The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States

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Overview


The preeminent historian of the American Revolution explains why it remains the most significant event in our history.

More than almost any other nation in the world, the United States began as an idea. For this reason, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood believes that the American Revolution is the most important event in our history, bar none. Since American identity is so fluid and not based on any universally shared heritage, we have had to continually return to our nation's founding to understand who we are. In The Idea of America, Wood reflects on the birth of American nationhood and explains why the revolution remains so essential.

In a series of elegant and illuminating essays, Wood explores the ideological origins of the revolution-from ancient Rome to the European Enlightenment-and the founders' attempts to forge an American democracy. As Wood reveals, while the founders hoped to create a virtuous republic of yeoman farmers and uninterested leaders, they instead gave birth to a sprawling, licentious, and materialistic popular democracy.

Wood also traces the origins of American exceptionalism to this period, revealing how the revolutionary generation, despite living in a distant, sparsely populated country, believed itself to be the most enlightened people on earth. The revolution gave Americans their messianic sense of purpose-and perhaps our continued propensity to promote democracy around the world-because the founders believed their colonial rebellion had universal significance for oppressed peoples everywhere. Yet what may seem like audacity in retrospect reflected the fact that in the eighteenth century republicanism was a truly radical ideology-as radical as Marxism would be in the nineteenth-and one that indeed inspired revolutionaries the world over.

Today there exists what Wood calls a terrifying gap between us and the founders, such that it requires almost an act of imagination to fully recapture their era. Because we now take our democracy for granted, it is nearly impossible for us to appreciate how deeply the founders feared their grand experiment in liberty could evolve into monarchy or dissolve into licentiousness. Gracefully written and filled with insight, The Idea of America helps us to recapture the fears and hopes of the revolutionary generation and its attempts to translate those ideals into a working democracy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Wood challenges the popular view that the war for American independence was fought for practical and economic reasons, like unfair taxation. In this exceptional collection of essays (some previously published and others originating as lectures) he argues brilliantly to the contrary, that the Revolution was indeed fought over principles, such as liberty, republicanism, and equality. As he points out, Americans believed they alone had the virtues republicanism requires (such as simplicity and egalitarianism) and thus were supportive but skeptical of revolutions in France and Latin America. When joined to Protestant millennialism, Americans grew to believe that they were God's chosen people, with a mission to lead the world toward liberty and republican government, a view that Wood uses to explain America's continued attempts to create republics in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a remarkable study of the key chapter of American history and its ongoing influence on American character. (May)
Library Journal
Wood (Alva O. Way University Professor, Brown Univ.; The Radicalism of the American Revolution) has long pronounced the American Revolution to be the transformative event in U.S. history, one to which we continually return to "refresh and reaffirm our nationhood." Standing above the stark economic determinism of Progressive Era historians (e.g., Charles Beard) and the ideological determinist school characterized by Bernard Bailyn, Wood has devoted his prolific career to constructing a historical interpretation that combines all aspects of the American Revolution into a viable synthesis. Whether discussing the foundations of the American Constitution, the Revolutionary mentality, or the birth of modern American politics, these previously published essays and lectures represent the incredible range of this eminent scholar's contributions to the historiography of the Revolutionary era. Wood's introduction and conclusion encapsulate his themes, while his brief afterwords to each chapter note the evolution of his thought. VERDICT Intellectually expansive and elegantly woven, Wood's writings are the closest thing we have to an elegant mediation between today's readers and the founding generation. Required reading for Revolutionary War enthusiasts on all levels.—Brian Odom, Pelham P.L., AL
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize winner Wood has been writing persuasively about the American Revolution for a half century. This collection of essays, which range over his entire career, reveal how the Revolution has defined us as a nation.
Kirkus Reviews

A Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize–winning historian offers deeply contemplative essays from a career devoted to studying the Revolutionary Era.

If, as Wood (History/Brown Univ.; Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, 2009, etc.) asserts, the Revolution "is the most important event in American history, bar none," it follows that arguments over its ideology, the doctrinal core of the nation's creation, become critical, not just to contemporary politicians and activists looking to the past for legitimacy, but even—and more regrettably—to generations of historians bent on imposing their own era's preoccupations. The author discloses his own methodology, of particular value to those interested in historiography, and also important to the general reader looking for reliable information about the nation's origins. Wood rejects the temptation to take sides among history's combatants. Rather, the historian's task, he writes, is to examine why they "thought and behaved as they did," understanding that ideas, while important, are subordinate to passions driving social change, that they are always constrained by the facts on the ground and frequently entail consequences that no one, not even their sponsors, could foresee. With these stipulations and with genuine modesty—in postscripts to most of these essays, Wood frequently offers second thoughts about pieces composed years ago—he covers such topics as the disconnect between the sometimes lurid rhetoric accompanying the more prosaic reality of the Revolution; the Founders' fascination with the rise and fall of Republican Rome; the unique radicalism shared by Jefferson and Tom Paine; the conspiratorial interpretation of events that flourished in the 18th century; the era's sincere fear of monarchism on the one hand, mob rule on the other; the ideal of disinterestedness versus the competing interests unleashed by messy democracy; the peculiar awkwardness of the republic's first decade; and the origins of our unique constitutionalism and our sometimes misguided political evangelism. It's difficult to conjure another writer so at home in the period, so prepared to translate its brilliant strangeness for a modern audience.

Sound, agenda-free analysis, gracefully presented.

David Hackett Fischer
…a collection of 11 essays, along with an introduction and conclusion, that encompass [Wood's] entire career. It reveals more of the author than any of his other work and creates the opportunity for an overall assessment of his achievement.
—The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal
"Mr. Wood is our premier student of the Founding Era. He has been writing history for about a half-century, roughly a fifth of the days since the origin of the republic. He has scrupulously avoided appropriating his subject for modern-day political purposes and instead tried to understand it on its own terms and as a whole. Historians will of course bring to their study certain questions and concerns of their own time—no one can or should avoid this—but the greatest historians are those, like Mr. Wood, who do not make our criteria of importance the main theme. …It is Mr. Wood's most ‘personal’ work, providing us, along with much fine history, glimpses into the thinker and the man."
The Providence Journal
"Wood’s lucid writing style and ability to take complex ideas and spell them out for the layman allows him to detail the fascinating story of how the emphasis of historians treating the Revolution has shifted over time."
The Washington Independent Review of Books
"His purpose is nothing less than to make sense of the United States and its place in the world...an intellectual autobiography of the most distinguished and influential early American historian of his generation." 
The Daily
"[The Idea of America] give[s] broad insight into some of the most important moments in American history."
Louisville Courier-Journal
"Wood, one of our most eminent historians, has devoted his long career to illuminating how American government evolved and how the events of that period continue to define government and politics today-often in reliving the controversies that divided thinkers and politicians then." 
Celebrated Living
"The insightful essays explore the ideological origins of the Revolution and the founders’ attempts at forging an American democracy, and they provide food for thought on whether America has become the country our founders hoped it would be."
American Heritage Publishing Staff
"Nuanced, elegant essays…it’s hard to imagine a historian better trained to write on this subject"
Booklist
"Wood…has long been recognized as one of the preeminent historians of the era of the American Revolution. In this series of cogent, beautifully written essays, Wood repeats some of his familiar themes, but they are well worth revisiting."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202902
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/12/2011
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 9.36 (w) x 6.38 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and a professor of history at Brown University. His 1969 book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776- 1787, received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes and was nominated for the National Book Award. His 1992 book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Emerson Prize. His most recent book, Empire of Liberty, won the 2010 New-York Historical Society Prize in American History. Wood contributes regularly to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I The American Revolution

1 Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution 25

2 The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution 57

3 Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century 81

Part II The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy

4 Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution 121

5 The Origins of American Constitutionalism 171

6 The Making of American Democracy 189

7 The Radicalism of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine Considered 213

Part III The Early Republic

8 Monarchism and Republicanism in Early America 231

9 Illusions of Power in the Awkward Era of Federalism 251

10 The American Enlightenment 273

11 A History of Rights in Early America 291

Conclusion: The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy Around the World 319

Acknowledgments 337

Notes 339

Index 339

Credits 387

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Posted July 27, 2011

    Professor Wood Strikes Again!!

    I first became aware of Professor Wood's work throughout my AP United States History course last year in high school. When studying the Revolutionary years, as well as the decades following, we were required to read the volume Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. The amount of information covered in this book, along with how he presented this period, truly touched my historical spirit; the way in which he gracefully wrote this piece allowed me to become more knowledgeable on this time frame than I had predicted before turning the first page.

    Professor Wood's Empire of Liberty captures the who, what, when, and where of our early Republic and bestows great honor onto our Founders; but the element that was so desperately missing was they why. In his recently published The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, Wood goes beyond people, places, dates, and events but instead clarifies why these things occurred in the fashion they did. This book, mostly a collection of re-published essays over his lengthy career, stretches far back to English origins, Enlightenment values, and the reasons for why men such as Jefferson and Paine responded to their mother country the way they chose.

    Throughout The Idea of America, Wood fills-in historical gaps by using thoughts and ideas the Founders believed would generate an eager, yet naïve, nation onto the road of prosperity: a country based on the notions of republican values, promoting positive liberty, and engaging in a meaningful, virtuous society. More of a philosophical read than a normal black-and-white history book, The Idea of America provides the reasoning behind actions taken by the likes of Washington, Adams, and Madison through years spanning from the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 until the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

    The Idea of America is a wonderful read and a must have for anyone that is, or aspires to become, a truly genuine scholar of American History. Professor Wood is at his best, yet again.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2011

    "The Idea of America" has earned five stars in my opinion.

    Mr. Wood's knowledge, intelligence, keen insight, ability to finesse the
    political and cultural nuance of this period in American history, make this
    book one that I will treasure, and I'm only a bit more than half way
    through it. When I'm finished reading it, I'm sure it'll be placed on the
    book shelf next to some of the best histories I own, Margaret McMillan's
    "Paris 1919", Elaine Pagels' "The Gnostic Gospels", Steven Waldman's
    "Founding Faith" and a few others for example.
    David Vineberg

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  • Posted August 4, 2011

    Difficult Read

    I selected this work based on an interesting review in the New York Times. I was disappointed to say the least. The book is very repitive in making it's points. The same point is made over and over again in different ways just to beat into you the author's point. The premise is quite interesting; however, it seemed to me that the publisher asked for so many pages and Mr. Wood kept writing the same thoughts until he got there!

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 4, 2012

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    Posted October 21, 2011

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    Posted April 21, 2013

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    Posted May 31, 2011

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