May 15, 2011


The Visionary Generation: Our premier student of the Founding looks at the ideas that shaped the revolution and the early republic : a review of The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States By Gordon S. Wood (JAMES W. CEASER, 5/14/11, WSJ)

"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. All of the essays have been updated or re-configured, with an afterword appended to each. What the book may sacrifice in overall unity it more than makes up for in the richness of its reflections on the character and import of the Founding. It is Mr. Wood's most "personal" work, providing us, along with much fine history, glimpses into the thinker and the man.

Referring to Isaiah Berlin's famous classification of writers into the categories of the fox (one who knows many things) and the hedgehog (one who fixates on one subject), Mr. Wood describes himself as "a simple hedgehog." Yet his lifelong concentration on the Founding period is no mere result of animal instinct. It stems from his belief that the "Revolution is the most important event in American history, bar none." The centrality of the revolution derives from the fact that it created the political state—for Mr. Wood, "we created a state before we created a nation"—and even more from the fact that it supplied us with "our highest aspirations and noblest values." The ideas that underpin these aspirations and values supply Mr. Wood with the key to the whole American experience, and are the nucleus of the adhesive force that has formed and forms the American people: "The Revolution made us an ideological [i.e., idea-based] people. . . . We Americans have been as ideological as any people in Western Culture."

Within the little band of brothers and sisters in the academy who stress the centrality of the Founding ideas to the American experience there is a long-standing family feud. On one side are those who identify the content of the idea with a "republican ideology," an inheritance of classical, Renaissance and a strand of English Whig thought that subordinates the individual to the community. Arrayed against them are those who emphasize the centrality of the doctrine of natural rights, an Enlightenment discovery that stresses individual liberty as a universal principle. This debate has had important implications for our polity, with republicanism being warmly seized upon by many modern-day egalitarians and communitarians and natural rights being cited by many conservatives. While the origins of Mr. Wood's view lie more in the "republican ideology," this book makes it clear that his understanding of republicanism is supple enough to embrace the enlightenment idea of natural rights as well. In the end, Mr. Wood is content to avoid much of this debate and describe the core principles generally as "liberty and democracy."

The germ of these principles is the notion of equality—a concept akin to the egalitarianism Tocqueville identified as the catalyst of American development. For Mr. Wood, it produced an explosion of energy that reshaped the America of the early republic and has been reshaping it—and the world—ever since.

Mr. Wood fully acknowledges all the hierarchies based on race, class and gender, but unlike so many other historians he views the battles against them as deriving from within the Revolution's principles, not from outside. His idea of democracy is perhaps best grasped in a negative formulation: In America no principle of hierarchy can ever openly be sustained as a title to rule. The "natural" America that Mr. Wood describes has a populist tinge to it. In its cruder application it can appear as the celebration of ordinariness, but it can also accept, and even reward, any individual's accomplishment of wealth, education or merit, though never as an a priori claim of a title to govern.

It is our being incurably ideological that prevents us from being nationalistic and makes nativism a losing battle for the Right.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at May 15, 2011 9:58 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus