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The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992)

by Gordon S. Wood

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1,422189,796 (4.01)20
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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Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
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 |
A good look at early American history, centered around the American Revolution. I appreciated the author's focus on social, cultural, and political change (the Revolutionary War barely gets a mention). Chapter by chapter, the author lays out his theory and the evidence for the radical changes the effected American society during this era and how they came together to shift society and government into something we can recognize today. A very interesting read and I look forward to reading more from this author. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Jul 12, 2018 |
I know this is a well-reviewed book, but its academic prose and subject matter weren't to my taste. The writing was good and the subject well researched. But I've found that the more academic the book, the more redundant it seems to be. And Mr. Wood provides example after example well after establishing his point. That got tiring. So much so that I quit 50 or so pages in.

I love reading about the American Revolution, the Founders, the Declaration, and the Constitution. And while this book focuses on Colonial 18th century, it didn't delve into those subjects quick enough for me. ( )
  Jarratt | May 16, 2018 |
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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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