The Idea of America by Gordon S. Wood
Reflections on the Birth of the United States

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Synopsis

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.
 

About Gordon S. Wood

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GORDON S. WOOD is the Alva O. Way University Professor and a professor of history at Brown University. His 1969 book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes and was nominated for the National Book Award. His 1992 book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Emerson Prize. His most recent book, Empire of Liberty, won the 2010 New-York Historical Society Prize in American History. Wood contributes regularly to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.
 
Published May 12, 2011 by Penguin Books. 403 pages
Genres: History, Law & Philosophy, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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With these stipulations and with genuine modesty—in postscripts to most of these essays, Wood frequently offers second thoughts about pieces composed years ago—he covers such topics as the disconnect between the sometimes lurid rhetoric accompanying the more prosaic reality of the Revolution;

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Publishers Weekly

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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 collec

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The New York Times

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Eleven essays encompass the entire career of the historian Gordon S. Wood, whose work re-envisioned the American Revolution and, unusually, has appealed to readers all across the political spectrum.

Jul 22 2011 | Read Full Review of The Idea of America: Reflecti...

Publishers Weekly

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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.

Feb 21 2011 | Read Full Review of The Idea of America: Reflecti...

The Wall Street Journal

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Wood Penguin Press, 385 pages, $29.95 "The Idea of America" consists of 11 essays on different aspects of the Founding that are drawn from the full span of Mr. Wood's career, to which he has added a substantial introduction and conclusion.

May 14 2011 | Read Full Review of The Idea of America: Reflecti...

Dallas News

Neither group saw it in its own right.” Wood, one of our most eminent historians, has devoted his long career to illuminating how American government evolved, and how the events of that period continue to define government and politics today — often in reliving the controversies that divided thin...

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Washington Independent Review of Books

“The fox knows many things,” the poet wrote, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Between those choices, Wood says he is a “simple hedgehog” since all of his publications “have dealt with the American Revolution and its consequences.” There is, however, nothing simple and not much hedgehog-l...

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The New Yorker

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