Renowned Scholars Face Off in Constitution Cage-Match

By Rodney Welch | Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Both Wood and Holton are in agreement that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in 1787 because they thought the American Revolution had gone too far — that it had actually made the country too democratic, too vulnerable to mob rule.
If you know anything about the historian Gordon S. Wood, chances are you have Matt Damon to thank.

Wood, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, was famously name-dropped in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Damon delivers a verbal ass-whupping to a pompous pseudo-intellectual.

When Wood arrives at the University of South Carolina next week, USC history professor Woody Holton is going to need to know him a lot better than Matt Damon did.

The two will face off in a spirited debate on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Law School, over the U.S. Constitution, a subject both know very well.

Both men have won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for books on the subject: Wood in 1969 with Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787 — the book Matt Damon had apparently memorized — and Holton in 2007 with Unruly Americans and the Origin of the Constitution.

“It was insane of me to invite him to debate me on the Constitution,” says Holton, “because he is the most prominent historian of the Constitution who is alive today.”

Ever since Wood agreed, Holton has been having second thoughts.

“In retrospect,” he says, “I’ve been punching myself in the forehead, saying, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”

On the one hand, Wood wouldn’t agree to the debate if he didn’t have a worthy partner. On the other, maybe he wouldn’t agree to debate anyone he thought would win.

As Holton sees it, if victory isn’t the outcome, then maybe his willing martyrdom will at least underscore the importance of debates to history, both the making of it and writing about it.

On at least one point both men agree, Holton says: They think the Constitution is, as Wood has described it, “undemocratic and indeed aristocratic in its structure.”

“Almost all the stuff that the people really love is in the Bill of Rights, and the post-Civil War amendments,” Holton says. “The fact that everyone can vote, you don’t get that until 1920. When people talk about how much they love the Constitution, they’re really talking about the amendments. The Constitution itself made the country a much less democratic place.”

Both Wood and Holton are in agreement that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in 1787 because they thought the American Revolution had gone too far — that it had actually made the country too democratic, too vulnerable to mob rule.

The two historians part company, however, on whether the Founding Fathers were right in their assumptions about average Americans. Wood says they were; that the Constitution was in place to correct what de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.” Holton begs to differ. He believes the Founders were sincere in their belief that democracy had failed, but wrong.

In a nutshell, he says, early American farmers got a bad rap from the Founding Fathers.

As Holton sees it, what may have looked like mob rule — such as laws that favored poor farmers over their creditors — was actually a response to a time of crushing economic reality.

“One of the things that happened in the 1770s and 1780s was massive deflation. The other, much more important one — and this will be very clear to people in our audience — is massive taxation. There’s a fine irony here, because the whole American Revolution had been about ‘No Taxation Without Representation,’ and then once we got our own representatives, what’s the first thing they did? Adopt taxes that were, on average, three times higher than Americans had paid as British colonists.”

Both deflation — where there was so little money in circulation that people had to sell three horses to pay off the debt on one — and enormous taxes broke the economy, and pushed farmers in the point where they were demanding relief.

“I think that Gordon Wood — and again, the majority of historians are on his side — join the story halfway through,” Holton says. “They see farmers demanding relief and getting relief from the legislature, but they fail to ask why were the farmers demanding relief. They had to demand relief because the state legislatures initially had really stuck it to the farmers, and that had not only hurt them individually, but had crippled the economy.”

Will Holton embarrass Wood the way Matt Damon embarrassed that guy at the bar? He’s certainly boned up on Wood’s books and articles, looking for weak spots. He’s hoping to be Rocky Balboa, going up against an overconfident Apollo Creed.

“I’m thoroughly intimidated, but people get the point: History is a series of debates,” he says. “They may get that point through the local kid being humiliated, but if that’s the sacrifice I have to make, I’m willing to make it.”

The “Constitutional Cage Match” between Gordon S. Wood and Woody Holton will be held this Tuesday, Oct. 15, at the USC Law School Auditorium, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. A 30-minute question and answer session will follow.