The Magazine

What Makes America?

A historian’s lifetime in search of an answer.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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The Idea of America contains three canonical essays—“Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century,” and “Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution”—that are known to most historians and remain accessible to anyone seeking to learn more of the young republic. But in my view the gem is Wood’s essay on rights in early America. The challenge to Americans then, as he sees it, was “the formulating of a defense of individual rights and liberties against the people themselves”—that is, of a defense that could protect people from the representatives whom the sovereign people had elected to govern them.

How that occurred requires Wood to unfurl a line of argument too complex to summarize here. But the development of rights, commencing with that of religious freedom, involved distinguishing private rights (including, of course, property rights) from public rights and then placing the former under the protection of the judiciary. That is, the rise of the judiciary to a place of centrality unprecedented anywhere previously resulted from judges being called upon to limit legislative action and protect individual rights. “The idea,” writes Wood with characteristic force, “that there was a sphere of private rights that lay absolutely beyond the authority of the people themselves, especially in a republican government, was a remarkable innovation.” It’s a feature that continues to set off the American state from almost every other polity.

It can still surprise some people that historical knowledge offers more than the pleasures of well-told tales. In the hands of deeply informed scholars who are analytical while lucid, engaged in their current world without being presentist in the choice of their subjects, or the approaches to them they take, knowledge of the past can often illuminate the present better than any other kind. That Wood has effectively done so throughout his career has helped put him in the forefront of practicing historians today. This work shows him at his very best.

James M. Banner Jr. is a cofounder of the National History Center and coeditor, most recently, of Becoming Historians.