Gordon S. Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
History, that is written history, is subject to the whims of fashion. While historians always seem to wear tweed and have hideous haircuts no matter what year it is, they are indeed subject to major changes in fashions relating to history writing and historiographic inquiry. Several generations ago, historians wrote top-down political, economic, or social history. Certainly, not all books were alike, but the confines of history as it was practiced limited scholars to the stories of mostly elite white males. After all, they were the ones who left behind all the primary source materials – the bread and butter of historians. Things started to change dramatically in the 1960s and ’70s when many historians began practicing “new social history.” This approach often included huge banks of numerical data and adherence to the scientific method. These methods proved very useful to understanding poor and illiterate elements in society who had never before had a voice. In addition, certain theories came into use, such as Marxism or feminism, to help historians ask certain questions of sources that had never been asked before and also to think about their conclusions in new and exciting ways. By 1990, history looked much different that it had 30 or 40 years prior. Women, African Americans, illiterates, immigrants, the impoverished, and other subaltern groups had entered the historiographic picture and historians discovered that these groups, long passed over by scholars, were very important to understanding the past. The history of so-called “dead white men” was dead. There was nothing more that needed to be said about the founding fathers, the American Revolution, or the politics of the formative years of the Early National period because these topics had been exhausted decades before. The days of long, dense, fact-filled monographs, useful as they were for a time, were over. It was now time for new stories by young and ambitious historians. Today in 2011, major university historians still eschew dead white guys. A few notable scholars, such as Joseph J. Ellis, whose book Founding Brothers I recently reviewed, still write this kind of history, but in the main cultural history (as it has come to be known) rules the day.
It might come as a surprise, then, that one of the best and most influential history books of the past 20 years is Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Long, detailed, and dense, Wood’s primary sources were almost entirely the writings and musings of dead white men. There is nothing – and I mean nothing – methodologically exciting about this book. This is classic history as it was practiced by historians in the 1950s. While I admire and revere the historians of that era, I generally think that those types of books have a certain heirloom quality. They are very important, but you have to read them with the era they were written in mind. These types of books are about as out of fashion as powdered wigs, but somehow Gordon Wood pulled it off with unparalleled brilliance. The book should remind historians that top-down political history is indeed very important and still worth reading and writing. This is a truly great book.
Wood is successful in part because he shatters a common misconception. He posits that traditionally, Americans viewed their revolution as a conservative affair. There were no guillotines, reigns of terror, outrageous violence, or other indicators of a radical rupture in human history. “We can think of Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao Zedong as revolutionaries, but not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. They seem too stuffy, too solemn, too cautious, too much like gentlemen. We cannot quite conceive of revolutionaries in powdered hair and knee breeches.” Wood argues that the constant comparisons, then and now, between republican revolutions in America and France led to the characterization of the American Revolution as conservative. But Wood lets us know that bloodshed is a poor barometer of radicalism. To explain what he means, Wood devised a very simple, yet effective structure. There are three parts in this book: Monarchy, Republicanism, and Democracy. These three distinct stages that the young nation experienced within the time span of about 80 years shows just how radical the changes the revolution unleashed actually were.
The sheer difference of life under monarchy and then under democracy is absolutely breath-taking to a modern reader. Under the king, all things flowed from patronage and the social hierarchy was not challenged – it was merely a fact of life. The way that people interacted with each other was simply different – everything was based on interpersonal connections rooted in the hierarchy. “All had some sense of where they stood and how they ought to behave toward others in this social hierarchy.” People were bred for their position and all authority in society flowed from the king downward. Nevertheless, in English culture there was a latent and powerful republican strain based on classical republicanism and the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. By the mid-18th century, America was becoming republican. There was a natural aristocracy based on merit, not birth. This is how men like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton rose to prominence. To be a republican was to be a liberal (watch out now, I’m not using the 21st century definition of that word!), which meant liberally educated, cosmopolitan, disinterested (that is to say not personally ambitious), and virtuous. These were utopian men and the years of the American Revolution were a utopian experiment to see if these liberal republicans could level society, destroy the bonds of monarchy, and rid the world of superstition. America would be a land of educated natural aristocrats who ruled based on their talents, intelligence, and expertise. There would be a certain level of paternalism and only land owners could vote, but the respect commanded by disinterested republicans would be unassailable. They would steer the ship of state with virtue and honor.
This dream ended quickly. The American Revolution, according to Wood, unleashed the power of equality. Nothing was ever the same again. Soon, universal white male suffrage became the rule. Provincialism and political interests entered the public realm and the rough-and-tumble world of American politics that we know today was born (of course, it had a lot of maturing to do). The founding fathers were still alive (except Franklin), and all were practically aghast at the political landscape in the new nation just a few years after 1776. Furthermore, as commerce expanded and the population pushed westward, the way people interacted became more economic than ever before. While being in business for the sole purpose of making money was once viewed as positively scandalous (I know that sounds crazy), it quickly became celebrated as the American way. While colonial society was once based on monarchial social ties and patronage, scarcely 100 years later this had been replaced by a democratic and emerging capitalist society. And that is a very radical change in a very short time frame.
There are many points that Wood makes that should be furiously debated. All too often, he deployed the phrases “except in the South” or “at least in the North” and thus lets the reader know that the country Wood talks about broadly was by no means homogenous. This is the great trap of writing about “America” as a whole. The whole country, even then, was too big to describe fully because it contained (and still contains) too many contradictions. In addition, Wood is excellent at describing major changes in American history, but sometimes comes up pretty short in demonstrating why certain things happened. Causality should be not be downplayed. Slavery is hardly discussed and women are, at the very best, in the background of the narrative. But the United States still was a nation, albeit a very young one, and generalizations have to be made if we are to understand anything at all about the big picture. There are a number of excellent local studies that can help historians understand much of American history, but at a certain point you have to describe things broadly. Wood was generally successful in getting at the big picture, even if he couldn’t paint in as broad a stroke as he might have liked. Moreover, while Wood ignored subaltern groups, his argument leaves the door wide open for other historians to test his thesis as it pertains to, say, women or African Americans. If the revolution was radical and it touched all elements of society, as this convincing book argues, other scholars can use this idea as a jumping off point to shape the research agenda for decades to come. The possibilities opened by this book are legion.
The best thing about the book is that Wood is a historian who understands the context of the American Revolution and Early National period better than probably anybody else. Because of his immersion in primary sources, Wood understands the period so well that he is able to put aside the biases of an individual living in the late 20th and early 21st century. No historian can completely draw the shades on his or her own era, but clearly Wood understands these historical actors on their own terms. Whereas some historians would read the same sources he did and come to different conclusions, Wood’s own expertise that is so evident every page and every footnote gives him great credibility. Just a few years ago, Wood published a collection of his own book reviews of his colleagues, entitled The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (2008). In the interest of full disclosure, I reviewed this book for the 2009 edition of the Tuckasegee Valley Historical Review. I gave the book a largely negative review because I thought it was a wasted opportunity by a true titan in the field, but Wood did make it clear that he was uncomfortable with modern historical theories and methodologies because they did not take historical actors on their own terms. I felt that this was the best point of this otherwise work of recycled polemic. After reading Radicalism of the American Revolution, he made the point even clearer to me that this was no joke – being a historian takes years and years of expertise just to learn, piece by piece, the entire context of just the area of your specialty.
If you can do this, the payoff is huge. Wood won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1992 and the book has even sold well for a historical monograph this dense. But to me the biggest accomplishment of this book was to show that the old style of historical research and writing is still a very worthy if underutilized historiographic method. It is perhaps one of the great historiographic ironies that such a radical history was uncovered with such a traditional methodology. If you can do something like that, you deserve to be able to wear tweed and an awful haircut.
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