With almost 250 years of history now behind us, we tend to let the American Revolution fade into the backdrop of our Republics story. Narrowed down to a few names, and key phrases or slogans, it becomes a bit like the mythology of our early history, taking a backseat to more relevant current events, or at least events that are nearer to our collective consciousness. That makes senses. After all these more recent occurrences have shaped our modern views, ideas, thought and reactions to the world around us.
Or perhaps not…
In the view of Gordon Wood no moment has shaped who we are as a people and a nation, nor had a more lasting impact than the American Revolution. This is the point he makes in his work The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. The winner of a Bancroft Award for The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787, and a Pulitzer Prize for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, this book is a deviation from his previous ones. A collection of essays that comprise the life’s work of one of the most dedicated and diligent historians on the topic of the American Revolution, Wood challenges many of the contemporary notions that have been engrained in the mythos of our nation, taking on a few of the sacred cows that have been erected throughout the decades and the centuries.
Seeking “to emphasize the importance of ideas in the historical process,” he takes on what he has called “partiality that plagued” the histories offered by some, and the “need to find antecedents for the divisions of their own time.” Likewise, on the opposite end of the spectrum, he challenges the thought that “ideas cause human behavior”, arguing they offer more of a justification after the fact then a reason before, looking to the great Scottish philosopher, and historian, David Hume to help inform his opinion “that passion, not reason, are the ruling element in all human action.” The result is a triumph of historical thought that recognizes that social and political change had begun long before the Revolution began, and that this evolution in thinking had, more than anything else, formed a fundamental rife between these new world colonies and their old-world mother nation, creating an environment ripe for the events that would lead to a free and independent American nation.
Tracing the history of America back to its origins, Wood separates his essays into three parts, with three chapters dedicated to “The American Revolution”, four chapters on “The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy” and, finally, four chapters covering “The Early Republic”. Though one easily find in these pages the case made that the American Revolution was truly unique in the long course of human events and history, and that the United States has always possessed a particular nature to it that could not necessarily be ignored, he challenges the reader to reconsider some of the preconceived notions they have. In one instance, for example, he declares:
We Americans created a state before we were a nation, and much of our history has been an effort to define the nature of that nationality. In an important sense, we have never been a nation in any traditional meaning of the term. It is the state, the Constitution, the principles of liberty, equality and free government that make us think ourselves as a single people. To be an American is not to be someone, but to believe in something.
Yet, despite his belief in the special nature and character of this great and grand experiment, Wood does not wear blinders, nor does he expect his readers to either. Taking an approach that examines the early history of the nation from every angle with an almost clinical approach he takes readers through every side. For example while taking our Founding Fathers and stripping the myth from the reality to distinguish between legend and fact, he makes it certain that the reader is aware of just how much we fail in our understanding of them, not because of a lacking on their part, but of our own.
In that sense this is where, at least in my mind, ventures into the extraordinary. While emphasizing the idea that ideas and principles can span the course of time and events, he points to the fact that we have ventured far from where the Founders had been and how they viewed the world. This is perhaps most clearly outlined when he painstakingly lays out that, “They separated from every subsequent generation of Americans, by an immense cultural chasm… All the Founding Fathers saw themselves as moral teacher. However latently utilitarian, however potentially liberal, and however enthusiastic the Founders may have been, they were not modern men.” In a sense it perhaps makes us question if we, amidst our present day and our present understanding, are the true heirs of the American Revolution or if we even truly understand its core causes and what it set into motion.
The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States should, even if it wasn’t a masterpiece of historical scholarship, should be read for that reason and that reason alone. It offers a clear, brilliant and concise understanding of the Revolution and the spirit of America that is so often forgotten in our present age, forcing us to evaluate and re-evaluate our current view of our republic and our democracy. A critically analytical work that could and should inform even the most well-versed historian, I cannot recommend this book enough to readers. It is on my top five go to list, and it should be on yours as well.
But then as I close out I would like to end with a final passage for your consideration.
Both Rome’s greatness and it’s eventual fall were caused by the character of its people. As long as the Roman people maintained their love of virtue their simplicity and quality, their scorn of great distinction, and their willingness to fight for the state, they attained great heights of glory. But when they became too luxury-loving, too obsessed with refinements and social distinctions, too preoccupied with money, and too effeminate to take up arms on behalf of the state, their politics became corrupted, selfishness predominated, and the dissolution of the state had to follow. Rome fell not because of the invasions of the barbarians from without, but because of decay from within.