The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It turned out it’s scope was far more extensive than I had previously thought; which was a good thing. The book is laid out in three segments: monarchy, republicanism and democracy. It tells the story of how the enlightened generation (among them of course the Founding Fathers) went from a monarchical society into a republican one and how it transformed itself again into a democracy in the decades following the Revolution. Something many of the Founding Fathers viewed as a step backwards, and many saw the republican ideas of the Revolution change into something they were never intended.
The author quotes Thomas Paine:
“The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”
This shows the sentiment prevalent in 1776. They were on an upward path towards independence and freedom. Yet, in the years and decades after the Revolution things changed radically. As the author explains:
“Americans were reversing the civilizing process, going backwards in time, losing politeness instead of, as the revolutionaries had hoped, gaining it. Usually the first settlers of any country were barbarians who gradually in time became cultivated and civilized. ”The progress has been from ignorance to knowledge, from rudeness of savage life to the refinements of polished society. But in the settlement of North America the case is reversed. The tendency is from civilization to barbarism.” Under New World conditions ”the tendency of the American character is then to degenerate, and to degenerate rapidly; and that not from any peculiar vice in the American people, but from the very nature of a spreading population. The population of the country is outgrowing its institutions.” To some it seemed that the mind once enlightened could after all become darker.”
A comparison is also drawn between the French and the American Revolutions. As the title of the book implicates, the American Revolution was radical, but in quite a different way than how we might think of a revolution today.
Thus was begun the myth that has continued into our own time—the myth that the American Revolution was sober and conservative while the French Revolution was chaotic and radical. But only if we measure radicalism by violence and bloodshed can the myth be sustained; by any other measure the American Revolution was radical..”
The radicalism of the American Revolution didn’t lay so much in its bloody struggle with the British, as it did in their changing of every aspect of society as they knew it. The very foundations we torn down and build anew. The aristocratic and paternalistic society that existed was demolished and with it the most basic concepts known to the colonists at the time. One such definition that changed (radically), was the definition of ‘property’.
“Indeed, the entire Revolution could be summed up by the radical transformation Americans made in their understanding of property. In classical republican thought, property, landed property in particular, was not some special interest needing representation or protection. Rather, property had been considered in proprietary terms as part of a persons identity and the source of his authority. Such proprietary property was regarded not as the product of one’s labor or as a material asset to be bought and sold in the market but as a means of maintaining one’s gentility and independence from the caprices of the market. Landed property was the most important such guarantee of autonomy because it was the least transitory, the most permanent form, of property. Such proprietary property was designed to protect its holders from from external influence or corruption, to free them from the scramble of buying and selling, and allow them to make impartial political judgements. But by making landed property merely another ”interest” among all the other market interests to be promoted or protected, [James] Kent and the other Federalists unwittingly stripped property of its older sanctified, static meaning and turned it into a mere material possession or capital commodity. They therefore conceded the northern Republicans’ more modern understanding of property at the outset—that property was changeable, based on people’s labor, and ”essential to our temporal happiness”.
If property had become just an ”interest,” a mere material possession, just venture capital, then, the Republicans said, everyone had an equal right to acquire it, for ”the desire of acquiring property is a universal passion.” Such property could no longer be an intergal part of a person’s identity; instead it was ”only one of the incidental rights of the person who possesses it,” important no doubt, but scarcely requiring specific representation in a branch of legislature. In fact, ”compared with our other essential rights,” property was ”insignificant and trifling.”
America, after the Revolution, became the most commercialized nation on earth, which leveled the playing field for its inhabitants. The distinction of Gentleman vs (for example) Yeoman disappeared quickly, as ones social status became more and more dependable on ones own labor and ability to make money, instead of depending on the patronage of well to do Gentlemen.
“The idea of labor, of hard work, leading to increased productivity was so novel, so radical, in the overall span of Western history that most ordinary people, most of those who labored, could scarcely believe what was happening to them. Labor had been so long thought to be the natural and inevitable consequence of necessity and poverty that most people still associated it with slavery and servitude. Therefore any possibility of oppression, any threat to the colonists’ hard earned prosperity, any hint of reducing them to the poverty of other nations, was especially frightening; for it seemed likely to slide them back into the traditional status of servants or slaves, into the older world where labor was merely a painful necessity and not a source of prosperity.”
Labor thus became the source of their prosperity. Something it still is in the Western world today, generally speaking. Also, it was elevated in status, where people who would still be holding on to the old aristocratic ideas, were more and more looked down upon. Their positions became financially unbearable in many instances, because people who would want to uphold their Gentility, refrained from working to make money, as it was considered beneath them and would interfere with their ability to participate in politics and government without any form of alternate interests.
The meaning of the Revolution differed for people, but it was the common seed that bonded the American people together.
“Some found the meaning of the Revolution in the Constitution and the union it had created. Others discovered the meaning in the freedom and equality that the Revolution had produced. But many other Americans knew that such meanings were too formal, too legal, too abstract, to express what most actually experienced in being Americans. In concrete day-to-day terms invocations of the constitution meant the freedom to be left alone, and in turn that freedom meant the ability to make money and pursue happiness.”
What was most interesting to read about were how the original ideas and expectations of the Founding Fathers actually differed from what American society actually turned into. One of the main interests I decided to read this book. Most especially the advent of Democracy, unsettled many of the Founding Fathers:
“The founding fathers were unsettled and fearful not because the American Revolution had failed but because it had succeeded , and succeeded only too well. What happened in America in the decades following the Declaration of Independence was after all only an extension of all that the revolutionary leaders had advocated. White males had taken only too seriously the belief that they were free and equal with the right to pursue their happiness. Indeed, the principles of their achievement made possible the eventual strivings of others—black slaves and women—for their own freedom, independence, and prosperity.”
These strivings weren’t limited to North America either, for most of the principles and ideas advocated and developed at the time we can see (in some form or another) in most Western societies. It laid the groundwork for the modern concept of democracy.
The amount of research that has gone into this book must have been enormous. The author has woven all this research into a very readable narrative. Informative, educational and most of all very enjoyable!
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