The Radicalism of the American Revolution Analysis
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
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...
(The entire section is 1,989 words.)