Is the historian Gordon Wood correct when he claims that the American Revolution was a radical and not a conservative revolution?
American historian and Brown University Professor Emeritus Gordon Wood (b. 1933) tackles an interesting question in his Pulitzer Prize winning work The Radicalism of the American Revolution (published in 1991). While Gordon argues with great skill and evidence that the American Revolution can be characterized as more radical than conservative, I think that we have good reason to think that elements of both existed and that perhaps it was more of a conservative revolution that Gordon believed it to be.
First, let’s have a look at what the terms “radical” and “conservative” mean in a general sense within the field of politics. “Radical” describes a very fundamental and nearly total change or reform in a sociopolitical system. “Conservative” describes a tendency to want to stick with traditional ways and structures. What motivated the American Colonies to revolt? English Parliament and King George III put financial pressures on the American Colonies through a series of taxes that became burdensome, and which many thought were very unfair, especially given their lack of a voice in these decisions. “No taxation without representation,” became a rallying cry of the American Revolution. The French and Indian War had put England in debt and the American Colonists were taxed in return. Many objected to this, as the taxes put a strain on their daily survival.
While some of the leaders of the American Revolution wanted a complete break with anything that reminded them of English rule (for example, Sam Adams) and had what we might call a “radical” approach, there were others, such as George Washington, who focused on the need to assert pre-existing rights, which the English Crown trampled, and were less focused on changing all elements of English influence on society. The latter could be called “conservative.”
What seems to get almost no attention in The Radicalism of the American Revolution is the place of African Americans and Native Americans in a Colonial American society that was fighting for change. While the social system of a very old and traditional English society, with its emphasis on hierarchy (with the noble-born or aristocrats at the top), may have shifted as a result of the American Revolution, a truly radical change would have taken into consideration the human rights of slaves and the indigenous people exploited by Colonial America. Although slaves fought in the Revolutionary War, they did not reap the benefits of freedom. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were among the founding fathers who continued to own slaves, and it would be almost another century before the practice was abolished.
It seems to me that in Colonial America, the wealthy continued to rationalize the ownership of other human beings and the stealing of Native American lands for financial benefit, just as English aristocracy exploited the American colonists for monetary reasons. In both cases, wealth and power over other human beings went hand in hand. For this reason, it is my opinion that the American Revolution had more conservative than radical features.
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