In This Review

Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution
Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution
By Gordon S. Wood
Oxford University Press, 2021, 240 pp

Many historians view Wood as the greatest living scholar of the American Revolution. This book distills the core insights of a long career into a single small volume that grabs the reader’s interest from the first page and never lets go. He explores the debates that shaped the United States’ future governance, the invention of the radical concept of popular sovereignty, and the forming of the country’s founding documents. Lacking a common ancestry, Wood writes, “Americans have had to create their sense of nationhood out of the[se] documents.” The book covers power, liberty, concepts of representation and rights, slavery, and the emergence of a judicial branch with arguably more power to shape lives than any other judiciary in the world. It is no discussion of abstract principles. Wood shows how the Revolution “released pent-up social forces in the North that turned northern society into a middle-class world,” thereby pushing the nation toward modernity. Tiny Rhode Island’s success in using paper money led to such an explosion in its use that by the time the federal government began to regulate the money supply, there were, incredibly, “more than ten thousand different kinds of notes circulating in the United States.” The relevance of the founding documents to today’s disputes is evident throughout.