The Radicalism of the American Revolution Essay

Published: 2020-04-22 08:25:15
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Category: American Revolution

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Thesis Statement

The break away from a monarchy-based social society to a republic one during the American Revolution posed some irony for certain members of society such as the poor dirt farmers, women and slaves.

Brief Analysis of The American Revolution

Gordon Wood argues the American Revolution transformed American society more than any other event in history. He believed that the revolution served as a model for those that came later. The author covers much the same ground in his book as did Bernard Bailyn did in, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, but charts it in a more linear fashion. Wood illustrates the emergence of the American colonies from a monarchical system into a Republic, and eventually into a Democratic society. His focus is on representation, beginning with the colonial assemblies. Unlike monarchy-based rule the American colonies had a legacy of representative institutions, which helped in forming the necessary consensus in order to achieve independence.

Over the course of his book, Gordon Wood takes the reader through chronological events leading up to, during, and following the War for Independence in order to expose the reader to the development of intellectual thought during the time period. Wood contends that the American Revolution did more than facilitate the colonists separation from the English monarchy, but also served to undermine the oppressive and outdated ancient regime characteristics of patronage, patriarchal dependence, and hierarchy.

These social changes, paired with the break from the monarchial system, represented radical and empowering changes that directly affected the unique course the young American nation would follow. In this current of intellectual thought, Wood believes that the radical nature of the American Revolution had far-reaching and amorphous consequences unforeseen by the revolutionary founding fathers.

Gordon Wood organizes his argument into three main sections: Monarchy, Republicanism, and Democracy. He begins with an analysis of the monarchial system and not only dispels common misconceptions concerning the nature of the colonists relationship with England, but also presents the subversive intellectual and social organizations of colonial society. Before the American Revolution and the proliferation of its inherent republican ideals, there was a conspicuous division between the aristocracy and the common people. This lent colonial society to the system of privilege and patronage represented by a monarchial system.

However, as Enlightenment ideas spread via pamphlets, books, and political tracts, the American colonists looked towards republican ideals and began to question societal and political divisions. This form of republicanism manifested itself in popular colonial society and later led to the eventual dissolution of not only bonds to the monarchy, but also the paternal and dependent relationships characteristic of the antiquated system. The creation of private reform, and other associations and societies was unheard of in Old Europe. Suddenly a wider suffrage blossomed, and private groups were formed with an avidity unseen in despotic nations.

The Irony of the American Revolution

This book is not without irony because the revolution didnt produce the same equality of citizens as we see today. One of the more important aspects of the book is its understanding that eighteenth-century American equality did not mean that everyone was in fact the same, but only that ordinary people were closer in wealth and property to those above them and felt freer from aristocratic patronage and control than did common people elsewhere in the Western world (p. 171). Virtuous gentlemen free from dependence and from petty interests of the marketplace and educated in the liberal arts were supposed to lead the ordinary people in the establishment of a modern republic free of corruption (p. 104).

Ordinary individuals could not sustain republican virtue and guard it against corruption because they were not free as long as they depended on the marketplace to prosper. This Roman model of republicanism, however, was untenable in eighteenth-century America. Though the American colonies possessed a few rich and many poor, even fewer among the rich could serve the new nation without worries of continuing to manage their personal wealth. Therefore, after 1776, propertied men, merchants, and farmers were elected and served side-by-side in state legislatures.

What is even more ironic is that the colonists believed that they destroyed the bonds holding together the older monarchical societykinship, patriarchy, and patronageand replaced it with new social bonds of love, respect, and consent. They sought to construct a society and government 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). They advocated ensuring equality as the first task of society; Wood calls this the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history (p. 234). And all Americans, he argues, embraced the idea of equality as manifested in labor and accomplishment.

He notes, Perhaps nothing separated early-nineteenth-century Americans more from Europeans than their attitude toward labor and their egalitarian sense that everyone must participate in it (p. 286).  If this was the initial intent of this movement than why did slavery exist until the next century and why werent women allowed to vote until much later. Poor farmers who had only small parcels of land depended on their crops for revenue as they were never offered subsidies from the new government.

Gordon Wood paints an interesting and convincing picture of cultural change, from an early colonial society structured around hierarchy and personal relationships to freewheeling, atomistic culture arranging everything by contract. Unfortunately, he never demonstrates, in a convincing fashion, that the American Revolution (the war, or the restructuring of the government under the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) was either, A) fought for the purpose of bringing about this societal change or B) a significant catalyst in accelerating the change.

Wood clearly exaggerates the degree to which the colonies, just prior to the Revolution, were hierarchical and conservative cultures. Some of the evidence he adduces for hierarchy is questionable: does the prevalence of Christian churches really indicate a hierarchy, even if they do preach Romans 13 (p. 18)? How about the existence of a hierarchical military (p. 20), or vagrancy legislation (p. 20)? What about the use of titles, like Esq. (p.21)? We see all these phenomena today, of course ” so if they do indicate hierarchy and conservatism, they also indicate that we are still a hierarchical and conservative culture.

Frequently Wood presents evidence of great freedom and egalitarianism in the colonies, but then wills it away with an unsupported conclusion. On page 14, for instance, we read that Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic bragged of their independence. Most American farmers owned their own land and English farmers were viewed as outrageously independent by continentals, but, cryptically, most colonists, like most Englishmen at home, were never as free as they made themselves out to be. There is no reference here to the poor dirt farmers, only to those who prospered well.

Some of Woods stories are contradictory and of little evidentiary value. Old George Hewes trembles in the presence of Squire John Hancock because people in lowly stations ¦ were apt to be filled with consternation and awe when confronted with what were called gentle folks¦ beings of a superior order (p. 29). But Hancock was born poor, and became rich by inheriting the mercantile empire of his uncle. On page 37, Wood tells us that merchants (even prominent merchants dealing in international trade, such as Hancock surely was) were not gentlemen: their status was tainted. So Old George Hewes was no doubt awed, not because Hancock was an aristocrat, but because he was a rich and famous man.

This, of course, is an indication that pre-Revolution America was already moving towards its Jacksonian destination, and not, as Wood would have it, evidence of the importance of status. Wood even makes several inferences hinting at the egalitarian nature of colonial society. Most colonial aristocrats were never able to dominate their localities to the extent that English aristocrats did (p. 115). New Englanders were a stern, sober people, not much given to the hierarchies and displays of monarchy (p. 110). The Americans did not have to invent republicanism in 1776; they only had to bring it to the surface. It was there all along (p. 109).


Its hard not to conclude that the radical changes chronicled by Wood were the result of simple population growth, and neither the goal nor, principally, the outcome of the Revolution. Wood shows that America, even in colonial times, was quite different from the rest of the Western world of kings, nobles and priests. The irony of the revolution was still evident when you looked at the poor farmers, the slaves and women who were not yet granted voting privileges.

Its even more ironic that there still existed an aristocracy, even though it was not nearly as powerful as in Europe. In his own words Wood wrote, This democratic society was not the society the revolutionary leaders had wanted or expected. No wonder, then, that 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).

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