Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen‘s The Ideas that Made America: A Brief History (Oxford University Press, 2019) is a sweeping examination of the key ideas that have infused American...

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen‘s The Ideas that Made America: A Brief History (Oxford University Press, 2019) is a sweeping examination of the key ideas that have infused American society. Moving across borders, time, and within American culture the author gives a well-written and spirited account of why ideas matter. The book begins with how the name “America” came to be in the mind of European empires in the sixteenth century and takes us to the end of the twentieth century, when globalization, another form of empire, was on the minds of Americans. Along the way, Ratner-Rosenhagen offers a tour through early European contact with native peoples, the American Enlightenment, the romance with the new republic, the remaking of the nation through the transcendentalist movement, scientific discoveries, pragmatism and modernism to the intellectual, social and political ruptures of the late twentieth century that owe a great deal to what came before. This bird’s eye view captures the significance of attending to ideas that motivated Americans to different forms of action and engagement. This is a great book for those unfamiliar with the intellectual history of America and for those wanting to connect different streams of that history.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This episode of New Books in American Studies was produced in cooperation with the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.


Lilian Calles Barger is a cultural, intellectual and gender historian. Her recent book is The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology (Oxford University Press, 2018).