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

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

by Gordon S. Wood
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Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594202902
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date: 05/12/2011
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 9.36(w) x 6.38(h) x 1.24(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

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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The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Conservative-Kyle More than 1 year ago
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.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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Lencrest More than 1 year ago
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!