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The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States Hardcover – May 12, 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (May 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202907
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202902
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #583,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

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.

Customer Reviews

In summary, this is a book for semi-serious history buffs and it's highly interesting and insightful.
Robert Kirk
Really one could go on and on about the phenomenal scholarship and analysis contained within this collection of essays, as well as Dr. Woods gripping writing style.
S. Heminger
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.
Robin Friedman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 103 people found the following review helpful By S. Heminger on 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 By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 24, 2011
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 By C. Wayne Swenson on May 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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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