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The Radicalism of the American Revolution (original 1992; edition 1992)

by Gordon S. Wood

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996118,597 (4.01)17
Member:JBD1
Title:The Radicalism of the American Revolution
Authors:Gordon S. Wood
Info:Knopf
Collections:Your library
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Tags:American History, Revolutionary War, Philosophy

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The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (1992)

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The American Revolution was a failure.

That is not the opinion of Wood. It was the opinion of the Revolutionaries. Looking back on what they had wrought, they were despondent over the gap between their ambition and their achievement.

“We are indeed a bebanked, a bewhiskied, and a bedollared nation,” said Benjamin Rush in 1812. Of the Constitution, he said, “I cannot meet a man who loves it.” The government had devolved to the “young and ignorant and needy part of the community.”

George Washington complained character was no longer a factor in politics.

John Adams, in 1813, asked “Where is now, the progress of the human Mind? … When? Where? And How? Is the present Chaos to be arranged into Order?”

Alexander Hamilton looked at a country he had helped birth on the battlefield and said “this American world was not made for me”.

Thomas Jefferson was not just speaking of personalities but also of revolutionary principles when he lamented in 1825, “All, all dead, and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who knows not us.”

And neither did I know them, not really, before reading this book.

What Wood shows is the aristocratic world the Revolutionaries rebelled against: a world of patronage and connection, the mixing of private and public interests, of dependency being key to advancement and not merit. He then shows the republican world they dreamed of: disinterested men of merit in charge, a natural aristocracy leading a nation of improving minds.

And then he shows the world they produced, the acid of an egalitarianism they unknowingly and unwillingly ushered in which destroyed the old ways families related to each other, created greater inequalities of wealth, substituted party patronage and politics for personal patronage, replaced Christian reason with evangelism, and brought about the beginnings of the modern bureaucratic American state and its ethnic politics.

The American Revolution certainly produced less bodies than the French Revolution or its heirs in Russia and China, but it, Wood convincingly argues, was even more radical in how it changed the way the “people” related to each other, what “commerce” was, what “equality” was. It literally redefined those words.

Wood details this progression in three parts: “Monarchy”, “Republicanism”, and “Democracy”. There is no specific timeline, no specific date the Revolutionary Republican dream dies. It’s hard to plot exactly in time how millions of minds and attitudes changed. However, he presents a surprisingly readable mixture of apt anecdote and quotation and statistics to document that change in the American mind.

For me, if not Wood, the book is another example of the failure of the Blank Slate idea the Enlightenment was so fond of. Even the wise and learned Revolutionaries had their hopes dashed on it. And Wood convincingly shows that the America many conservatives love is not the world the Founding Fathers had in mind even at its most basic social and political workings.

Wood concludes his work noting that, while they failed, the Founders’ revolution did not fail in typical ways but “succeeded only too well”. Wood argues that the price of the democracy the Revolutionaries unleashed on the world was vulgarity, materialism, rootlessness, and anti-intellectualism. But there were “real earthly benefits … to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people”.

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader, though, to ponder whether the more than 20 years of American politics since this book was written have not, in a peculiar way, have seen a growing amalgamation of the worst of the aristocratic and democratic worlds. It is to Wood’s great credit that he has produced a history that educates us about the past and yet so pertinent to our world and conversations today. ( )
  RandyStafford | Feb 24, 2014 |
I tried to reread THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Gordon Wood. I disliked it when I read it when it first came out and my opinion is far lower now. He has almost nothing to say. It is just an endless parade of snippet quotations. Not even of any use for reference. ( )
  johnclaydon | Aug 27, 2010 |
Well-researched look at the political philosophies surrounding the American revolution. I am not sure if I completely agree with his conclusions, but he is the one with the Pulitzer. ( )
1 vote w_bishop | Dec 20, 2009 |
Gordon Wood's qualifications as an historian of American colonial and revolutionary history rank with Edmund Morgan [The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (The Chicago History of American Civilization)] and Bernard Bailyn (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution). His 'Radicalism of the American Revolution' sets forth his thesis that the American Revolution, contrary to its reputation in some quarters as a mere war of independence and generally conservative in nature, fundamentally changed American society. By the end of the revolutionary era, America had transitioned from a deferential society subject to rule by an aristocracy to a republican one governed by elected elites to a rowdy democracy dominated by commerce.

Wood's book is challenging both in the sense of being difficult and in the sense of questioning accepted wisdom (at least as it was when he first published the book in 1993). A sound grounding in the history of the era is almost a prerequisite; this is not a narrative history marching from event to event. Wood's main focus is on social change, not to say upheaval, and he slowly, even indirectly, builds his case. Specific events are referenced illustratively to demonstrate a point he has developed over many pages. (In this way, the book called to mind one of my law school professors, Mark Tushnet (Taking the Constitution Away from the Courts), who often took several lectures to develop one critical insight. Lose track briefly and you would be lost in the woods for days.)

Wood (no relation, but tastefully named) makes a compelling case. In a nub, Wood credits the revolution because the dramatic changes occurred while America remained rural and preindustrial. Very high recommendation for any reader interested in history, whether generally or of the American revolution. Radicalism of the American Revolution is a book that warrants and demands your full attention, if not a second reading. ( )
  dougwood57 | Jan 29, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679736883, Paperback)

In a grand and immemsely readable synthesis of historical, political, cultural, and economic analysis, a prize-winning historian depicts much more than a break with England. He gives readers a revolution that transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:16 -0400)

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