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The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States [Kindle Edition]

Gordon S. Wood
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Wood challenges the popular view that the war for American independence was fought for practical and economic reasons, like unfair taxation. In this exceptional collection of essays (some previously published and others originating as lectures) he argues brilliantly to the contrary, that the Revolution was indeed fought over principles, such as liberty, republicanism, and equality. As he points out, Americans believed they alone had the virtues republicanism requires (such as simplicity and egalitarianism) and thus were supportive but skeptical of revolutions in France and Latin America. When joined to Protestant millennialism, Americans grew to believe that they were God's chosen people, with a mission to lead the world toward liberty and republican government, a view that Wood uses to explain America's continued attempts to create republics in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a remarkable study of the key chapter of American history and its ongoing influence on American character. (May)
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“Mr. Wood is the premier student of the Founding Era.”
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

“Exceptional... a remarkable study of the key chapter of American history and its ongoing influence on American character.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Cogent, beautifully written essays... A superb collection.”
Booklist (starred review)

“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

“[A] collection of nuanced, elegant essays. It’s hard to imagine a historian better trained to write on this subject.”
American Heritage

Product Details

  • File Size: 667 KB
  • Print Length: 403 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1594202907
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (May 12, 2011)
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #471,002 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
101 of 104 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Analysis Both Wide-Ranging and Eminently Readable May 17, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First of all I must say that, quite simply put, Pulitzer prize winner Dr Gordon Wood has crafted yet another masterpiece. "The Idea of America " is a phenomenal selection of essays regarding the American Revolution and Early Republic with a smorgasbord of topics ranging from trends in historiography, Conspiracy in pre Revolutionary thought, the depth of Thomas Jefferson's republican radicalism, and fears in the early republic of a connection between federalism and a reestablishment of monarchy.

This work is a series of essays written by Woods over the course of his impressive career in colonial/early Republic writing spanning nearly six decades! Although primarily a work of analysis, this work is an absolute page turner after the initial chapter on historiography. Never before have a found a work of analysis to be so absolutely satisfying of a read. The above-mentioned first chapter is primarily a discussion of the development of revolutionary history writing from the Progressive movement to the later Neo Whig/idealistic interpretations to Woods' own synthesis of both styles. He argues quite convincingly that although ideas cannot by themselves lead to actions they play a significant role in forming of the motives that did lead to action.

Most fascinating for myself was the chapter on `Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style...'. So engrossing was his description and analysis of the origins of conspiracy theories in pre Revolutionary 18th century America and Europe that I completely forgot my normal note taking for pages at a time. His argument is that rather than widespread conspiracy theories and a "paranoid style" being somehow unique to Americans as Richard Hofstadter wrote decades ago, they were themselves a logical outgrowth of the enlightenment belief in natural law.
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49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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".
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding! A Must Read! May 30, 2011
In The Idea of America, Professor Wood presents a series of eleven different essays he authored over a period of approximately forty-five years. These essays, which provide the headings for eleven separate chapters, discuss the American Revolution (Part I), The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy (Part II), and The Early Republic (Part III). Also included is an exceptionally cogent and remarkably insightful conclusion recently authored by Wood.

Essentially, the book considers and examines historical scholarship concerning the Revolution, the Constitution,and the Early Republic. Professor Wood provides succinct summaries of the various theories historians have ascribed to the American Revolution, the Making of the Constitution, and growth of the Early American Republic. While scholarly and seemingly written for academics, the essays are generally accessible for the lay reader; although some may be a bit technical and overly analytical. All of the essays, notwithstanding, are extraordinarily interesting, thoughtful, and intellectually stimulating. In addition, Professor Wood's conclusion is simply outstanding. In the conclusion, he gives a wonderful description of what the American Revolution meant and then narratively traces its evolution from inception through modern events. This book provides an amazing glimpse into the thoughts and ideas of the Revolutionary generation. It also compares the United States' republican experience with that of the rest of the World. An outstanding, remarkable, and intellectual look at the ideas which make the America Republic uniquely great. Without question, this is precisely the kind of work that has made Professor Wood a legendary academic!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Belief Not Position
Very detailed. At times more than the average reader needs but a must for serious students of history. America is an idea and we do act on ideals. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Dale H. Robinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great Item.
Published 6 months ago by JosephJacobs
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great book for class.
Published 6 months ago by Kizztophe Asuncion
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Required reading for any serious student of American history.
Published 9 months ago by S. M.Silver
5.0 out of 5 stars It wasn't just about taxes
As the author notes, there are many historical texts on the history of the colonies and there are plenty of texts about the early republic and the revolution. Read more
Published 10 months ago by RenaissanceMan
4.0 out of 5 stars Heavy going. But shows real mastery of subject and ...
Heavy going. But shows real mastery of subject and absorbing intellect.
Published 10 months ago by E. Van Roy
4.0 out of 5 stars Belief Not Position
Very detailed. At times more than the average reader needs but a must for serious students of history. America is an idea and we do act on ideals. Read more
Published 11 months ago by HistoryReader
4.0 out of 5 stars A Philosophy of History
I have the CD version (11 discs) and have listened 3 times so far. I find this really difficult to rate. It is a series of lectures and articles Wood has presented before. Read more
Published 13 months ago by J. Spurway
5.0 out of 5 stars Great
This was my first introduction to Gordon Wood and, I have to say, it was probably the best introduction I could have had. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Chris O'Malley
5.0 out of 5 stars G. Wood is always worth reading
I originally got this from the library and quickly realized I had to have my own copy for notations in my personal library. Wood knows his stuff.
Published 19 months ago by gar
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More About the Author

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the Bancroft Prize-winning The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, and The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. He writes frequently for The New York Review of Books and The New Republic.


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