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


Edited by Scott Moyers

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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Praise

“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

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Excerpt

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.

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