I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It is written by a professor at an Ivy League university (Brown), and yet from reading his book I am unable to determine his personal political leanings. Either he thinks the same way I do, or he is that "rara avis", a historian whose only ax to grind is that of the search for objective truth about the past.
He is a superb writer. There is not a dull sentence in the book, and the narrative flows like a good novel. It is a brief book, intended to be an introduction for general readers as part of a Modern Library series, and yet as a knowledgeable but non-specialist reader of the period, I learned something new on almost every page. Professor Wood has made himself one with the Revolutionary era, and has at the same time cultivated the ability to describe it clearly to us moderns. I suspect he was an excellent classroom instructor for freshmen students.
These quotations illustrate his insightful thought and graceful style:
"... the Revolution was not only about home rule; it was also about who should rule at home."
"The Revolution, like the whole of American history, is not a simple morality play; it is a complicated and often ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not celebrated or condemned."
Note the skillful use of the semicolon, the mark of a good prose stylist, and the concise expression of some very complex concepts in two brief sentences.
In a few pages he discusses in a very lucid manner a number of very complicated subjects, for example, the conflict between Burke's theory of "virtual" representation and the experience of "actual" representation in the new frontier towns of the American colonies, the development of a new conception of sovereignty as residing in the people to explain the proposed Constitution of 1789, the commonality of ideas shared by the Puritans of the English Civil War and the American revolutionists of a century later, the basis for the continued and unique American belief that we are "exceptional", outside the mainstream of history, and uniquely chosen as guardians of human freedom.
Wood delves rather deeply into the evolution of American religious belief and practice and its effect on American society in the post-Revolutionary era. He also succinctly outlines the effect of the Revolution on slavery and women's rights.
He devotes only 12 pages to The War of Independence, and yet in that brief space gives a surprisingly complete and detailed picture of the military, political, and diplomatic course of the war. His comments on the strategic problems of each side are quite incisive, and his narrative is much clearer than Higginbotham's, for example.
The last chapters on the social and political changes set off by the Revolution are his best. I'm not a big fan of the "new history" emphasis on social and economic issues. I think history is mostly about war and politics, in that order. But Professor Wood shows that my prejudice is absurd, that history is history, war and politics can't be separated from culture and money, and that it is all interesting.
He probably doesn't emphasize enough the origin of the problems in the Constitution that led to its ultimate failure in the crisis of 1860. But that is a complicated subject, and he lays a sufficient groundwork for further study of that issue.
The bibiographic essay at the end is superb.
I didn't notice any typos - apparently the publisher has corrected in subsequent printings the "Yorktown, Pennsylvania" error noted by a previous reviewer.
Recommended without reservation.
Note: (April 15, 2007) For a broader view of Gordon Wood's thought I highly recommend the review that recently appeared in the Winter 2006/07 edition of the "Claremont Review of Books", V. VII, #1, pps. 27-30, by Steven F. Hayward, entitled "The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood."