The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States
Gordon S. Wood
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The preeminent historian of the Founding Era reflects on the birth of American nationhood and explains why the American Revolution remains so essential.
For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood, the American Revolution is the most important event in our history, bar none. Since American identity is so fluid, we have had to continually return to our nation’s founding to understand who we are. In a series of illuminating essays, he explores the ideological origins of the Revolution—from Ancient Rome to the European Enlightenment—and the founders’ attempts to forge a democracy. He reflects on the origins of American exceptionalism, the radicalism and failed hopes of the founding generation, and the “terrifying gap” between us and the men who created the democratic state we take for granted. This is a profoundly revealing look at the event that forged the United States and its enduring power to define us.
attempting to rebut those interpretations disparaging the colonists’ cause, the present neo-Whig historians have been drawn into writing as partisans of the Revolutionaries. And they have thus found themselves entangled in the same kind of explanation used by the original antago nists, an explanation, despite obvious reﬁnements, still involved with the discovery of motives and its corollary, the assessing of a personal sort of responsibility for what happened. While most of the neo-Whig histori
revolutionary R hetoric a n d R e a lity in the A m erica n R evolution | 49 movement. It may be that the Progressive historians, in their preoccupa tion with internal social problems, were more right than we have recently been willing to grant. It would be repeating their mistake, however, to expect this internal social strain necessarily to take the form of coher ent class conﬂict or overt social disruption. The sources of revolutionary social stress may have been much more subtle but no
“the crafty tyrant,” then it had to be argued, as Thomas Blackwell and Thomas Sheridan did, that these great Augustan poets were really republican in 6 6 | Th e I d e a o f A m e r i c a spirit, that their talent had actually been formed under the republican era that preceded Augustus’s monarchical takeover. From Addison to Dr. Johnson, English intellectuals expressed their admiration for Tacitus’s anti-Augustan, prorepublican view of Roman history. Tacitus remained for Jefferson “the ﬁrst
put. Yet in the end it should not be put that way. To rest something as monumental as the formation of the federal Constitution on such crude, narrow, and selﬁsh motives was Beard’s mistake, and it should not be repeated. The Federalists certainly had far more fundamental concerns at stake in 1787 than their personal credit and their social status. They were defending not their personal interests (for they were often debtors as well as creditors), but rather a moral and social order that had been
partisanship and one-sidedness of their interpretation. The partiality of the Progressive historians came out of their experience at the beginning of the twentieth century. Disgusted with the way the big corporations and the robber barons were exploiting the farmers and working people of their own time, they were naturally biased against Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, whom they assumed were the progenitors of this despicable business world. They thus made Jefferson their hero; he was the