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The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992)

by Gordon S. Wood

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In a grand and immemsely readable synthesis of historical, political, cultural, and economic analysis, a prize-winning historian describes the events that made the American Revolution. Gordon S. Wood depicts a revolution that was about much more than a break from England, rather it transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.… (more)

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By the radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood is referring to the social transformation that he argues took place between 1760 and 1810. This transformation was radical because it changed America from a hierarchical/monarchical society into an egalitarian/democratic one. The social transformation also entailed political changes but these were not as radical as the French Revolution. This all took place in a preindustrial society in which the social pressures to be seen later in the nineteenth century were not yet present such as economic and social conflicts arising from industrialism, but where government, often corrupt and arbitrary and intertwined with the hierarchical structure of society, was viewed as the primary opponent to necessary change.

Wood organizes the book around three models or ideal types. First, he lays out the dominant hierarchical structure of the pre-revolutionary period that he describes under the heading of “Monarchy.” Then he examines the republican ideal which provided much of the rationale and goals of the American Revolution itself. Finally, he examines, under the heading “Democracy,” the third model, egalitarian democracy, which prevailed after the revolution. Each of these forms of society had an existence throughout the period but they waxed and waned. The hierarchical society waned and the democratic society waxed in the post-revolutionary period. The republican ideals helped drive the revolution but did not take strong root in the society that emerged from independence.

While arguing that this transformation was the most important event in American history, Wood does not claim that the democratic egalitarian idea had reached its apogee by 1810. Rather his point is that this new ideal became the guiding force in American society and politics and is still working its way through our society. So in 1810 African-Americans were still subject to slavery and women had not seen any noticeable increase in their rights. But the now dominant democratic/egalitarian ethos would fuel struggles (e.g., abolition of slavery, achievement of women’s and minority rights) up to the present day. Not surprisingly, the book will strike most readers as having significant contemporary interest.

In presenting these ideas, many historians would have chosen a lecture or essay format in which they would have laid down the basic themes with some examples but leave it to others to fill out the details of the argument. This is not the kind of book Wood has written. Rather, his argument is characterized by a huge amount of detailed information he presents to support his theses, comprehensively footnoted. Much of the interest in the book lies in the specifics that he meticulously cites to support what might otherwise have been an abstract argument.

Set forth below is a summary of highlights of Wood’s examination of his three models.

Monarchy. This is a hierarchical system based on personal dependence and allegiance with the monarch at the top of the hierarchy. Gentlemen (the American “aristocracy”) who can live off of interest on loans and the income of their estates are superior to commoners, including merchants, mechanics and artisans who were tainted by the pursuit of their private interests and were required to work with their hands. The most important asset of the gentleman was his reputation; a gentleman was subject to insult only by another gentleman. Gentlemen would defend their honor, which could only be threatened by other gentlemen, not by common people.

The household was the basic unit of society, and within the household the father had the authority of a king. There was no clear distinction between public and private interest: members of the leading families were expected to serve in public office (e.g., as judges) without pay, but could also use the public office for their personal gain. Economic relations were a system of patronage in which patrons supported the advancement of their clients, and clients supported the interests of the patrons. Even Benjamin Franklin, in acquiring his wealth, relied on the support of patrons, although he eventually turned against the system because it him did not permit colonials to rise to the top of the empire. The political system was also based on patronage, with the king at the top, and his patronage extended to the power to make many appointments in the colonies. The king’s private rights provided the foundation for his public power. Government had limited duties, basically to preserve order and adjudicate disputes. The distinction between the legislature and judicial function was not clear. Government could not act without the cooperation of the private individuals who served in its offices. Government service was seen as a personal sacrifice. The duty to serve was a factor in the role played by the founding fathers in the American Revolution. There was no need for political parties because colonial politics consisted of the competition between prominent families and their dependents in each colony and in Britain for the benefits of the king’s patronage. Common people had little influence on the political system other than through expressing their frustration by engaging in riots.

Republicanism. Republicanism seeped into eighteenth century thought initially as a set of ideals and values viewed as compatible with monarchy. Many philosophes thought that republicanism could reform and improve monarchy, and that pure republicanism could only be an option in small states and cities. David Hume thought that republican principles could perfect monarchy. Montesquieu argued that most governments were a mixture of monarchy and republicanism. Thomas Jefferson, however, clearly distinguished between monarchy and republicanism. Over time, republican ideals began to undermine monarchy and ultimately led to its destruction. For example, republicans attacked the corrupt commercialized society that had developed in monarchical states. They rejected David Hume’s effort to explain the need for corruption in the workings of the British Constitution. Republican ideals required that individuals be independent in order to exercise liberty and public virtue, i.e., to sacrifice private interests for the public good. Only autonomous individuals could develop the disinterestedness required to be a leader in a republic, which in practice meant the landed gentry (living on rents) should hold office but not common people. However, republicans thought a liberal education could help develop a disinterested mentality.

Because their culture and institutions developed far away from the center of power in the British Empire, the colonies developed republican tendencies alongside the weak presence of royal authority. Indeed, they were so unaware of the contradictions in their ideals that they were surprised when they were accused of radicalism when they rose up against the “tyranny” of the Empire, which after the Seven Years War began an effort to assert its political control in the colonies. There was a heritage of defiance to monarchy, e.g., Puritan and the Scots-Irish immigrants, and of decentralized colonial governments. Lacking representation from the colonies, Parliament did not provide a mediating function between the colonists and the British government. On the other hand, there was less social stratification in the colonists and fewer individuals could aspire to the Republican ideal of independence. The southern plantation owners came closest to this ideal, but they could not live on rents alone but rather relied on international trade in tobacco and other goods (which was a factor in their support of the American Revolution against the imperial system in which they perceived they were losers in the long run). The fact that land ownership was more widespread in America contributed to a spirit of egalitarianism. Wood calls the colonial mix of monarchical and republican features “a truncated Republican monarchy.”

Beginning in the 1750’s, growing population and economic changes weakened the hierarhical/monarchic stability of society, including fast growth in the West, movements of people within the colonies (e.g., North Carolina emerged as the fourth largest colony), increases in the price of land, general expansion of commerce (both imports and exports) and higher consumption by common people. Impersonal market relations (including borrowing and the use of paper money) weakened traditional patronage dependencies. Local gentry had a harder time controlling the results of elections. A weakening of authority and hierarchy also led to a breakdown of mutual obligations between higher and lower social levels. The patriarchal family began to change, and fathers, as well as rulers, became confused about their role. Americans appealed to the paternalistic role of the British king to justify their rebellion against the laws of Parliament. Written contracts began to replace personal relationships.

The revolution intended to replace monarchy by republicanism. Subjects would become citizens and equality would replace hierarchy. While the colonies were enjoying a general period of prosperity, individuals feared that imperial policy and interference with international trade would undercut that prosperity. Property was viewed as the basis of equality. Jefferson argued that only a person who owned property could aspire to the republican ideal of independence. The revolution was an assault on personal dependency and was resentful of aristocracy. It ended indentured servitude but not slavery. However, it destroyed the cultural atmosphere which had supported slavery along with other forms of servitude in the hierarchical society that prevailed before the revolution. After the revolution slavery began to stick out and abolitionist attacks began in Philadelphia in 1785. The revolution set in place forces that eventually ended slavery.

With the destruction of the monarchical hierarchical society, how was the new society to hold together? Tarring and feathering and other social pressures were used to destroy traditional loyalties and make people into republicans; victims were forced to swear allegiance to the people rather than the king. Nationalism had not yet emerged as a political cement. The revolutionaries appealed to ties based on love, benevolence and gratitude to replace the old artificial ties of dependency based on family and patronage. This reflected the Enlightenment belief that natural virtue could emerge once kings were dispensed with and that participation in society and commerce would humanize mankind. Government was the source of evil. Sociability and cosmopolitanism were new ideals best embodied in the surrogate religion of Freemasonry. “To be free of local prejudices and parochial ties defined a liberally educated gentleman.” (p. 222)

But Woods concludes with a pessimistic assessment of the republican model: “Yet these efforts to assert the obligations of gratitude and to reconcile republicanism with hierarchy [i.e., leadership by an independent, disinterested and virtuous elite] were doomed almost from the outset. For the revolution had set loose forces in American society that few realized existed, and before long republicanism itself was struggling to survive.” (p. 225)

Democracy. In the final section of the book, Wood turns from the goals of the revolutionaries to the actual consequences of the American Revolution, many of which disappointed the founding fathers. The people, pursuing their selfish private interests and lacking in respect for their traditional leaders, could not meet the standards of virtue required for republican government. The Constitution attempted to mitigate private interests and the role of the majority by establishing institutional arrangements. But the Constitution could not restrain the popular social forces unleashed by the American Revolution including egalitarianism, materialism, and individualism. These social forces were the opposite of what the founding fathers had expected. The Federalists disliked democracy, especially its social consequences, but it was difficult for conservatives to withstand the slippage of republicanism into democracy because it would appear that they were repudiating the American Revolution. Wood argues that equality was the most radical force let loose by the revolution. Equality undercut social hierarchy, including the republican ideal of the disinterested learned gentlemen and respect for authority. It also recognized everyone’s equal right to pursue private interests. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush personified the American Enlightenment and they supported egalitarianism. While the utopian goals of the American Revolution were not achieved, a significant social and political revolution was occurring.

Democracy actually became an act of faith during the revolution. It was not just a question of voting rights but also of participation by the common people in government. There was a shift from the hierarchical society where the common people could only participate by rioting to a system where private interests of people like artisans and mechanics were expressed in their participation in local government and groups like the sons of liberty. In Philadelphia, ethnic Germans demanded that their interests be represented in the political system, an early example of the US tradition of interest group politics. Economic changes during the revolution accelerated capitalist development and the growth of private interests.
In the Federalist Papers, Madison asserted that the national government would be able to rise above local and private interests and thus achieve the goal of a disinterested gentry at the top of government. The national government could be neutral, above private interests. Hamilton saw lawyers as not having an interest in the sense that artisans and mechanics did. By contrast, the Anti-Federalists attacked the whole concept of a disinterested leadership. Elites had their own private interests just as the common people did. A competitive democratic politics was therefore an alternative to a disinterested leadership. The origins of American pluralism can be found in the Anti-Federalist positions. Even though the Anti-Federalists lost in opposing the adoption of the Constitution, their vision of politics ultimately prevailed, e.g., the role of parties. Jefferson held onto a delusionary belief that virtue and natural sociability could win out over competitive interests. However, Alexander Hamilton, who along with George Washington were the only two founders who lived up to the Republican ideal of disinterested leadership, had no illusions about the impact of private interests. The Federalists therefore wanted a strong government to control the excesses of democracy. Hamilton saw that trade and commerce cannot regulate themselves. But rather than try to appeal to commercial interests, Hamilton tried to set up new hierarchies. The commercial interests went with Jefferson despite his own republican vision. Hamilton’s fiscal and military state gave way before the democratic society. The Federalist ideal of a disinterested leadership was unrealistic in a self-interested age. In South Carolina, there were efforts to block democracy to preserve the political power of the planters. Rather than being the path to independence and a disinterested political role, property itself had become just another private interest.

The revolution was an attack on aristocracy, the role of the gentleman of leisure. Gentlemen might be superior to the common people but they were not qualified to rule on that ground-- like others, they represented their own interests. While under monarchy the leisured aristocracy was viewed as the economic engine that produced work for lower levels of society, this model was undercut by the growth of commercial society in America. Labor became the ideal, not leisure. Both manufacturers and laborers united against gentlemen. Aristocracy was weak in the north and became anachronistic. The South was out of touch with these developments and thus became more out of place in American life than during or before the American Revolution. The artisans and mechanics “brought aristocratic leisure into contempt and turned labor into a universal badge of honor.” Benjamin Franklin was haled for his labor as a printer. Working to get ahead was honorable. Socialism would later be inhibited in America because owners and laborers alike claimed to be workers.

The new republican concept of independent individuals serving as disinterested officers of government was undercut by the fact that few gentlemen at least in the north could afford to serve without pay. Of the founders, only Washington and Jefferson could afford to serve in such a capacity. In the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin had opposed paying executive officers. John Adams did not buy the concept of disinterested leadership and thought government positions should be salaried. The independent individual serving the public interest simply was not practical. The individual’s authority as a government official was the public office, not the individual’s status as a gentleman. The pursuit of interest in politics led to the rise of partisanship and political parties. Jefferson had believed that political parties would fade away once the Federalists were gone. Martin Van Buren was the first president who was elected through the party system. Political parties also weakened the influence of families. Competition between political parties took on the role that classical virtue was to play in a disinterested republican government because loyalty to party superseded pursuit of one’s private interests. In a sense, political parties played a role similar to that of the monarch in the British system: just as the king would reward his supporters with political positions, political parties provided government jobs to their members. Andrew Jackson initiated this with the so-called spoils system. In the process he infused elements of monarchy into American democracy. It was a throwback to the British system where the king rewarded his supporters with official positions. The difference being that officeholders in America were ordinary citizens, not aristocrats as in England.

Fifty years after the revolution the traditional social hierarchy had virtually collapsed and the connections holding people together had become strained. Population growth, commercial expansion and westward movement were all factors in the breakup of traditional forms of social organization. The economy had become commercialized including agriculture. The growth of trade and commerce spurred the demand for internal improvements. Banks became widespread and states began issuing corporate charters. Jefferson and Adams both thought that banks were a fraud, and Jefferson opposed the introduction of corporate charters. The courts began to take on the key role of adjudicating disputes between private interests and the public interest, thereby removing these issues from the political sphere. Tocqueville observed that the legal profession control democracy through the courts. “As the public power of the state grew in the early Republic, so too did the private rights of individuals – with the courts mediating and balancing the claims of each.” (p. 325)

As the Enlightenment receded, Christianity took its place. The founding fathers had not been very religious. Public opinion turned against Thomas Paine who had attacked religion. The gentry turned to religion for social order. “Yet the outpouring of religious feeling in the early decades of the 19th century -- called the Second Great Awakening -- actually did not bring people together as much as it helped to legitimate their separation and make morally possible the new participation in an impersonal marketplace.” (p. 331). The new religion tended to be oriented towards the individual, not community life. Many religious groups proposed the separation of church and state.

Commerce and economic ties were seen as a source of social cohesion. Paper money liberated individuals from personal dependencies. People felt more equal because gentlemen had lost their superior social status, even if wealth became less equal. The distinction between gentlemen and ordinary people was blurred. Honor, a virtue that had been reserved to gentlemen, lost its meaning in an age of equality. Knowledge, character and connections as the criteria for social distinction were rejected in celebration of the so-called self-made man. “But already in America independent mobile men were boasting not only of their humble origins but also of their lack of polish and a gentleman’s education.” (p. 342).

The middle class was large in America, including almost everyone other than slaves. The cultural level of ordinary people was raised. Women had to be educated because their role was to civilize their families. America had become the most commercialized society in the world. No one was really in charge. The opinions of common people were as good as those of experts. Not surprisingly, the founding fathers were unhappy with the these results. Benjamin Rush was so disillusioned that he gave up on the Enlightenment and became a Christian enthusiast. George Washington thought that partisan spirit destroyed character in politics. Jefferson blamed the Federalists for the new democratic world. “The people were more religious, more sectarian and less rational than they had been at the time of the Revolution.” (p. 368). The new society was no longer interested in the ideals of the classical republic, which had been replaced by vulgarity, materialism, rootlessness and anti-intellectualism. We are still living with the consequences today. ( )
  drsabs | Apr 28, 2022 |
LT The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon S. Wood, Knopf, 1958, 11/2/21-1/8/22; recommended by Al Mohler Thinking in Public interview, Where is hard copy?

Theme: the founding history of American, tracing threads (seeds) from which came today’s country
Type: history with commentary
Value: 1-
Age: college
Interest: 1-

Daniel Dreisbach 1/11/22 return call re Charles Wood
Republicanism: consent of governed, representative (two essentials of, what he teaches his students; seems to me rule by law should be a third)
Constitutionalism: rule by law, limitation on government
Constitution not synonymous with rule by law?
Rule of law: 1) substantive, 2) procedural—due process: notice (this is why no ex post facto laws; right to be heard (among peers, speedy), 3) legal equality (very difficult to implement)
Sovereign is most difficult term in American founding
Characteristics of traditional view of sovereignty: ultimate undivided authority
Federalism: divided sovereignty
Probably much pragmatism in founding understanding and implementation
What about God and sovereignty? This is avoided (“you raise an interesting point”)
King is vice regent (how viewed biblically)
Gordon Wood emphasizes all men are created equal, founding (documents) didn’t solve, but it started a conversation that led to the abolition of slavery, this conversation is almost unprecedented (in history)

ix Preface Living in a society that was already diverse and pluralistic, Americans realized that these attachments [what holds society together] could not be the traditional ethnic, religious, and tribal loyalties of the Old World. Instead, they sought new enlightened connections to hold their new popular societies together. But when these proved too idealistic and visionary, they eventually found new democratic adhesives in the actual behavior of plain ordinary people—in the everyday desire for the freedom to make money and pursue happiness in the here and now.

6-8 Intro By the time the Revolution had run its course in the early nineteenth century, American society had been radically and thoroughly transformed. One class did not overthrow another; the poor did not supplant the rich. But social relationships—the way people were connected one to another—were changed, and decisively so. By the early years of the nineteenth century the Revolution had created a society fundamentally different from the colonial society of the eighteenth century. It was in fact a new society unlike any that had ever existed anywhere in the world.
That revolution did more than legally create the United States; it transformed American society….Far from remaining monarchical, hierarchy-ridden subjects on the margin of civilization, Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world.
And this astonishing transformation took place without industrialization, without urbanization, without railroads, without the aid of any of the great forces we usually invoke to explain “modernization.” It was the Revolution that was crucial to this transformation. It was the Revolution, more than any other single event, that made America into the most liberal, democratic, and modern nation in the world.
But in America, no more than in France, that was not the way it happened: the American Revolution and the social transformation of America between 1760 and the early years of the nineteenth century were inextricably bound together. Perhaps the social transformation would have happened “in any case,” but we will never know.
Most important, it made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people—their pursuits of happiness—the goal of society and government.

97 Monarchies and republics Many like Adam Smith believed that all governments in the world could be reduced to just two—monarchies and republics—and that these were rooted in two basic types of personalities: monarchists, who loved peace and order, and republicans, who loved liberty and independence.

169 sum The Revolution brought to the surface the republican tendencies of American life. The
“Suddenness” of the change from monarchy to republicanism was “astonishing.” “Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride,” said John Adams in the summer of 1776, “was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a Time.” Probably Adams should not have been astonished, for the truncated nature of American society with its high proportion of freeholders seemed naturally made for republicanism. Yet adopting republicanism was not simply a matter of bringing American culture more into line with the society. It meant as well an opportunity to abolish what remained of monarchy and to create once and for all new, enlightened republican relationships among people.

186 race Americans now recognized that slavery in a republic of workers was an aberration, “a peculiar institution,” and that if any Americans were to retain it, as southern Americans eventually did, they would have to explain and justify it in new racial and anthropological ways that their former monarchical society had never needed.

187 consent Rulers suddenly lost their traditional personal rights to rule, and personal allegiance as a civic bond became meaningless. The revolutionary state constitutions eliminated the crown’s prerogatives outright or regranted them to the state legislatures. Popular consent now became the exclusive justification for the exercise of authority by all parts of the government—not just the houses of representatives but senates, governors, and even judges. As sovereign expressions of the popular will, these new republican governments acquired an autonomous public power that their monarchical predecessors had never possessed or even claimed. In republican America, government would no longer be merely private property and private interests writ large as it had been in the colonial period. Public and private spheres that earlier had been mingled were now to be separated.

189 minority—majority Indeed, limiting popular government and protecting private property and minority rights without at the same time denying the sovereign public power of the people became the great dilemma of political leaders in the new republic; indeed, it remains the great dilemma of America’s constitutional democracy.
If the political rulers were men of merit and talent and governed only in the public interest, they would naturally command the affection and respect of the people, and the crises of authority bedeviling American society would end. Love and gratitude would replace fear and favor as social adhesives.

193, 195 manners Not talking loudly in company, not interrupting others’ conversation, not cleaning one’s teeth at the table, were small matters perhaps, but in the aggregate they seemed to be what made human sociability possible.
It implied being reasonable, tolerant, honest, virtuous, and candid, which meant just and unbiased as well as frank and sincere. It signified being cosmopolitan, standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, and being free of the prejudices, parochialism, and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and barbaric. It meant, in short, having all those characteristics that we today sum up in the idea of a liberal arts education. Indeed, the eighteenth century created the modern idea of a liberal arts education in the English-speaking world.

202 college As with so many of the revolutionary leaders, the experience changed young Paterson’s life, for at college he learned how to be a gentleman.

213 authority As royal authority collapsed in the colonies in 1774-75, new local authorities—committees and congresses—began putting together new popular structures of authority from the bottom up. Americans, as one Maryland official complained, were coming to believe that “they ought not to submit to any appointments but those made by themselves.”

215, 218, 223 social structure But since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century reformers had sought to republicize monarchy by replacing its social cements with other, more affective, more emotional, more natural ties.
(218) No doubt this belief in the capacity of love and benevolence to hold republican societies together became for many as much of a “visionary principle” as the belief in ascetic classical virtue had been, and hard-nosed skeptics came to doubt its efficacy.
(223 Freemasonry) Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for an Enlightenment suspicious of traditional Christianity.

225 the Revolution Yet these efforts to assert the obligations of gratitude and to reconcile republicanism with hierarchy were doomed almost from the outset. For the Revolution had set loose forces in American society that few realized existed, and before long republicanism itself was struggling to survive.

229 sum The republican revolution was the greatest utopian movement in American history. The revolutionaries aimed at nothing less than a reconstitution of American society. They hoped to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society—kinship, patriarchy, and patronage—and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect, and consent. They sought to construct a society and governments based on virtue and disinterested public leadership and to set in motion a moral movement that would eventually be felt around the globe. People “begin to know one another, and that knowledge begets a love for each other, and a desire to procure happiness for themselves, and the great family of mankind.”

230 most evangelistic By the early nineteenth century, America had already emerged as the most egalitarian, most materialistic, most individualistic—and most evangelical Christian—society in Western history. In many respects this new democratic society was the very opposite of the one the revolutionary leaders had envisaged.

231 democracy, an extension of republicanism But since democracy was an extension of republicanism, the distinction was difficult to maintain without repudiating the Revolution itself.

232 thesis Equality was in fact the most radical and most powerful ideological force let loose in the Revolution.

239-240 benevolence The conclusion was obvious: “Is there not then in human nature a principle of benevolence?”
It was thus “natural to infer, that a disposition to do good, must in some degree, be common to all men.”
Here was the real source of democratic equality, and equality that was far more potent than the mere Lockean belief that everyone started at birth with the same blank sheet. Jefferson and others who invoked this egalitarian moral sense, of course, had little inkling of the democratic lengths to which it would be carried.

244 and 296 private interests By classical republican standards such participation would imply the participation of private “interests” in government, with the participants becoming judges of their own interests. Yet that was precisely what democracy in America came to mean.

257, 259 disinterest The promotion of private interests was in fact what American politics ought to be about.
Findley was not content merely to expose and justify the reality of interest-group politics in representative legislatures. He glimpsed some of the important implications of such interest-group politics, and in just a few remarks he challenged the entire classical tradition of disinterested public leadership and set forth a rationale for competitive democratic politics that has never been bettered.
… the only way for a person to be fairly and accurately represented in government was to have someone like himself with his same interests speak for him; no one else could be trusted to do so.

294-5 democratic equality If men were all alike, equal in their rights and in their interestedness, then there were no specially qualified disinterested perspective. All people were the same: all were ordinary and all were best represented by ordinary people. That was democracy.

325 courts “The courts of justice,” concluded Tocqueville, “are the visible organs by which the legal profession is enabled to control the democracy.”

328 universal love Yet, of course, there were continued republican appeals to the natural sociability, the sympathy, and what Joel Barlow called “the attracting force of universal love” that presumably existed in all people. In the three or four decades following the Revolution newly independent American men and women came together to form hundreds and thousands of new voluntary associations expressive of a wide array of benevolent goals….

331 evangelical As the Republic became democratized, it became evangelized.

336-7 common belief To be an American could not be a matter of blood; it had to be a matter of common belief and behavior.
[Americans] could not be controlled by force, or else they would have no liberty. But appeals to virtue could not contain these busy people either. Only [commercial] interest could restrain them.
Every people had “social ties.” The first, said Blodget, were those of blood or kindred; the second were those of the laws; the third were those associations for the extension of the arts and sciences. The fourth, “and perhaps the most to be depended on of all,” were pecuniary ties.

360, 363 mind of the people People now described society more and more as a “mass” and for the first time began using this term in reference to “almost innumerable wills” in a positive, nonpejorative sense. The individual was weak and blind, said George Bancroft in a common reckoning, but the mass of people was strong and wise. From all this followed, too, a new appreciation of statistics: in 1803 the word “statisticks” first appeared in American dictionaries.
Yet the Republicans did have a criterion for determining who was right and who was wrong, and it was the opinion of the whole people….. Truth was actually the creation of many voices and many minds, no one of which was more important than another and each of which made its own separate and equally significant contribution to the whole. Solitary opinions of single persons may now have counted for less, but in their statistical collectivity they added up to something far more significant than ever existed before. They became what Americans obsessively labeled “public opinion.”

361 authority dispersed The result of all these assaults on elite opinion and celebrations of common ordinary judgment was a dispersion of authority and ultimately a diffusion of truth itself to a degree the world had never before seen.

365 disappointment Indeed, a pervasive pessimism, a fear that their revolutionary experiment in republicanism was not working out as they had expected runs through the later writings of the founding fathers.

366 Christianity Like John Hay, Elias Boudinot, Noah Webster, John Randolph, and others, Rush ended by abandoning the Enlightenment and becoming a Christian enthusiast: “nothing but the gospel of Jesus Christ will effect the mighty work of making nations happy.”

369 sum A new generation of democratic Americans was no longer interested in the revolutionaries’ dream of building a classical republic of elitist virtue out of the inherited materials of the Old World. America, they said, would find its greatness not by emulating the states of classical antiquity, not by copying the fiscal-military powers of modern Europe, and not by producing a few notable geniuses and great-souled men. Instead, it would discover its greatness by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and their pecuniary pursuits of happiness—common people with their common interests in making money and getting ahead. No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high—with its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlessness, its anti-intellectualism. But there is no denying the wonder of it and the real earthly benefits it brought to hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people. The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its consequences still.
  keithhamblen | Jan 17, 2022 |
A fantastic resource that helped me explore the mindsets of the revolutionary generations better than anything else I've read. It explores ideas I haven't seen expounded elsewhere. The central idea is that of an American democracy that went far beyond what the founders expected - or were comfortable with. It emphasizes the Revolution as more than just a change in government. It changed society, theology, the economy, and the way people thought of themselves and others.

Although the Revolution is never complete, the book helps us realize the importance of those first few decades not just to the future United States, but to modern society throughout the world. ( )
  poirotketchup | Mar 18, 2021 |
It really was. Quite materialist, really.
  kencf0618 | Jun 25, 2019 |
Gordon Wood is my favorite revolutionary war historian by far, so it was a real priority for me to read his magnum opus, Radicalism of the American Revolution. In this early and influential work, I see the traces and ideas he later expands on in the Americanization of Benjamin Franklin as well as The Idea of America. In particular, the discussion of the concept of the gentleman and courtier culture.

The book is pretty dense, a real academic work that packs a lot of complex and nuanced ideas. It's not really for someone looking for a brief brush up or simple chronological retelling of the revolutionary war. Loosely speaking, Wood is part of the ideological school that opposes the progressive tradition, mostly represented by Charles Beard. Beard and the progressive tradition lean quasi-marxist, in that they believe history is explained by material and economic behavior alone, frequently between the haves and have-nots. The ideological school opposes this viewpoint as far too restricting and unsatisfactory. For example, Wood notes that despite the attempts for progressive historians to find an economic crisis that led to the American Revolution, there really isn't one; the revolution was largely caused by a shift in ideas. Wood doesn't go so far as to completely disregard the economic basis behind the revolution. For example, he discusses how the wide availability of land effectively made early america a truncated society. Unlike in Europe, where the landed gentry lived off of rent, there was too much land for there to be a real American entrenched aristocracy. America was also lacking the urban poor of Europe. This truncated society had huge implications, in that Americans were more receptive to republican ideals, and the lack of a stable aristocracy made the early dream of an enlightened disinterested elite impractical. Wood also discusses the often overlooked home manufacturing that eventually grew into the American celebration of commerce.

Wood's point is to show that even though the American Revolution seems conservative compared to the Russian or French Revolution, the changes in society and ideas was indeed both radical and novel for the western world. The book moves through three phases, monarchy, republic and democracy. There's alot that changes through each phase, but I'll mention what I think are the most interesting. Monarchical society was highly hierarchical, familial and patriarchal. During the revolution, these ideas were challenged and replaced with a natural aristocracy, where people rose and fell based on merit not family ties. Offices were no longer seen as rightfully belonging to a few families, and the governmental model moved from the King as patriarch, to government by consent (there's some interesting discussion of the rise of contract culture). Even changing ideas of family structure, from father as head to enlightened paternalism changed the concepts of governance. Government was suppose to be rule by disinterested elites, who had independent wealth and would put the public interest above their own. Work was not seen as a source of wealth or pride, but as a distrusted interest, and the only caused by necessity of starvation. Finally, the revolution unleashed democracy, where the talk of equality broadened from equal capability to equality of all opinions and peoples. The disinterested elites were attacked, as was their main source of distinction, leisure. Work and commence were celebrated, and the rise of popular politics came into play. Interests not only became accepted, they became the model of governance. Office no longer became the monopoly of educated elites, but also representatives of artisans, workers and mechanics. The anti-elitism of American politics was born, as was the nascent belief that people could and did have opinions that were as good as those of elites (which was heavily tied to the idea of freedom of press, even when the opinions might be false or incorrect). Parties, which were distrusted by the founding fathers, were born as permanent institutions and party loyalty became the chief criteria for holding office. These are just a few of the interesting changes that Wood discusses in the book. I have to draw this to a close, I'd probably write a small essay just going over some of the ideas in this dense and nuanced book. A highly recommended read for anyone with a deep interest in the history of our early republic. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
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In a grand and immemsely readable synthesis of historical, political, cultural, and economic analysis, a prize-winning historian describes the events that made the American Revolution. Gordon S. Wood depicts a revolution that was about much more than a break from England, rather it transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.

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