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The Radicalism of the American Revolution

4.03 of 5 stars 4.03  ·  rating details  ·  2,602 ratings  ·  128 reviews
In a grand and immemsely readable synthesis of historical, political, cultural, and economic analysis, a prize-winning historian depicts much more than a break with England. He gives readers a revolution that transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.
Paperback, 447 pages
Published March 2nd 1993 by Vintage (first published 1992)
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Stephen
This Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of the American Revolution is among the most engaging, most thought-provoking and most erudite history books I’ve ever read. Nothing dry, parched or plodding to be found here. This is history that reads more like literature and will trap your attention into the folds of its narrative flow like sailor falling into Charybdis.

Mr. Wood, together with David McCullough (John Adams)and Barbara Tuchman (The Guns of August), constitute the ruling council on my shelf
...more
Eric
By the time I finished this book, back in October, I was so tired of Wood’s dry Kashi prose—as Matt memorably put it—that to write a review seemed more than I could bear. Recent reading about the Roman legacy and disaffected Russian gentlefolk has, however, recalled Wood to my thoughts. The Radicalism of the American Revolution was written against a notion of the revolution as essentially conservative. It’s easy notion to hold, for us in a multi-racial democracy. One group of white landowners in ...more
Nathan
Wood's thesis - that the American Revolution was essentially a cultural and political metanoia - is not actually so controversial as it might seem. He has no problem proving that, and does so thoroughly and consistently. What this book has more trouble with is building towards a useful conclusion after laying the theoretical groundwork; Wood never quite manages to address the question "So what?" after he has answered the question "What happened?" Still, it's interesting to note that, given the l ...more
Joe
May 26, 2010 Joe rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: history
Caveat: While this book is the kind of great history book to tickle a history fan like myself pink, I see it as being too "on subject" to appeal to most general readers. My nutshell review is that it offers a fine three stage analysis of the changes in the American social-political thought process in the years before, during, and after the Revolution. If that sort of thing floats your boat you will love this book. If not, I know very well this one will bore you stiff.

Too bad that last bit, since
...more
Lobstergirl
Sep 19, 2013 Lobstergirl rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: flautists

There were some chapters that made my eyes glaze over (Benevolence, Interests), but others (Enlightenment) were fascinating. I was expecting more of a political history, or even something that would touch on military exploits, but this is a social and intellectual history. The war itself is not discussed. The first section (Monarchy) describes the social structure of the colonies at about mid-century (1750) and lays the foundations for the next two sections (Republicanism, Democracy), which rela
...more
Robert Owen
Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is a mind-bending exercise in historical context and its consequences. Unlike so many popular histories one is likely to read, Wood does not discuss historical events through the prism of modern sensibilities, but rather, makes the ancient sensibilities of the nation’s founders comprehensible to modern readers. The overriding cultural attitudes surrounding power and structures of social hierarchy of pre- and post-Revolutionary Americans were as ...more
Paul Donahue
A great read on the revolution from a completely different angle than I've ever read. Wood doesn't write the book chronologically; there are no story arcs, protagonists, etc. It reads like a textbook and as such can get pretty dry. But textbooks can also be fascinating.

When we think of the American Revolution, we think of a war and a political revolution. We were taught that the French Revolution, even though it happened afterward, was the more monumental event because it was a social and societ
...more
Larry
Nov 07, 2008 Larry rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: every American
Recommended to Larry by: New York Review of Books
Professor Wood is an emminant historian and has written an insightful work demonstrating that not only was the American Revolution a world political pardigm shift but that the subsequesnt invention of an all new republican democratic society was in itself an even greater and more radical change in society. The post-war destruction of the patronage systems and the then existing aristocracy, coupled with the advent of the personal work ethic and unquenchable desire to improve one's economic positi ...more
Nick
Wood's depiction of the American Revolution is incredibly insightful and appealing to anyone interested in American history. He is able to put the Revolution into the context of the time in which it occurred in a respect that brings the era to life with periodic anecdotes from individuals that lived from the time: whether common man, aristocrat or founding father. The thesis of the work is that the revolution that occured here in the U.S. was much more radical than it has been given credit for. ...more
Craig
Apr 26, 2008 Craig rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those with a strong interest in the role of history on America today.
Shelves: history, politics
This book does a really good job explaining the dramatic cultural changes prmopted by the American revolution. I came away from this read persuaded by the writer's thesis.

The writer argues that the revolution wasn't strictly a change to the self-rule of democratic government but also a transformation of society. The argument goes that society was composed largely into cultural elites with high manners, learning, and property, and a laboring mass with little learning, a meanness of character, and
...more
Lauren
Another book that earns its Pulitzer Prize and then some. I made the mistake of starting this book while in law school, so I ended up reading it off and on over a period of years. Part of why this book took so much time to read is that it is an unbelievably dense tome that requires long stretches of unwavering attention. Dr. Wood covers an enormous amount of material without ever letting it up, yet the book coalesces into a brilliant narrative. While the long stretch of time between starting and ...more
Sean
"Americans' interpretation of their Revolution could never cease; it was integral to the very existence of the nation. 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 ...more
Joel
I cannot figure out what book the people read to give this thing 3 or 4 stars.
Reads like a textbook.
A lame textbook.
Instead of pieceing together a narrative based on some exciting action (of which there is plenty surrounding the American Revolution) it's structured like a mathematical proof in which the author is attempting to prove that he can bore us with the American Revolution.

Well, he succeeded with flying colors.
Here's another math proof for you:
Let x = time, and y = cost of book, and z =
...more
John
Not often one comes across a book that changes one's view about something we thought we understood forever. The author takes a few strong points about the revolution and builds on it emphatically with readable verve, and backed by reams of interesting quotes. I was prepared to be bored by an academic treatise, but I was drawn through its pages. Good sense backed by facts and logic. My takeaway was that independence for the commoner was the opposite of dependence; free from patronage to anyone or ...more
Sean
This book does what the best history books do: it makes one more clearly understand the present. It deals only with the past, but it makes so clear the scale of the social and political changes wreaked by the American revolution, in terms of how people thought and behaved and why what America became was so different than anything that had come before, that one can't help but see how the repercussions continue to affect us. It's a slow read, and at times a bit repetitive, but always fascinating.
Jodi
Wood's entire book is based on his belief that the American Revolution was a truly radical and successful venture. I don't agree with all his assertions (Like "All Americans believed in the Revolution and its goals"--yea...that's not entirely accurate...)but for the most part, he had great sources and made some interesting points. I enjoyed learning the sociological history before and after the Revolution and appreciated that he didn't begin in 1760 and end in 1787 like so many other authors.
Scott
Oct 20, 2008 Scott rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People interested in American History
Comprehensive description of the American Revolution in terms of the socio-economic environment. Most books focus on the war or specific people. This book gives you a great understanding of why the United States was formed. It also shows the unforeseen consequences that led to this country becoming a world superpower.

One warning to casual readers. This book is not an easy read. If this book is not used in college History classes I would be surprised.
Jean
Jun 24, 2014 Jean rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those interested in early American history
Recommended to Jean by: Audible
Part one describes in compelling detail the social and class relationships of people in the Anglo-American colonies, and the change from a patriarchal-monarchical society to an egalitarian one, governed by a utopian Republican social and political system. Describes freemasonry as an institution that its members believed could bind up a society through bonds of friendship, whose other social bonds had been broken. Part three describes the disintegration of the Republican Utopian dream by the onsl ...more
Jonathan Hedgpeth
This is an outstanding survey of the forces at work during the revolutionary era. What Wood demonstrated most effectively was how quickly 19th century Democracy devoured the 18th century republican dreams of the founders....I often thought the defeat of John Qunicy Adams at the hands of Andrew Jackson epitomized this phenomenon.
Ben Sweezy
I think the argument is fascinating, but the support can be very dry and narrow to pick through. You want to skip pages, but then you get lost.

Nevertheless, if you can stick it out, this almost-revisionist perspective on the Revolution is an important contribution to our sense of where we've come from.
Stephen Lyon
Describes what colonial society was like. Describes the unstable, inflationary confederation period 1780s~1790s. Radicalism is very interesting and enlightening. Latter chapters describe early national period manufacturing and what the founders thought about the constitutionality of incorporating. Not a narrative history, a great book, one would need to read a whole catologue to become truly versed in the American Revolution. A great book, truly a study of what american society was like before, ...more
Debbie
Gordon Wood, again. While you may or may not buy his argument that the American Revolution was radical, it's still a fun journey to get to his conclusion. I've read it twice, and I'm still on the fence.
David R.
Wood takes on the question of whether the American Revolution was "conservative" as widely believed for many decades, or "radical", i.e. did the revolution proceed only incrementally or were major changes a result. Wood maintains that a very significant alteration took place, from adherence to traditional English norms of the stratified society to "republican Democracy" where the former elites lost power and standing. He's sometimes convincing but I have a lot of trouble connecting the dots when ...more
Lisa
This was a great book to read about the American Revolution and grasping a better understanding of the roots for radicalism and rebellion. Very interesting and one of my favorites from this semester.
Jacob Thornburg
I'm gonna memorize some obscure passages and regurgitate them as my own insight to impress chicks and embarrass Ben Affleck. Nothing can possibly go wrong with this plan.
Dan Gorman
Portions of the book, esp. the last third of the text, are interesting, and Wood's argument is valid that democracy ran way farther than what the Framers and Founding Fathers intended. But the book is so caught up in U.S. exceptionalism, the wonders of the free market, and describing life only for white men that it fails to feel like modern history. This thing belongs in the 1880s, not the 1980s. Dated, flawed, an uncomfortable apologia for small government/state's rights and capitalism, and giv ...more
Brittany
Jul 02, 2009 Brittany marked it as to-read
Shelves: undergraduate
I *think* I read this during college, but since I can't remember, I'm reading it again at some point!
Joshua
Provocative, Hegelian, and ultimately flawed. Pretty good read though.
Luis
If you want to understand why the United States became a democratic, classless society instead of an extension of European aristocratic culture, this is the book to read. When you think about the ruggedness of Americans compared to Canadians or Australians for example, it is precisely due to the break with England. At that moment Americans were not just divesting themselves politically from England, but they were also in the mist of creating their own political culture which was not going to be ...more
Samuel
In more recent times, many have dismissed the American Revolution as being less revolutionary than other comparable political and social revolutions. As the leaders were relatively conservative in demeanor and "didn't get there hands dirty," some people have been quick to dismiss the revolutionary nature of the conflict and simply call it the war for independence. Using a wealth of primary sources including journals, letters, and legal documents, Gordon S. Wood demonstrates just how revolutionar ...more
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Gordon S. Wood is Professor of History at Brown University. He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History for The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the 1970 Bancroft Prize for The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 .
More about Gordon S. Wood...
The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 The American Revolution: A History

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“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 povery 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.” 1 likes
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