The Radicalism of the American Revolution - Book Review
This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.
Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History, challenges the argument that the American Revolution lacked sufficient social or economic change to considered truly revolutionary. Historians and philosophers (Wood cites Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution as one example) have argued that the French and other “modern revolutions” arose out of “internal violence, class conflict, and social deprivation.” In contrast, America seemed to lack the wide-scale poverty and political oppression present in other revolutions. None of the revolutionaries attempted to reshape the new country’s “social order,” instead, they settled for more conservative measures that resulted in a government distinct from Britain’s but also sharing many striking characteristics. As Wood notes, one could argue that Americans were merely an exaggerated version of English citizens, expanding upon the emphasis on liberty and freedom present in British society. Even the American’s eventual repudiation of the English monarchy in some ways serves as an example of this exaggeration.
Wood takes issue with Progressive and neo-progressive interpretations, arguing they misread the period’s sensibilities. The Radicalism of the American Revolution focuses on the radical change that the revolution brought to how Americans organized themselves, their relation to others, the nation’s economic transformation, and the resulting government. Organized into three sections: Monarchy, Republicanism, and Democracy, Wood begins with the hierarchical social structure of the colonies under the English crown continues with the concept of Republicanism and its effects on colonial society finishing with the rise of America’s modern democracy. According to Wood, the American Revolution radically altered relationships in American culture that later significantly impacted its economic and political growth. The revolutionaries did have revolutionary ideas for the time, but modern historians failed to consider changing perceptions of long-standing concepts such as equality, interest, and the “disinterested gentlemen.”
Under the monarchy, colonial America was a series of hierarchical relations, where everyone had superior and inferiors. This hierarchy featured a system of dependency and social obligation. The state's weakness, along with its multiple forms (since colonies lacked a unified, centralized power, each had its government structures), resulted in a society in which a patron-client paternalistic dynamic developed between colonists. Traditional relationships of the period were of this nature. For society leaders, often referred to as “gentlemen,” reputation was of the utmost importance. If one failed to maintain his reputation or allowed others to disparage it, the individual might lose social and political authority.
The state's weakness expanded the power of such men since they were able to support others and were believed to provide an economy for locals through their consumption. These men held certain assumptions about concepts such as equality, interest, and the idea of work that seem fairly antiquated today. These widely held beliefs included the notion that governments were best run by “disinterested gentlemen” who had attained wealth, so they were incorruptible and unwilling to allow personal interest to interfere with the common good. Additionally, they believed that work meant you were not gentlemen even if you were rich, which later led to odd alliances after the revolution between more proletarian workers and factory owners who were not considered the highest class because they still engaged in labor.
The concept of republicanism permeated colonial society. Wood argues it inhabited segments of the British colonies well before the revolution. However, the revolution greatly accelerated republicanism’s influence. Population expansion, migration, capitalism, and republicanism all combined to undermine the patron-client relationships that had been so ubiquitous under the crown. The rapid population shifts led to a society where it became harder to maintain stable populations under which hierarchical social structure was held. The expansion of the economy increased business activity such that merchants no longer depended on one’s reputation. Instead, the “mutual mistrust” between businessmen encouraged the use of contracts. Moreover, expanding businesses needed access to credit, contributing to the banking industry's growth, but at the expense of the old client-patron relationship, as the benevolence of the local “gentlemen” became less relevant.
Attitudes about work and the accumulation of wealth changed as capitalism expanded. Revolutionaries like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson believed that the old monarchical society unfairly excluded individuals of skill because of its hierarchical nature. Instead, they wanted to create a nation led by an “aristocracy of virtue and talent.” They promoted ideas such as an “equality of opportunity” rule by “disinterested gentlemen” and the exclusion of “interest” from the decisions of government.
However, as Wood explains in his third section Democracy, the concepts the revolutionaries promoted were co-opted by others who redefined or altered their meanings. For example, if revolutionaries such as Jefferson believed in an “equality of opportunity,” others expanded on this idea suggesting social equality (except for women and slaves, though Wood does note women’s legal rights were expanded after the revolution), which few of the revolution’s leaders would have endorsed. Another example relates to the ideas of work and self-interest. As the economy expanded following the revolution, early populist rhetoric surfaced that called into question previous understandings of interest and “gentlemen."
To be considered a gentleman before the revolution meant one had wealth and did not have to work. “Gentlemen” became the targets of diatribes that criticized them for idleness. Their claims of “disinterest” lacked resonance since arguments were made that they acted in self-interest to maintain their station in society. In fact, as the idea of democracy spread, some leaders argued that interests should be in the public square competing for old ideas, such as Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion that members of Congress forgo salaries met with respected disagreement.
While some historians claim Jacksonian America created the United States’ modern democracy, Wood argues Jackson’s administration only “legitimized it,” creating bureaucratic organizations and political parties but that the Revolution’s practitioners were truly responsible. Several former revolutionaries disagreed strongly with these and other changes to their principles. Despite the misgivings of its former leaders, the American Revolution accelerated a process that completely reshaped colonial America's paternalistic world. The hierarchical monarchical society dependent on patron-client relationships was replaced with a more egalitarian, self-interested, and openly commercial culture (previously, the pursuit of “profit” had been looked down upon).
Wood’s book focuses exclusively on elites. Few if any common people appear. Besides, much of Wood’s argument depends on the changing definitions of concepts or ideas. However, both are malleable and subject to change. This change does not always merit the designation as “revolutionary.” Essentially, though the revolutionaries wanted to “radically” change society by the standards of the period, they hoped to replace one society of dependency with another, i.e., monarchy/ruler-subject/nobility swapped for republicanism/master-slave/"aristocracy of talent"). They lost control when others appropriated ideas like equality and interest, redefining them in their favor. The expansion of democracy to universal male suffrage in most states by 1825 serves as an example of the expansion of concept many revolutionaries would have opposed.
When “proto-industrialization” unfolded in the early nineteenth century, traditional relationships eroded further. As the economy expanded, so did the people’s taste for “luxuries,” stimulating growth. Thus no longer were such goods reserved for the wealthy. “Prosperity” had been thought to be detrimental to average Americans since it robbed them of the initiative, but economic expansion proved this belief incorrect. Poverty was no longer seen as the motivation for citizens to work. The banking system that developed around these economic changes expanded access to credit for many Americans, befuddling many former revolutionaries who never adapted to the economic transformation of America they helped create. The economic sphere radically reshaped most aspects of Americans' lives, including religion. The only thing that bound citizens together in this constantly changing nation was the American Revolution. Even if views on what it meant or its basic value differed, the revolution itself served to bind people, “To be an American could not be a matter of blood; it had to be a matter of common belief and behavior. And the source of that common belief and behavior was the American Revolution: it was the revolution and only the Revolution that made them one people.” (336).
Of course, Wood’s book has endured criticism. First, the South barely appears in Wood’s formation. His examples overwhelmingly arise from northern examples with some notable exceptions. Second, Wood pays gender little to no attention. Republicanism rested on the domesticity and labor of women who provided a vital workforce and ideological ferment (think Republican motherhood), but Wood ignores much of this.