‘The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History’

What are distinctly American concepts of freedom, reason, individualism, religion, belonging, the market, morality, self-interest and social obligation, and how have they been reconciled with the European Enlightenment and evolved over time?

“Long before the United States was a nation, it was a set of ideas, projected onto the New World by European explorers with centuries of belief and thought in tow. From this foundation of expectation and experience, America and American thought grew in turn, enriched by the bounties of the Enlightenment, the philosophies of liberty and individuality, the tenets of religion, and the doctrines of republicanism and democracy. Crucial to this development were the thinkers who nurtured it, from Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois to Jane Addams, and Betty Friedan to Richard Rorty.

The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History traces how Americans have addressed the issues and events of their time and place, whether the Civil War, the Great Depression, or the culture wars of today…Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (who teaches intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison) shows how ideas have been major forces in American history, driving movements such as transcendentalism, Social Darwinism, conservatism, and postmodernism.”

She includes Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,”  and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”; Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” and Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

Washington Post review: How America learned to think for itself.

Read the first chapter for free.


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