The Radicalism of the American Revolution Essay - Critical Essays

Gordon S. Wood

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

In THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION Gordon Wood challenges a generation of scholarship by consensus historians who have interpreted the American Revolution as a conservative rebellion in defense of the status quo. Extending the Revolutionary era backward to the 1760’s and forward to the early nineteenth century, Wood argues that the country experienced a genuine social transformation. One class did not overthrow another, but social relationships—the connecting links between people—were permanently changed.

Wood develops this thesis by examining the country’s transition from monarchy to republic to democracy. Monarchical society linked people to those above and below them in a hierarchy of rank. The small depended on the great and such personal relationships constituted the ligaments that held society together. The republicanism that the colonists embraced during the Revolution dissolved the old monarchical connections of hierarchy, patronage, and dependency; in this sense it was as radical for the eighteenth century as Marxism would be for the nineteenth.

The patriot leaders envisioned the new American republic as a nation of freeholders governed by gentlemen of disinterested virtue whose leisure and independence from petty commercial concerns elevated them above the corruptions of self interest. Instead, artisans and mechanics took to heart the rhetoric of equality and elected men of the middling ranks who promised to champion local interests. As a result, America became the first modern society to bring ordinary people into government as rulers as well as voters—a bloodless transition to democracy that the Founding Fathers had neither anticipated nor desired.

Sources for Further Study

American Spectator. XXV, April, 1992, p. 68.

Booklist. LXXXVIII, January 1, 1992, p. 808.

Boston Globe. February 12, 1992, p. 72.

Choice. XXX, September, 1992, p. 210.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, November 15, 1991, p. 1461.

Library Journal. CXVII, January, 1992, p. 154.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 2, 1992, p. 2.

The New Republic. CCV, December 23, 1991, p. 32.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, June 25, 1992, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, March 1, 1992, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, December 13, 1991, p. 39.