49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
With his erudition, even-handedness, and thoughtfulness, Gordon Wood is among the best of American historians. Wood's most recent book, "The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States" (2011) collects eleven essays written and revisited over a period of nearly 50 years. Wood's lengthy introductory essay and a concluding essay, "The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy around the World", frame and give focus to this collection of Wood's writing about the American Revolution and its continued significance.
The book functions both as a history and as a meditation on writing history. The major theme of the book is that the American Revolution is "the most important event in American history, bar none". The Revolution legally created the United States, and infused into it "all our highest aspirations and noblest values", including our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutional government, and the dignity of ordinary people. The Revolution also created for Americans their perceived mission to "lead the world toward liberty and democracy." (pp. 2-3) Wood's essays develop this theme in a variety of contexts.
The second theme of the book involves the role of ideas in the American Revolution and, more broadly, in history. In the early 20th Century, historians of the progressive school discounted the importance of ideas and argued that the Revolution had an economic base. The progresives thought that the leaders of the Revolutionary Era acted from motives of economic self-interest with their professed ideals a thin epiphenomenon. The most famous work of the progressive school was Charles Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States". An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States In the 1960s, Bernard Bailyn wrote his still-famous study "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution which took issue with the progressives and made a strong case that the Revolution was based on the Founders' understanding and adoption of liberal British thought.
Wood tries to take a nuanced position between the progressives and the writers he terms the idealists. He acknowledges that passion and necessity are ordinarily much large sources of human conduct than are ideas. Yet, he sees ideas as of critical importance in that they occur wihin the context of life and passion and help shape them. Wood endeavors to explore ideas and their significance in a way that supports rather than contradicts the insights of the progressive school. Wood tries to give the progressives more credit than they currently receive, but his account to me is still idea-driven.
A third theme of the book involves the question of "presentism" in historical writing -- the tendency to explore historical questions solely by focusing on contemporary preoccupations. Presentism results in polemics and in historical misinterpretation, Wood argues. It ignores the complexity of the past and changes in human thought over time. Wood makes an effort to understand the Revolutionary Era and its participants on their own terms without forcing them into a mold created by current questions. Wood tries to show how people in the Eighteenth Century viewed issues differently than people today view issues. He undertakes the difficult task of explaining the Founders and the Revolution in terms of the culture of their day which is not necessarily the same as early Twenty-first century culture. Wood also tries to the extent possible to avoid taking sides as, for example, between Federalists such as Hamilton and democrats such as Jefferson and to understand and explain each position within its historical context.
The essays are dense, richly textured, and formidably documented. The three essays in Part 1 of the book, titled "The American Revolution", consider the relationship between ideas and economics in the Revolutionary era and thus continue the exploration of the progressive-idealist schools of thought that Wood describes in his introductory essay. The second essay considers the influence of classical Roman thought on the Founders. The third essay, titled "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style:Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century" is both a historical and a philosophical discussion of the nature of conspiracy theories and of the reasons for the appeal of such theories in the 18th Century. Wood offers insight into the continued contemporary appeal of various types of conspiracy theories of events.
The second part of the book consists of four essays on "The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy". These essays focus on the role of disinterestedness in the generation of the Founders. Wood argues that the Founders were indeed exceptional in our history in their commitment to a disinterested politics. Wood's essays explain the Founders' understanding of disinteredness. He suggests that the Founders outlived their own vision -- in other words, the Founders' vision of disinterested politics was soon dashed even in their own lifetimes. The essays compare British ideas of constitutionalism with those develped in the fledgling and rapidly democratizing United States. The final essay in this part offers a comparison of the thought of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Wood admires both Paine and Jefferson and finds they share much in common in their belief that "at bottom, every single individual, men and women, black and white, had a common moral or social sense that tied him or her to other individuals." (p.228)
The four essays in the third part of the book, "The Early Republic", begin with a consideration of monarchy, its continued appeal to some of the Founders, and its relationship to American constitutionalism in the figure of the president. The Federalists in the early days of the United States were accused by their democratic opponents of having monarchical tendencies. Wood explores the extent to which this accusation may have been justified. In an essay titled "Illusions of Power in the Awkward Age of Federalism", Wood discusses how both Federalists and their democratic opponents considerably misjudged contemporary developments that in hindsight apprear obvious. Wood tries to show how Federalist thought as represented by Hamilton was anachronistic in its own time but has received something of a resurgence in contemporary America. Wood's essay on "The American Enlightenment" is probably the finest work in this collection as a result of its insight in understanding the source and continuing vitality of American ideals. The final essay "A History of Rights in Early America" is a scholarly account of the development of the judiciary and the doctrine of judicial review, which creates an often tense relationship between the courts and the political branches of government.
In his concluding essay, Wood reiterates even more strongly than he does in his introductory essay the "ideological" character of the American Revolution. He argues that ideas are important in understanding the United States. In partial opposition to pragmatic, practical views of the Revolution and of American thinking, Wood maintains that "the American Revolution was as ideological as any revolution in modern Western history, and as a consequence, we Americans have been as ideological-minded as any people in Western culture". (p. 321) Wood argues that Revolutionary ideals continue to challenge Americans in our present difficult times.
Wood's learned book has helped me think about the American Revolution and American history. It is also helped me think about the complex nature of historical understanding.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
For those who have read preeminent historian Gordon S. Wood's most important books, that is, THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC, 1776-1787, the Pulitzer Prize winning THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, and the more recent EMPIRE OF LIBERTY, there can be no doubt of his interest in the founding ideas of America. This collection of eleven essays written over a span of fifty years, though much revised, provides even more insight into various aspects of the thinking in the Revolutionary era and the meanings of the American experiment in democracy. His themes do not neatly break down on chapter boundaries, recurring across all of the essays.
In the Introduction and the first chapter, "Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution," the author sorts through various explanations for the occurrence of the Revolution. Clearly, the colonists were not an oppressed people, which have led many to see the Revolution as driven mostly by political principles, with few changes to colonial life - a conservative view. Progressive historians in the early 20th century suggested that socio-economic forces, that is, class struggles, far more than ideas, were the basis of revolution. In fact, they contended that the ideas of the time were used to persuade - were, basically, propaganda. Others find the colonists' actions to be irrational, a form of paranoia. For example, they frequently resorted to conspiratorial imaginings - there must be an English cabal intent on enslaving them. However, in "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style" the author demonstrates that the colonists were not out of step with the new scientific age in trying to find causes for inimical social results.
The author steers a middle course, recognizing that ideas, such as the nature of representation, were highly relevant, while acknowledging that fundamental social change had been underway for decades, setting Americans apart from Europeans and making revolution possible. Ideas, instead of directly causing actions, are most important in the author's view to "justify, legitimate, or explain our actions." In "The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution," the author shows that "republican, antiroyalist" thinking permeated both English and American society. Individuals in a republican society are supposed to exhibit "integrity, virtue, and disinterestedness," with their highest calling being to serve in public office. This idealistic concept of society undoubtedly accentuated the disgust that the Americans had for the corruption that they claimed permeated British rule. The elites of the founding period clung to the notion, to the end of the 18th century, that they could establish and control a republican order in America, an idea that fell apart with the ascendance of the common man with the election of Jefferson in 1800.
Actually, it was in the 1780s that the republican ideal, so dear to founding elites, began to be shredded. An excess of democracy was the problem. They believed in a patrician-led classical democracy that would lead to a virtuous society. However, the Revolution had transformed American politics and the economy. Ordinary people were encouraged to become involved in the political process. "Acquisitive and commercial forces that no one had quite realized existed" were unleashed by the demands of the War. Credit, and thereby debt, was essential to the flow of goods. With the end of the War, came both an end to governmental buying and a freeze on obtaining credit, but with debts still due.
Much to the dismay of Madison, democratically controlled state legislatures, empowered under new state constitutions, passed a series of laws to relieve the burden on debtors. To colonial elites these flagrant acts were examples of democracy run amok and had to be curbed. Although there were issues with a weak Articles of Confederation, those acts were the overriding reason for calling a constitutional convention in 1787. According to the author, the Constitution was a "grand and desperate effort" to curtail democratic excesses, by taking away powers from the states and creating a number of roadblocks in the Constitution to prevent direct democratic actions.
Of course, it is known that the scrambling business society that the Federalists so abhorred prevailed, and in fact the pursuit of private interests came to be seen in America as the foremost expression of freedom. However, it is ironic that even today the ideals of the Founders have strong resonance - their honesty, disinterestedness, and willingness to accept the costs of serving the public.
Perhaps the most significant ideological development of the Founding era is the manner in which sovereignty, power, and rights are conceived in America. While America has an English heritage, the US deviated sharply from British principles when conceiving of their government. England has the notion of mixed government where the king, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons represent various segments of society: the state, the aristocracy, and the common people. The people are said to have a contract with the king, recognizing his prerogatives to act in the best interests of the state, while retaining rights of petition and to be protected. All sovereignty resides with Parliament. Fundamental rights as well as legislation reside in and originate with Parliament. There is no written constitution and there is no bill of rights because by definition Parliament can only protect the people.
In America, complete sovereignty rests with the people and is so stated in the US Constitution. Government is strictly defined by the Constitution and is subordinate to the people; those who serve in government are temporarily granted some of the people's power to do their job. A representative body, that is, Congress, absolutely does not supercede the People. The concept of a contract between the people and a governing official makes no sense in America; the President serves at the will of the People. Furthermore, all government officials represent all of the people; there are no social demarcations explicitly or implicitly recognized by the US Constitution. Primaries, referendums, recall, etc that exist at state levels are extensions of the people's direct representation created at the Founding. Interestingly, while the public sphere is enlarged by constitutional authority, private rights are enhanced by the strict delineation of the reach of government.
The author points out that America is in essence an ideology. There are no American people in the sense of, say, the German people. To be an American is to believe in something. And it is the founding to which people forever turn for those meanings. The Americans of 1776 were republicans, believing themselves to be a simple, austere, egalitarian, independent, and virtuous people. As the author notes, "when fused with Protestant millennialism, it gave Americans the sense that they were the chosen people of God." It is the Constitution, it's structure, it's granting of popular sovereignty, and it's longevity, as the foundation of our rights and liberty, that completely convinces the American people that they are the very exemplar of democratic government to the entire world.
The Founders were all quite familiar with the failings of the Roman republic. That is why they were obsessed with constructing a virtuous republic; the American people had to avoid the luxury and corruption that had destroyed ancient Rome. As pointed out, it was only a matter of years before the American society and state had changed dramatically from the time of the founding to a vibrant business culture, which has since hardly slowed down. It would be interesting to see an author of Wood's stature comment on the huge gulf between the current era and the founding era. For example, what is the significance of our incredible wealth and the huge private enterprises that dominate our lives? Are we the virtuous people that the founders insisted we must be to survive? Does nostalgia for the founding era prevent us from realistically assessing the exact nature of our government and society? Regardless, this book makes for very interesting reading.