The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Дата: 12.01.2016


Radicalism of the American Revolution

Gordon Wood is
Professor of History at Brown University. He is one of the leading scholars
researching issues of the American Revolution in the country. In 1970, his book
“The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787” was nominated for the
National Book Award and received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes. His
outstanding book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” won the Pulitzer
Prize in 1993. It is considered to be one of the most engaging scientific books
among the classic works on the social, political and economic consequences of
the Revolutionary War. This book has a power to redirect historical thinking
and well-established knowledge about the Revolution and its place within the
national consciousness. In the book “The Radicalism of the American
Revolution”, Professor Wood represents for readers a revolution that
transformed almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging
realities sometimes confused and disappointed its founding fathers. Professor
Wood has written a wide range of interesting books. He was also involved in Ken
Burn’s PBS production on Thomas Jefferson, and is contributing his knowledge
and understanding in the National Constitution Centre that was built in
Philadelphia and on a regular basis dedicates a share of his time teaching
history to high school students around the country.

values and lessons of the American Revolution seem to be so “natural” and also
have become so deeply integrated in American politics and social life that they
are irrefutable. We may state that actually no one today seriously supports a
monarchy and hereditary aristocracy for the United States. Thus far, the
political and social theories behind the American Revolution were as radical as,
for instance, the ideas of Mao and Lenin seem to us. In this masterpiece of a
history book, Professor Wood analyzes the comprehensive social changes set free
during the developments of the American Revolution. He tries to show the
process of rapid transformation of a near-feudal society into a democratic
society with guaranteed liberties and freedoms, such as freedom of speech,
belief, and many others that are even today, in times of modern world are
unknown in many countries. Author’s device is to let a reader look at the
American Revolution through an entirely new perspective and appreciate its
significance with all the seriousness.

The talented author Professor Wood
offers a fresh current in modern history on the formative years of the United
States, giving description of the astounding transformation of distinct,
quarrelling and fighting colonies. In fact, historians
have always had some problems researching revolutionary nature of the American
Revolution. In this brilliantly represented and convincingly argued book, one
of the most celebrated American historians renovates the radicalism, brings it to
the debate and define as one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever

one of the specialists said “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is the most important study of the American Revolution to appear
in over twenty years. This work is also considered a breathtaking
social, political, and ideological analysis of crucial historical events of the
American country. Historian professor Wood depicts in
this impressive and incalculably readable mixture of historical, political,
cultural, ideological and economic analysis much more than just a break with
England. He represents for his audience a revolution that resulted in serious
changes within the country. Once again, we may say that almost feudal society
was made a democratic one.

work “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is in fact a continuation of
Professor Wood’s earlier work “The Creation of the American Republic,
1776-1787”. We as readers may claim that this is a magnificent study and fully
deserves the Pulitzer Prize it had actually received. “The Radicalism of the
American Revolution” covers different issues and gives answers to different
problems. It researches somehow the same challenges as Bernard Bailyn’s “The
Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” (Harvard University Press,
1967), but in contrast, Professor Wood develops a much more detailed, precise,
and persuasive representation of a society transformation from one of feudal
relationships to the other that was predicated on democracy, republicanism, and
capitalism based on a market economy.

see that primary Gordon Wood argues that the American Revolution
was beyond doubt a radical chapter in world history and in history of the
United States in particular. He states, “The republican revolution was the
greatest utopian movement in American history. The revolutionaries aimed at
nothing less than a reconstitution of American society. They hoped to destroy
the bonds holding together the older monarchical society — kinship, patriarchy,
and patronage — and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect,
and consent. They sought to construct a society and governments based on virtue
and disinterested public leadership and to set in motion a moral government
that would eventually be felt around the globe” (p. 229). Wood represents this
as “a single and most powerful and radical ideological blow in all of American
history” (p. 234). He calls all these ideas utopian, for had little trust in
what was planned. He has little belief in a completion of all the radical steps
that were undertaken. He comments, “Perhaps nothing separated
early-nineteenth-century Americans more from Europeans than their attitude
towards labour and their egalitarian sense that everyone must participate in it”
(p. 286).

are bound to say that Gordon S. Wood opposing earlier historiographies
disagrees that the American Revolution represented a truthfully radical
movement. Formerly historians had regarded the event as rather conservative in
action and extent. Professor Woods takes courage to disagree with this
traditional interpretation.  

fact, it is also relevant to say some words about the Revolution in general. The exact nature and scope of
the revolution is a matter of great speculation. It is generally agreed and
excepted that the Revolution originated around the time of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), and finished with
the election of George Washington as the first
President of the United States in 1789.
Further the theories vary. On one hand is the supposition that the American
Revolution was not “revolutionary” at all, that it did not radically reorganized
colonial society, but just replaced a distant government with a local one. One
the other hand is the opposite view impling that the American Revolution was a
unique and radical event, representing bold changes that had a deep and strong
influence on world history. That is why the work of Professor Wood “The Radicalism of the
American Revolution” is academicaly important for us, especially in view of existence of
numerous interpretations of the event. 

the progress of his study, Professor Wood leads his audience in chronological
order through the developments leading up to, throughout, and following the War
for Independence attempting to picture the advancement of intellectual thought
during the particular period. Analysing the study we may say that Wood asserts
that the American Revolution did more than smooth the progress of separation of
the colonists from the English monarchy, but he adds that also it served to destabilize
and demoralize the tyrannical and out of date earlier regime qualities of benefaction,
dependence, and strict hierarchy. The author notes that all these social transformations,
matching with the break from the monarchical system, produced radical and
empowering changes that in a straight line influenced the unique path the young
American nation would follow. Subsequently, Wood claims that the radical nature
of the American Revolution produced comprehensive, influential and shapeless
consequences unforeseen by the revolutionary founding fathers who were the
authors of the idea of Revolution.

Within his
study, Gordon Wood shapes his research in three major segments; he speaks first
about Monarchy, then about Republicanism, and at last about Democracy. Professor
in this work dismisses widespread misconceptions regarding the ground and
character of the colonists’ relationship with England, moreover he represents
the revolutionary intellectual and social organizations of colonial society
along with the clear description of the monarchical system. The author pays
attention to the fact that before the beginning of the American Revolution
proliferation of its intrinsic republican ideals, the noticeable splitting up
between the aristocracy and ordinary people lent colonial society to the system
of privilege benefaction and patronage represented under the auspices of a
monarchical system.

it is important to point out, as progressive ideas extended by means of
pamphlets, political tracts and books, the American colonists paid attention to
republican ideals and started their questioning of communal and political
divisions. The republicanism manifesting itself in accepted colonial society resulted
in the final termination of close and strong bonds to the monarchy. Presenting
the republicanism of colonial society, Professor Wood disputes that such newly
born ideas attained radical significance by providing a perceptive and
significant defy to the monarchical system. Though, the author says, the move
forwards for independence advanced uncertainly to some extent, it symbolized
thus far the culmination of a new social optimism resonating now and then
within the colonial population, including also revolutionary leaders themselves
that is also very important to state. Wood also pays much attention to the
Democracy. He considers that such political phenomenon existed in absolute
opposition to the monarchical organization of the society. Despite the fact
that democracy brought to the reality many of the ideals proposed by the
founding fathers, Professor Wood believes that its ultimate and absolute shape
represented a higher grade of equality unexpected and possibly even unpredicted
by the revolutionary leaders. However, to make such conclusion randomly is
impossible. That is why Wood carries out a comprehensive research on the reorganization
of American society that had taken place since the War for Independence. The
author also speaks about the developing role of government within the society
and the involvement of common people in state affairs. Professor Wood says that
it symbolized a radical concept change. According to Wood, American
individualism was an inevitable result of the possibility of social mobility. Furthermore,
the development of commerce and suspension of conventional relationships serve
as the evidence to verify this claim. Consequently, by describing the progression
of the young American state, Wood asserts that a radical break was the result
not only of the American Revolution, but possibly was achieved trough greater domination
of the radical intellectual ideas of the time in the course of development.

To support his
claims and conclusions Professor Wood uses a wide
range of principal source material. The author employed different sources
preparing his work: political tracts, diaries of prominent American people,
popular literature, letter correspondence, and pamphlets. The author
incorporates in his study economic and financial data, in order to back all the
statements and give them true status. To support his theories throughout the
work and to give exact and clear explanation to his thoughts Professor Wood
uses the large amount of textual notes. Wood possibly could have advantage by
making available models that are more direct and exact in order to demonstrate
the significance of his claims regarding the radical nature of the American

realize that the significance of the information relayed within the book cannot
be overestimated, for it makes possible for a reader to grasp the sense of
intellectual and social undercurrents existing within society before during,
and after the War for Independence. It also presents a clear picture of the
development of the consequential democratic government. Along with all the
advantages, we are bound to point out the moment that is supposed to be an
omission of the author. Analysing the work we see that Professor Wood gives a
detailed description of the American revolution from the top down, but it is essential
to say that he somehow have not given a precise picture of the position of
lower social groups. However, Gordon Wood writes about the status of slaves,
women and Native Americans. Unfortunately, the importance he attaches to the
questions of equality and social grading brought about by the intellectual
advancement of the Revolution regards only white population, property holders
(males) leaving aside lower classes that compose the majority of society. Wood’s
style along with clarity of his language and good researching skills make a
skilful scholarly discourse on the radical ideology of the American Revolution.
Moreover, being so skilfully written and presented the work entertains the
audience throughout the pages. 

This work is
really a best synthesis of the questions relating to America’s transformation
from paternal colonialism unrestricted democracy. Professor Wood also argues
successfully that the American Revolution as a historical event is very often
neglected even within the world history that is worthy to have a prominent
position along with French and Russian Revolutions.

In closer
consideration, and having researched the problem we may state that Professor Wood
swindles a little drawing out his theories. In other words, he a exaggerates
little bit. In order to support his thesis about the development and impact of
American Revolution, he has to offer a “before and after” depiction of American
state. He does this by representing rather incomplete or prejudiced vision of
the North American colonies before the start of Revolution. He repeatedly mentions
the insignificance of the colonial cities, their economy, aristocracy and
existing institutions. It is understandable that it forms synthetically
diminished role of the colonial society and its institutions.

On the other
hand, Gordon Wood rather truthfully illustrates the changing early colonial scenery.
At first Professor says that primary the society was arranged and structured
around hierarchy and individual relationships that progressed to a unrestrictive
culture based on contacts. Wood clearly explains in his chapter on patronage
that the early colonies principally had no other option than to function on an individual
relationship basis. There was even no paper currency in use and rather small
population kept personal book accounts of numerous debts they owed each other. Gordon
Wood writes that “such credits and debts worked to tie local people together
and to define and stabilize communal relationships” (p. 68). The author does
not instantly connect this with the growth of population in the New World that represented
actually a major reason for the transformation in the colonies that has led to the
Revolution. The author says that by the middle of the eighteenth century, the
colonists had accepted paper money. Professor claims that they needed it
because colonies had expanded their inland trade. For example, they were no
longer just dealing with their neighbours but also with across-the-ocean
countries. These advancements, Wood stresses, offers the various ways in which common
people were becoming more and more independent and liberated from conventional
patron-client relationships (p. 142).

As for the
negative moments, we again are bound to say that Wood obviously overstresses
the extent to which the colonies, just before the Revolution, were hierarchical
and old-fashioned, conventional cultures. The evidence he uses to support the idea is unreasonable. The
author is speaking about the prevalence of Christian churches in this
connection, and that this prevalence does not necessarily is a sign of a
hierarchy (p. 18).

Repeatedly Professor
Wood speaks about great freedom and equal opportunities in the colonies, but
contradicts his opinion with further statements. For instance we may find within
the book the statement that Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic boasted of
their independence”. But further he writes the contradictory “most colonists,
like most Englishmen at home, were never as free as they made themselves out to

The Radicalism of the American Revolution also contains many unrelated quotes. Therefore,
some of Wood’s stories are conflicting and of little importance as evidence to support
his theories.

It is difficult
not to conclude that the radical transformations chronicled by Wood were the outcome
of plain population growth. It was neither the goal nor the result of the
Revolution. Wood emphasizes several times that the modifications in American
society were due to economics and demographics. Ultimately, Wood remarks that
the Founders were stunned by the society in which they died. Wood writes that “This
democratic society was not the society the revolutionary leaders had wanted or
expected. No wonder, then, those of them who lived on into the early decades of
the nineteenth century expressed anxiety over what they had wrought. All the
major revolutionary leaders died less than happy”. (p. 365). So even accepting
the thesis that newly born America was the result of the Revolution, according
to Wood«s verification was not the objective. Ignoring Wood»s arguments and evaluating
his evidence, it looks like the radical changes in American society were
neither the goal of the Revolution nor its product.

Again as for
the critiques, one issue raised by critics is the relationship among the three
cultural phenomena – monarchy, republicanism and democracy. In addition, the
author described changes that took place between the middle of the eighteenth
century and the early decades of the nineteenth. The author is not persisting
that these cultural models were patterns that displaced each other,
republicanism displacing monarchy and democracy displacing republicanism. As an
alternative, these models overlapped each other in time in the way that two or
even more cultural forms could exist at the same time. However, the author says
that it is difficult for a number of specialists to imagine a society structure
possessing simultaneously unlike, even irreconcilable and contradictory
cultural characteristics.   

with this book thousands of people were introduced to the colonial society. Wood’s
book provides the kind of illustrative detail that will enable readers to
participate imaginatively in colonial life. He has summarized the mounts of
information about the colonies, mixed it with the commentaries of dozens of
contemporary witnesses and rather skilfully submitted an interpretation of
different fact he had in possession. Wood’s tendency throughout the book is to
imply rather then to clarify, to put forward or advocate rather then argue, now
and then pointing out how extremely dramatic were the social developments he
described in his book. For the wide-ranging reading public, Professor Wood’s
rhetorical mixture suggests the brilliant representation of early America and
its development.       

Radicalism of American Revolution” is a powerful and motivated work. Many call
it a synthesis that aims reinterpret events that American people have long
regarded as essential to their identity as a nation. Gordon Wood states his
purpose right in the title of the book. His book explains the ways in which
American Revolution was radical, stating that it was actually as radical and as
revolutionary as any such disturbance in all history. But if the radicalism of
the era is crucial to Professor Wood, it remains in his hands an allusive and
unproductive characteristic. Revolutions of the seventeenth century aimed at
overthrowing the kings and based on the startling and innovating ideas.
Revolutions of the eighteenth century went far up to abolishing slavery and
took into consideration rights of women as full-fledged citizens of the
republic. In the light of such transformations in the world how are we to
understand Wood’s stress on the radicalism of the American Revolution. He
obviously does not mean that it presented substantive change in the group of
those who were oppressed, sustained under strict control or marginal in the
society. Professor Wood credits the Revolution with ending slavery in the North
and, in the long run, raising the status of all African Americans and women.
Professor highlights that Revolutionary events created concepts of social
gradation among population. However, these events are not central to the

It is
important to explore what exactly Wood means by radicalism. What were real and
actual characteristics that made the Revolution radical? The obvious
explanation is that Wood implies that this Revolution was extensive and

speaks better of the fundamental patriotism and comparative unity of the
American nation than recognition of people that the Revolution was an achievement
and very good thing. In contrast, nothing makes it so difficult to remedy the
failings of the Revolution than that widespread reluctance to believe in the
very possibility that it was really a failure. Nonetheless, the author does not
present his argument in this austere fashion. Gordon S. Wood’s brilliant book, “The
Radicalism of the American Revolution”, offers us the opportunity to step back
and weigh up the tragic scope of what was supposed to be a conservative
republican revolution but turned into a liberal democratic and, consequently,
radical one.

the very beginning, Professor Wood makes it clear how scrupulously
republicanism had penetrated British thought and writes “Republicanism did not
belong only to the margins, to the extreme right or left, of English political
life. Monarchical and republican values existed side by side in the culture,
and many good monarchists and many good English Tories adopted republican
ideals and principles without realizing the long-run implications of what they
were doing. Although they seldom mentioned the term, educated people of varying
political persuasions celebrated republicanism for its spirit, its morality,
its freedom, its sense of friendship and duty, and its vision of society.
Republicanism as a set of values and a form of life was much too pervasive,
comprehensive, and involved with being liberal and enlightened to be seen as
subversive and monarchical” (p. 18). One more interesting citation I would like
to present is “The pride, the glory of Britain, and the direct end of its
constitution is political liberty” (p. 27). Well, critically thinking we
conclude that evidently what made the American Revolution radical it is not its
republicanism for sure.

let us analyse what republicanism consists of. Professor Woods offers the
following interpretation. According to the classical republican practice, man
by nature is a political being, a citizen who attained moral realization by
involving yourself in a self-governing republic. Public or political liberty as
we now call it meant then partaking in government. Consequently, the virtue
that classical republicanism encouraged was public virtue. Public virtue was
the sacrifice of personal needs and interests for the public interest. Republicanism
thus put an enormous burden on individuals. Individuals were expected to
restrain their personal desires and interests and expand disinterestedness as
Professor Wood calls it. In particular, for the reason that republics required
civic virtue and disinterestedness among their citizens, they were very easily
broken polities, predisposed to any kind of influence. Wood says that republics
demanded far more morality from their citizens than monarchies did.

Professor Wood tells us, however noble the Founders’ visualization of construction
of a new republic, it was predestined, for the most part once the control of a
exceptionally disinterested and ultimately authoritative monarchy was removed. Today
we can only speculate, as Gordon Wood considers.

any case, despite the fact that the Founders Fathers evidently should have
known better than to place their faith and faith of the huge country in human
virtue, Professor Wood expressed how they went on to devastate what he calls
the “links that had held aged monarchical society together”; according to Wood
these links are patronage and kinship.

Wood proceeds saying that the image of the revolutionary leaders is amazing. Hardheaded
and intolerant they perceived that by becoming republican they were expressing
nothing else than a utopian expect for a new moral and social structure led by
progressive and honourable men. Their dreams as well as their eventual
disappointments made them the most amazing generation of political leaders in
American history Professor Gordon Woods considers.

states that even Jefferson considered being hopeful and rather confident was in
despair. He even detested the new democratic world he saw growing and
strengthening in America. He called and considered this world a world of rumour,
banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity. Unfortunately, we learn from Wood’s
book that the future and the new generation were not what he had expected

a result, the America that was established as an outcome of the revolution not
the republic that its leaders projected and therein lays its radicalism. Thus, there
is an inexpressible sadness in the final paragraph of the book where Professor
Wood writes, “A new generation of democratic Americans was no longer interested
in the revolutionaries’ dream of building a classical republic of elitist
virtue out of the inherited materials of the Old World. America, they said,
would find its greatness not by emulating the states of classical antiquity,
not by copying the fiscal-military powers of modern Europe, and not by
producing a few notable geniuses of a man. Instead, it would discover its
greatness by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people
with their workaday concerns and their pecuniary pursuits of happiness—common
people with their common interests in making money and getting ahead” (p. 269).

further Wood finishes “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” with this
statement “No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high with
its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlessness, its anti-intellectualism. But,
there is no denying the wonder of it and the real earthly benefits it brought
to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common labouring people. The
American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its
consequences still” (p. 269).

Wood comments that ideas and ideological issues matter in the context of
American history. Self-interest is very real and really very essential, though
ideas and ideals are powerful motivations for actions and undertakings. We may
affirm that this book is a strikingly important that must be read by all who tries
and wishes to understand the origins of the United States.

conclusion, we may say one more time that “The Radicalism of the American
Revolution” is a well-designed combination of historical, political, cultural,
ideological and economic analysis done by the prominent scholar that is always
in touch with the older, classic questions that we have been arguing about for
long. In fact, it is a magnificent account of such a serious event within
American history as revolution that gave birth to the American republic.

The American
Revolution not only had officially formed the United States of America,
moreover, had shaped and formed all the great hopes and values of the American
people. American commitments to freedoms, constitutionalism, the welfare,
happiness, equality and safety of ordinary people, all American noblest ideals
and aspirations were the result of the Revolutionary era. We also know from the
book the fact that Lincoln understood that the Revolution had persuaded
American people in their speciality, convinced that they are the people with a
unique destiny, and that just the American people is a nation that is to lead
the world towards democracy and liberty. As a result Revolutionary events
produced a sense of nationhood and strong unity Americans have now.

It is
important to say that the history of the American Revolution, as well as the
history of the nation as a whole, should not to be regarded merely as a story
of rights and wrongs that reach us moral lessons and shows negative
consequences. The work of Professor Wooв is a complex and sometimes even ironic chronicle that is
supposed to be clarified and understood. it is relevant to pay attention to
such questions such how this great revolution came about; what its character
was; what its consequences were and many others. The work’s success in writing
such a profound and absorbing research we attribute to Gordon Wood’s mastery of
his subject.

Of course, we
should not neglect the fact that the American Revolution really substantially
changed the atmosphere in which slavery had existed and flourished. For hundreds
of years, slavery had existed in the Western world without significant
criticism. The Revolution outlined a key turning point. It unexpectedly put
slavery on the defensive. And probably that is the point that is to be highlighted
and emphasized. The thing about the American
Revolution is that it has created the ideology that holds us together until now.
To author’s point of view without that revolution, we would be a nation without
any kind of adhesive. Due to the Revolution, we have an intellectual and
ideological adhesive that makes us a unit of people.

Speaking about
potential audience of the book the author himself says that it was designed for
an educated reader who wants to know something more about the American Revolution
and has only maybe a indistinct remembrance of the main events and wants to
know some more particulars of the event. Although, it does not convey any great
knowledge. As Professor Wood says this book is not written for experts in
American history, just for a general reader as we say.

Te first item
is that Revolution is one of the most important events in American history,
since it not only legally shaped the United States of America, but also infused
into our culture and our consciousness almost everything we believe in, and
that holds us together. These things are our belief in liberty, equality,
constitutionalism, the welfare of ordinary people. All of this the author
considers comes out of the Revolution. Therefore, this is the event that makes
us Americans. Consequently, in order to be an American you have to know
something about the history of this country and about the Revolution in


Gordon S.
Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Vintage: March,
1993. 464 pages.


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