Gordon Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
Yesterday’s authors suggested that emancipation was the single most dramatic event in American history. Pr. Wood will quibble, stating that the American Revolution is the most important event in the history of the United States. Wood believes this is the case for the obvious reason that without it the nation itself does not exist and because the Revolution helped to “infuse our culture [with] our highest aspirations and noblest values” (2). In a way, parts of Wood’s finely crafted introduction read like a speech from Jor-El to his son: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fail. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Wood on the United States: “Our believes in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era….The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose we Americans have had” (2,3). The stumbling part is covered by Wood too, and in essence, he argues we are fascinated with the founding fathers and the period because our identity is “fluid” and by examining this period in history, we get a grounding as to who and what we are, as well as what we might yet become.
Pr. Wood has collected a number of his previously constructed essays in this text and explains their presence clearly and lucidly in the introduction, just as he crafts a wonderfully worded and concise series of statements on the changing tradition of historical writing on the revolution. Full disclosure: there was a time when I fled from historiography. In retrospect, I cannot understand why I ever held such an ignorant opinion. As Wood makes clear, time and time again, we can better understand the past when we begin to unfold how we and those who came before us interpret the events under study.
This text is divided into three parts, covering the American Revolution, the Making of the Constitution, and the Early Republic. After explaining his thoughts on these three eras of history in the introduction, Wood has placed his essays from the past half century into the appropriate sections. A vital point that Wood expresses is how it is not ideas alone that drive human action – passion must always play a role as well. Wood’s passions shine throughout this collection, giving us fifty years worth of thought, analysis, and more.