Does Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution challenge the existing history on the subject?

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The entire premise of Gordon Wood’s history of the American Revolution is intended to challenge the “existing history on the subject.”  Early in his introduction to The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood observes the distinctions between the American and other nations’ revolutions in terms of the conditions that existed and the objectives of the “revolutionaries.”  Wood is interested in the uniqueness of the American Revolution.  He is interested in the questions of why the revolution occurred when the conditions that historically fuel revolutionary fervor – “poverty and economic deprivation” – did not exist to an appreciable degree in Britain’s North American colonies.  As the author writes,

“. . .the white American colonists were not an oppressed people; they had no crushing imperial chains to throw off.  In fact, the colonists knew they were freer, more equal, more prosperous, and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchical restraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century.”

Wood is contrasting his analysis of history with that of what he calls the “Progressive” and “neo-Progressive” historians who traditionally view the American Revolution through the prism of popular if ultimately self-destructive revolutions that occurred in France, Russia, China and elsewhere.  “For some historians,” he writes, the Revolution “seems to be little more than a colonial rebellion or a war for independence.”  Other historians, Wood argues, view the American Revolution as essentially conservative and limited in nature, as the transition from British monarchical rule to “American” republicanism represented virtually two sides of the same coin, with independence from the British Crown the sole contribution of the revolutionary movement.

Wood takes strong issue with those sentiments.  To him, the American Revolution represented a far more fundamental and socially significant transformation than others assume, despite the fact that the revolutionary ideals did always, conform to the spirit of the entire enterprise. Wood does not suggest that the transition from colony-ruled-by-monarchy to republic didn’t represent a major transformation.  He does argue that the transition was relatively simple given the philosophical influences on those involved and the relative enlightenment of the British rulers.  In his section titled “A Truncated Society,”

“Nowhere had the republicanizing of monarchy gone further.  The Americans did not have to invent republicanism in 1776; they had only to bring it to the surface.  It was there all along.  The revolutionaries shed monarchy and took up republicanism, as Jefferson put it, ‘with as much ease as we would have attended their throwing off an old and putting on a new set of clothes’.”

The conditions that existed in the American colonies allowed for the kind of political transformation that occurred.  What is considerably more “radical” to Wood than, he argues, to many other historians is the scale of distinction between monarchy and republicanism that the revolution represented.  As he writes in the section titled “The Republicanization of Monarchy,” republicanism was “in every way a radical ideology – as radical for the eighteenth century as Marxism was to be for the nineteenth century.”  If the intellectual underpinnings of republicanism already existed by virtue of the education and social class of the nation’s founders, who were more than passingly familiar with political philosophies dating to ancient Greece and Rome and to the Age of Enlightenment, the application of republicanism constituted a very significant social and political development.

Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution represents a departure from much of the history of the American Revolution that had previously been published.  It might be a bit of a stretch, however, to suggest that his interpretation represents as fundamental a departure from other historians as he suggests is the case.  The basis of the notion of “American exceptionalism,” after all, is grounded in precisely the sentiment that lies at the heart of Wood’s book.

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