A Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize–winning historian offers deeply contemplative essays from a career devoted to studying the Revolutionary Era.
If, as Wood (History/Brown Univ.; Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, 2009, etc.) asserts, the Revolution “is the most important event in American history, bar none,” it follows that arguments over its ideology, the doctrinal core of the nation’s creation, become critical, not just to contemporary politicians and activists looking to the past for legitimacy, but even—and more regrettably—to generations of historians bent on imposing their own era’s preoccupations. The author discloses his own methodology, of particular value to those interested in historiography, and also important to the general reader looking for reliable information about the nation’s origins. Wood rejects the temptation to take sides among history’s combatants. Rather, the historian’s task, he writes, is to examine why they “thought and behaved as they did,” understanding that ideas, while important, are subordinate to passions driving social change, that they are always constrained by the facts on the ground and frequently entail consequences that no one, not even their sponsors, could foresee. With these stipulations and with genuine modesty—in postscripts to most of these essays, Wood frequently offers second thoughts about pieces composed years ago—he covers such topics as the disconnect between the sometimes lurid rhetoric accompanying the more prosaic reality of the Revolution; the Founders’ fascination with the rise and fall of Republican Rome; the unique radicalism shared by Jefferson and Tom Paine; the conspiratorial interpretation of events that flourished in the 18th century; the era’s sincere fear of monarchism on the one hand, mob rule on the other; the ideal of disinterestedness versus the competing interests unleashed by messy democracy; the peculiar awkwardness of the republic’s first decade; and the origins of our unique constitutionalism and our sometimes misguided political evangelism. It’s difficult to conjure another writer so at home in the period, so prepared to translate its brilliant strangeness for a modern audience.
Sound, agenda-free analysis, gracefully presented.