The Idea of America in the Age of Empire

It's hard to fathom that the United States stems from a revolutionary tradition considering it has opposed more revolutions than it has supported, or so argues Pulitzer-prize winner Gordon Wood in his latest book, The Idea of America. Wood sees a "terrifying gap" between us and the Founding Fathers and rightly wonders if America is still a "bearer of liberty" or an imperial power on the wane. But don't look for any radical anti-American treatise here, for the author also pulls at the patriotic heartstrings, positing a case for "America as exemplar" without any abrading supremacist undertones.

The author forces the reader to reassess the origins of our country, from both an intellectual and emotional standpoint, and challenges one's conception of America and the Revolution that brought her to fruition. Rare is a book that explores both sides of an equation so evenly. While he removes some illusions about our sacrosanct Founders he also illustrates why the American Revolution was unlike any in world history and why our nation is still of "peculiar character" in a positive sense.

Our nation never met the expectations of the Founders who envisioned a virtuous republic of yeoman farmers with disinterested leaders. What America devolved into was a licentious, materialistic popular democracy routinely hijacked by special interest groups. But Wood balances this harsh reality by favorably comparing the American Revolution with other upheavals, including the French Revolution which culminated in a Napoleonic dictatorship.

"To be an American is not to be someone, but to believe something," Wood states, as he efficiently relays a profound concept so plainly, making any scribe worth his game a bit covetous. He avoids tempting clichés and stale language in explaining how we Americans lack a nationality, especially in light of our current melting pot, the way other peoples do.

In fact, we were a state before we were a nation, as Wood writes: "It is the state, the Constitution, the principles of liberty, equality and free government that make us think of ourselves as a single people." Hence, the major adhesive holding Americans together, to this day, are intellectual principles -- not ethnicity, creed or class.

At the outset of The Idea of America is an intellectually-stimulating comparison of two schools of thought on the causes of the Revolution. Progressive historians tend to reduce the Revolution to a class conflict driven by socioeconomic and demographic variables beyond the control of any historical participants. The birth of America was the result of selfish interests and passions, the progressives would have it. Structural forces shaped events, not ideals. They characterize the values espoused by the Founders as rhetorical propaganda. Wood elaborates:

... the Progressive historians generally had considered ideas to be manipulated entities, rationalizations or propaganda, mere epiphenomenal coverings for the underlying determinative social reality.

The opposing interpretation is what Wood refers to as the "neo-Whig" perspective, which says America became the first nation in the world to base its nationhood solely on Enlightenment values and ancient Roman principles. Wood, for his part, seeks to avoid false dichotomies between the behaviorist and idealist camps and weighs events, with a truly detached historical perspective, from both the intellectual and the social sides.

A revealing portion of the book comes when Wood discusses how the colonists, compared to most revolutions, had little reason to revolt. Progressive historian Arthur M. Schlesinger thought the stigmatizing of British policy as tyranny, oppression and slavery "had little or no objective reality... " However, this line of thought actually buttresses the idealist camp's thesis. Americans revolted "not against tyranny inflicted, but only against tyranny anticipated." They revolted not due to suffering but out of "principled reason." The American Revolution was, peculiarly, "an affair of the mind."

Wood believes a too cynical analysis fails to give the Revolution its due. He asserts what Emerson called the "shot heard round the world" was an event that "opened up a new era in politics and society, not just for Americans but eventually for everyone in the world. It is a perspective on the American Revolution not always grasped, even by Americans... "

Wood does strike an ominous cord, given today's politics, when he outlines what the Founders saw as the key to the long-term sustainability of the Republic, saying that republicanism requires "a special kind of people, a people who possess virtue, who were willing to surrender their private interests for the sake of the whole."

Wood argues that America was always considered a perilous experiment, especially during the Civil War. Knowing this, as Wood points out, it's easier to grasp the importance of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, wherein the President "described the Civil War as a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty could long endure."

Often he returns to the theme of Roman and American virtue. Wood believes Rome was great due to the character of its people and implies the same goes for America, which makes his describing of why Rome fell all the more prescient:

But when they [the Romans] 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.

U.S. leaders would do well to absorb this history lesson. Near the end, Wood expounds on where America's true power resides, which is the fact that we are still primarily an idea: "However many troops we can muster around the world will mean little if, in using them, we erode that idea, that moral authority which is the real source of our strength and our ability to gain the admiration and support of other peoples."