The Radicalism of the American Revolution

by Gordon S. Wood
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

The Radicalism of the American Revolution, published in 1993, was written by Gordon S. Wood. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for History.

The book's central thesis is that the American Revolution was a radical movement. Wood posits that the American Revolution was not perceived as "radical" in academia...

(The entire section contains 1989 words.)

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The Radicalism of the American Revolution, published in 1993, was written by Gordon S. Wood. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for History.

The book's central thesis is that the American Revolution was a radical movement. Wood posits that the American Revolution was not perceived as "radical" in academia during the past decades. It was not seen in the same light as the French Revolution or the People Power Revolution and other rebellions that occurred during the Cold War and post–Cold War era.

Wood argues that the insurrectionist movement against the British Empire in colonial America was similar to revolutions throughout history that were considered politically radical. For instance, Wood argues that the colonists were rebelling not only against the political control of the British Crown but also against the social traditions imported from England. Wood details how the revolutionary acts were rooted in the idea that colonial America should be completely transformed into a new, independent nation. The colonists did not just want to separate from the Old World; they wanted to set the foundations for a new society.

Wood articulates that this was just as radical as the communist revolutions in Cuba, Soviet Union, and China. In the second section of the book, Wood details how the revolutionaries attempted to abolish the monarchical rule of the British Empire in the American colonies, similar to the way the radical communist revolutionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to replace the old political systems and oligarchies in their respective countries.

However, critics of Wood's book counterargue that his thesis is shortsighted. For instance, they cite the fact that the American revolutionaries were still culturally British. Also, unlike other radical movements, the American Revolution was initiated by wealthy landowners rather than the peasantry (as in China) or the urban poor (as in the Philippine People Power Revolution).

In addition, the American Revolution only benefited white men. Women still had very limited rights after the conclusion of the Revolution, and slavery continued unchecked in the US even after the British Empire itself abolished slavery. In this regard, critics opine that the American Revolution was not as radical as Wood argues it was.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1628

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 colonies had come, voluntarily or involuntarily, under royal charters, and appointed governors exercised more power than their seventeenth century predecessors.

The republicanism that the colonists embraced during the revolution challenged the supporting bases of monarchical society: hierarchy, inequality, patronage, and especially dependency. Wood stresses that republicanism had been corroding monarchy for much of the eighteenth century, eating away at it from within as the Commonwealthmen and real Whigs in Britain railed against the influence of factional interests and courtiers in Parliament. England was a republicanized monarchy, and classical republican values were widespread in the English-speaking world. In “truncated” American colonial society, which lacked the titled upper tiers of the British social order, the republicanization of monarchy had advanced even further; the revolution only brought it to the surface.

Thomas Jefferson remarked that Americans exchanged monarchy for republicanism as easily as shedding an old suit of clothes. Wood explains why, stressing patterns in colonial development that helped destabilize monarchical order. Rapid population growth and high geographic mobility had kept community hierarchies weaker than in England. Internal trade expanded enormously during and after the French and Indian War, and the resulting increase in paper money emissions helped pull more people into the market economy. In the process, impersonal exchanges between same-status individuals increasingly displaced traditional credit and debt relationships between patron and client; the cash nexus supplanted older bonds of reciprocal obligation.

In this context, the republicanism introduced in 1776 was more than a political system: It was a new way of organizing society, as radical for the eighteenth century as Marxism would be for the nineteenth. Republicanism dissolved the old monarchical connections of patronage and kinship; it equated dependency with slavery, citizenship with disinterested virtue. It celebrated the independent individual who, out of devotion to the commonweal, willingly sacrificed pecuniary interests to undertake public service. Preferment according to birth and blood would no longer hold back men of great talent but small fortune. Jefferson envisioned the new American republic as a nation of independent freeholders governed by a “natural aristocracy” of liberally educated, enlightened, benevolent gentlemen—men cast in the mold of the revolutionary leaders.

The patriot leaders never intended their revolution to be democratic. They expected the many to continue to elect the few, whose leisure and independence from petty commercial concerns elevated them above the potential corruptions of self-interest. Bringing ordinary people into government as officeholders was contrary to the republican standard of virtue; it would be introducing private interests into government and allowing the participants to become judges of their own interests. This was precisely what happened after independence. The new state constitutions drafted in the enthusiasm for liberty and independence authorized larger assemblies and lowered the qualifications for voting and officeholding. Artisans and mechanics took to heart the rhetoric of equality and openly disputed the assumption that gentlemen could represent their interests. When they sent to the new state legislatures men of the middling ranks who promised to champion local interests, America “became the first society in the modern world to bring ordinary people into the affairs of government—not just as voters but as actual rulers.”

This was a kind of revolution that men such as Jefferson and James Madison had neither anticipated nor desired. They tried to head it off with a federal Constitution that strengthened the national government at the expense of the states and permitted voters a direct say in electing only the House of Representatives, half of one of the three branches of government. They hoped that the elevated and enlarged national government would be led by gentlemen who had neither interest nor occupations to promote. The genie of egalitarianism, once released by the revolution, could not be forced back into the bottle. The Anti-Federalists challenged the assumption that educated gentlemen were indifferent to the seductions of the marketplace, and even Madison in number ten of The Federalist Papers conceded that private interests ruled society and that few people were willing to put the public good above their own.

At the same time, the revolution stimulated internal trade that led to rapid capitalist development in the postwar decades. The growing opportunities for wealth bred competitiveness, individualism, and a pride in working for profit and for a living that astonished visiting Europeans. Aristocratic leisure, the mark of the colonial gentleman, quickly came to be disdained as a relic of monarchy. In the eighteenth century the self-made man concealed his humble origins; in the new democratic age he celebrated them. Despite increasing disparities of wealth, nothing, in the end, was more egalitarian and democratic than interest and moneymaking. By the turn of the century it had shaped a society that, by eighteenth century standards, was practically without social distinctions. “Ordinary Americans came to believe that no one in a basic down-to-earth and day-in-and-day-out manner was really better than anyone else. That was equality as no other nation has ever quite had it.”

It was also, Wood stresses, equality as the revolutionary leaders had never conceived it. Those who lived into the nineteenth century saw themselves, as Jefferson lamented, “left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not and who knows not us.” They watched uneasily as parties and reflexive partisanship dominated politics, banks and paper money transformed the economy, state after state granted universal white manhood suffrage, and the religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening displaced Enlightenment rationalism. None of them was happy with what they inadvertently had wrought, but there was no undoing it. By the early nineteenth century, America had already become “the most egalitarian nation in the history of the world.” It was not a classical republic based on an Old World ideal, but “a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people.” American democracy was completely new, entirely original—and radically revolutionary.

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.

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