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The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood

Book:
Gordon S. Wood

Reviewed by:
Rating:
4
On September 4, 2010
Last modified:October 13, 2012

Summary:

The Radicalism of the American Revolution overturns the common belief that the American Revolution was a ho-hum affair, led by genteel conservative intellectuals. In this book, Gordon Wood methodically explains its radical and unique nature.

Gordon S. Wood’s Pulitzer prize winning book is densely packed and thought-provoking.  However, if your eyes are not quite as robust as perhaps they once were, you might want to consider an alternative to the paper-back edition.  The font is uncomfortably small and as tightly packed as the author’s prose. Thus 370 pages seemed to take as long to work through as most books twice that length. That being said, while the author bears responsibility for his somewhat dry style, the publisher, Vintage, might have splurged on a few more pages and a slightly larger font.

That sums up the negative criticism of an otherwise excellent book.  Now on to the review proper.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution overturns the common belief that the American Revolution was a ho-hum affair, led by genteel conservative intellectuals.  In this book, Gordon Wood methodically explains its radical and unique nature. The American Revolution was much more than a colonial fight for independence from an over-bearing mother country.  It was a radical transformation of a society thoroughly imbued with government to one separate from government.  It marked a completely different way of thinking about government. Instead of a top-down patriarchy, the rights of the individual were to be what unified society. Wood starts with a concise description of colonial society as it existed in the generation prior to the revolution.  He explains how hierarchy, patronage, class, dependence, and political power factored into the lives and livelihoods of pre-revolution Americans.  It is only by understanding the status quo prior to the American Revolution that one can appreciate how radical it really was.  In Wood’s words:

… if we measure the radicalism by the amount of social change that actually took place — by transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other — then the American Revolution was not conservative at all; on the contrary, it was as radical and revolutionary as any in history.

Wood points out in his introduction that few in the 18th century could conceive of a world where society could exist independently of government.  By setting the stage and laying out specifics as he did, the author provides a backdrop against which the reader may compare and contrast pre and post revolutionary American society, and understand the magnitude of the change it ushered in.  Wood does a thorough job of explaining how patriarchal society worked and how social mores were reflected at all levels, from the dominance of the father in families to that of the king in the monarchy.  He explains the dramatic and unforeseen shifts in society that were mirrored by changes in government.  It’s Wood’s contention that society and government were interwoven prior to the American Revolution.  Modern readers of Patrick O’Brian get a sense of this intermingling of private and governmental concerns in the way Captain Aubrey and other Post Captains were expected to furnish their own ship-board larders, and how O’Brian’s hero even buys much of his own gun powder.  Similarly, in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s series, that author refers to the practice of buying officer commissions. These and other similar details make more sense after reading Wood’s book.  Because of the sacrifices and patronage of the upper classes, the lower classes were expected to defer to their betters, and to know their place.

After providing a clear picture of early 18th century society, Wood explains how republican principles took root in the American colonies as they did in no other place. In the 18th century, enlightened aristocrats toyed with republican principles by attempting to blend them with monarchical ones. It is in this context that Wood shows the roots of republican “disinterestedness” that Washington most successfully exemplified and other Founders struggled to emulate. Disinterestedness literally meant that politicians were expected to be above private concerns and should avoid even the appearance of personal gain in their service. The ideal candidate was financially secure and did not need to engage in business, thus freeing him from conflicts of interest. The concept, which largely failed under the weight of its own impracticality, was simply this:

Liberty was realized when the citizens were virtuous —  that is, willing to sacrifice private interests for the sake of the community, including serving in public office without pecuniary rewards.  This virtue could be found only in a republic of equal, active, and independent citizens.

It is important to note that “the people” and “independent citizens” referred to here were not the masses but, rather the liberal and enlightened elites, whose duty it was to provide governance. Wood sums up the vision of the Founders thusly,

The vision of the revolutionary leaders is breathtaking.  As hard-headed and practical as they were, they knew that by becoming republican they were expressing nothing less than a utopian hope for a new moral and social order led by enlightened and virtuous men. Their soaring dreams and eventual disappointments made them the most extraordinary generation of political leaders in American history.

Their vision resulted in, and was due in part to, changes in society that have become so ingrained in the character of America as to be unremarkable to modern Americans. He shows how aspects of  republicanism and classical theories of government were changed, supplanted or augmented.  As society began to inculcate republicanism, the “adhesives” holding it together began to dissolve.  Fearing anarchy, the Federalists sought ways to re-incorporate some of the discarded aspects of the previous generation’s society. The government under the Articles of Confederation reflected how loose the bonds holding society together were becoming.

Although the Federalists prevailed with the adoption of the Constitution, the days of enlightened luminaries were numbered.  In the end, the notion of disinterested public service gave way to a realization that men like Washington were few and far between.  Instead, the merits of hard work and being self-made began to take precedence. This was incorporated even in political life. Self interest was no longer taboo. Politicians were workmen worthy of their hire.  However, even if altruistic disinterest was discarded as impractical, the concept of virtue was democratized.  The new government of the early 19th century carried forward the belief that “Without virtue and self sacrifice the republic would fall apart.”  The second great awakening in the first half of the 19th century sought to establish morality on a broad scale. Being good was no longer the special province of the aristocracy.  Good governance depended upon it. Wood observes:

Christianity, in fact, seemed to some Americans to have become the only cohesive force holding the nation together  — “the great bond of civil society”, said Federalist Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, “the central attraction”, said Lyman Beecher in 1815, “which must supply the deficiency of political affinity and interest.”

The vast democratization of society was something that the Founders did not anticipate, and would ensure that their like would not be seen again.  (This is a theme that Wood elaborates on in his subsequent work, Revolutionary Characters.)  Even as its aging Founders despaired of these changes, the system of checks and balances that they established for government transcended government and began to operate within society itself.  As self-interest replaced disinterest, it became the new adhesive holding society together.  Individuality, it turned out, was not incompatible with democracy.  It did not apply only to the upper class of ruling elites. The equalization of all citizens ensured that class hierarchies no longer dictated social standing. Commerce and business took on a new importance and significance in this new society.  For example, no longer could upper class individuals expect to be extended credit on the basis of position alone. To put it crudely, “Money talks, b.s. walks.” The rule of law replaced the rule of the upper class.

The spectacular Utopian vision of the Founders was absorbed and modified as the new country evolved, finally crystallizing around the innate equality and rights of individuals separate from government.  Wood explains that the grandiose philosophical concepts of freedom and equality the Founders bequeathed their country were boiled down into practical terms.

In concrete day-to-day terms invocations of the Constitution meant freedom to be left alone, and in turn that freedom meant the ability to make money and pursue happiness.

Out of the hurly-burly of suddenly acceptable self interest, moderated by Christian virtue, order, instead of anarchy, emerged.

The harmony emerging out of such chaos was awesome to behold, and speaker after speaker, and writer after writer commented on it.  All those isolated individuals,  “each pursuing their own interests for their own sake,” added up to something great and sublime.  People did not have worry about society and government anymore; they would take care of themselves.  “The public happiness,” said Daniel Webster, “is to be the aggregate of the happiness of individuals.  Our system begins with the individual man.”

Daniel Webster articulated the core of the American experience.  The primacy of the individual is still a radical notion that has yet to be duplicated in any other revolution.  Wood’s book reminds us that America really is exceptional.

2 comments

1 Gail Thiele { 09.04.10 at 3:22 am }

Interesting that what we would like to label conservative today was really radical and transforming then. Is that true today?

[Reply]

2 Martin { 09.04.10 at 4:02 am }

Unfortunately, we are left with terms that don’t really define us anymore. The term liberal has been usurped by the left to mean the exact opposite of what it started out meaning. Conservative only fits us in the sense that we are not raving lunatics who want to destroy everything. In that sense, we’re conservatives.

Frederich Hayek complained in The Road to Serfdom that we let the left steal the term liberal. What we stand for is small government, individual freedom, and individual responsibility. That pretty much typifies the Founders – they were classical liberals.

Conservatives were people that feared change and wanted to maintain the status quo – that was not the Founders.

Today’s liberals are those in favor of big government, centralized planning, and restrictions on individual freedoms.

Everything is backwards. I wish we had a different label.

[Reply]

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