the practice of slavery until its abolition in the 1860s.

Returning to today’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, Wood highlighted recent New York Times articles arguing how the Constitution should be changed or even abolished due to some of its seemingly out-of-touch language and policies.

Wood argued that people should interpret the Constitution through a historical lens as opposed to a modern one, as it was written during a much different time period and political climate.

This is what drew Eric Grube, a visiting professor in the history department, to the event. Grube said he came to gain a greater understanding of how this founding document should be understood in today’s world.

“The founding is topical for today as well, because you start off as talking about this notion of the Constitution being highly contested by both parties, just wanting to hear kind of his take on the historical context in which it was,” Grube said.

Seamus Pugh, another attendee at the event and MCAS ’26, said context is critical when it comes to interpreting the Constitution.

“It’s important to go to talks like this and understand what [the founders] meant when they wrote it down and how we can assess what their values were in terms of democracy and how we can apply that to our values today,” Pugh said.

Wood reminded his audience to always consider historical perspectives as well as the development of thought and customs when judging the course of the country.

“Unfortunately, we’re collapsing the distance between the past and present,” Wood said. “We’re judging the past as if it were the present, and this leads to all kinds of inaccuracies.”

October 20, 2022