“Mr. Wood is the premier student of the Founding Era.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Gordon S. Wood is more than an American historian. He is almost an American institution. Wood has done more than anyone to make the era of the Revolution and early Republic into one of the liveliest periods in American history.” —The New York Times Book Review
“When Gordon Wood says anything about America, people listen. Especially when he talks about the lessons of history, as he has for more than half a century now.” —Providence Journal
“[A] collection of nuanced, elegant essays. It’s hard to imagine a historian better trained to write on this subject.” —American Heritage magazine
“Exceptional… a remarkable study of the key chapter of American history and its ongoing influence on American character.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Cogent, beautifully written essays… A superb collection.” —Booklist (starred)
“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.” —Kirkus Reviews
“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.” —Library Journal
The ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788 was greeted with more excitement and more unanimity among the American people than at any time since the Declaration of Independence a decade earlier. “’Tis done!” declared Benjamin Rush in July 1788. “We have become a nation.” This was an extravagant claim, to say the least. Yet Rush thought the new United States had become a nation virtually overnight, one that represented the “triumph of knowledge over ignorance, of virtue over vice, and of liberty over slavery.”
What gave revolutionaries like Rush confidence in America’s instant nationhood was their belief in America’s enlightenment. As early as 1765 John Adams had declared that all previous American history had pointed toward the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The seventeenth-century settlement of America, he said, had opened up “a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” The revolution had become the climax of this great historic drama. With the break from Great Britain complete and the Constitution ratified, many Americans in the 1790s thought that the United States had become the “most enlightened” nation in the world.
For the people of these obscure provinces to make this claim seemed scarcely credible. The United States in 1789, in comparison with the former mother country, was still an underdeveloped country. Americans had no sophisticated court life, no magnificent cities, no great concert halls, no lavish drawing rooms, and not much to speak of in the way of the fine arts. Its economy was primitive. There was as yet nothing comparable to the Bank of England; there were no stock exchanges, no large trading companies, no great centers of capital. Nineteen out of twenty Americans were still employed in agriculture, and most of them lived in tiny rural communities. No wonder many Europeans thought of the United States as a remote wilderness at the very edges of Christendom, three thousand miles from the centers of Western civilization.
Nevertheless, as far removed from the centers of civilization as they were, many Americans persisted in believing not only that they were the most enlightened people on earth but also that because they were enlightened they were by that fact alone a nation. Indeed, America became the first nation in the world to base its nationhood solely on Enlightenment values. Gertrude Stein might have been right when she said that America was the oldest country in the world.