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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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When I reach for superlatives to characterize this magisterial book, my cup simply runneth over. Gordon S. Wood, by now, is a--if not the--major figure in Colonial and Early United States historiography, and this book, while perhaps not his magnum opus (he has recently published a major study titled Empire of Liberty, and surely has more books and articles to produce), it is perhaps the final word on the ideology and social philosophy of those who fomented the American Revolution. Casual readers should be advised that this is a relatively dense scholarly work, and the impressive array of evidence that Professor Wood has marshaled can at times make for laborious wading. That said, such labor will richly reward those who perform it. Finally, if nothing else, this book serves as a comprehensive refutation of those in our public life--some of the loudest found there, alas--who aver that the founders of this country were radical evangelical Protestants. Very highly recommended.
  Mark_Feltskog | Dec 23, 2023 |
Very interesting account of how traditional colonial America moved through republican ideals to democratisation in the revolutionary era, with the best explanations I've read of these different political cultures. My only gripe is that Wood does not distinguish the different colonial cultures: while he discusses examples from New England, the middle Atlantic and the South, their distinctiveness from each other is not brought out, which is somewhat of a sin in a book that postdates 'Albion's Seed'. It is a problem to discuss the political cultures of Massachusetts and Virginia as if they were roughly equally democratic at the start of the era. ( )
  fji65hj7 | May 14, 2023 |
Gordon Wood, in a well-researched and well-written book, shows why the American Revolution was so revolutionary. In grad school and academe, there is a tendency to say the French Revolution was a REAL revolution, or so the Russian, etc., but that the American Revolution really wasn't. They say it was a civil war and rebellion, but NOT a revolution. They say it was conservative, reactionary, and all orchestrated by (à la Charles Beard) by the wealthy to help the wealthy. Some will even call it a counter-revolution or "conservative revolution." But historian Gordon Wood wants to show you all the ways it WAS revolutionary. It undermined monarchical, patriarchal society. It put the ideas of equality and democracy out in the open. And there was no going back. To prove his thesis, Gordon talks about the lead up to the Revolution, the Revolution, and through the 1700s to the start of the Jacksonian Era to show you all the ways the American Revolution influenced the opening and democratization of society. There were some glaring omissions, like slavery—of course. But, the idea that all white men were EQUAL was radical. And it inevitably led to "aren't black men equal too?" and "aren't women equal too?" and so forth. Lots of examples, lots of primary sources discussed. No pics. Lots of endnotes, some discursive; no separate bibliography. There are some things that Wood might get wrong, and I don't agree with all of his interpretations or all the implications for American history. I think the Founders were not so hateful about the changes to society as he may lead on. And, he seems to praise democracy over republics, but, the Founders chose republic for a reason. And we still operate as such for a reason. ( )
  tuckerresearch | Jan 17, 2023 |
THAT ENDING. WOW. Wood takes us through an entire description of how radical politicians tore down monarchy... and then adds a sarcastic, bitter, twist ending revealing that every founding father eventually came to hate the America they had created. ( )
  ahwell | Dec 20, 2022 |
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 |
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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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