The Radicalism of the American Revolution
Gordon Wood is Professor of History at Brown University. He is one of the leading scholars researching issues of the American Revolution in the country. In 1970, his book “The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787” was nominated for the National Book Award and received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes. His outstanding book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. It is considered to be one of the most engaging scientific books among the classic works on the social, political and economic consequences of the Revolutionary War. This book has a power to redirect historical thinking and well-established knowledge about the Revolution and its place within the national consciousness. In the book “The Radicalism of the American Revolution”, Professor Wood represents for readers a revolution that transformed almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes confused and disappointed its founding fathers. Professor Wood has written a wide range of interesting books. He was also involved in Ken Burn's PBS production on Thomas Jefferson, and is contributing his knowledge and understanding in the National Constitution Centre that was built in Philadelphia and on a regular basis dedicates a share of his time teaching history to high school students around the country.
The values and lessons of the American Revolution seem to be so “natural” and also have become so deeply integrated in American politics and social life that they are irrefutable. We may state that actually no one today seriously supports a monarchy and hereditary aristocracy for the United States. Thus far, the political and social theories behind the American Revolution were as radical as, for instance, the ideas of Mao and Lenin seem to us. In this masterpiece of a history book, Professor Wood analyzes the comprehensive social changes set free during the developments of the American Revolution. He tries to show the process of rapid transformation of a near-feudal society into a democratic society with guaranteed liberties and freedoms, such as freedom of speech, belief, and many others that are even today, in times of modern world are unknown in many countries. Author’s device is to let a reader look at the American Revolution through an entirely new perspective and appreciate its significance with all the seriousness.
The talented author Professor Wood offers a fresh current in modern history on the formative years of the United States, giving description of the astounding transformation of distinct, quarrelling and fighting colonies. In fact, historians have always had some problems researching revolutionary nature of the American Revolution. In this brilliantly represented and convincingly argued book, one of the most celebrated American historians renovates the radicalism, brings it to the debate and define as one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever known.
As one of the specialists said “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is the most important study of the American Revolution to appear in over twenty years. This work is also considered a breathtaking social, political, and ideological analysis of crucial historical events of the American country. Historian professor Wood depicts in this impressive and incalculably readable mixture of historical, political, cultural, ideological and economic analysis much more than just a break with England. He represents for his audience a revolution that resulted in serious changes within the country. Once again, we may say that almost feudal society was made a democratic one.
The work “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is in fact a continuation of Professor Wood’s earlier work “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787”. We as readers may claim that this is a magnificent study and fully deserves the Pulitzer Prize it had actually received. “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” covers different issues and gives answers to different problems. It researches somehow the same challenges as Bernard Bailyn's “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” (Harvard University Press, 1967), but in contrast, Professor Wood develops a much more detailed, precise, and persuasive representation of a society transformation from one of feudal relationships to the other that was predicated on democracy, republicanism, and capitalism based on a market economy.
We see that primary Gordon Wood argues that the American Revolution was beyond doubt a radical chapter in world history and in history of the United States in particular. He states, “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 government that would eventually be felt around the globe” (p. 229). Wood represents this as “a single and most powerful and radical ideological blow in all of American history” (p. 234). He calls all these ideas utopian, for had little trust in what was planned. He has little belief in a completion of all the radical steps that were undertaken. He comments, “Perhaps nothing separated early-nineteenth-century Americans more from Europeans than their attitude towards labour and their egalitarian sense that everyone must participate in it” (p. 286).
We are bound to say that Gordon S. Wood opposing earlier historiographies disagrees that the American Revolution represented a truthfully radical movement. Formerly historians had regarded the event as rather conservative in action and extent. Professor Woods takes courage to disagree with this traditional interpretation.
In fact, it is also relevant to say some words about the Revolution in general. The exact nature and scope of the revolution is a matter of great speculation. It is generally agreed and excepted that the Revolution originated around the time of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), and finished with the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States in 1789. Further the theories vary. On one hand is the supposition that the American Revolution was not “revolutionary” at all, that it did not radically reorganized colonial society, but just replaced a distant government with a local one. One the other hand is the opposite view impling that the American Revolution was a unique and radical event, representing bold changes that had a deep and strong influence on world history. That is why the work of Professor Wood “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is academicaly important for us, especially in view of existence of numerous interpretations of the event.
In the progress of his study, Professor Wood leads his audience in chronological order through the developments leading up to, throughout, and following the War for Independence attempting to picture the advancement of intellectual thought during the particular period. Analysing the study we may say that Wood asserts that the American Revolution did more than smooth the progress of separation of the colonists from the English monarchy, but he adds that also it served to destabilize and demoralize the tyrannical and out of date earlier regime qualities of benefaction, dependence, and strict hierarchy. The author notes that all these social transformations, matching with the break from the monarchical system, produced radical and empowering changes that in a straight line influenced the unique path the young American nation would follow. Subsequently, Wood claims that the radical nature of the American Revolution produced comprehensive, influential and shapeless consequences unforeseen by the revolutionary founding fathers who were the authors of the idea of Revolution.
Within his study, Gordon Wood shapes his research in three major segments; he speaks first about Monarchy, then about Republicanism, and at last about Democracy. Professor in this work dismisses widespread misconceptions regarding the ground and character of the colonists' relationship with England, moreover he represents the revolutionary intellectual and social organizations of colonial society along with the clear description of the monarchical system. The author pays attention to the fact that before the beginning of the American Revolution proliferation of its intrinsic republican ideals, the noticeable splitting up between the aristocracy and ordinary people lent colonial society to the system of privilege benefaction and patronage represented under the auspices of a monarchical system.
Nonetheless, it is important to point out, as progressive ideas extended by means of pamphlets, political tracts and books, the American colonists paid attention to republican ideals and started their questioning of communal and political divisions. The republicanism manifesting itself in accepted colonial society resulted in the final termination of close and strong bonds to the monarchy. Presenting the republicanism of colonial society, Professor Wood disputes that such newly born ideas attained radical significance by providing a perceptive and significant defy to the monarchical system. Though, the author says, the move forwards for independence advanced uncertainly to some extent, it symbolized thus far the culmination of a new social optimism resonating now and then within the colonial population, including also revolutionary leaders themselves that is also very important to state. Wood also pays much attention to the Democracy. He considers that such political phenomenon existed in absolute opposition to the monarchical organization of the society. Despite the fact that democracy brought to the reality many of the ideals proposed by the founding fathers, Professor Wood believes that its ultimate and absolute shape represented a higher grade of equality unexpected and possibly even unpredicted by the revolutionary leaders. However, to make such conclusion randomly is impossible. That is why Wood carries out a comprehensive research on the reorganization of American society that had taken place since the War for Independence. The author also speaks about the developing role of government within the society and the involvement of common people in state affairs. Professor Wood says that it symbolized a radical concept change. According to Wood, American individualism was an inevitable result of the possibility of social mobility. Furthermore, the development of commerce and suspension of conventional relationships serve as the evidence to verify this claim. Consequently, by describing the progression of the young American state, Wood asserts that a radical break was the result not only of the American Revolution, but possibly was achieved trough greater domination of the radical intellectual ideas of the time in the course of development.
To support his claims and conclusions Professor Wood uses a wide range of principal source material. The author employed different sources preparing his work: political tracts, diaries of prominent American people, popular literature, letter correspondence, and pamphlets. The author incorporates in his study economic and financial data, in order to back all the statements and give them true status. To support his theories throughout the work and to give exact and clear explanation to his thoughts Professor Wood uses the large amount of textual notes. Wood possibly could have advantage by making available models that are more direct and exact in order to demonstrate the significance of his claims regarding the radical nature of the American Revolution.
We realize that the significance of the information relayed within the book cannot be overestimated, for it makes possible for a reader to grasp the sense of intellectual and social undercurrents existing within society before during, and after the War for Independence. It also presents a clear picture of the development of the consequential democratic government. Along with all the advantages, we are bound to point out the moment that is supposed to be an omission of the author. Analysing the work we see that Professor Wood gives a detailed description of the American revolution from the top down, but it is essential to say that he somehow have not given a precise picture of the position of lower social groups. However, Gordon Wood writes about the status of slaves, women and Native Americans. Unfortunately, the importance he attaches to the questions of equality and social grading brought about by the intellectual advancement of the Revolution regards only white population, property holders (males) leaving aside lower classes that compose the majority of society. Wood's style along with clarity of his language and good researching skills make a skilful scholarly discourse on the radical ideology of the American Revolution. Moreover, being so skilfully written and presented the work entertains the audience throughout the pages.
This work is really a best synthesis of the questions relating to America's transformation from paternal colonialism unrestricted democracy. Professor Wood also argues successfully that the American Revolution as a historical event is very often neglected even within the world history that is worthy to have a prominent position along with French and Russian Revolutions.
In closer consideration, and having researched the problem we may state that Professor Wood swindles a little drawing out his theories. In other words, he a exaggerates little bit. In order to support his thesis about the development and impact of American Revolution, he has to offer a “before and after” depiction of American state. He does this by representing rather incomplete or prejudiced vision of the North American colonies before the start of Revolution. He repeatedly mentions the insignificance of the colonial cities, their economy, aristocracy and existing institutions. It is understandable that it forms synthetically diminished role of the colonial society and its institutions.
On the other hand, Gordon Wood rather truthfully illustrates the changing early colonial scenery. At first Professor says that primary the society was arranged and structured around hierarchy and individual relationships that progressed to a unrestrictive culture based on contacts. Wood clearly explains in his chapter on patronage that the early colonies principally had no other option than to function on an individual relationship basis. There was even no paper currency in use and rather small population kept personal book accounts of numerous debts they owed each other. Gordon Wood writes that “such credits and debts worked to tie local people together and to define and stabilize communal relationships” (p. 68). The author does not instantly connect this with the growth of population in the New World that represented actually a major reason for the transformation in the colonies that has led to the Revolution. The author says that by the middle of the eighteenth century, the colonists had accepted paper money. Professor claims that they needed it because colonies had expanded their inland trade. For example, they were no longer just dealing with their neighbours but also with across-the-ocean countries. These advancements, Wood stresses, offers the various ways in which common people were becoming more and more independent and liberated from conventional patron-client relationships (p. 142).
As for the negative moments, we again are bound to say that Wood obviously overstresses the extent to which the colonies, just before the Revolution, were hierarchical and old-fashioned, conventional cultures. The evidence he uses to support the idea is unreasonable. The author is speaking about the prevalence of Christian churches in this connection, and that this prevalence does not necessarily is a sign of a hierarchy (p. 18).
Repeatedly Professor Wood speaks about great freedom and equal opportunities in the colonies, but contradicts his opinion with further statements. For instance we may find within the book the statement that Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic boasted of their independence”. But further he writes the contradictory “most colonists, like most Englishmen at home, were never as free as they made themselves out to be”.
The Radicalism of the American Revolution also contains many unrelated quotes. Therefore, some of Wood's stories are conflicting and of little importance as evidence to support his theories.
It is difficult not to conclude that the radical transformations chronicled by Wood were the outcome of plain population growth. It was neither the goal nor the result of the Revolution. Wood emphasizes several times that the modifications in American society were due to economics and demographics. Ultimately, Wood remarks that the Founders were stunned by the society in which they died. Wood writes that “This democratic society was not the society the revolutionary leaders had wanted or expected. No wonder, then, those of them who lived on into the early decades of the nineteenth century expressed anxiety over what they had wrought. All the major revolutionary leaders died less than happy”. (p. 365). So even accepting the thesis that newly born America was the result of the Revolution, according to Wood's verification was not the objective. Ignoring Wood's arguments and evaluating his evidence, it looks like the radical changes in American society were neither the goal of the Revolution nor its product.
Again as for the critiques, one issue raised by critics is the relationship among the three cultural phenomena – monarchy, republicanism and democracy. In addition, the author described changes that took place between the middle of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth. The author is not persisting that these cultural models were patterns that displaced each other, republicanism displacing monarchy and democracy displacing republicanism. As an alternative, these models overlapped each other in time in the way that two or even more cultural forms could exist at the same time. However, the author says that it is difficult for a number of specialists to imagine a society structure possessing simultaneously unlike, even irreconcilable and contradictory cultural characteristics.
Nevertheless, with this book thousands of people were introduced to the colonial society. Wood’s book provides the kind of illustrative detail that will enable readers to participate imaginatively in colonial life. He has summarized the mounts of information about the colonies, mixed it with the commentaries of dozens of contemporary witnesses and rather skilfully submitted an interpretation of different fact he had in possession. Wood’s tendency throughout the book is to imply rather then to clarify, to put forward or advocate rather then argue, now and then pointing out how extremely dramatic were the social developments he described in his book. For the wide-ranging reading public, Professor Wood’s rhetorical mixture suggests the brilliant representation of early America and its development.
“The Radicalism of American Revolution” is a powerful and motivated work. Many call it a synthesis that aims reinterpret events that American people have long regarded as essential to their identity as a nation. Gordon Wood states his purpose right in the title of the book. His book explains the ways in which American Revolution was radical, stating that it was actually as radical and as revolutionary as any such disturbance in all history. But if the radicalism of the era is crucial to Professor Wood, it remains in his hands an allusive and unproductive characteristic. Revolutions of the seventeenth century aimed at overthrowing the kings and based on the startling and innovating ideas. Revolutions of the eighteenth century went far up to abolishing slavery and took into consideration rights of women as full-fledged citizens of the republic. In the light of such transformations in the world how are we to understand Wood’s stress on the radicalism of the American Revolution. He obviously does not mean that it presented substantive change in the group of those who were oppressed, sustained under strict control or marginal in the society. Professor Wood credits the Revolution with ending slavery in the North and, in the long run, raising the status of all African Americans and women. Professor highlights that Revolutionary events created concepts of social gradation among population. However, these events are not central to the subject.
It is important to explore what exactly Wood means by radicalism. What were real and actual characteristics that made the Revolution radical? The obvious explanation is that Wood implies that this Revolution was extensive and sweeping.
Nothing speaks better of the fundamental patriotism and comparative unity of the American nation than recognition of people that the Revolution was an achievement and very good thing. In contrast, nothing makes it so difficult to remedy the failings of the Revolution than that widespread reluctance to believe in the very possibility that it was really a failure. Nonetheless, the author does not present his argument in this austere fashion. Gordon S. Wood's brilliant book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution”, offers us the opportunity to step back and weigh up the tragic scope of what was supposed to be a conservative republican revolution but turned into a liberal democratic and, consequently, radical one.
From the very beginning, Professor Wood makes it clear how scrupulously republicanism had penetrated British thought and writes “Republicanism did not belong only to the margins, to the extreme right or left, of English political life. Monarchical and republican values existed side by side in the culture, and many good monarchists and many good English Tories adopted republican ideals and principles without realizing the long-run implications of what they were doing. Although they seldom mentioned the term, educated people of varying political persuasions celebrated republicanism for its spirit, its morality, its freedom, its sense of friendship and duty, and its vision of society. Republicanism as a set of values and a form of life was much too pervasive, comprehensive, and involved with being liberal and enlightened to be seen as subversive and monarchical” (p. 18). One more interesting citation I would like to present is “The pride, the glory of Britain, and the direct end of its constitution is political liberty” (p. 27). Well, critically thinking we conclude that evidently what made the American Revolution radical it is not its republicanism for sure.
So let us analyse what republicanism consists of. Professor Woods offers the following interpretation. According to the classical republican practice, man by nature is a political being, a citizen who attained moral realization by involving yourself in a self-governing republic. Public or political liberty as we now call it meant then partaking in government. Consequently, the virtue that classical republicanism encouraged was public virtue. Public virtue was the sacrifice of personal needs and interests for the public interest. Republicanism thus put an enormous burden on individuals. Individuals were expected to restrain their personal desires and interests and expand disinterestedness as Professor Wood calls it. In particular, for the reason that republics required civic virtue and disinterestedness among their citizens, they were very easily broken polities, predisposed to any kind of influence. Wood says that republics demanded far more morality from their citizens than monarchies did.
As Professor Wood tells us, however noble the Founders' visualization of construction of a new republic, it was predestined, for the most part once the control of a exceptionally disinterested and ultimately authoritative monarchy was removed. Today we can only speculate, as Gordon Wood considers.
In any case, despite the fact that the Founders Fathers evidently should have known better than to place their faith and faith of the huge country in human virtue, Professor Wood expressed how they went on to devastate what he calls the “links that had held aged monarchical society together”; according to Wood these links are patronage and kinship.
Gordon Wood proceeds saying that the image of the revolutionary leaders is amazing. Hardheaded and intolerant they perceived that by becoming republican they were expressing nothing else than a utopian expect for a new moral and social structure led by progressive and honourable men. Their dreams as well as their eventual disappointments made them the most amazing generation of political leaders in American history Professor Gordon Woods considers.
Wood states that even Jefferson considered being hopeful and rather confident was in despair. He even detested the new democratic world he saw growing and strengthening in America. He called and considered this world a world of rumour, banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity. Unfortunately, we learn from Wood’s book that the future and the new generation were not what he had expected previously.
As a result, the America that was established as an outcome of the revolution not the republic that its leaders projected and therein lays its radicalism. Thus, there is an inexpressible sadness in the final paragraph of the book where Professor Wood writes, “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 of a man. 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” (p. 269).
And further Wood finishes “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” with this statement “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 the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common labouring people. The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its consequences still” (p. 269).
Especially, Wood comments that ideas and ideological issues matter in the context of American history. Self-interest is very real and really very essential, though ideas and ideals are powerful motivations for actions and undertakings. We may affirm that this book is a strikingly important that must be read by all who tries and wishes to understand the origins of the United States.
In conclusion, we may say one more time that “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is a well-designed combination of historical, political, cultural, ideological and economic analysis done by the prominent scholar that is always in touch with the older, classic questions that we have been arguing about for long. In fact, it is a magnificent account of such a serious event within American history as revolution that gave birth to the American republic.
The American Revolution not only had officially formed the United States of America, moreover, had shaped and formed all the great hopes and values of the American people. American commitments to freedoms, constitutionalism, the welfare, happiness, equality and safety of ordinary people, all American noblest ideals and aspirations were the result of the Revolutionary era. We also know from the book the fact that Lincoln understood that the Revolution had persuaded American people in their speciality, convinced that they are the people with a unique destiny, and that just the American people is a nation that is to lead the world towards democracy and liberty. As a result Revolutionary events produced a sense of nationhood and strong unity Americans have now.
It is important to say that the history of the American Revolution, as well as the history of the nation as a whole, should not to be regarded merely as a story of rights and wrongs that reach us moral lessons and shows negative consequences. The work of Professor Wooв is a complex and sometimes even ironic chronicle that is supposed to be clarified and understood. it is relevant to pay attention to such questions such how this great revolution came about; what its character was; what its consequences were and many others. The work’s success in writing such a profound and absorbing research we attribute to Gordon Wood’s mastery of his subject.
Of course, we should not neglect the fact that the American Revolution really substantially changed the atmosphere in which slavery had existed and flourished. For hundreds of years, slavery had existed in the Western world without significant criticism. The Revolution outlined a key turning point. It unexpectedly put slavery on the defensive. And probably that is the point that is to be highlighted and emphasized. The thing about the American Revolution is that it has created the ideology that holds us together until now. To author’s point of view without that revolution, we would be a nation without any kind of adhesive. Due to the Revolution, we have an intellectual and ideological adhesive that makes us a unit of people.
Speaking about potential audience of the book the author himself says that it was designed for an educated reader who wants to know something more about the American Revolution and has only maybe a indistinct remembrance of the main events and wants to know some more particulars of the event. Although, it does not convey any great knowledge. As Professor Wood says this book is not written for experts in American history, just for a general reader as we say.
Te first item is that Revolution is one of the most important events in American history, since it not only legally shaped the United States of America, but also infused into our culture and our consciousness almost everything we believe in, and that holds us together. These things are our belief in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, the welfare of ordinary people. All of this the author considers comes out of the Revolution. Therefore, this is the event that makes us Americans. Consequently, in order to be an American you have to know something about the history of this country and about the Revolution in particular.
1. Gordon S. Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Vintage: March, 1993. 464 pages.