The radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon Wood Essay
The radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon Wood
The American Revolution was one of the most radical events in the history of America that aimed at nothing less other than the reconstitution of the American society. The main aim of the revolution was to free the American society by breaking away from the kingship, patriarchy and patronage system leading to the birth of a nation that was guided by love, respect and dignity. In his book, The radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood (2004) notes that this change “took place without industrialization, without urbanization, without railroads, without the aid of any great forces, we usually invoke to explain modernization.
It was the revolution, more than any other single event, that made America into the most liberal, democratic, and modern nation in the world”( p, 7). Wood starts by drawing the life under colonial rule laying his focus on the political economic and social stratification that sprouted from the monarchical system of governance. “Living under a monarchical society meant, first of all being subject of the king. This is no simple political status, but had all sorts of social, cultural and even psychological implications” (wood 1991 p 11).
His synopsis of a society that seemed almost as outdated as the Medieval Europe makes a wonderful read. The source of authority in the American society before this amazing revolution was the British king. The Americans were considered uncouth, unruly and often defiant. But this did not make them any different from the Britons nor did it make the monarchy irrelevant. The crown worn by George III was not the same as that worn by James I, yet as the writer observes it was still a monarchical society the colonists lived in and it was still a king to whom all paid allegiance to.
To some extent some of the habits of the monarchical governance seem very ironic in the contemporary society. The servants of the king then looked down upon trade and commerce but today the consumer is seen as the king. True gentlemen might experiment in economic dealings but at that time they were not clearly defined or recognized by what they did but by who they were. To pursue a career as a doctor or a lawyer in order to make it in life designated low social status.
As ones reputation as a gentleman was established , it meant that he could start or venture in profitable activities so long it was seem as an avocation rather than an occupation. America was notable for the path of patriarchy that it had taken as Wood says it could have been stronger in America than in England specifically because of the shortcomings of the in the colonies of other establishments such as guilds. Primogeniture was not strictly followed in colonial inheritance law, but the first born was always assumed to be the heir apparent. Hierarchy was likewise very strong in early American institutions of forced labor and slavery.
Therefore a society with such characteristics opened a big opportunity for the practice of patronage to take root (Wood 1991). Personal relationships took center stage in the economic and political relationships. “The world seemed small and intimate enough that the mutual relationships that began with the family could be extended outward into the society to describe nearly all other relationships as well,” writes Wood. As much as the monarchy and hierarchy were pervasive in the colonial American society, deep concerns started to come out before the final insurgency against Britain started.
The principles of the Republican were gaining supporter, diluting not only the support for the king but also the various establishments such as the church that reinforced his rule in a monarchical society. Therefore the colonies were thus divided between opposing and incongruous republican and monarchical inclinations as wood says. Therefore the ability of the colonial society to bind one person to the other became so vulnerable to the extent that it would not resist any outside forces to change. This change came when the Revolution destroyed the conservative bonds that held the people together.
There was none of the conditions that are typically tied to the rise of any revolt such as oppression, poverty or war as was the case in Russia. On the contrary, the colonists were to a greater extent free and prosperous. Nonetheless they saw their success to be so much unstable, especially because the well organized hierarchical social order had started to crumble. “Men who had risen to the top quickly were confident and aggressive but also vulnerable to challenge, especially sensitive over their liberty and independence, and unwilling to brook any interference with their status or their prospects” (Wood, 1991)
Wood reveals what he thought was the best medicine to cure the disease of patronage. This is what he calls benevolence, the natural tie that brings people close to one another. What was envisioned as a virtue as far as the republican was concerned was in itself very fragile and doomed to fail by either the forces of nature or though other social parameters such as the demand for equality released by the Revolution. Wood compared the revolution to a dam that broke releasing millions upon millions of pent-up pressures which could not be contained by the classical political theories of the leaders of the revolution.
To the dismay of the people who wanted the government to be built on the foundation of virtue and fair-minded public leadership, the system quickly focused on divisions and interests, principally commercial. The artists prepared schedules for council elections; this was followed immediately by religious groups, farmers and creditors (Wood 1991). This perceived lack of public interest had a major political impact according to Wood. “By 1780s many of the younger leaders of the revolution were much willing to confront the reality of the American interests with a cold eye” (Wood 1991).
The constitution itself was drafted in such a manner as to limit power of factions and promote the role of the disinterested in serving in the government. It did not take a long period for interest group politics to dominate national and local politics. One of the most positive impacts of the revolution was the rise of voluntary associations after the demise of the traditional patronage regime. These voluntary associations according to the author expressed the new desire to meet benevolent goals.
Thus the financial desires were the main force that led Americans to come together more than the Great Awakenings of the nineteenth century. Indeed the writer says that business venture played a significant role in the United States of America more than in Europe. But in an age that families were thriving, associations were mushrooming and churches were coming up, Wood seems to give more emphasis on the value of money and profit as the major avenue of bringing people together (Wood 1991).
What I find quite fascinating about this book is the reluctance of the Americans of not making a complete detachment from England. The Americans came to realize that their institutions were an outgrowth of the England ones. It was a very slow changing revolution carrying all these principles to their fullest realization. Never short of praise for themselves, the Americans thought that they had succeeded where the British people had failed in creating a truly representative form of government (Wood 1991).
I believe that nothing speaks better of the essential nationalism and comparable unity of the people of America than the almost blind recognition of the people that the American Revolution was a success and one of the best things to have happened on that time for the American people. This may be true to the majority but on the other hand it is very difficult to cure the shortcomings of this great change than the universal declination to see the possibility that it was a failure and one whose catastrophic dimensions have continued to haunt the Americans with the passage of time.
Although he does not expound on this truth, Wood provides the readers with an opportunity to step back and contemplate the tragic dimensions of what was envisioned to be a republican revolution but which turned out to be a liberal democratic and therefore a radical one. Therefore the America that was created by the radical revolution was not the republic that was indented by the leaders of that time and there is where its radicalism lies in.
As a result the final words of Wood are quite overwhelming. “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 and great-souled men.
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. No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high–with its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlesness, and it’s 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 laboring people?
The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its consequences still” (Wood 1991 p. 269). All in all Wood argues that ideas and ideological issues matter in the context of the American historical background. Selfishness is rampant, but the principles and dreams of the American people provide a powerful motivation for any course of action. This is a wonderful book that must be read by all who have a desire to learn the origins of the United Sates of America. References Gordon Wood (1991). The radicalism of the American Revolution New York: Vintage