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The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  679 Ratings  ·  46 Reviews
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
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published May 12th 2011 by Penguin Press (first published May 1st 2011)
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Lauren Albert
May 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-american
A surprisingly fascinating and surprisingly not dated collection of Wood's essays. For essays on intellectual history and historiography they were eminently readable. My favorite essay, though I enjoyed all of them, was his essay on the obsession over conspiracies during the time. It was smart and made me want to rethink my own writing on the subject of social anxieties during the late 1790s in my dissertation on Charles Brockden Brown. As he explains it, there wasn't anything irrational about t ...more
This was helpful for my research on America's values as a republic, Patriotism, and Imperialism.
Sep 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
A very elegantly written examination of the intellectual climate that gave rise to the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. Some of the essays and lectures in this volume, which was published in 2011, date back to the 1960s, and the author has included some illuminating comments in the Afterword he provides for each.
Perhaps it's his natural inclination, but I like to think that Woods' profound optimism about the future of the American experiment arises from his impressive k
Nov 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
There are three kinds of books about history:

(1) Historical Surveys. Surveys cover the major events of a certain era in chronological order, and I almost always find them incredibly boring, as they necessarily lack the most important sources of engagement in any piece of writing: flesh and blood protagonists. The fact that history textbooks for public schools are written in this chronological form explains everything we need to know about most Americans' lack of historical literacy or interest.
Robin Friedman
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The Role Of Ideas In The Making Of The United States

With his erudition, even-handedness, and thoughtfulness, Gordon Wood is among the best of American historians. Wood's most recent book, "The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States" (2011) collects eleven essays written and revisited over a period of nearly 50 years. Wood's lengthy introductory essay and a concluding essay, "The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy around the World",
When I first picked up this book I was expecting a renowned historian's views on what the Revolutionary generation believed when they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, thus bringing to light some of the debates of our modern era. As a student of history, I should've known better than to get my hopes up that by studying the views of the Founders we could answer these questions. However, this book does shed light on the hopes and ideals the Revolutionary generation had when they fough ...more
Oct 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
Gordon Wood is an eminent historian who has decided to focus on a particularly turbulent decade in American history, the first one. Examining the men who made America whilst trying to understand the late 18th century society is the task set out and done very well by Wood who presents the case made by both the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans in the early years of the Republic. An analysis of how the founding fathers viewed themselves in comparison to the republicans of antiquity such as ...more
Aug 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Not exactly a 'page turner', but a well argued series of essays exploring the nuances of the American constitutional "Idea".
Rob Barry
Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
I found this book to be extremely readable -- clearly articulated key issues, philosophy, and differing opinions regarding "America."
Billie Pritchett
The Idea of America is a compendium of essays that reflects historian Grant Wood's life's work to understand American history, particularly the ideologies that motivated American history at the country's inception. The beauty of the work is Wood's ability to trace paths that the United States followed and diverged from at its birth. Wood writes eloquently, for example, of how the United States was founded as a republican monarch, where virtuous big-propertied farmers like the American Founders w ...more
Bob Price
Oct 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Gordon Wood is a stud when it comes to Revolutionary war and Early American studies. No where is that more evident than in this collection of essays, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.

Republished from a wide variety of sources, these essays reflect on issues that are current in American Politics. His treaties of American Constitutionalism seems to be particularly poignant in this election season, with both views arguing over the meaning of the Constitution.

Each of these 11 essays has something interesting. All are informative. None is outstanding. Gordon Wood has the capability to do much better. This book seems to be a sample of the material in his files from past lectures and papers.

Some of the essays are out of date. A short "Afterward" doesn't really make up for the lack of recent thinking on a topic. The best example is the chapter on "Conspiracy and Paranoid Style..." While we don't know the year the chapter was originally published as a pap
Byron Edgington
Aug 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Professor Wood has once again given insights and perspectives unavailable from almost any other author, no matter their level of scholarship. Particularly intriguing in this book are the many references to Federalism vs anti-Federalism in the early Republic, and how those same tensions and challenges persist. Wood mentions the essential American-ness as not so much a country as an idea. I would like to have had more of this theory examined and explored. Also fascinating is the idea of American e ...more
Michael Johnston
Apr 15, 2013 rated it liked it
A fascinating book which advocates the view that both for Americans and for those residing elsewhere in the world, the founding principles of the nation are what define our importance historically and at present. The founding of the nation was not just a revolution to throw off the yoke of monarchical tyranny, but also an ideological revolution which gave substance to basic individual rights that exist separately from those of the state (even the state's popularly elected representatives).

The b
Oct 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is an insightful collection of essays on the American Revolution and the early republic. Wood shows that understanding the birth of the United States is a complicated task. He eschews easy answers and instead provides subtle insights into what makes the American Revolution such a watershed in world history and so important to our understanding of modern America. The essay explaining why the American colonists (and many others throughout Europe) believed so strongly in conspiracy theories wa ...more
Rebecca Grace
Aug 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The phrase "the Founding Fathers' intentions" is increasingly bandied about, with all opponents to every argument believing that the Founders would be in agreement with their side. Most American take for granted that the founders of our nation were all in agreement with one another, that their vision for the United States was based upon incredible foresight as to the challenges and opportunities of the future, and that these men consciously set out to create something similar to the popular demo ...more
David Montgomery
Jun 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An interesting collection of essays about the American Revolution and the Early Republic — and specifically about the ideas motivating the revolutionary generation.

Some, such as a look at the impact ideals of ancient Rome had on the Founders, are good for background. Others are more provocative — such as a devil's advocate attempt to argue that the Antifederalists were actually more forward-looking, an examination of the anti-democratic and anti-legislative impulses motivating James Madison and
Dan Rheingans
Jun 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Pre-eminent Revolutionary/Colonial America Historian Gordon Wood's "The Idea of America" is a collection of his essays, lectures, and articles about the ideas of the American Revolution and how those ideas played and still play a significant role in the shaping of the United States, both formally and ideologically, both past and present. The articles are very well argued and presented, and Wood does a excellent job backing up his assertions about the importance of the American Revolution. Some o ...more
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
In this work, Wood offers us a collection of his essays throughout the previous half of a century. Like all of his work, it is thought provoking and rich. Wood is not a historian one casually reads: a playing child, a television on in the background does not work when reading him (explaining, by way of a perfectly good excuse, why this took me so long to finish!) Instead, you need a peaceful enough environment to let his words sink in. In this way, one truly can learn the truth about our complic ...more
Dec 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
At first glance, did not think I was going to enjoy this, even in spite of devouring and embracing Wood's other historical works (most recently, *Empire of Liberty*), but this is an outstanding collection of essays on the creation of America. They range in chronology from the 1960s until the present time and explore themes like Roman (founders all big devotees and disciples of Cato, Cicero, etc.… able to recite lines and relished in theater enactments) influence on the founders, the "radicalism" ...more
Andrew Wise
Jun 10, 2012 rated it liked it
This was really slow at first, talking about philosophy of history issues, etc.. But for anyone interested in American history and the ideas of republicanism as they were renewed in the Enlightenment era and grew in the soil of the American colonies, you'll eventually be fascinated. Of particular significance is Wood's emphasis on the founders' belief that republics are held together by a people which has developed the virtue to put the nation ahead of personal, factional interests; also, his c ...more
Douglass Gaking
Mar 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood captures the cultural environment of the American Revolution and constitutional beginnings. He shows why the founding of the United States was, is, and will continue to be historically significant. This book is made up of papers and speeches that Wood has given throughout his career. Each is edited to be more relevant to today's readers and to help fit with the other pieces included in the book. An introduction and conclusion bookend these pieces ...more
Howard Mansfield
Oct 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
The Federalists come to life in Wood’s essays. They were a heroic and failed generation, he says. Riding a wave of high hopes in the 1790s, the Federalists thought that they could control events and establish a new classical civilization. But the country they helped to found was far more commercial and fractious than they had wanted. By decade’s end they were out of power. The 1790s stand out as being separate from all that followed, Wood says in these surprising essays. As always, Wood writes a ...more
Jeff Rudisel
May 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, 2013
Super enlightening.
Just when you think you know a decent amount about a topic, a book like this comes along and blows a lot of your tidy assumptions clear out of the water with its much deeper grasp of the complexities involved.
This is great historical scholarship and great in-depth research into the process of history writing itself.
My understanding of the founding of the USA and the legacy of that astounding process, which extends to our own time, has blossomed and diverged and expanded in cou
Wally Muchow
Nov 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book was a series of essays about the period of American history from 1789 to the Jackson presidency. It was very interesting and enlightening about a period that has not been covered in great detail. The recounted discussions on what form of government the United States should adopt was both interesting and informative
The discussion of Paine and Jefferson was also interesting as to their similar views but very different fates. The section on paranoia in the early republic was very interes
Sep 03, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is a great collection of essays covering the period from Colonial to early-19th Century America. Wood does a fine job of exploring different aspects of the creation of the United States. One of the best essays is on the idea of "rights." I especially enjoyed the more focussed attention on how the 'idea' of America came into being and how it changed from the Revolutionary War to the early 19th Century.
Jun 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
In many ways this book is an expansion of the ideas and themes Wood presented in his earlier work Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States). His last chapter, an essay titled "The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy Around the World" is must reading for anyone interested in the history and future of "American Exceptionalism".
Jim Reid
May 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: may-june-to-do
My first real introduction into the mindset of America pre 1776. The book begs additional reading before you can set an opinion of the idea of America. ThIs book is not and end to concept or understanding, but a beginning. Be ready to add like books to your must read list.
Feb 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the essays and learned about the founders's ideas of private and public rights. I found the essays that discussed specific concepts and issues--the foundation of judicial review, for example, more enlightening than the more abstract discussion of the American idealism.
Catherine Woodman
Nov 30, 2011 rated it liked it
I did not like this nearly as much as I have enjoyed other books by this author--his last book was quite good, and this was more erudite and academic than it was readable. Maybe essays on the revolution are not my cup of tea.
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Gordon S. Wood is Professor of History at Brown University. He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History for The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the 1970 Bancroft Prize for The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 .
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