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Review: The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood
Part of an Ongoing Book Review Series
Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) is notably different in tone and scope than his previous work, The Creation of the American Republic (1969). Whereas his previous monograph was an exploration of the intellectual and political history of late Colonial America, the American Revolutionary War, and the early republican period, Radicalism of the American Revolution is much more a work of cultural history.
Broken into three sections: Monarchy, Republicanism, and Democracy, the book explores the cultural evolution of the people of North America from the 1760s to the first few decades of the nineteenth century. The first thing that is surprising about the book is how much it de-emphasizes the role of ideology and politics and takes a more grassroots look at life during this era. Though not quite treading into the realm of social history exactly, it certainly focuses much more on the daily life of ordinary people. Because of this aim, however, there is one point of disappointment which I will mention at the end of this review.
In the first section, Wood demonstrates how the English monarchy culturally impacted the American colonies in the eighteenth century. He challenges previous scholarship and argues that the colonial way of life, which was informed by patronage, reputation, and merit, was in no small way a result of English monarchical influence. Contrary to the idea that the colonists were nearly apathetic—or at best mildly influenced by monarchy—Wood asserts that their geographic distance from the mother land may well have reinforced a reverence for the crown. Unlike the public in England, where people of all walks of life may had witnessed royal processions and the like, colonists could only imagine such scenes. The pomp and circumstance within their minds possibly had more weight than those who saw the real thing, making the English crown physically out of reach but perhaps psychologically close in the hearts and minds of the people of British North America. This is a compelling thesis on Wood’s part, and he makes a strong case for this position.
The level of patronage and reputation which undergirded colonial life and economics expressed and buttressed this cultural reality. It’s worthy to note that many prominent members of colonial society increased their wealth and reputations less through rents and the sale of lands than they did through the giving of personal loans to many in their community. It indeed makes sense that in colonial America—which was land rich and cash poor—many would increase their wealth and cultivate their reputations in this way. During a time when banks were essentially absent in the region, many of these prominent men of society would themselves act as banks, charging very low interest for sometimes very long durations, to help members of the community, contribute to the local economy and the betterment of friends, family, and neighbors, and build reputations as being leaders of their towns, counties, and colonies. This culture of paternalism and patronage reinforced a social and economic aristocracy that echoed the influence of the English monarch.
The second section (Republicanism) may have been the most enlightening. Wood argues a point that is subtly mentioned but holds a lot of relevance: the fact that so many among the founding generation were of a first-generation college-educated class (Wood, 198 – 202). This small but important detail underscores both why a classical education seemed so important to so many of the founders (they were usually the first in their family to have received such education) but also that this acted as a bonding agent for the disparate group that was made up of men from differing economic backgrounds, religious affiliations, and geographic regions. Considering this, it also becomes important to note that two of the most prominent men of the era, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were among the few who never received such education. Wood furthermore casts the remarkable difference between these two. Franklin, despite his lack of formal education, was able to cultivate a reputation of being a man of arts, letters, and scientific daring. Washington, on the other hand, appeared somewhat insecure about his lack of education, embarrassed that he would become a head of state who knew no foreign language. This insight regarding the role that education played in the life of the founding generation is quite valuable.
The Republican section also reveals that a new culture that rejected aristocratic paternalism yet embraced the need for social bonds manifested itself during the revolution in a new political language which proclaimed human beings as social animals. An aim toward a balance of self-interest and the need for human social connection emerged (Wood, 217). Part of these social bonds, for a certain class of men, included the growing role of Freemasonry in the eighteenth century (Wood, 223). The practice of ritual and fraternity that Masonry encouraged took the place that orthodox religion had beforehand. It is interesting to note how the rituals and secrecy of Masonry influenced a people, both in England and in the colonies, that denounced Catholicism in part for its rituals and secrecy. Such is this writer’s observation, not Wood’s.
Discussion turns toward the more overtly political evolutions in the second half of section two and the first part of section three. Later in section two, Wood notes the schism between Federalists and Antifederalists, not merely over their disagreement regarding ratification of the new Constitution, but in their view of interestedness. The Federalists, in their defense of reclaiming—or perhaps preserving—notions of political patronage and paternalism, argued that the political class was to rule precisely due to the disinterestedness of the gentlemen who made up that class. Antifederalists were capable of pushing back against this and, despite losing the debate over ratification, changed the conversation which effectively cast a light on the supposedly disinterested Federalists as being just another interest group, like any other (Wood, 259). In this way, Wood demonstrates that the Federalists may have won the issue of ratification, but a more cynical and grounded view of politics—that of the Antifederalists—would in many ways be the reality of American politics going forward, especially after 1800 with the election of Thomas Jefferson and the demise of the Federalist faction.
From the end of the second section and into the third, the book explores the growth of democracy and political egalitarianism from the 1790s into the nineteenth century. This democratic revolution surprised and, in fact, concerned many of the founders, even the more vocally democratic champions like Jefferson. It is thought-provoking, Wood maintains, that despite the new constitution’s model of centralizing a more powerful, more “energetic” government which in some ways had been intended to restrain the democratic element, an American democratic spirit nevertheless continued to spread (Wood, 270).
The final section of the book (Democracy) further discusses the growth of democracy and the founders’ reaction to this phenomenon. What is perhaps most surprising, however, was the way Wood connects the growth of democracy with the growth of banks and corporations. Maybe it’s because of the top-down reputation of large industry that it can be easy to miss how democracy itself was, at least in part, responsible for this extraordinary change in American cultural and economic history. Not only were the growth of banks and corporations desired by many due to their contribution to internal improvements and infrastructure, and aid in starting businesses, but it also meant an end to the days of paternal patronage and personal loans given by prominent individuals to bolster reputations and solidify an air of trustworthiness and class. This form of social dominance was ending in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The growth of democracy meant the growth of modern industry and a more overtly commercial American culture. Wealth and luxury were no longer impediments to civic virtue as they had been during the years of the imperial crisis (the era preceding the Revolution). The gaining of wealth was seen more and more as a virtue itself, expressing a new notion of individualism and industriousness. This industriousness was no longer an antidote to the evils of idleness but was motivated by monetary gain and a growing culture of self-sufficiency. The effects this had on decorum was another disappointment uttered by some of the founders, including Jefferson and Adams.
In the last part of the book, Wood takes a little time to mention the solidifying of the independent judiciary. Perhaps a little more discussion could have been done regarding this, considering that just as the nation was growing more democratic—as would be its trend going forward—the judiciary found its footing precisely by becoming the least democratic branch of government. This is an utterly fascinating feature of American political history which my book, Rights Reign Supreme, explores more deeply.
One disappointment that ought to be mentioned regarding this work, which is—over all—an incredible work of American cultural history, is the sheer lack of discussion regarding slavery. It is understandable that not every work of the history of the early American republic needs to make slavery a central issue each and every time. There are many who do that work and thankfully it is a field that has grown a great deal over the past several decades. That said, though Wood needn’t spend an entire section on slavery in this book, or even necessarily a chapter, the fact that the peculiar institution is almost never mentioned at all seems like a mistake. This is a work of cultural history and not so much intellectual or political history, as his earlier book had been, and perhaps that would be his defense. Slavery, however, was not merely a feature of political history. It impacted millions and it was indeed the cultural history of by-far most African Americans for centuries. For this reason, it is disappointing that Wood gives short shrift to this issue. Nevertheless, The Radicalism of the American Revolution is a useful cultural history companion to the intellectual history of Wood’s previous work.
[James M. Masnov is a writer, historian, and lecturer. His book, Rights Reign Supreme: An Intellectual History of Judicial Review and the Supreme Court, is available here. His first book, History Killers and Other Essays by an Intellectual Historian, is available here.]