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

  • Gordon S. Wood
  • Penguin Press
  • 352 pp.
  • August 1, 2011

From a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, an analysis of the American Revolution, its central achievements and its long-term impact.

Reviewed by Pauline Maier

At the beginning of The Idea of America, Gordon Wood refers to a now familiar distinction in intellectual styles that Isaiah Berlin drew from the Greek poet Archilochus.  “The fox knows many things,” the poet wrote, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”   Between those choices, Wood says he is a “simple hedgehog” since all of his publications “have dealt with the American Revolution and its consequences.” There is, however, nothing simple and not much hedgehog-like about his capacious interpretation of the Revolution, which he insists “is the most important event in American History, bar none.” In explicating the roots as well as the consequences of that subject, he reaches back to the history of Rome and of 17th-century England as well as to colonial America, and moves forward to contemporary American foreign policy. His purpose is nothing less than to make sense of the United States and its place in the world.

The book is a collection of articles and lectures that Wood, the Alva O. Way University Professor emeritus at Brown and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, wrote over a long career. The oldest was first published 45 years ago; only the introduction and conclusion are new to the book. However, several essays have been revised or are composites of lectures and articles presented at various times and occasionally published under a different title. Wood’s rewriting, and his division of the book into units on “The Revolution,” “The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy” and “The Early Republic,” makes The Idea of America more than a collection of miscellaneous essays. In effect, Wood molded the parts of the book into a coherent, insightful and readable analysis of the Revolution, its central achievements and its long-term impact.

The Idea of America is also to some extent an intellectual autobiography of the most distinguished and influential early American historian of his generation. “Although I have been working on the Revolutionary era for my entire career,” Wood says, “I don’t now conceive of it in the same way I did a half century ago.” In the 1960s, he explains, the Colonial and Revolutionary periods were generally linked and studied apart from the period after 1789, which was often studied with little reference to preceding events.  Later historians associated with SHEAR (the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) focused instead on the period from 1750 to 1820 or 1840, which made the Revolution an expression “of wide-ranging social and cultural changes that took longer than a decade to work out.” That was no doubt, as Wood says, “a radical and rewarding change in American historiography,” but how else has his thinking changed?

Perhaps the most intriguing and complex parts of the book are the opening chapter on “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” based on an article with the same title published in 1966, and sections of the Introduction in which he meditates on the role of ideas in history. The article was in part a reaction to an assertion by his distinguished mentor, Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn, that the ideas expressed by American pamphleteers were “to an unusual degree, explanatory,” revealing not just “positions taken but the reasons why positions were taken.” Wood, by contrast, denied and still denies “that ideas ‘cause’ human behavior.” The passions, he says, not reason, drive human actions (which is of course different than “positions taken”); and in 1966 he asserted that the “frenzied rhetoric” of the Revolution expressed “the most severe sorts of social strain.” Without denying the importance of ideas in history, he sought to connect them with socio-economic circumstances.

In retrospect, Wood’s position seems less different from Bailyn’s than it might have seemed at the time. In accepting the content of revolutionary pamphlets and other writings as a fit subject for historical study, both were dramatically different from the earlier “Progressive” historians who dismissed those sources as “propaganda,” designed only to manipulate readers. Both were interested in how chains of thought drove people toward unanticipated conclusions, and in how the revolutionaries’ ideology shaped the institutional structure of the United States. For Bailyn, moreover, revolutionary ideology consisted not of abstract ideals but an essentially anthropological system of ideas, deeply rooted in the English past, that Americans embraced because it made sense of their world and gave them guidance in understanding and reacting to events. It also allowed historians to see those events through the eyes of 18-century people without the anachronisms that Wood also seeks to avoid.

To be sure, Wood’s landmark Creation of the American Republic (1969) and Pulitzer-Prize winning Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) were far more concerned with social change than Bailyn’s more chronologically focused, Pulitzer Prize-winning  Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). In The Idea of America, Wood again stresses that the Revolution brought a radical social transformation. For him, colonial society was “hierarchical and patriarchal, a society generally organized vertically, not horizontally, and tied together by kinship and patron-client relationships.” However, “within decades of the Declaration of Independence” America “had become a sprawling, materialistic, and licentious popular democracy unlike any state that had ever existed” and that many founding fathers neither anticipated nor wanted.

For Wood, unlike Bailyn, the founders’ expectations were shaped by the 18-century’s fixation with the end of the Roman Republic. They concluded that the success ― indeed, the very survival — of a republic demanded an educated, “disinterested” leadership of “natural aristocrats” like themselves and a “virtuous” citizenry, ready to sacrifice its private interests for the public good. That argument, with its emphasis on republican “virtue,” contributed to the “republican synthesis” fashionable among historians of the 1970s and 1980s, which, to my mind, incorrectly emphasized the moral over the institutional components of a republic, and, as Wood admits, became “something of a monster that threatened to devour us all.” The “republicanism” bubble has long since burst, but Wood still sees the founders’ classical vision as part of their identity. They designed the Constitution in part, he says, “to control and transcend common ordinary men with their common, ordinary pecuniary interests” and create “a classical republic led by a disinterested enlightened elite” like themselves. No wonder, he says, the founders seem “so remote, so far away from us. They really are.”

For most readers, chapters in the book’s middle and final sections on American constitutionalism, democracy and rights, and on the long-term effects of the Revolution will probably be most enlightening. However mistaken the founders were in predicting the future — and Wood gives many examples of that — the impact of the Revolution has continued in the proliferation of republics and written constitutions, on American foreign policy (the Cold War, he suggests, was essentially a battle between different species of revolutions), on Americans’ compulsion “to spread democracy around the world.”

At the end of this wide-ranging, informative, thought-provoking book, a reader might well conclude that over time, despite the quandaries expressed in the Introduction, Wood has come a long way from “Rhetoric and Reality.” By the early 1980s, the 18th century’s proclivity for conspiracy theories — a central component colonists’ pre-revolutionary “frenzied rhetoric” — became for him a “rational attempt to explain human phenomena in terms of human intentions” before the French Revolution made it patently impossible to explain events so simply.

In the conclusion of The Idea of America, moreover, Wood reminds his readers that “the United States has always been to ourselves and to the world primarily an idea,” and that the “moral authority which is the real source of our strength” depends upon “our devotion to liberty and equality, our abhorrence of privilege, our fear of abused power, our faith in constitutionalism and individual liberties,” all of which are part of our “revolutionary heritage.” Those ideas have persisted through massive social and economic transformations because, he suggests, only they could hold together a people so diverse as the Americans. The book ends with a hope that the “idea of America will never die.” Wood has, it seems, come to a certain peace with the role of ideas in human affairs.

Pauline Maier is the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at MIT and the author of Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 and other books on the American Revolution.

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