Reflections on the Birth of the United States
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Of any catchphrase is to characterize the work being done
on the American Revolution by this generation of historians, it will probably be “the American Revolution considered as an intellectual movement.” 1 For we now seem to be fully involved in a phase of writing about the Revolution in which the thought of the Revolutionaries,
rather than their social and economic interests, has become the major focus of research and analysis. This recent emphasis on ideas is not, of course, new, and indeed right from the beginning it has characterized almost all our attempts to understand the Revolution. The ideas of a
period which Samuel Eliot Morison and Harold Laski once described as, next to the English revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century, the most fruitful era in the history of Western political thought could never be completely ignored in any phase of our history writing.2
It has not been simply the inherent importance of the Revolutionary ideas, those “great principles of freedom,” 3 that has continually attracted the attention of historians. It has been rather the unusual nature of the Revolution and the constant need to explain what on the face of it seems
inexplicable that has compelled almost all interpreters of the Revolution, including the participants themselves, to stress its predominantly intellectual character and hence its uniqueness among Western revolutions. Within the context of Revolutionary historiography, the one great
effort to disparage the significance of ideas in the Revolution—an effort which dominated our history writing in the first half of the twentieth century—becomes something of an anomaly, a temporary aberration into a deterministic social and economic explanation from which we have been retreating for the past two decades. Since roughly the end of World War II we have witnessed a resumed and increasingly heightened insistence on the primary significance of conscious beliefs, and particularly of
constitutional principles, in explaining what once again has become the unique character of the American Revolution. In the hands of idealistminded historians, the thought and principles of the Americans have consequently come to repossess that explanative force which the previous
generation of materialist-minded historians had tried to locate in the social structure.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE IDEA OF AMERICA by Gordon S. Wood.
Copyright © 2011 by Gordon S. Wood
Review by Sanford Levinson
Gordon Wood is the pre-eminent historian of the United States between the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the so-called Jacksonian Era. His most recent book was the 2009 contribution to the prestigious Oxford History of the United States, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. This new book collects many of his most important scholarly articles on this period; an earlier 2008 anthology, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, collected his shorter book reviews. Wood is an unusually incisive and graceful writer—among his many prizes is a Pulitzer Prize for his book on The Radicalism of the American Revolution—and every one of these essays bears reading and extended reflection.
His first essay (following a helpful introduction summarizing much of the historiography of the period), on “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” analyzes the heightened rhetoric directed against the British, accusing them of a conspiracy to “enslave” brave Americans. Were our revolutionary forebears “paranoid” (the subject of a later essay reviewing Richard Hofstadter’s influential book on The Paranoid Style in American Politics), or does such a dismissive conclusion do injustice to some of our most illustrious Founders and also, along the way, disable us from understanding the fundamental differences in the ways we, and they, understand political events? For Wood, “the very nature of the Americans’ rhetoric—its obsession with corruption and disorder, its hostile and conspiratorial outlook, and its millennial vision of a regenerated society—that reveals, as nothing else apparently can, the American Revolution as a true revolution,” deeply rooted in the strains of the American social structure itself. “The hysteria of the Americans’ thinking was but a measure of the intensity of their revolutionary passions.” One is certainly tempted to reflect on the role of such thinking not only in the “birth” of the United States, but also in contemporary American politics.
Even if readers can indeed “connect the dots” between our past and aspects of our present, a central theme of the essays is the discontinuities between the modes of thought of then and now. The Founding Generation inhabited a quite different conceptual universe from our own. By and large, they disdained what we today call “interest-group politics” in favor of leadership by virtuous elites who subordinated “interests” to the “public good.” Although Wood devotes a fascinating essay to Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine as exceptions in their genuine esteem for popular democracy, most of the Founders were basically frightened of the possibility of what we would today regard as genuinely “democratic” rule. Madison was basically traumatized by what he observed while serving in the Virginia legislature, which, as much as any deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation, led him to believe that a far more nationalist political order, controlled by quite different elites, was the only hope for America.
Every single essay could easily generate a review of its own. The book is truly an intellectual feast that should be on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in understanding our past and aspects of the rhetoric of the American present.
Hardcover Book : 400 pages
Publisher: Penguin Group (Usa) ( May 12, 2011 )
Item #: 13-378957
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.0inches
Product Weight: 19.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)