Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Robin Einhorn responds to Gordon Wood

Robin Einhorn, author of American Taxation, American Slavery, responds to Gordon Wood's, review Reading the Founders' Minds, noted here.

I thank Mary Dudziak for the invitation to participate in this discussion, though I find myself a bit perplexed about how to respond to Wood's review. On the one hand, I am deeply grateful for his summary of my findings in such an august venue. He is right to notice that my sense of the tragedy of American history is different from his and to locate the radicalism of my view where he has: in my outright rejection of the idea that the slaveholding politicians of the early republic were the champions of liberty and democracy they pretended to be.

On the other hand, however, I am deeply sympathetic to the predicament Wood explores at the start of his essay. He seems to feel much as the Beardians felt in the wake of Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and Daniel Boorstin. Or as the consensus historians felt in the wake of Gary Nash, Leon Litwack, and David Montgomery. Or as many social, labor, political, and legal historians felt in the wake of the cultural history explosion of the 1990s. Many of them shouted "NO" as they watched younger historians abandon the subjects, themes, and approaches whose centrality they had fought to establish.

We all know that this is how scholarship works, and I fully expect it to happen to me down the line. The method that I have fought to establish, along with other members of my generation of historians, is an institutional -- rather than ideological -- approach to political history. We find what people did in the political realm to be far more significant than what they wished they had done or hoped others would eventually do, and we find the best evidence of what they did in the structure and operation of their political institutions. We define political history as the story of what people did in politics, generally leaving the analysis of their rhetoric to the intellectual and cultural historians. And, increasingly, we are finding that our attention to institutions is shoving slavery toward the center of our interpretations of American political development.

Thus, my own work is about liberty and democracy as they did (and did not) exist in real times and places -- rather than about the rhetoric of liberty and democracy. Most important, my work is about taxes. Wood says little about what I hope will be the principal scholarly contribution of American Taxation: the research that enabled me to reconstruct and describe the misunderstood, forgotten, and in some cases simply unknown tax policies and debates of early American history. My interpretations of these policies and debates certainly will not be the last word on them, but I have tried to place them onto the table for scholars to consider when thinking about the political, constitutional, and legal -- and perhaps even the intellectual and cultural -- history of the United States.


Bruce Boyden said...

I have yet to read your book (although it's on my list!) and I've not even seen Wood's review yet, but I was struck by this sentence: "We define political history as the story of what people did in politics, generally leaving the analysis of their rhetoric to the intellectual and cultural historians." I know history is a compartmentalized discipline, but is it really that compartmentalized? Wouldn't a complete political history take note not just of the institutional roots of political developments, but their intellectual and cultural roots also?

Unknown said...

You are certainly right about what would be included in a "complete" political history. The problem of the present moment, in my view, is that the pendulum has been held so far toward the intellectual and cultural side that we have serious remedial work to do on the institutional side. Put another way, the people who have claimed to be doing the "complete" thing for the early republic have often known surprisingly little about even the most basic political institutions -- such as tax structures.

For a sustained argument on this historiographical point, check out Richard R. John, "Governmental Institutions as Agents of Change: Rethinking American Political Development in the Early Republic," _Studies in American Political Development_ 11 (1997): 347-80.

Things have improved recently, as more institutional studies have appeared, and I definitely would encourage anyone who feels ready to remake a new synthesis on this basis. My own sense, however, is that we still have a way to go.