Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution is a frontal assault on a generation of scholarship by consensus historians who have interpreted the American Revolution as a conservative rebellion in defense of the status quo. By contrast with the bloody uprising in France that followed on its heels, the insurrection in America was mild indeed. It was led by gentlemen in knee breeches rather than angry peasants, and it produced a reasoned declaration against the unconstitutional exercise of monarchical power instead of a reign of terror. Colonial Americans were hardly an oppressed people: They knew that they were freer, richer, and less burdened by government than their counterparts in England or any other part of the eighteenth century world. Compared with the Russian and Chinese upheavals of the twentieth century, America’s little spat over taxes appears hardly revolutionary at all. Colonial Americans may have been political radicals, but they were not social revolutionaries.
Wood’s triumph is in finding a social revolution in a rebellion that Edmund Morgan has described as “some of the few enlisting the many against the rest of the few” (Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, 1988). Extending the revolutionary era backward to the 1760’s and forward to the early nineteenth century, Wood argues that the country underwent a real social transformation, although of a different sort than the neo-Progressive historians of the New Left have sought (with meager results) in the 1770’s. “One class did not overthrow another; the poor did not supplant the rich,” Wood acknowledges. “But social relationships—the way people were connected one to another—were changed.… By the early years of the nineteenth century the revolution had created a society fundamentally different from the colonial society of the eighteenth century.”
It had been the intention of the few—the patriot leaders—to replace English monarchy with an American republic; they did not anticipate the determination of the many—the ordinary citizens—to reshape the republic into a democracy. Neither did they expect that liberty and the pursuit of happiness would translate into an unrestrained scramble after wealth and enshrine self-interest over disinterested virtue as the guiding principle of politics. Swiftly and bloodlessly, the commercial energy and egalitarian aspirations released by the revolution transformed Americans into “the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world.”
Wood develops this thesis through an extended analysis of the country’s transition from monarchy to republic and, ultimately, democracy. Monarchy structured society as well as government in the eighteenth century, linking people to those above and below them in the social hierarchy through an intricate web of patronage and dependency. The basic social distinction in colonial America, as in Britain, was between gentlemen and commoners. Gentlemen were distinguished not by wealth alone but by birth, education, cultivated pursuits, leisure, and above all, independence. The mark of the lesser ranks was dependence; they relied on gentlemen as landlords, creditors, and customers whose patronage supported artisans and trades workers.
Monarchical society generated not class consciousness but networks of local loyalties and patriarchal dependencies between patrons and clients. Personal relationships were the ligaments that held society together. Ordinary men voted for the “quality” to represent them in the colonial legislatures. They enlisted in the militia under their betters, whom they knew and respected—and who could afford to treat the company on muster days. Despite its relative provincial simplicity, colonial society in the mid-eighteenth century was deeply and traditionally British, and royal authority was growing stronger rather than weaker. Most...
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