Brown University history professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Gordon S. Wood has spent nearly the entirety of his professional life – now about a half-century – studying and writing about the American Revolution.
Thus my high expectations, completely met, for his latest book, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States.
I was particularly interested in his conclusion, "The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy Around the World." Several of his points address issues we face today, and offer us the perspectives of the Founding Fathers.
First, he points out that America's desire to spread democracy around the world was embedded in the ideology of the American Revolution from the start. Most interesting here was the view from the outside, to wit he quotes Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth.
In 1852, in the midst of a rash of European revolutions, many of which referenced the ideas and values of the American Revolution, Kossuth wrote that it was America's destiny "to become the cornerstone of liberty on earth." But, he added: "Should the Republic of America ever lose this consciousness of this destiny, that moment would be just as surely the beginning of America's decline."
Second, although books abound identifying political, social, economic and culture causes, Wood insists that the American Revolution was essentially an ideological movement, involving a fundamental shift in ideas and values.
Third, and following on that point, Wood explains that it was adherence to these intellectual principles that has been "the major adhesive holding us together as a people." We Americans, with our multiplicity of ethnicities, do not have a nationality the way other peoples do, so we were forced to create a state before we were a nation – a state based upon an agreed upon set of principles – liberty, equality, and free government.
Fourth, Americans in the 18th century knew that republicanism required a special kind of people, a people who possessed virtue, who were willing to surrender their private interests for the sake of the whole.
Monarchy was the dominant form of government in 1776 because of the common assumption that people were incapable of this kind of virtue and therefore required an authoritarian form of government without which the society would come apart.
America, with its republican form of government, was in many respects a fragile experiment, whose survival was uncertain – at least until the conclusion of the Civil War, Wood argues.
Fifth, Wood writes that because of their republican assumptions, Americans believed that any revolution would have to come from the "oppressed peoples themselves," but they never had any doubt that America would be the model for those revolutions.
Sixth, Wood continued, because of the many failed revolutions of the 19th century, and the slowness with which republicanism spread, 19th-century Americans increasingly concluded that "they were destined to be the only successful republican state in a corrupt world.
Page 2 of 2 - But, seventh, when the most dramatic revolution of the modern era did occur, the Russian Revolution of 1917, Americans' reaction was extraordinary. The Russian Revolution did not at all follow the American model, and although it collapsed in time, for several decades it posed the greatest challenge to the American revolutionary model.
Wood concludes with the observation that although once again the world's only superpower, 21st century Americans "seem to be in a quandary" about what to do about it – how to use that power.
Admitting that what the future will be is impossible to tell, Wood offers us some lessons from history, in this case from the American Revolution:
"All we can do with our history is to remember that the United States has always been to ourselves and to the world primarily an idea. How 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."
Food for thought on the day marking the birth of the United States.
Bryan Le Beau is an historian and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Saint Mary.