By Gordon S. Wood, Penguin Press, New York, N.Y. 385 pages, $29.95
Advocates of “original intent” as the criterion for constitutional interpretation will have trouble with “The Idea of America.” A collection of 11 essays by a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, the book shows that what the Founding Fathers had in mind and put into effect was far more complicated than what appears from the words of the Constitution.
In greater detail and depth than may seem worthwhile to some readers, the author begins by reviewing how successive historians, British and American, have tried to explain what the American Revolution was all about. Some, for example Charles A. Beard, have considered it an economic phenomenon. A more recent view deems the separation from England a consequence of cultural turbulence on this side of the Atlantic. Wood identifies himself as essentially of the latter school.
The author then sets forth an unorthodox premise: “The [colonial] Americans were not an oppressed people.” They “revolted not to create but to maintain their freedom.”
As the book’s title suggests, the essays that follow deal with the ideas, the intellectual stimuli, that motivated the split from the mother country. Wood concludes that “the Revolution was very much an ideological movement, involving a fundamental shift in ideas and values.”
A rejection of the very concept of monarchy formed the foundation of the thinking of those who led the Revolution and then established the Constitution. That rejection included a number of facets, some of them subtle. They arose, in large part, out of a reverence for what were seen as the guiding principles of republican Rome (an idealized version, that is, of the ancient state). That devotion, the author shows, pervaded political thinking, by no means only in North America, in the 18th century.
This vision of republicanism, the book emphasizes, was not to be confused with democracy. It foresaw a political entity that enjoyed the leadership of an economic and social elite, men (and only men) whose wealth, breeding, learning and nobility of character would ensure a disinterested, enlightened and scrupulously honest approach to government. Distance from the hurly-burley of the marketplace was seen as a must.
That dream, if it ever really came true, did not last long. The election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and of Andrew Jackson in 1828 accelerated a process by which the United States became “a sprawling, materialistic, and licentious popular democracy.” As a public virtue, unselfishness expired. In time, “the individual’s pursuit of wealth or happiness was not only inevitable but justifiable as the only proper basis of a free state.”
Successive essays take up the several categories of thought that underlay the establishment of the Republic. A distrust of the popular will was a persistent, major component of this thinking.
The idea of a written constitution, for example, arose out of a determination to put into effect a code of principles that could not be eliminated or modified by a mere legislative majority, as was (and still is) the case with Great Britain and most other democracies.
Throughout the book, the author stresses the need of the founders to innovate in their replacement of monarchy with republicanism. They had the ideal of ancient Rome as inspiration, but concrete precedent was lacking.
The separation of powers was another of their inventions. It too had as its intention the avoidance of what was feared as the tyranny of an elected majority. Thus Section 6 of Article I of the Constitution precludes the conventional arrangement, still in force in most of the free world, whereby the executive branch functions as agent of the Legislature.
Of particular historical interest is the author’s treatment of the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation. It came about, he maintains, not because of the weakness and ineffectiveness of the Continental Congress but out of the alarm of the governing class, that is, the Federalists, over the irresponsibility of the several state legislatures.
They were printing paper money and taking other steps inimical to the interests of creditors. Many of their laws were selfishly motivated or sloppily drafted. That, according to Wood, explains the adoption of the relatively strong central government created by the Constitution.
The book ends on a not altogether optimistic note. For well over a century, the author says, the United States held itself out and was widely accepted as an embodiment of the revolutionary spirit. That came to an abrupt end in 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power in what became the Soviet Union.
Since then, according to Wood, the country has time and again allied itself with anti-revolutionary movements. He does not see this as a good sign. “We can only hope,” he concludes, “that the idea of America will never die.”
Today, as we read the newspapers and watch TV news, most of us do not go very deep. We take for granted the structure and operation of our government. The “Idea of America,” sketched in only the briefest terms in the paragraphs above, serves as a valuable guide to a more knowledgeable approach to current events. Not at all an easy book, it is certainly a rewarding one.
Walter Barthold is retired from the practice of law in New York City.