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  • JOHANN N. NEEM (a1)


Gordon Wood stoked a strong response from his fellow early American historians in 2015 when, in the pages of the Weekly Standard, he accused the Omohundro Institute of Early American History, publishers of the prestigious William and Mary Quarterly, of abandoning interest in the development of the United States. “A new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be,” Wood argued. “That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it.” Wood blamed the shift away from the nation on historians’ interest in such issues as race and gender: “The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation's past has had to turn to the history books written by nonacademics who have no PhDs and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.” Of the William and Mary Quarterly, Wood concluded, “without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.”



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Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Modern History Colloquium at Louisiana State University, the Early American Seminar in Seattle, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the Society for US Intellectual History, and the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History. I thank Tim Breen, Andrew Burstein, Leslie Butler, Seth Cotlar, Lisa Ford, Paul Halliday, Vicki Hsueh, Nancy Isenberg, Richard R. Johnson, James T. Kloppenberg, A. Ricardo López-Pedreros, Kenneth Owen, Jeffrey Pasley, Joshua Piker, Sophia Rosenfeld, Leonard J. Sadosky III, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Alan Taylor for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts. Angus Burgin and Modern Intellectual History’s editors provided substantive feedback. I, of course, take full responsibility for the perspective offered here.



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1 Gordon S. Wood, “History in Context,” Weekly Standard, Feb. 2015, at

2 Christopher Minty, “Finding Its Way: Gordon Wood and the William and Mary Quarterly,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, 9 Sept. 2015, at; Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “Gordon Wood on Bernard Bailyn: American Religious History and ‘An Honest Picture of the Past’,” Religion in American History blog, 6 March 2015, at; Kevin Levin, “Gordon Wood, the Politics of History and the History Classroom,” Civil War Memory blog, 23 Feb. 2015, at; Eran Zelnik, “I Am a Presentist—and So Is Gordon Wood,” U.S. Intellectual History Blog, 18 Feb. 2015, at; John Fea, “Gordon Wood Is Still Relevant,” The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog, 18 Feb. 2015, at

3 Josh Piker, “Getting Lost,” Uncommon Sense, The Blog, 21 Jan. 2016, at, original emphasis.

4 For some context see Andrew Hartman, “The Culture Wars Are Dead: Long Live the Culture Wars!”, The Baffler 39 (May 2018), at

5 Fraser, Nancy, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” in Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (London and New York, 2013), 223, makes a similar point concerning feminist politics: “Unambiguously emancipatory in the era of state-organized capitalism, critiques of economism, androcentrism, étatism, and Westphalianism now appear fraught with ambiguity, susceptible to serving the legitimation needs of a new form of capitalism. After all, this capitalism would much prefer to confront claims for recognition over claims for redistribution.” See also Jeremy Adelman, “What Is Global History Now?” Aeon, 2 March 2017, at On questions of these kinds see also Dinner, Deborah, “Beyond ‘Best Practices’: Employment Discrimination Law in the Neoliberal Era,” Indiana Law Journal 92/3 (2017), 10591118.

6 Drayton, Richard and Motadel, David, “Discussion: The Futures of Global History,” Journal of Global History 13/1 (2018), 121. Drayton and Motadel are responding most directly to Adeleman, “What Is Global History Now?”. For discussions of the emergence of global history see, among many good sources, Lang, Michael, “Globalization and Its History,” Journal of Modern History 78/4 (2006), 899931; Hunt, Lynn, Writing History in the Global Era (New York, 2015); Cheng, Eileen Ka-May, Historiography: An Introductory Guide (London, 2012), chap. 6. In the case of US historiography see Guarneri, Carl J., “Globalizating the U.S. Survey-Course Textbook: Challenges, Choices, and Opportunities,” Journal of American History 103/4 (2017), 983–92.

7 Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1970). For a Kuhnian interpretation see Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era, chap. 2.

8 On debates over national historiography and further citations see Neem, Johann N., “American History in a Global Age,” History and Theory 50/1 (2011), 4170.

9 Thus Pompeian, Edward P., “Mind the Global U-Turn: Reorienting Early American History in a Global Context,” Journal of the Early Republic 36/4 (2016), 715–52, argues that historians of global supply chains are uniquely suited to understand the workings of the early modern Atlantic world. If what matters is exchange, what topic is better suited to understand it than economic history? Although Pompeian is aware of the risk that such work might become “the handmaiden of today's globalization or global capitalism” (ibid., 748), he nonetheless concludes that the benefits of transcending national historiographies are worth the risk. His essay demonstrates, despite his protestations, how deep the ideas of neoliberal economic globalization today are to the emergence of histories of vast early America.

10 Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Johnson, Randal (New York, 1993), 3031, 64. For overviews of Bourdieu's field theory see, among many sources, Patricia Thompson, “Field,” in Grenfell, Michael, ed., Pierre Bourdieu: Key Concepts (Stocksfield, 2008), 6781; Calhoun, Craig, “Habitus, Field, and Capital,” in Calhoun, Craig, LiPuma, Edward, and Postone, Moishe, eds., Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives (Chicago, 1993), 6188.

11 Slobodian, Quinn, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA, 2018), 265–6; Duménil, Gérard and Lévy, Dominique, Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 2004).

12 Anderson, James, “The Shifting Stage of Politics: New Medieval and Postmodern Territorialities?”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14 (1996), 133–53, at 141. Sassen, Saskia, Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (New York, 1996), 6. See also Barkan, Joshua, Corporate Sovereignty: Law and Government under Capitalism (Minneapolis, 2013); Rodrik, Dani, The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (New York, 2011).

13 Anderson, “The Shifting Stage of Politics,” 134, 140, 152. On the contingent, and changing, forms of globalization see Jürgen Osterhammel, Globalization: A Short History (Princeton, 2005).

14 Sassen, Losing Control, 31.

15 Onuf, Nicholas G., “Sovereignty: Outline of a Conceptual History,” Alternatives 16/4 (1991), 425–66, at 428, 439.

16 David Singh Grewal and Jedidiah Purdy, “Law and Neoliberalism,” Law and Political Economy blog post, 6 Nov. 2017, at See also Brown, Wendy, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (Brooklyn, 2015).

17 Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, 1991).

18 Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 121, 141–72. On the changing nature of work see also historian Hyman, Louis, “Temps, Consultants, and the Rise of the Precarious Economy,” Hedgehog Review 18/1 (2016), 1832; and Hyman, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary (New York, 2018).

19 Rodgers, Daniel, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA, 2011), 10. For a discussion of how the category of “society” emerged and was, ultimately, overcome, see also Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era, chap. 3.

20 See also Lang, “Globalization.” It is worth noting that Rodgers would not use the term “neoliberalism” because he worries that it (a) encompasses too much, and (b) lacks political value beyond elite academic contexts. See Rodgers, “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Neoliberalism,” Dissent, Winter 2018, at

21 Rodgers, Age of Fracture, 188, 196–98.

22 Ibid., 2, 5.

23 Ford, Lisa, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia 1788–1836 (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 2; Benton, Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge, 2010). See also Adelman, Jeremy and Aron, Stephen, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104/3 (1999), 814–41.

24 Charles S. Maier, “Transformations of Territoriality 1600–2000,” in Oliver Janz and Sebastian Conrad, eds., Transnationale Geschichte: Themen, Tendenzen and Theorien (Göttingen, 2006), 32–55, at 34, 35, 36.

25 For overviews of historians’ changing approaches to studying the British Empire see Johnson, Richard R., “Empire,” in Vickers, Daniel, ed., A Companion to Colonial America (Malden, MA, 2003), 99117; Benton, Lauren, “Constitutions and Empires,” Law and Social Inquiry 31/1 (2006), 177–98; Burnard, Trevor, “Empire Matters? The Historiography of Imperialism in Early America, 1492–1830,” History of European Ideas 33/1 (2007), 87107.

26 Armitage, David, Foundations of Modern International Thought (Cambridge, 2013), 21.

27 Kumar, Krishan, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton, 2017), 3.

28 White, Hayden, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973), esp. 7–11. On Revolutionary narratives see also Knott, Sarah, “Narrating the Age of Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 73/1 (2016), 336. Saler, Bethel, The Settlers’ Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America's Old Northwest (Philadelphia, 2015), offers a polity-centered examination of state building in the West, while highlighting the central importance of how such historical narratives are constructed.

29 The phrase is from Sylvia Frey, “Causes of the American Revolution,” in Vickers, A Companion to Colonial America, 508–29, at 511. Interestingly, these new narratives are no less focused on the Revolution than was previous scholarship, but the meaning of the Revolution is best understood as a cathartic moment implied from the beginning.

30 DuVal, Kathleen, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York, 2016).

31 White, Richard, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (New York, 1991), x, 523; DeLay, Brian, “Introduction,” in DeLay, ed., North American Borderlands (New York, 2013), 18.

32 Richter, Daniel, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 189. Richter's book builds on the work of many scholars, including his own earlier works. See also Kathleen DuVal, “Debating Identity, Sovereignty, and Civilization,” in DeLay, North American Borderlands, 263–83; Katherine Hermes, “The Law of Native Americans, to 1815,” in Michael Grossberg and Christopher Tomlins, eds., The Cambridge History of Law in America, vol. 1, Early America (1580–1815) (New York, 2008), 32–62; Merritt, Jane T., At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700–1763 (Chapel Hill, 2003).

33 Ford, Settler Sovereignty, 19, 30, 82–83, 130, 183.

34 Joshua Piker, review of Pekka Hämäläinen, The Commanche Empire, William and Mary Quarterly 67/2 (2010), 379–82, at 382.

35 Benton, Lauren and Ross, Richard J., “Empires and Legal Pluralism: Jurisdiction, Sovereignty, and Political Imagination in the Early Modern World,” in Benton and Ross, eds., Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500–1850 (New York, 2013), 1–18, at 2. See also Benton, Lauren, “AHR Forum: Law and Empire in Global Perspective,” American Historical Review 117/4 (2012), 10921100; Benton, “Historical Perspectives on Legal Pluralism,” Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 3/1 (2011), 57–69; Grasso, Christopher and Wulf, Karin, “Nothing Says ‘Democracy’ Like a Visit from the Queen: Reflections on Empire and Nation in Early American Histories,” Journal of American History 95/3 (2008), 764–81. Recent examples include Beverley, Eric Lewis, “Frontier as Resource: Law, Crime, and Sovereignty on the Margins of Empire,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55/2 (2013), 241–72.

36 Lennox, Jeffers, “A Time and a Place: The Geography of British, French, and Aboriginal Interactions in Early Nova Scotia,” William and Mary Quarterly 72/3 (2015), 423–60, at 429.

37 On this point see, as examples, Piker, Joshua, “Lying Together: The Imperial Implications of Cross-cultural Untruths,” American Historical Review 116/4 (2011), 964–86; Hsueh, Vicki, Hybrid Constitutions: Challenging Legacies of Law, Privilege, and Culture in Colonial America (Durham, NC, 2010); Hulsebosch, Daniel J., Constituting Empire: New York and the Transformation of Constitutionalism in the Atlantic World, 1664–1830 (Chapel Hill, 2005); Piker, Joshua, Okfuskee: A Creek Indian Town in Colonial America (Cambridge, MA, 2004); Benton, Lauren, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900 (New York, 2002). Hsueh, Hybrid Constitutions, emphasizes the importance of looking at on-the-ground practices over constitutional rhetoric, but she also recognizes that “while some accommodation between colonists and indigenes was possible because of features such as discretion, adaptation, and negotiation, it was also the case that accommodation did not prevent exploitation and coercion” (ibid., 124). This point is made clear in Rushforth, Brett, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill, 2012). On the pluralism of the law see also Tomlins, Christopher L. and Mann, Bruce H., eds., The Many Legalities of Early America (Chapel Hill, 2001). It is worth noting that nation-states, no less than empires, are composed of “irreducible pluralities,” according to Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000), 179.

38 DuVal, Independence Lost, xvii. In contrast, Adelman and Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders,” 839, remind us that even in the borderlands, political institutions exerted an autonomous force: “Cross-cultural brokering and conflict shaped but did not determine the patterns of coexistence. In the end, Old World conflicts and eighteenth-century warfare provided the decisive markers for hinterland processes.”

39 Paul Halliday, “Laws’ Histories: Pluralism, Pluralities, Diversity,” in Benton and Ross, Legal Pluralism and Empires, 261–77.

40 Megill, Allan, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice (Chicago, 2007), 72. See also Knott, “Narrating the Age of Revolution.” More generally see Megill, Historical Knowledge, chaps. 3–4; Smith, Rogers, Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership (New York, 2003). According to Knott, “Narrating the Age of Revolution,” 21, one of the things that make some contemporary accounts appropriate “for neoliberal times” is their “politically quietist narrative form.” But, I would note, this political quietism may reflect an uncertainty or even a hesitancy to recognize the political implications of some new work.

41 Burnard, Trevor, “The British Atlantic,” in Greene, Jack P. and Morgan, Philip D., eds., Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (New York, 2009), 111–36, at 128. See also Burnard, Trevor and Vidal, Cécile, “Location and the Conceptualization of Historical Frameworks: Early American History and Its Multiple Reconfigurations in the United States and Europe,” in Barrreyre, Nicolas, Michael Heale, Stephen Tuck, and Cécile Vidal, eds., Historians across Borders: Writing American History in a Global Age (Berkeley, 2014), 141–62.

42 Westbury, Jerusha and Hanson Shrout, Analise, “An Entangled World: Loyalties, Allegiances, and Affiliations in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Early American Studies 11/1 (2013), 114, at 2, 6.

43 DuVal, Independence Lost, xxv–xxvi.

44 Benton, Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (New York, 2010), 2.

45 Benton, Law and Colonial Cultures, 6–7, 28, 30, 265, original emphasis. For a contrasting perspective, which emphasizes the benefits of order and shared norms, see Hanna, Mark G., Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570–1740 (Chapel Hill, 2015).

46 Burbank, Jane and Cooper, Frederick, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, 2010), 1.

47 Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History, 2, 12, 16, 22, 458.

48 Kumar, Visions of Empire, 475. To Brown, Undoing the Demos, 20, under neoliberalism, the collective political rule of citizens in a democracy “transmutes into governance and management,” something that recent scholarship concludes empires are particularly well suited to achieve compared to democracies.

49 Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History, 459. Although, “from a different perspective,” Jean L. Cohen writes in “Sovereign Equality vs. Imperial Right: The Battle over the ‘New World Order’,” Constellations 13/4 (2006), 485–505, at 491, “the sovereignty-based model of international law appears to be ceding not to cosmopolitan justice, but to an imperial project of dominance and indirect control of key ‘peripheries.’”

50 Lennox, “Geography of Interactions,” 437.

51 Taylor, Alan, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760–1820 (Chapel Hill, 1990), 5; Taylor, William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York, 1995), 5–6.

52 Taylor, Alan, American Colonies (New York, 2001), xi–xii.

53 Ibid., xiv, 443, 477.

54 Taylor, Alan, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York, 2007), 7, 10–11, 407. On this point see also John, Rachel St., Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.–Mexico Border (Princeton, 2011). For an interesting discussion of the meaning of borders in the context of contemporary globalization see Brown, Wendy, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York, 2014).

55 Taylor, Alan, Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York, 2010), 8, 10, 457–8. For an equally critical account of Americans’ efforts to draw clear territorial, racial, and cultural boundaries, which does not embrace the narrative of a prelapsarian fall, see Rosen, Deborah, Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood (Cambridge, MA, 2015).

56 Taylor, Alan, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 (New York, 2016), 6.

57 In some ways, the neoliberal perspective echoes Thomas Hobbes's argument during the English Civil Wars that the nature of the sovereign matters less than the extent of movement. Freedom, to Hobbes, began and ended with what a body can do. In response, advocates of republicanism argued that one cannot be free if one cannot consent to the laws by which one is governed. Freedom therefore was only possible within a republic. See Skinner, Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge, 2008); and Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge, 1998).

58 For example, Nash, Gary B., The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York, 2005). On the politics of citizenship see, as examples, Jones, Martha S., Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York, 2018); Sinha, Manisha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, 2016); Parkinson, Robert G., The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 2016); Sachs, Honor, Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier (New Haven, 2015); Bradburn, Douglas, The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774–1804 (Charlottesville, 2009); Zagarri, Rosemarie, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia, 2007); Newman, Richard S., The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (Chapel Hill, 2002); Smith, Rogers, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven, 1997); Robertson, Andrew W., The Language of Democracy: Political Rhetoric in the United States and Britain, 1790–1900 (Ithaca, 1995).

59 Van Cleve, George, A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic (Chicago, 2010); Waldstreicher, David, Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (New York, 2009); Rothman, Adam, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA, 2005); Fehrenbacher, Don E., The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery, ed. McAfee, Ward M. (Oxford, 2001)

60 Yirush, Craig, Settlers, Liberty, and Empire: The Roots of Early American Political Theory 1675–1775 (New York, 2011), 270. On these points see also Rana, Aziz, The Two Faces of American Freedom (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 17, 22; Griffin, Patrick, America's Revolution (New York, 2013); Countryman, Edward, “Indians, the Colonial Order, and the Social Significance of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 53/2 (1996), 342–62

61 Moyn, Samuel, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge, MA, 2018). See also Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox.

62 See recently Song, Sarah, “Three Models of Civic Solidarity,” in Smith, Rogers, ed., Citizenship, Borders, and Human Needs (Philadelphia, 2011), 192207. See also Smith, Stories of Peoplehood; Taylor, Charles, “Liberal Politics and the Public Sphere,” in Etzioni, A., ed., New Communitarian Thinking (Charlottesville, 1995), 183–21; Calhoun, Craig, Nations Matter: Culture, History, and the Cosmopolitan Dream (London, 2007).

Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Modern History Colloquium at Louisiana State University, the Early American Seminar in Seattle, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the Society for US Intellectual History, and the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History. I thank Tim Breen, Andrew Burstein, Leslie Butler, Seth Cotlar, Lisa Ford, Paul Halliday, Vicki Hsueh, Nancy Isenberg, Richard R. Johnson, James T. Kloppenberg, A. Ricardo López-Pedreros, Kenneth Owen, Jeffrey Pasley, Joshua Piker, Sophia Rosenfeld, Leonard J. Sadosky III, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Alan Taylor for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts. Angus Burgin and Modern Intellectual History’s editors provided substantive feedback. I, of course, take full responsibility for the perspective offered here.

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