Gordon S. Wood

The Radicalism Of The American Revolution

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The Radicalism Of The American Revolution Summary

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American historian Gordon S. Wood’s non-fiction history book The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993) focuses on the events that led to the American Revolution and how it was much more than a simple break from England. Rather, Wood asserts that it was a revolution on multiple fronts—government, social, economic—eventually transforming a backward-looking, almost feudal society into a democratic one. The unpredictability that resulted from the overthrow of colonial rule and the increasingly radical changes brought about by the people on the ground often confused and disappointed even the founding fathers as it took on a life of its own. Exploring themes of social change, the influence of class and society on revolution, and the ensuing generation gap, The Radicalism of the American Revolution is considered one of the defining modern texts on the political underpinnings of the war for independence and is often used as a text in college classes on the era. It was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution addresses the central question of why, in less than seventy-five years, American colonists were able to throw off the millennia-old social patterns of monarchy and become a rare example of a democracy in the era. In the eighteenth-century English-speaking world, monarchy created a clear social structure, linking everyone to the classes above and below them in measurements of freedom and servitude. This hereditary hierarchy assigned everyone a place from birth and reinforced it with the education of the time. People were taught that all people are not created equal; that poverty was virtuous for the common folk; and that it was important to be industrious and not think about their lot in life. However, in the American colonies, more distant from the British crown, people began thinking about these ways. They saw the aristocrats living on unearned income. They grew tired of looking upward, begging for crumbs from those above them. A new word entered the American political lexicon—corruption. It soon defined how Americans saw the upper class and colonial forces, and soon, much of the political discourse centered on how their leaders were failing their social and moral responsibilities.

This growing sense of social equality sowed the seeds of republicanism in the nascent country. Increased migration in the much larger land led to social bonds breaking down, as farm families opened their ways to early industrialization. Society started to seem less ordained by God and more controlled by man. The rulers’ sense of paternalism seemed more and more out of touch. As the people on the ground ignored the propaganda of the leaders, they were able to see that the dissatisfaction was actually the fault of the uncaring leadership. The concept of the country-colony relationship seemed less ordained by nature and more a choice that must be consented to by both sides. In 1763, when the British government taxed the colonists, it sent the anger over corruption in the British crown to a new level. The revolutionaries began their war against the established powers, seeking to destroy what they saw as the secret bonds of society—the use of family, blood, and personal influence to overthrow merit. They sought to substitute the right to self-determination and personal benevolence. They argued that people would find their best selves when freed of colonial trappings. However, early on there was a lot of corruption and individualism, leading to worries that people would not be selfless enough to effectively establish the new society they desired.

The influence of republicanism led to a far more wide-reaching revolution than many of the founders expected, with the traditional social structure falling by the wayside. Still, they planed a new federal government to be a “disinterested and dispassionate umpire” between the states. This didn’t last long, as political parties quickly formed, urging loyalty from their members and targeting the revolution. The rise of Andrew Jackson and his followers, against the intense efforts of the establishment, firmly proved that it was a government of, by, and for the people. However, Jackson’s populist leanings led to bringing in more elements of monarchy than the founders approved of—with Jackson developing a cult of personality around him and introducing the spoils system with some safeguards to prevent corruption. The pursuit of money became a focus of society, and voluntary associations replaced caste systems in the social order. The “Second Great Awakening” led to religion regaining power in American society. In the end, the revolution was not what the founding fathers had imagined. The revolution succeeded beyond them, as they faded into mythic figures and a new generation emerged.

Gordon S. Wood is an American author and historian who is Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. He is best known for his Pulitzer-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, as well as his 1970 Bancroft Prize-winning The Creation of the American Republic. A 2010 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, he is considered one of the foremost American scholars on the founding of the United States of America.