The Idea of America is an intellectual history of the American Revolution. It showed how ideas like monarchy, the Enlightenment, and sovereignty helped start the Revolution and shape the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Woods not only described standard topics like the intellectual arguments of the election of 1800 but also unique topics like questioning whether the Founders were insane (he said no). Woods kept an eye on the future by arguing that the Anti-Federalist were more forward looking than the Federalists and by showing how ideas of the Revolution effects 21st century America.
This intriguing book shined a new light on the American Revolution. Woods does not just recount a timeline of events, he asked more sophisticated questions about what the colonists were thinking and the causes of these ideas. The articles are tied together nicely with similar themes of disinterestedness vs. being in the economy, politicians looking out for the common good vs. looking out for their constituents, America being tied together not by genetics but by shared ideals, arguing that the Anti-Federalist were more forward looking than the Federalists, and that many of the founders feared there was too much democracy in state governments. At his best, Woods used tangible examples to prove his arguments. For instance, Chapter 4 used the contest between Robert Morris and William Findley for governor of Pennsylvania to describe the difference between the Federalists and Anti-Federalist. Morris was a rich Federalist who wanted to stay out of the economy so much that he eventually ended up in debtors prison and opposed paper currency because he said it was not in the “Common Good.” Findley was an Anti-Federalist who supported being in the economy and paper currency because it would help his constituents. He criticized Morris for having private motives for opposing paper currency since that would devalue the loans he gave out. 
Woods lack of focus on slavery was disappointing. Woods even stated “Our present preoccupation with race and gender has sometimes tended to misrepresent the period in much the same way that Charles Beard’s Progressive generation misrepresented the period with their preoccupation with the common people against business interest.” The book certainly was not racist and did at times mention slavery but it always was a side note. For instance, Chapter 9 argued that the Federalists were out of step with the future of America by showing that they believed slavery was going to a die a natural death when it was really expanding. Woods also mentioned the hypocrisy of the early Americans thinking of themselves as enlightened when they owned people. Every history does not have to be about slavery but it does deserve more weight than what Woods gives it. In Chapter 7 Woods explained that the South’s desire to keep slavery was the reason why the South was at the forefront of the revolution but conservative by the time of the Civil War. This was a fascinating incite and certainly could have been expanded to an entire chapter.
Even though the book was a combination of eleven articles going back to the 1960’s Woods did a good job of having some common themes so the chapters built upon one another. Woods wanted to break down the distinction between the Revolution and Early America, which can be seen by the titles of the book’s three sections: The American Revolution, The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy, and the Early Republic. Woods has fabulous insights but can be wordy and his arguments could be simplified. His titles were helpful but his opening paragraphs were often hard to understand. One needed to read halfway through the article to figure out the thesis. Each chapter had a brief afterward with Wood’s contemporary commentary. It would have been better to put these at the start of the chapter to introduce the article and put it in historical context. The worst example of this is when Woods spent all of Chapter 4 arguing that the Anti-Federalists were more forward thinking than the Federalists but then in the afterward he basically discounts his entire argument by saying that he now would not take that firm of a stance. This book is dense but many people who have already had an introduction to the American Revolution will enjoy Wood’s new perspectives.
Woods was influenced by things that were happening at the time this book was written in 2011. He said that the current “Imperial Presidency” showed the legacy of monarchy in the American Republic. He said that it is a testament to the Federalists that America has the biggest economy and military in the world. Woods also asked if America’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was the fulfillment of the revolution since the USA was spreading democracy or against the revolution since America was using their superior power to squash popular rebellions. Woods said America was better able to assimilate immigrants because it is united not by genetics but by shared ideals. So it would be interesting how Woods views have change in todays more anti-immigrant society spurred by President Trump.
 Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, (New York: Penguin Press: 2011), 127-170.
 Wood, 21.
 Wood, 251-72.
 Wood, 273-290.
 Wood, 251-72.
 Wood, 127-170.
 Wood, 231-250.
 Wood, 251-272.
 Wood, 319-318.
 Wood, 273-290.
Chapter 1 explained the cause of the American Revolution. 18th Century historians said the revolution formalized what had already taken place since the colonists enjoyed a lot of freedom. Early 20th Century Progressive historians thought the rich had economic motives but used the high-minded ideas of the revolution to get popular support. Later historians, such as Edmund Morgan, showed that the colonist’s were consistent in supporting Parliament’s ability to regulate trade but opposing Parliament taxing them without representation. Woods argued ideas do not just shape events events shape ideas. He stated that there was so much conspiratorial thinking that the revolutionaries had to believe some of it even if it was not true. He showed that events like the weakening of the British Empire might have contributed to the revolutionary ideas.
Chapter 2 examines the legacy of Roman Republicanism on the American Revolution. Woods argued that the events of the time, (corruption, idleness, etc.) led colonists and Europeans to support republican virtues of simplicity while still supporting monarchy. For instance French nobles admired the painting The Oath of the Horatii even though it was undercutting their legitimacy. Eventually, however, the meaning of these republican values changed into opposing monarchy. These republican values can be seen in the Neoclassical style of Washington D.C., the decision of Washington to refuse a salary for being president, and the Americans support of positive liberty (participating in government) and negative liberty (rights). Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” quote was also inspired by a Roman playwright named Addison. (73) Woods said the colonists adopted only the parts of Roman philosophy that appealed to them.
Chapter 3 asked were the revolutionaries insane given their support of untrue conspiracy theories? Woods said it was actually their enlightenment thinking that led the colonists believe these conspiracies. The Enlightenment said everything could be explained by the deliberate action of people not divine providence. However the world was getting more complex, interconnected, and fast past then they could imagine. They did not understand unintended consequences or societal forces greater than each person’s decision. So they believed that the changes taking place were the result of somebody’s willful decision. John Swift moved beyond this by saying that there is an “invisible hand” in society. He showed that a decision that is good for an individual might be bad for society and vice versa.
In Chapter 4, Woods argued that the Anti-Federalist represented the future of American society more than the Federalists. Federalists believed politicians should be disinterested umpires of society looking out for the common good not involved in the economy since that would lead them to look out for their own self-interest. The best way to be disinterested was to collect rent but this was impractical since there was so much inexpensive land. Even rich politicians had interests. For instance, rich land owners opposed printing money after the economy slowed down at the end of the revolution since this would devalue the loans they had given out. Federalists feared excessive democracy characterized by popular participation in government and logrolling politicians trading favors. Woods does say every time current society criticizes corrupt politicians who value their private gain over the common good they are harkening back to Federalist ideas. On the other hand, Anti-Federalists realized everybody had interests, it was a benefit to be in the marketplace, politicians should represent their constituents not be disinterested umpires, and believed could move up in society.
Chapter 5 showed that both Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were radicals who believed that all people had an innate moral and social sense and could succeed if they were given enough education. They believed in the goodness of society without realizing the gender, racial, and age tensions within it. They thought government was a necessary evil because it restrained people’s liberty and that the economy brought people together. Even though they shared the same philosophy they did have some differences. Paine was not a slave owner and was willing to say anything since he was in the working class and he supported democratic revolution above America. Jefferson was a slave owner and hid some of what he thought since he was in the upper class and supported America more than the concept of democratic revolution.
Chapter 6 explained why the American constitution is so unique. The founders wrote out the Constitution so that it would be more permanent than just another statute. Courts received the power of Judicial Review to rule that bills passed by the legislature were unconstitutional. They shifted sovereignty from the legislature to the people This implied that politicians are imperfect representatives and led them to go from virtual representation, where each member of the legislature represented the whole country and usually just came from the upper class, to proportional representation, where representation was based on population size.
Chapter 7 asked how America became a democracy. English government mixed monarchy (King), Aristocracy (House of Lords), and democracy (House of Commons). In the early 1700’s, colonists could go over the royal governor’s heads by appealing to trade guilds or English politicians. In the late 1700s colonist-English ties weakened so the rich appealed to the people’s sense of liberty as a new way to subvert the royal governors. The movement started out being top down but the people soon expanded the ideas of liberty to include the importance of voting, support for a less hierarchical society, and the belief that politicians should represent their constituents not be disinterested umpires. The founder’s support of slavery obviously went against these democratic views and showed their racism. Woods said these views led some people to oppose slavery but even Northern abolitionists were hesitant to make African Americans full citizens because that would mean they were completely equal to whites.
Chapter 8 considered how monarchy shaped the American Republic. The founders replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution to limit the democracy in state governments and to create a stronger central government with many of the same powers that used to belong to the king. The election of 1800 was important because power shifted from the Federalists, who leaned more towards monarchy, to Thomas Jefferson, who favored limited government, republicanism, and an egalitarian society. Andrew Jackson was criticized for acting like a king for using patronage to gain power. However, by this time American republicanism was on firmer ground so Jackson remained popular. Even the current “Imperial Presidency” shows the legacy of monarchy in the American Republic.
Chapter 9 argued that the Federalist had a faulty vision for America. They did not believe a country could be tied together just by people’s moral and social sense of justice. So to tie people together they supported a stronger constitution that enabled the federal government to tax and call up the military, more infrastructure (canals), and Hamilton’s idea to subsume state debt into the Federal government. They assumed the Northwest Ordinance would lead to a peaceful and orderly move west but settlers, in fact, ignored treaties with Native Americans and did not pay what they were supposed to for the land. Woods does admit that it is a testament to the Federalists that America has the biggest economy and military in the world.
Chapter 10 showed how Americans thought of themselves as the most enlightened society. The Constitution was based on the Enlightenment principle that knowledge was gained through the senses not through divine providence or reason alone. Since everybody had senses everybody could gain knowledge. This went against European society that was more hierarchical. They believed prisons could be for improvement not just punishment so they created solitary confinement so prisoners could think about what they had done. Americans prided themselves on going above parochialism and religious customs by having the largest newspaper circulation in the world. Their goal was to unify many different people into one country, which has enabled America to assimilate immigrants better than other countries.
Chapter 11 talked about the history of rights and sovereignty. In early English history the King had all the power and the parliament was just a court to settle private matters. The Magna Carta forced the King to write down his powers, which inherently limited them, and made Parliament seem like the true representatives of the people. Early Americans took this a step farther by saying that sovereignty lay with the people so citizens needed to have rights that the government could not take away. They also increased the scope of the judicial branch to not just deal with private matters but to also judge the constitutionality of laws.
The conclusion discussed the legacy of the American Revolution. Americans were connected not through similar genetics but by the shared ideas of republicanism and revolution. This made them support other democratic revolutions until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 because it represented the Soviet Union and Communism overtaking America and democracy. Woods asked if America’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was the fulfillment of the revolution since the USA was spreading democracy or against the revolution since America was using their superior power to squash popular rebellions.