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The Creation of the American Republic,…

The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969)

by Gordon S. Wood

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A magisterial overlook at the history and concepts behind the formation of the United States. Apparently this is assigned to grad students, but I had this crammed in undergrad.

The historical and ideological roots of early American thought were numerous - the classical Republics of antiquity, mercantile republics such as the Venetians and Dutch, and of course, the English mixed semi-constitutional monarchy. The colonies, even after taxation, were still incredibly prosperous. The main factor in revolution was that of external hegemony, arbitrary tyranny, and corruption leading to rule from outside instead of self-determination.

One of Wood's main concepts is the history of republicanism, the ideology of republics. The majority of American liberal democratic foundations are derived from such. Civic virtue (enforcement against corruption), public welfare, safety- a 'Christian Sparta', a sort of community-oriented civic virtue against political wrong-doing. This was to be entrenched with the writing of the Constitution and the development of new political institutions where others (Montesquieu) had only theorized before.

This, of course, led to Madison's ideal of the compound republic, popular sovereignty, the rule of law, separation of powers, discussions on the roles of conventions and referendums, etc.

Of course, these ideal visions had a harsh collision with reality. The Articles of Confederation were a catastrophe, leading to too much of a division of power. There also developed a sort of 'democratic despotism', where an educated wealthy elite was able to ascend to high office more quickly and this dominate political discussion.

Some of these problems were alleviated with the implementation of the Constitution - bicameral legislature, judicial review, a balance between federal power and individual liberty, etc., but there was still much room to err. The question of representation between states led to the later struggles over popular sovereignty and the rights of the minority which led to the Civil War and beyond. The struggles of plutocracy in government are still with us.

Based on the sheer number of sources Wood draws from, it would be a mischaracterization to say that the early days produced a grand unified political theory, to be preserved. Instead, it is a piecemeal collection, but a beginning in itself, an attempt to separate and balance against the competing interests of society. No society of this size can be characterized as homogeneous. But that is all right. So long as all relieve fair representation. Even 230 years later, we're not quite there yet, and the current catastrophic misadventure in Congress shows how dangerous Madison's and Jefferson's conception of 'factionalism' can be. It is far far far from perfect. But it's a good start. As for the ultimate future of the American experiment, it is too early to tell. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |

The Americans of the Revolutionary generation had constructed not simply new forms of government, but an entirely new conception of politics, a conception that took them out of an essentially classical and medieval world of political discussion into one that was recognizably modern. (p. viii)

Wood's study examines the changes in assumptions about politics that happened between 1776 and 1787. Acknowledging his debt to Bernard Bailyn, he launches on a study of ideological transformation in the crucible of Revolution.

Part One: The Ideology of Revolution

Chapter I: The Whig Science of Politics

In sections entitled "History and Reason," "The English Constitution," "Power Against Liberty," "English Corruption," "The Pattern of Tyranny," and "Preservation of Principles," Wood cover much of the same ground that Bailyn has already covered in Ideology. Like Bailyn, he believed that as the colonists approach rebellion, the believed that they lived in "a peculiar moment in history when all knowledge coincided, when classical antiquity, Christian theology, English empiricism and European rationalism could all be linked." (p. 7) With a deep and abiding respect for the English Constitution, it would be in the name of this constitution that they would rebel. Focusing upon the "court-country" split in British politics, Wood also sees the Whig ideology powerfully at work. Unheeded in their own country, the country Whigs found a ready audience in America. They viewed politics as a matter of balancing power, as power was inherently tempting and corrupting. Crown, aristocracy and the commoners worked to check each other's power. Britain's court party was corrupting the government and therefore Britain was headed down the same path as had Rome. Seeing this corruption as the result of a conspiracy, the colonists saw the hand of conspiracy in many of the events which lead up to the break with England. "It seemed increasingly evident that the forces of tyranny, rapacious as they were, were not content with the conquest of Europe, but now cast their "jealous eye on this new world" and "threatened to involve it in the miseries of the old." (p. 42) The colonists saw the workings of conspiracy in the stationing of troops, the use of admiralty courts, the re-invigoration of the Anglican establishment and the Quebec Act. In resisting this tyranny, they saw themselves as fighting in defense of the English Constitution.

Chapter II: Republicanism

The Americans were to emerge from the Revolution as "A New People for a New World." Wood starts with a scene at the Court of Versailles in 1788, where the younger Thomas Shippen is made to feel slighted by courtly Paris. He was ill at ease at court, as he was a different king of person now. He was a republican. he colonists felt "The Appeal of Antiquity" very strongly. They read ancient history and learned of the virtues of "restraint, temperance, fortitude , dignity, and independence." Upon the basis of their readings of the classics, they formed their understanding of moral and social underpinnings of politics. Focusing upon decline and decadence they became obsessed with the degeneracy that lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. It was the pursuit of luxury that lead to Rome's fall. n the pursuit of "The Public Good," republicans would rise above divisive faction to advocate the needs of the public at large. Factions were not to be reconciled, they were to be transcended. Ideal republicanism was selfless, liberty was not license. Because there was no coercive force the republic was clearly founded on the "The Need for Virtue," that value which we now call patriotism that is in essence the willingness to sacrifice one's own interest for the good of the community. "Equality," meant equality of opportunity but it also could mean equality of station. Indeed, the leveling of artificial aristocracy would lead to an aristocracy of talent. "Whig Resentment" resentment against the courtier of the metropolis formed a cohesive element that indeed overcame faction. The clearly visible examples of the crown creating positions of prestige and power for its appointees in the New World rankled and built common resentment amongst the republicans. "The Pennsylvania Revolution" displayed the most socially radical approach of all the colonies. Yet even it was not a popular uprising.

Chapter III: Moral Reformation

"The Easy Transition to Republicanism" made by the Revolutionary generation puzzles us even today. How could these men assume the mantle of republican virtue so easily? The truth is that they did not, they were in fact compelled by their own anxiety over the lack of virtue to fight for its triumph. "The Debate Over the Genius of the People" which was ignited by Thomas Paine's Common Sense showed the tensions within American society. Many who criticized Paine found in his calls to unseat the aristocracy a dangerously democratic clarion call. Many feared that the republican remedy was a call to anarchy. Yet in the minds of the Europeans of the enlightenment, America was different -- in the soil of the New World there grew "Republicans by Nature." People were quick to point out that American colonial society was particularly egalitarian, with almost all white males being freeholders. There is a sense that the snub of the colonial was met with the equally cocky reply that American colonial simplicity was all about republican virtue. Anxiety over "American Corruption," decline into luxury and vice was a constant theme of republican rhetoric. The presence of placemen put there by the crown, living the life of the courtier was ever present. To the clergy it would be necessary to repent and reform least virtue be lost. "Revolution, republicanism, and regeneration all blended in American thinking. In the words of Samuel Adams, the colonies would have to become "A Christian Sparta." The Revolution would purge the American people of their vices and a "Republican Regeneration" would thus be both the engine and the result of republican strivings.
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0807847232, Paperback)

Gordon S. Wood--winner of the Pulitzer Prize and professor of American history at Brown University--had no idea what he was getting into when he began this 653-page book. Innocently, he wanted to write a "monographic analysis of constitution-making in the Revolutionary era." Little did he know he would discover an intellectual world where a complete transformation of political thought was occurring, one that would create "a distinctly American system of politics." As Wood explains, "Beneath the variety and idiosyncrasies of American opinion there emerged a general pattern of beliefs about the social process--a set of common assumptions about history, society, and politics that connected and made significant seemingly discrete and unrelated ideas. Really for the first time I began to glimpse what late eighteenth-century Americans meant when they talked about living in an enlightened age." This original study of the American political system is a strong contribution to the scholarly studies of the events surrounding the nation's independence.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:46 -0400)

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Presents a study of American political culture between 1776 and 1787, and describes the process by which the American system of politics was created.

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