Title: The Radicalism of the American Revolution
Author: Gordon Wood
Categories: Social History, Revolution, Democracy
Place: United States
Time Period: 1740s-1820s
Gordon Wood writes a somewhat celebratory account of the radical democratizing effects of the American Revolution. In contrast to historians who have increasingly seen the American Revolution as a conservative movement with no major social disruption, Wood sees it as socially radical. Rather than reordering society materially, it changed how people built and saw their relationships with other people. In this sense, it produced a societal leveling of hierarchy that the founders neither expected nor wanted - a kind of sorcerer's apprentice quality with runaway democracy instead of brooms. Wood's depiction is controversial, as he spends worryingly little time discussing anyone other than white men (slavery is barely touched upon, despite an entire third of the book titled "Equality").
Wood starts with the pre-Revolutionary period which he describes as far more traditional, stratified, and monarchical than scholars have characterized. Society was marked by rigid segmentation between elite and commoners and people often grappled with the dependence engendered by a system of face-to-face personal politics rife with patronage. Then there was a process of "republicanizing of monarchy" which attempted to temper the rigidly hierarchical aspects while leaving room for rule by enlightened leaders (like Thomas Jefferson). This process was aided by a demographic boom in the second half of the 18th century and opening up of new territory to the west. This republicanizing impetus seeped into all kinds of social relationships (not just political) - parents/children, creditor/debtor, etc. Wood argues that equality was the most important legacy of the Revolution, of people's idea that they were equal to everyone else regardless of rank or wealth (which lay the basis for the rise of contractual relationships rather than personal, patronage ones). "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."
The initial utopian vision of the Revolution of a society of virtuous citizens motivated by love and benevolence was a doomed one that soon gave way to rising fears about the flood of democratic, egalitarian impulses that were unleashed. Many of the founders were worried by the seemingly chaotic burst of energetic, commerce-driven, interest and faction-ridden politics that came to dominate in place of a disinterested, virtuous republican system based around a "natural aristocracy". This egalitarian legacy grew in the early 19th century, spurred on by the market revolution, Jacksonian democracy, and the Second Great Awakening, until America had become subsumed under the banner of middle-class egalitarianism.
Key Themes and Concepts
- The "republicanizing of monarchy" - trying to temper monarchy while still leaving social hierarchies intact, led by enlightened gentlemen like Jefferson
- Social Change - alters the relationships between people in radical ways
- Initial utopian character of republican revolution
- Rise of commercialism accompanying egalitarian wave
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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