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Late to the party… | A Look at Hayward’s Review: The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood

“Unlike today’s liberals who quote his magnum opus, Wood does not think that America can return to its republican roots. He may be crying over spilled milk, but he has the fortitude to admit it.”


So must we have the fortitude to admit. According to Steven F. Hayward, I am more than a century late to the party. Yet, Hayward affirms all that I have explained, when he states, that the “most important reason for Wood’s wide, enduring appeal is that he cast a much-deserved spotlight on the ways in which classical republican thought infused the founding. Such an inquiry was a needed corrective to the view of America as a wholly modern, wholly liberal regime indifferent to public considerations of virtue. His approach might yield a new synthesis or at least combination of ancient and modern strands of political thought.”

However, I think this cannot said to be found in AMERICAN CONSERVATISM, It tries to carry these things on under the idea of conservatism, of conserving tradition, seeing that the modern liberal abandoned such thinking. Although, such an article could not foresee our current government and the avowedly anti-liberal attitude of the American Right. The CONSERVATIVE types of the Claremont Review like others became Pro-Trump after the 2016 election. There were Republicans fighting, and perhaps having lost, are as I am, looking into the future, when there is no longer a Mr. Trump.

Noah Rothman stated in 2016 (The Liberal Republicans’ Revenge) that:

“Ryan is thinking long-term,” Catholic University professor of political science Matthew Green told the Wall Street Journal, “he is thinking it’s possible Trump is going to lose.” (…) As the Journal noted, conservatives remain suspicious of Trump for a variety of reasons. Some fear that his demagoguery is antithetical to republican governance as envisioned by the Founders. Others are convinced that the celebrity candidate’s brash rhetoric alienates women, minorities, and young students.”

Except, that Trump won the election, Ryan is seen as a neo-con, and it is not conservatives who were suspicious, since the majority still support Trump. Steven F. Hayward is not the only one realizing this tradition—this heritage really, of republican ideology, as Win McCormick demonstrates in Liberalism After Liberalism: The civic republican tradition and its lost treasure (Feb. 16, 2018). However, then it is hard to get by old optimism, such as Take It from a Rockefeller (Republican), We Can Revive the GOP, when it says, ‘Trump is like a virus that destroyed the old operating system, letting us rebuild from the inside to make Republicans the party of pragmatists again. Let’s start with the millennials.’ It’s far too late for that. Both Conservatives and Liberals believe there is a moral, and even religious eschatological battle for the soul of the country.

Steven F. Hayward explains a consequential consideration of my own I had arrived at independent of any legal scholars. By simply reading into the foundations of republican ideology and democracy up til the American Revolution, I had seen there was a point at which republican thought preceded, and then went into the Lockean direction. There was this need in the research to divorce REPUBLICANISM and LIBERALISM to analyze it further:

“The eager extrapolation of Wood’s argument is seen not merely among obscure, tenure-seeking adventurists, but also among the leading celebrities of the legal academy. Horwitz, who teaches at Harvard Law School, cites Wood to give effect to his view that “republicanism was a truly coherent political alternative to liberalism in American thought.” Sunstein, a leading light at the University of Chicago Law School, is explicit about the project of finding a non-Lockean, non-liberal narrative for America, writing in the Yale Law Journal that

it is no longer possible to see a Lockean consensus in the founding period, or to treat the framers as modern pluralists believing that self-interest is the inevitable motivating force behind political behavior. Republican thought played a central role in the framing period, and it offers a powerful conception of politics and of the functions of constitutionalism.”


While Hayward criticizes the political LEFT and legal experts for extrapolating Wood’s works in the revival of civic republicanism, the Conservatives’ claim their philosophy is the original intent of the American founders. Hayward proves this however to be baseless. There are things, that Wood adds, which are true, but which he also critiques, which tell us, that indeed American republicanism, or the underlying philosophy of the Revolution and its development after the Declaration and Constitution is unique from that of Rome, France, and the English notions of REPUBLICANISM and LIBERTY, precisely because of Locke and others. Yet, just as Wood adds, that the Revolution was a republican revolution, it was. When Wood argues, that REPUBLICANISM is more communal than individualistic, it was.

The modern heirs who call themselves REPUBLICAN (representing “the political Right”) will say, that they are CONSERVATIVE first. I will explain the problem with having confused the two. The attitudes and thinking-patterns of the Right in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century remain as they are in today’s American politics. This should not even be happening, given their claim to the original intent and ideas of the founders, who were republican revolutionaries. James J. Sack explains it in the following book.


In James J. Sack’s From Jacobite to Conservative, speaking of the “ubiquitous right-wing hatred of Dissenters” he explains:

“It has often been recognized that the British Right in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as exemplified by Burke and his disciples, though not only by them, mightily distrusted the attempted application of abstract principles and greatly favored the notion of the utility of prescriptive rights. What is perhaps less emphasized in modern discussions of the meaning of early modern conservatism is the role which unalloyed hatred played in defining ideology: hatred for certain forms of dissent, for domestic and foreign radical movements, for Voltaire and the philosophies, for atheists and infidels, for Jews, and above all, for the ancient enemy, Whiggery. (…) The  (…) Those on the Right also hated, of course, the main intellectual analysis of the philosophes, most pronouncedly when it verged on Deism. Praise of both Voltaire and Rousseau, for example, was fairly common in the Tory press of the 1750s and 1760s, but after the outbreak of the French Revolution, one can find little save the most vicious attacks upon either individual in “Church and King” circles.” (James J. Sack, From Jacobite to Conservative: Reaction and Orthodoxy in Britain c. 1760-1832, pp. 38-39)

James J. Sack confirms Gordon S. Wood’s research on the early relationship between liberals, republicanism, the upper-class and the monarchy until the French Revolution commenced. James J. Sack continues on more critically about the European Right:

The Right hated Jacobinism and other foreign-sounding European radical movements. It particularly despised female radicals, domestic and foreign (…) All such received from the Right in general a sustained and unbending critique bordering on hysteria. The short-lived Tory Sunday newspaper, The Brunswick or True Blue was typical in its assessment, in 1821, when it lumped together the Jacobins of France, the Radicals of England, the Carbonari of Italy, and the Illuminati of Germany as “one and the same kidney” and “bound in common bond of hatred against order, religion, and the best interests of mankind.” (Sack, 39-40)

Is this not the same attitude of our modern “Conservatives?” Does that sound Pro-Republican?

James J. Sack goes on in that book to funnily quote Edmund Burke’s blood-curdling explosion in a letter (Anti-Jacobin, April 9, 1978, pp. 119-21) about the rise of European feminism after 1789, imploring to his friend, Mrs. Crewe to make the names of those feminists “odious to your Children.” Sack explains, the conservatives were so reactionary, the issue was not about agricultural interest, or opposition to land taxation, but were reactions, and rising perfervid emotions toward any suggestion of sexual or religious deviance.

Despite the idea of “the switch,” the modern heirs of the Republican Party like to debunk, take this thinking of the Southerners in James McPherson’s This Mighty Scourge, that sounds no different from the conservative fears of a “hispanization of america,” from its pundits and publications, and Donald Trump himself today about immigrants:

“The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death,” a South Carolina commissioner told Virginians in February 1861. “The South cannot exist without African slavery.” Mississippi’s commissioner to Maryland insisted that “slavery was ordained by God and sanctioned by humanity.” If slave states remained in a Union ruled by Lincoln and his party, “the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.”

If these warnings were not sufficient to frighten hesitating Southerners into secession, commissioners played the race card. A Mississippi commissioner told Georgians that Republicans intended not only to abolish slavery but also to “substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.” Georgia’s commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, “we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.”

Steven F. Hayward writes about the classical influences in the foundations: “Wood says that the American Revolution was a “republican” revolution. By that he means that it had intellectual roots ranging from ancient Greece and Rome to the English Commonwealth, and that it was more communal than capitalistic. “Ideally,” he writes, “republicanism obliterated the individual.” He explains that

…republicanism was essentially anti-capitalistic, a final attempt to come to terms with the emergent individualistic society that threatened to destroy once and for all the communion and benevolence that civilized men had always considered to be the ideal of human behavior.

As Mark Seidenfeld wrote in the Harvard Law Review: “I view the civic republican conception as providing an essential justification for the modern bureaucratic state…. Moreover, given the current ethic that approves of the private pursuit of self-interest as a means of making social policy, reliance on a more politically isolated administrative state may be necessary to implement something approaching the civic republican ideal.”

Wood’s work has been particularly important to liberal legal theorists. They have embraced key aspects of his argument in Creation of the American Republic as the foundation of a renewed attack on the Constitution’s few remaining restraints on government power. Law reviews are packed with articles touting the “revival of civic republicanism” as the new theoretical justification for welfare-statism, and as a substantive alternative to the historical dead-end of modern individualism. Mindful of the defects of Marxism, legal positivism, and Progressive era-style economic regulation, and facing the need to overcome the formidable arguments of constitutional originalism, civic republicanism enables the Left to turn the tables and claim an original intent argument of its own. The Left’s enthusiasm for Wood’s ideas took off, not coincidentally, in the late 1980s in the aftermath of Attorney General Edwin Meese’s elevation of the controversy over original intent. As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee historian J. David Hoeveler, Jr., observes,

What is at stake is nothing less than a contemporary liberal version of original intent…. These reconstructions of republicanism apply with varying specificity to the role of the Supreme Court in American society. They constitute a liberal original intent providing an ideological outline, or cultural value system, that has direct applications to law and the interpretation of law.

Wood’s Creation is invariably the principal source offered as historical support.” (Hayward, “The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood”)

American political theory and thinking might have republican roots, but this unfortunately changed after the Federalists’ appeal to the sovereignty of the People to ratify the Constitution. Appealing to the people for the ratification of the Constitution, the Federalists, Wood argues that they had to pretend the ratification was more democratic than it was. “As a result, they secured the triumph of the very democracy they were trying to contain. Necessity and events put republicanism onto the trash heap of history.”

“In the most frequently cited passage from Creation, Wood becomes the heir to, and modifier of, Charles Beard and Louis Hartz:

[T]he Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which the differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests. In other words, the Federalists in 1787 hastened the destruction of whatever chance there was in America for the growth of an avowedly aristocratic conception of politics and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics…. [T]he Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics…and created a distinctly American political theory but only at the cost of eventually impoverishing later American political thought.” (Hayward, “The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood”)

After 1789, Wood argues, there was no longer any room in America for classical thinking about the common good, or for the ideas that sustained it. Wood laments the loss.

So do I.

Gordon S. Wood in his Symposium on civic republicanism in Chicago Kent Law Review stated, that “the idea that we today can restore some sort of classical politics to our public life strikes me as utterly chimerical (…) All of [the legal scholars] seem to speak and write as if we had more freedom and choice in the matter than we do. They seem to suggest that people can actually be talked into restoring classical politics or even aspects of classical politics to American political life.”

Steven F. Hayward states, that republican ideology became obsolete due to circumstances in the historical process, but when the American regime was founded, it was new and distinctive in history. He argues, that although Gordon Wood “is the favorite historian of America’s liberal establishment,” liberals are not interpreting Wood incorrectly.

“Wood’s account of republicanism is fundamentally communitarian. Yet by citing Wood as they do, Sunstein, Ackerman, and the others neglect something essential in his work. In particular, they ignore the book’s conclusion. In Creation, Wood argues that an anti-capitalist concern for civic virtue and some idea of the “public good” lay at the heart of the 1776 revolution. That’s what liberals like about it.” (Hayward, “The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood”)

Wood, we are told argues that democratic nationalism triumphed over the republican ideology, and the ideological, cultural and social basis of the country transformed.

“He is correct that America’s founders read classical political thinkers with attention and learned from them, particularly about the connection between liberty and virtue.”

Wood, Hayward argues, fails to explain the classical virtue of individuals in its true sense, concerning wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation; and that he disregards in his works, the founders’ understanding of rights, the influence of Locke and the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the founders’, like Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of rights did not prevent him from not having slaves, only freeing two in his lifetime.

We are told of the weakness in Wood’s work:

“His readers don’t get the tools with which to understand Jefferson’s famous remark that the American mind drew, inter alia, upon the principles of the elementary books of public right, such as “Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” (…)

Wood’s vices are born of his virtues. He is a good historian who recognizes that the past is fundamentally different from the present, and for that reason, must be understood on its own terms. He takes that idea to such an extreme, however, that it damages his achievement. The fundamental difficulty in Wood’s approach to the founding is that he is closed to the possibility that the founders might have discovered some political truths that transcend time and place. The ideas of the founding cannot guide us today, he suggests, because they are ideas from the past, and the past, being different from the present, is irredeemably alien.

This belief animated his full-throated attack in the New York Review of Books in 1988 on the “quasi-religious view of the Founding” and the “fundamentalism” of what he called “the Leo Strauss bicentennial.” The Straussians “are wrong to see the Constitution as having timeless and universal meaning embodied in the philosophical aims of the Founders and discoverable through textual exegesis…. [H]istorically there can be no real ‘original intention’ behind the document.” This makes one wonder why Wood ever devoted such extended attention to the Constitution.

“In the end all the Founders created something that no one of them ever intended,” he writes. For him, that conclusion is a truism. According to his premises, historical figures cannot really know what they are doing; and historians who can know, but only in retrospect, cannot do anything with their knowledge. In short, one can learn about the past, but never from the past. Perhaps that goes too far, but only a bit. The deepest truth Wood sees in history is that history never ceases to move. From history, one cannot learn wisdom but at best a certain Romantic longing to be part of the communal whole that is in motion. This is watered-down, very watered-down, Heidegger.

Another way of saying all this is that the same dramatic irony—that the readers know truths about the founding that the founders could not possibly know—which makes the story Wood tells in Creation so compelling, also limits Wood’s insight into the era. Thomas Pangle argues that Wood and his emulators read republican political thought “in a spirit which is not only alien, but also inferior in seriousness to the spirit of the eighteenth-century readers.” (Hayward, “The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood”)

I’ve seen several well-known Republicans, speak or write with intellect and erudition on the things Steven F. Hayward speaks of, about the uniqueness of American Republicanism, but fail to find in their record, or the policies implemented in this country, a sign that they embody what they’re talking about, in these “classical virtues of the individual” Hayward says Wood is weak on.

“These difficulties make interesting Wood’s more recent expressions of dismay over multiculturalism and postmodernism. His own commitment to seeing political ideas as transient products of historical and social context leaves him, finally, no grounds of resistance to the intellectual corruption of our time. He arrives unarmed at conferences and faculty meetings. He betrays this here and there with a throwaway phrase. In a 1981 review of Oscar Handlin’s Truth in History, Wood writes: “[A]s we wait for modernism to engulf us, we can only carry on our historian’s business as best we can, clinging to Handlin’s belief that ‘truth resides in the small pieces that together form the record.’” But Wood never gives the sense that these small pieces will ever fit together into a larger whole, which could correct or instruct us about our present circumstances.” (Hayward, “The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood”)

Conservatives don’t either. 

“Jefferson may well have intellectually understood slavery’s great evil, and I don’t think any non-slave has explained it better. But there is no reason why this immunize him from the social pressures of his class. Jefferson may well have not liked holding slaves. But he loved the society that came from it. That society was a republic of white supremacy. And the next generation following Jefferson would dream of stretching that republic down into the tropics. The way Lenin believed in communism, the way we believe in capitalism, that is the way Jefferson’s heirs believed in white supremacy — so much so that they would come to denounce Jefferson.” (Ta-Nahesi Coates, Thomas Jefferson and the Divinity of the Founders, Dec 10, 2012)

What Steven F. Hayward states lastly here is exactly what I have tried to say and encourage:

“The most important reason for Wood’s wide, enduring appeal is that he cast a much-deserved spotlight on the ways in which classical republican thought infused the founding. Such an inquiry was a needed corrective to the view of America as a wholly modern, wholly liberal regime indifferent to public considerations of virtue. His approach might yield a new synthesis or at least combination of ancient and modern strands of political thought. But though his work raises the question, he does not, and cannot, answer it. In Wood’s recreation of the political thought of the founding, the idea of natural right (whether understood in ancient or modern terms) goes missing in action.

As a historian, Wood has many virtues. He writes with becoming modesty. As much as possible, he lets his sources do the talking. But that is what makes the limits of his vision all the more frustrating. His “objective” approach to history simplifies the past in order to make it more susceptible to interpretation. His historicism leads him to affect an apolitical posture when writing about deeply political things. An “objective” historian is not supposed to make value judgments. That is partly what he has in mind when he writes that historians cannot pay attention to philosophers if they are to do their work. This is a pity, for the political philosophers he disdains agree with him to a large extent that the tension between classical republican virtue and modern liberalism is a crucial question for understanding—and preserving—America. Yet those scholars of philosophy speak of moral reason and moral argument, not “value judgments.”

By its ambition and scope, Wood’s body of work will remain preeminent for some time in the historiography of the American Founding. But it begs to be superseded by an equally large-scale treatment that does not shy away from treating the founders as thinkers and statesmen, rather than as 18th-century ideologues.” (Hayward, “The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood”)


Hayward, Steven F. “The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood.” The Claremont Institute, Claremont Review of Books, Vol. VII, Number 1 – Winter 2006/07,

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