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The Radicalism of the American Revolution

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In a grand and immemsely readable synthesis of historical, political, cultural, and economic analysis, a prize-winning historian describes the events that made the American Revolution. Gordon S. Wood depicts a revolution that was about much more than a break from England, rather it transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.

447 pages, Paperback

First published January 14, 1992

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About the author

Gordon S. Wood

50 books432 followers
Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. He is the author of many books, including The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, which won the Bancroft Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association; The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize; The American Revolution: A History; The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin; Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, which was a New York Times bestseller; Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (OUP, 2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the American History Book Prize from the New-York Historical Society; and Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He is a regular reviewer for the New York Review of Books.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 264 reviews
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11k followers
January 18, 2012
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 of historical treatments and I don’t see their power waning any time soon given my love of their work. Despite the myriad of histories and biographies picking over the remains of this pivotal moment in world history, Wood manages to distinguish this piece by boldly and brilliantly recasting the historical, cultural and societal underpinnings of the colonies break with England. And he does so while thoroughly entertaining his reader with his smooth, polished prose.

For fans of history, in general, or the American Revolution, in particular, this is not a book to be missed.

In his incredibly readable fashion, Gordon Woods utterly demolishes the common “myth” that the American Revolution was some "conservative" tweaking of governmental rule that merely replaced one group of rich white men with another. Au contraire, Wood argues, the American Revolution was an extreme and radical departure from the English regime. Wood takes the reader step by step through the make up and various constituencies among the colonists and how it was a growing disconnect between the cultural antecedent and “modus operandi” of the English system and the burgeoning sense of individuality and social maneuverability that had taken hold in the colonies. By deconstructing of the social, economic and political systems in place in America before, during and after the break with England, Wood demonstrates in no uncertain terms how "monumental" an upheaval was the American Revolution.

Without regurgitating the wonderful detail Wood imbues in the narrative, below is a brief sketch of his depiction of the colonies that give to his central argument. Pre-Revolution America in 1750 had the following characteristics:

1. Colonists were intensely proud to be British subjects due to the sense of unprecedented freedom that British subjects had in the world.

2. Love and respect (and to some extent even deification) of the King.

3. There were few separate factions as everyone was divided into essentially two large groups: gentlemen (i.e., the aristocracy) and commoners (i.e., the rest of us).

4. Patriarchal Dependence. Women, children, indentured servants and slaves were all dependent upon the head of the family who ruled “like a king” over the family unit. This familial arrangement helps partially explain two important aspects of the colonial mindset. First, it sheds light on why slavery was not widely condemned as inherently evil. Since, to a large degree, all of society was formed along the lines of a de facto class system, slavery was simply another rung on that ladder and differed from other arrangement only by a matter of degree. Second, this ordering of the family unit also lends explanatory force to the love and deference of the people to the King as the "patriarch" of the country.

5. Patronage. Business and commerce in the pre-Revolution colonies was almost wholly dependant on relationships between people rather than impartial factors like price and quality.

6. Political Authority was tied to relationships. Family members and patrons were routinely given political offices and this nepotism was not looked on with disfavor.

In Post-Revolution America, all of the above characteristics had been completely transformed. By 1820, in less than 70 years, the Revolution had created what readers will recognize as the beginning of modern America (both good and bad). When describing the U.S. today in terms of the characteristics mentioned above, Wood makes a powerful case that the American Revolution was the most radical (and the most important in terms of true individual freedom) revolution in history.

This is a fascinating book and one that makes me want to read a lot more about our founding fathers and this critical period in U.S. History.

Profile Image for Max.
343 reviews310 followers
January 22, 2016
Wood’s unique history of the American Revolution focuses on societal change rather than the battles and the headline events. I found his analysis absolutely fascinating. It changed my perspective on what the American Revolution was about and what it achieved. Enlightenment principles cast on a distinctly fertile American culture set the stage for the American Revolution. The founding fathers believed they were establishing a new republic guided by benevolent rationalism. After the dust settled they were stunned to find their philosophies cast aside as a proletarian democracy dominated by commercial interests took over. Wood emphasizes ideas and painstakingly explains rapidly changing cultural norms, foregoing the patriotic drama of other accounts of the period. Thus it can be a slow read at times, but it is well, well worth it.

Wood starts off by introducing us to American society in the mid-eighteenth century, a society much different than our own. To understand the events and ideas of the Revolution and how truly radical they were we must understand the times that spawned them. Monarchy was the accepted form of government and it determined the relationships of people. Unlike today where people identify and collaborate in horizontal groups such as teachers, blue collar workers, homemakers, etc., relationships in the eighteenth century were vertical from the top (king) down to the bottom (slave or servant). This system was patriarchal. Power was vested with the male heads of elite families who controlled everyone connected to that family. Everybody, wife, child, laborer, tenant, etc., had a specific place in the pecking order. Strict norms dictated how one related to those above and below them in the pecking order. Communities and towns were small and run by a few powerful men in a well-defined hierarchy. This was a world in which many wives called their husbands sir, in which labor was commonly produced by indentured or apprenticed workers who could be bound over for any offense. It was difficult to run away because you had no place to go. There was no privacy. Everyone knew everyone else and their business. Tradesmen relied on patronage rather than customers. They were there to meet the demands of the rich. If they stopped selling to a dominant family, no customer was likely to take their place. Conversely, if a dressmaker had run out of work, her patrons recognizing her reliance on them would typically place orders just to keep her solvent. The top families lent out significant portions of their estates for income but just as important to exercise control over their communities. This was a world of dependence. Freedom as we understand it today was unknown. The elite families also controlled politics. Political appointments were a favorite form of patronage. High political offices of course went to family members and many offices were essentially hereditary. Commoners were not allowed to occupy any important office since it would denigrate gentlemen to deal on important matters with a commoner.

The last half of the eighteenth century would see dramatic change. Taking hold in England and America were republican ideas with their implicit moral duty to fairness that undercut patriarchal control and dependence. In England republicanism was constrained by an established hierarchy running from the king through Parliament, the nobles and the gentry who controlled their tenants, servants and laborers. Patronage was administered through this structure. Parliament following the 1688 revolution served as the counterpoint to the king but its members had a vested interest in the continuance of the monarchy. Not so in America. Local assemblies did not answer to the king. America’s elites controlled their towns but did not have the English top to bottom all-encompassing network. Republicanism in America would not complement the existing structure but undo it. To the colonists, many of whom left Britain with grudges against the monarchy, the king and Parliament were far away. Patronage was conducted through local institutions and assemblies not answerable to the monarch. And most colonists did not answer to the Anglican Church which the king used to extend his authority. America’s aristocracy was less rich, less connected, less organized and less powerful than its English counterpart. America had readily available land and far fewer tenant farmers, which predominated in England under the control of the aristocracy. America’s commoners were typically free holders, more self-sufficient than their English counterparts. Thus American society was more egalitarian and far more open to republican ideas.

American society was much more fluid than English society. From 1750 to 1770 the population doubled from 1 million to two and doubled again in the next twenty years. This meant people were on the move establishing new homesteads and new communities, breaking established ties and lines of authority. Economic opportunity grew and American commoners were far better off than their English counterparts. With the development of trade between widespread communities, the use of paper money grew, which further cut into the traditional control of the patriarchs that their system of credits had previously provided. Contracts became impersonal instruments with clearly delineated responsibilities replacing the more informal personal agreements between people who knew each other in prior generations. Americans were more independent and less accepting of authority. Increasingly sons and daughters left home for new opportunities diminishing the role of the traditional extended family. New parents were changing their ideas on raising children. John Locke’s writings on education were very influential. The concept of strict control and absolute obedience was being replaced by the idea of parents and children having responsibilities to each other. These new ideas also undercut the idea of a subject’s relationship to his monarch. The relationship was now being viewed as a contract with rights and responsibilities on each party instead of the traditional paternalistic model. All of the preceding applied of course only to white Americans. But the shift in thinking caused for the first time many white Americans to see that slavery was wrong. Before this economic and social transition, everyone accepted slavery as just another category, the lowest in the pecking order, although poor whites, indentured laborers and servants were often not much better off than slaves. As patriarchy was undermined and the principle of social contracts accepted, slavery didn’t fit and it began to be viewed differently. The first anti-slavery society in the world was formed in Philadelphia in 1775.

The founding fathers were well educated in the classics and classical ideals. They were steeped in Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke. For them the Revolution was seen as the fulfillment of the Enlightenment. Naturally they saw their ilk as the leaders of their new creation feeling only the liberal gentlemanly class would be benevolent and fair. They believed that only the educated elite would not be swayed by the narrow interests of everyday commerce and thus be unbiased enough to hold together the new republic. However equality had a different meaning to the common man. It meant that he was as good as anyone and just as qualified to occupy political office. Such notions alarmed the gentry, not because they felt ordinary men lacked ability, but because they felt the farmers, merchants, traders and mechanics of the country could not be above self-interest and thus would tear the government apart.

The Revolution thrust an already rapidly growing economy into many competing market interests that would now use government to increase their profits. From the very beginning the notion of enlightened republicanism was challenged by the reality of everyday parochial commercial interests. Acceptance of the idea that competing self interest in elected officials was the best way to govern signified the demise of classical republicanism and the start of liberal democracy. By the end of the eighteenth century the Federalists who represented the aristocracy had lost most of their power. This was particularly true in the north where laborers and proto-businessmen rose up in egalitarian anger under the Republican banner. A huge shift in the national perception of the value of work was taking place. Once deemed a necessity of plebeians, it was becoming a badge of honor. Increasingly laborers were seen as the true producers of wealth and the idle rich as parasites. Even southern plantation owners, who oddly enough were also Republicans, now described themselves as hardworking.

The first decades of the nineteenth century saw continued rapid population growth, the massive movement westward, the decline of traditional religious denominations and the rise of strident evangelical ones, unprecedented alcoholism, increasing entrepreneurship and dramatic growth of domestic trade. All these disruptive changes broke traditional ties and values. And cohesion was not forthcoming from the federal government which was so weak that for most people it seemed practically non-existent. With very little money, it had to operate by granting private charters for banks, bridges, roads, etc., further fueling private interests that in turn sought control of government and exploited the public. Fortunately the judiciary began eschewing political power and assuming the role of society’s arbiter, a role the founding fathers had envisioned for themselves as elite rulers of the republic.

Wood concludes that, “By the early nineteenth century, America had already emerged as the most egalitarian, most materialistic, most individualistic – and most evangelical Christian – society in Western History.” Jacksonian democracy would complete the transition. Introducing the spoils system, Jackson recast patronage in the context of the modern political party. His successor Martin Van Buren would be the first pure politician to be elected president. This was not the outcome the revolutionary leaders had envisioned and those that survived to see it begin to unfold were appalled. John Adams wrote in 1823, “Where is now the progress of the human mind?....When? Where? How? Is the present Chaos to be arranged into Order?” Jefferson found it a hard fight just to get his state university approved over stiff evangelical opposition and he was terrified that someone like Andrew Jackson might become president. Writing a friend in 1825 Jefferson recognized that America had profoundly changed since the revolution lamenting “a new generation whom we know not, and who knows not us.”
Profile Image for Eric.
568 reviews967 followers
October 27, 2010
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 buckled shoes and knee breeches is as good as another, right? Not quite. Wood argues that though it lacked the usual extravaganzas—“no peasant uprisings, no jacqueries, no burning of chateaux, no storming of prisons”—the American Revolution nonetheless leveled the feudal social structure of colonial America and authorized a society in which labor was dignified instead of disdained—a society in which common (white) people were empowered to participate in politics, hustle unashamedly after wealth, and shout and stamp in whatever denominations they could rig up. Colonial America had been dominated by a monarchial gentry whose members held society together by “intricate networks of personal loyalties, obligations, and quasi-dependencies.” The patriarchs lent money in the absence of banks; fueled local economies in the maintenance of their estates; patronized the educations of the talented but lowly-born; controlled access to royal offices; and generally ruled as aristocracies always had and elsewhere did, from the timorous deference accorded them by artisans, mechanics and small farmers ashamed of their own dirty, calloused hands and awed by the crown connections, Olympian leisure, classical learning and supple manners attributed to their betters.

Most of the Founding Fathers—the “revolutionary generation”—came from the gentry. But from that gentry’s lowest rung; and that is key. (I knew Hamilton was a bastard from the Bahamas—“the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar,” John Adams snarled—but not that both Adams and Jefferson were the first in their families to attend college and so receive the humane letters “thought necessary for participation in gentlemanly society”; and Washington was never formally exposed to such an education. Adams claimed, again biliously, that Washington couldn’t write six words without misspelling one; and later, he turned down repeated invitations to tour France because he didn’t know any French.) Relative outsiders to the webs of royal patronage, and contemptuous of the fawning and flattery that characterized paternalistic politics, America’s revolutionary gentry, good classically educated gentlemen as they were, countered what Adams called the “Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride” with a set of austere ideals drawn from their reading about the ancient republics. The revolutionary gentry offered itself as an enlightened patriciate, ruling from pure merit, and modeling, for the masses of the new society, ideals of disinterested civic virtue and a strenuous, self-sacrificial devotion the public good—“invoking these classical ideals,” writes Wood, “became the major means by which dissatisfied Britons on both sides of the Atlantic voiced their objections to the luxury, selfishness, and corruption of the monarchial world in which they lived.”

Wood’s section on classical republicanism as political counterculture was one of my favorites in the book. He writes about how the educated of the day could not hear enough about the severe martial personae of Sparta and Republican Rome. The “maxims of ancient policy,” as Hume called them, formed a curriculum for the would-be statesman. George Washington’s favorite book was Addison’s senatorial drama in blank verse, Cato; and it was in emulation of the Roman general Cincinnatus that the victorious Washington surrendered his supreme sword to the Congress, when the road to a military tyranny lay open and well-trodden. I seriously get dewy-eyed at the idea of backwoods humanism—at Cicero carried in a saddlebag, Tacitus piercing the forests of New World.

Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired; other domes and pediments will rise from our domes and pediments... (Memoirs of Hadrian)

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Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews222 followers
June 12, 2021
Or, "How A Revolution Transformed a Monarchical Society into a Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed", to quote from the introduction directly.

The book is divided into three sections: Monarchy, Republicanism, and Democracy. To sum up very briefly: a group of idealist classical republican revolutionaries who thought of a "disinterested educated elite" sought overturn the patrimonial and hierarchical structures of the old monarchical system, and they were in turn supplanted by advocates of a broader democracy - which still comes nowhere near to the modern definition of a democratic state of course but surpassed whatever came before.

The previous utopian ideals of the revolutionaries came to conflict with the reality of what was the 19th century - "population growth and movement and commercial expansion". By the 1820s, the surviving revolutionaries could barely recognize what their revolution had created. In some cases, their idealism seemed out of touch - the ideal of the United States as a society of landholders seems far afield by the late 19th century. In other cases, it is tragic. The most optimistic would assume a withering away of the criminal institution of slavery after a legal ban on the slave trade in 1807.

Wood makes his argument by compilation- piling up stories, quotes, and illustrations to make his point. While this book is rosier than post, he takes the argument seriously.

Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,715 reviews1,241 followers
September 19, 2013

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 relate the way Revolutionary ideas disrupted and upended the societal order.

If you're tired of hearing people argue on behalf of American exceptionalism, quote them this:

The revolutionary generation was the most cosmopolitan of any in American history. The revolutionary leaders never intended to make a national revolution in any modern sense. They were patriots, to be sure, but they were not obsessed, as were later generations, with the unique character of America or with separating America from the course of Western civilization. As yet there was no sense that loyalty to one's state or country was incompatible with such cosmopolitanism.
(p. 222)

And if you meet people who insist America was founded as a Christian nation, please, citizens, read them this:

At the time of the Revolution most of the founding fathers had not put much emotional stock in religion, even when they were regular churchgoers. As enlightened gentlemen, they abhorred "that gloomy superstition disseminated by ignorant illiberal preachers" and looked forward to the day when "the phantom of darkness will be dispelled by the rays of science, and the bright charms of rising civilization." At best, most of the revolutionary gentry only passively believed in organized Christianity and, at worst, privately scorned and ridiculed it. Jefferson hated orthodox clergymen, and he repeatedly denounced the "priestcraft" for having converted Christianity into "an engine for enslaving mankind, ...into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves." Although few of them were outright deists, most like David Ramsay described the Christian church as "the best temple of reason." Even puritanical John Adams thought that the argument for Christ's divinity was an "awful blasphemy" in this new enlightened age. When Hamilton was asked why the members of the Philadelphia Convention had not recognized God in the Constitution, he allegedly replied, speaking for many of his liberal colleagues, "We forgot."
(p. 330)

The book ends with a fascinating appraisal of how the Founding Fathers viewed what America had become - what the Revolution had wrought. In many cases they were disappointed, or even horrified and disgusted. They had designed a nation based on elitist virtue and classical ideals, with religion held in check; but the nation they now saw was deeply religious and sectarian, increasingly irrational and superstitious, commercialized and money-obsessed, anti-intellectual, socially crass, politically vulgar. George Washington "had lost all hope for democracy." Alexander Hamilton opined that "this American world was not made for me." John Adams bewailed the halt in the "progress of the human mind." Thomas Jefferson saw America going backwards, not forwards. Benjamin Rush viewed his Revolutionary efforts "with deep regret" and could not find a man who loved the Constitution.
Profile Image for reed.
8 reviews2 followers
January 10, 2021
THAT ENDING. WOW. Wood takes us through an entire description of how radical politicians tore down monarchy... and then adds a sarcastic, bitter, twist ending revealing that every founding father eventually came to hate the America they had created.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,008 reviews1,118 followers
May 26, 2018
Picked this up at Heirloom Books in Chicago in preparation for a visit to Vermont later this summer. My host, a retired American historian, plans a series of trips to sites relevant to the colonial and revolutionary war periods.

This book is about cultural history. It's divided into three major parts descriptive of three sociological modes of being, those being the monarchical, the republican and the democratic, with the intention of showing how the peculiar circumstances of North American settlement led, almost inevitably, through these stages to the present-day United States of America.

Implicit to author Wood's argument is what may be taken as a critique of Marxist analyses as applied to the American experience. The centerpiece of the story is, of course, the American revolution, a revolution which, as he has it, was not of the economically oppressed against their oppressors--descriptive of the later French and Russian revolutions. Rather, the American revolutionaries were relatively well off compared to their English peers, their movement precursing a broader cultural transformation which in time would manifest in Europe as well.

When still in high school I read Charles Beard's economic interpretation of the American revolution and McDonald's critique of same, the argument of the former being that the delegates to the constitutional convention were significantly motivated by their economic interests. This, despite errors in detail, seems to have been the case overall. In a Marxist sense, so far as I understand it, the American revolution represented a pivotal transition from late feudalistic forms to a maturing capitalistic one, distinct from subsequent European changes in great part owing to the abundance of land and the paucity of its white population. In this sense, recognizing that the American revolution was not a revolt against capitalist exploitation, but a revolt which fostered the development of wage labor, of industry, of markets and, yes, of peculiarly capitalistic modes of exploitation, Wood's work seem to me to be a valuable contribution to any discussion of the transformations of dominant modes of production.

Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
286 reviews66 followers
December 17, 2017
There is a reason that Gordon Wood is held in such high esteem by historians and those who read history. His research is impeccable and he is able to weave that research into a narrative that is readable (if a bit dry at times) and gives new understanding to his topic. I have studied the revolution and read many books on it but none of them explain the Revolution as thoroughly and clearly as this book. it should be required reading in any class on the subject.

From his explanation of the prevailing attitudes of the people of Europe and America previous to the War to effects it had on the post-war world, the reader is left with a much fuller and richer understanding of why it was revolutionary. The Founders were not completely happy with the result because even though they were not happy playing second fiddle to their compatriots while still part of the empire, they still very much liked their place as the aristocracy in the newly created country. They set in motion the creation of a democracy failing to understand that as Woods put it, democracy is an extension of a republic. This book belongs on the shelves of anyone interested in understanding the American Revolution.
Profile Image for Nathan.
523 reviews4 followers
February 4, 2010
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 love affair modern conservatives have with the Founding Fathers, the country was actually birthed in what we would now term a leftist movement.
Profile Image for Joe.
147 reviews13 followers
May 26, 2010
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 the material inside would go a long way toward disabusing you of a lot of the bowdlerized notions of history they filled your head with in public school. It offers a fine glimps at how far the ideals & expectations of the founging fathers were at odds with how things actually turned out, and how unhappy many were with the kind of democracy that came out of the Revolution. You'll also learn a bit about the rise of the religeous right in the years just after the Revolution, which took good rationalists like Jefferson and Franklin quite by surprise.

Actually, when I consider the subject matter I am inclined to think that the people who would benefit most from reading this are the sort of people who by political leaning never would. This makes it just the sort of history book that if I were an instructor at the college level, and so free to pick most of my own ckass material, I would inflict on my students for their own good.
Profile Image for Robert Owen.
76 reviews19 followers
June 7, 2014
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 vastly different from each other as they each are from those of our time. As understanding who we are is dependent on understanding where we came from, Wood’s history provides a fascinating and relevant touchstone.

Woods begins his work by describing the highly patriarchal social and economic structures of pre-Revolutionary America and how these, in many ways, were actually more pronounced and deeply entrenched than those of England at the same time. Essentially, pre-revolutionary American society was ruled by a class of genteel patricians who, by virtue of their means, educations, leisure and resulting social stature, viewed themselves as the rightful masters of society. The hallmark of this genteel class was a perception of “disinterestedness” made possible by means so significant that one was not required to dirty their hands with any form of labor. A disinterested member of the gentry was a man who was not dependent on anyone for his means, and so, presumably, could be trusted to make decisions for the common good of the larger population that were not burdened by the need to pander to any particular interest. In other words, a gentleman was “independent” and could, for the sake of honor, be counted on to decide what is best for everyone. As the vast majority of the colonists were, in addition to being culturally obliged to respect this hierarchy, also economically dependent on the patronage of this class the status quo was generally accepted by all as the natural order of things.

An interesting insight that emerged from Wood’s discussion was the fact that in the spirit of the times and the general acceptance of this hierarchy by all members of the society led to a sense that anyone who was not a “gentleman” was, by definition, a debased and dependent vassal. As such, modernly perceived horrors of things like slavery or indentured servitude were not seen as wrong by this proto-American society so much as they simply represented a particular status of debasement along a spectrum of indignity that non-gentry were entitled to and naturally shared.

The founding fathers were essentially a group of only-just gentry who chafed under a social structure that inevitably relegated them to a second-tier sort of preeminence. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Washington, just to name a few were, each in their own way and for their own reasons, relegated to the top of a second class heap. Fascinated by the examples of ancient Greece and Republican Rome and entranced by the writings of such “egalitarian” Enlightenment thinkers as Locke and de Montesquieu, the founding fathers parlayed general discontent with perceived English ambivalence towards colonial interests into a Republican Revolution.

Interestingly, none of them were particularly adept at anticipating the consequences of the revolution they sponsored. They essentially envisioned a Republican world free of historical hereditary hierarchies in which merit and not birth was the measure of a man. Yet, they utterly failed to think through exactly how different the world they envisioned would be from the world they actually coveted. Meritorious men who rose in prominence, they assumed, would be like them…..dedicated to education, reason and “disinterested” public service. Democracy, however, produced a decidedly different result. With the patronage systems of the past stripped away and access to power available to a far broader group of men, the nation they created quickly devolved into self-interested factions whose constituents were obsessed with acquiring wealth. “Small men” of limited educations and cultural attainment rose to power through base campaigning for office that would have been unthinkably crude to a true gentleman. The establishment of modern banking that made credit and paper money available to “the many��� essentially eliminated the bonds of patronage that had traditionally held the “common man” as a vassal to his wealthy patron. This increased liquidity, combined with a political structure that enabled the celebration of self-interest (avarice, in the Framers’ minds) basically tore the historical social structures apart at the seams.

The result was at once glorious and terrible. The common man, liberated by currency and politics from a state a near-serfdom was suddenly free to go and make his fortune by whatever means seemed good to him. This massive leveling of society unleashed the awesome power of a creative and industrious people who were suddenly free to apply their energies to making themselves rich. This elevation, however, came at the expense of manners, refinement, social order and any inclination to “reason” that had previously characterized the pre-revolutionary world. Bombast and pandering became to the means to office, leisure of the sort that made a classic liberal arts education possible was suddenly ridiculed and despised, the patriarchal structures of “the family” was disrupted and everywhere the cult of “disinterest” was replaced by an unashamed pursuit of wealth.

The book was interesting, well-written and contributed significantly to my understanding of American history and the world we’ve inhereited. I found this idea that relative to the ideals they were striving for, that for the most part the Founding Fathers felt their Republican experiment was an abject failure. The book also made clearer the genesis of American anti-intellectualism – ennoblement of the opinions of everyone without a corresponding obligation to actually educate themselves in the object of their opinion - and American evangelicalism - every man as the monitor of his own soul combined with set agendas of specific sins to be battled in order to validate one’s righteousness – was also fascinating and relevant to my understanding of our modern times.
Profile Image for Thomas Harayda.
81 reviews9 followers
February 8, 2019
The forces of Americanism are dynamic and have always been so. My assumption, born of ignorance, from the outset of attempting to self-educate on the American founding was this: All colonists hated the British for the unfair treatment of them, ie "Taxation without representation," rebelled against a tyrannical government in unison, won against extreme odds through sheer determination, got together, without partisanship and schisms in interest, and created the best documents to birth the first nation-sized democratic republic in history. All was joyous and the founders lived the rest of their lives patting themselves on the back for the genius of which they had wrought. WRONG.

Many of the founders to their dying day recognized approximately nothing American about the country they founded at the end of their lives. From the early rise of the corporation in the early 19th century to strict partisanship, changes in who should best represent the people, all evolved in some way during their lives. For better or worse, many of these founders thought what they had created was destructive and in honest moments antithetical to the mission of their beginnings.

The American founding, in all its radicalism and invention, was never destined to achieve any great global, society-changing outcomes. Many speculate about what the founders would think of America and our current governing structures and habits today. I now think of this exercise as pointless and impossible because of how different we are from the days of a new nation with only 2.5 million people.

It truly is amazing that this country has survived the way it has over the past centuries. What will become of us and the wider world in the centuries to come can't be speculated with any certainty but it is not destined to be a nation of great wealth, a pillar of democracy in the world, or functional for its citizens. Democracy is not guaranteed and we must protect it with Enlightenment principles and reflections of what kind of country we want to be.

Profile Image for Sean.
73 reviews10 followers
July 23, 2010
"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 the Constitution meant the freedom to be left alone, and in turn that freedom meant the ability to make money and pursue happiness."

- Gordon S. Wood
Profile Image for Katie.
587 reviews12 followers
January 6, 2020
Readable, provocative, and insightful. Wood’s Pulitzer was well-earned.
758 reviews8 followers
July 8, 2022
How radical was the American Revolution, even with its imperfections? Stunningly so. Wood makes the case that it shook off the historical weight of political, economic, familial, and religious influences—any one of which could have stopped it cold. The founders and the people who supported them broke a mold and Wood explores how radical they were by putting the revolution into an interesting historical context beyond the normal schoolbook one.

The closing chapter explores the disappointment with the revolutionary experiment that the founders had at the end of their lives. They were troubled that their hope for a Republic was being dashed by America’s move to a democracy, and in particular a party-driven democracy where mob thinking dominated the country. It’s a good reminder that all the checks and balances in the US were meant to curb democracy and party, not to encourage mob rule and partisanship. The hope was that the best of our nature would rise to the top. Their interpretation of the word Patriot didn’t include blind faith in a state but an expected duty that the best of us would contribute to society.
Profile Image for Stephen Hicks.
151 reviews7 followers
September 1, 2022
Quite frankly, this book is one of the most pedantic books I have ever read. The level of detail that Wood includes with regards 17th, 18th, and early 19th century American life leaves the reader feeling like no cobblestone was left unturned. Yet out of all of this pedantry and careful analysis of seemingly inconsequential minutia, a pretty incredible narrative of the transformation of American society emerges from the monarchical founding of the colonies to Jacksonian Democracy.
64 reviews4 followers
February 19, 2010
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 societal revolution, eradicating monarchy and enabling middle class rule. Wood doesn't spend time comparing the revolutions, but his point is clear: ours produced every bit the change as in France.

To fully understand this revolution, Wood says we must consider not just the war of 1775-1783, but the entire time period from about 1740 to 1820. The gentry of the early 1700s mirrored English aristocracy; inheriting their wealth, owning land, serving as judges and legislators, independent. Labor was an act of poverty, and anyone who could not live on their inherited wealth was a member of the mob, unsophisticated and dependent upon the gentry both socially and politically. Commerce was limited to trade with Europe. As much as 40-50% of all men were slaves or servants.

By 1820, all this had changed. Wealth in the colonies was not enough to allow anyone to live the life of a true, leisurely aristocrat, which created dependencies. Leisure itself became a vice and labor a virtue--the exact opposite of colonial America. The realization of the benefits of interstate commerce launched the US into the commercial, market-centric society we know today. And that firm line (huge gap) between commoners and gentry was obliterated. Everyone was now a gentleman, everyone was free to pursue happiness in their own way, no one had to be dependent on anyone else if they worked hard enough. Except slaves. But eliminating the hierarchy and dependency of colonial society gave oxygen to the emancipation movement where before there was none. The revolution made it possible to begin the debate on freeing slaves, and that alone is an underappreciated and radical consequence.

The most jarring message of the book was how disappointed the revolutionaries were with what they had created. They thought republicanism would lead to a more enlightened society, where each man would use his new freedom to become more informed and more sophisticated. Disinterested, liberally educated men would serve in the government, above private interests and all for the common good. Some of them were mortified to see what then occurred. By 1820 it was considered virtuous by many to have no college education. Common mechanics, artisans, and merchants, with no knowledge of government or the political philosophy of Cato and Cicero were being elected to legislatures. By the time Andrew Jackson, a crude, violent Tennessee farmer, was elected President, Jefferson was disheartened and disillusioned with his own Revolution, and even "reduced to despair."
Profile Image for Brian Willis.
579 reviews32 followers
May 12, 2018
This Pulitzer-Prize winning book is an original, must-read for any reader interested in the sociological changes in American society at the time of the Revolution, and how those social upheavals were the truly radical innovation of the revolt.

Wood himself has argued very cogently that the political changes of the Revolution were eventually far more conservative than originally envisioned (the need for a strong executive to pull together the disparate strands of the Confederation to ensure the economic survival of the Union). Here, he explodes all previous conceptions of social change in the period by insightfully arguing that the 1770s-1780s oversaw the complete overturning of centuries of world order by taking America from a European model "vertical" ordering of society to a horizontal democratization of those social interchanges. For those decades, there was no strong executive like today, no overtly centralized government. Previously, as Wood argues in his first part, social interchanges were conducted on the monarchical model, a complex series of interchanges of patriarchy and paternalism and patronism which left no doubt as to who was higher in the social food chain. In Part 2, Wood tracks the leveling of that paternalism into a "republicanism", where enlightened representatives represent the common people in a convention or a representative body. By the time of Jackson, a sort of rhetoric of true democracy erupted, with the feeling of direct representation by non-elites in the government. At this time, banks, and special interests, and emolument made a mockery of that projected democracy.

It's a brilliant overview of the true revolution, the radical overturning of the social order, which is still on display today: anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, appeals to the lowest common denominator. The fundamental socioeconomic underpinnings of America were present from the beginning, as Wood brilliantly demonstrates.
Profile Image for Joel.
161 reviews28 followers
May 8, 2007
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 = how many pages you can actually struggle through.
[x(y-1)/1] + z = the amount of life you just wasted.
Profile Image for John Vibber.
Author 2 books29 followers
April 26, 2015
I thought I understood the essence of the American Revolution, but I was wrong. I knew the major figures, the course of the war, and the formation of a unique government. I chose this particular book to learn about the ideas that inspired the Founding Fathers. I had no idea about how much more insightful it would prove to be. This remarkable story of social change does much to explain the evolution of the American character. In many ways this book re-framed my overall understanding of history.
Profile Image for Illiterate.
1,757 reviews31 followers
August 15, 2022
Argues (i) political ideas of the revolution had radical effects (ii) founders wanted republicanism, virtue, & reason, but got democracy, greed, & evangelicalism.
Profile Image for Adam.
79 reviews6 followers
October 13, 2022
This book is almost disconcerting to read as an American because it shows you so many of your own base assumptions and where they came from. Definitely will be filing it under "classic." It scratches so many intellectual itches for me.

I'm the type of guy who is perpetually fascinated with the idea of a "hierarchical" society - probably because I've never had any real exposure to such a thing. One of my all time favorite movies was "Barry Lyndon" because of its setting during the Seven Years War and how it captured that old-European mindset so flawlessly and placed you so completely in that world. For any American, this book teaches you what kind of world you might have lived in if you hadn't been born here.

The American Revolution wasn't special because it was such a "conservative" revolution. It was special because it was such a successful revolution.
Profile Image for Michelle Mormul.
276 reviews9 followers
February 28, 2021
This book made me an Americanist. I used to be a French historian and then became a British historian. This book made me cross the pond to US history because it showed how British and the Americans were before the American revolution.
Profile Image for thethousanderclub.
298 reviews19 followers
January 4, 2017
No matter how deep, how far, and how much I swim in American History, I always find something of interest and something new that informs my perspective and love for my nation's history. The Radicalism of the American Revolution explores ideas related to the Revolution I had not previously explored. Its subject matter is interesting, but, alas, its writing lumbers and stomps around and makes the overall reading experience less than enjoyable.

To begin with, I don't want to diminish the additional insight Gordon S. Wood's book brings to the overall conversation and exploration of the American Revolution. There is a lot here which was new, fresh, and valuable. Above all, I loved the exploration of ideas and how they impacted American society before, during, and after the Revolution. How did America slough off the old sentiments of aristocracy? What did the idea of equality do for American society generally? How did it diffuse throughout the population, eventually illuminating not only white male property holders but also women, African slaves, and others? What was the impact of individualism and the establishment of American's republic of commerce? These and a host of other fascinating questions are the book's reason for existing. In the end, The Radicalism of the American Revolution is worth reading, but it will take some extra work and dedication to do so. I'm fine with reading hard books, but I don't love reading bland writing.

When I started reading the book I was a little concerned because it reminded me a bit too much of Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America. That book suggest and attempts to show that most of the founders acted wholly out of self-interest in relation to their wealth and property. No doubt the founders were wise enough to be comprehensively concerned about a great many interests, but I found Beard's arguments unpersuasive. For a certain duration Wood appears to be taking a similar approach with the monumental changes which occurred leading up to and causing the Revolution. Wood presents a great preponderance of economic evidence suggesting why societal feelings and trends moved in the way they did; however, this focus misses some of the mark. Ideas matter, as The Radicalism of the American Revolution shows, and economic factors can never, in my opinion, fully explain the course of nations and societies. I admit the explanatory difficulty becomes somewhat of a chicken or the egg dilemma, and the truth is probably found somewhere in the middle. Regardless, the book doesn't fully embrace an economic explanation in the same way Beard's book does, and I think the book was much better for it.

Having attested to its usefulness and value, I have to point out the grind reading the book is. Historians are not wordsmiths in most cases and Wood proves the point. The prose of the book is so utilitarian it can feel downright sterile. By far the most interesting passages in the book don't belong to Wood but to the historical personalities he quotes; unfortunately, far too many of their quotes were sliced and diced by Wood's commentaries and interpretations, but the reader may have been better served by reading the direct passage. By reading The Radicalism of the American Revolution the reader can expect an incredible and unique education—albeit not for beginners—on the American Revolution, but they can't expect anything but the most practical writing.

I liked The Radicalism of the American Revolution for what it is. There is plenty to be learned and gained from the book, but the authorship lacks the necessary style to make the history as unforgettable as it probably should be. It's nice to have in my collection, but reading it wasn't a particularly nice experience.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book132 followers
July 23, 2015
Wood's most famous work argues that the American Revolution was actually a radical event if we understand the changing ideas and social structures of the time rather than judging the American Revolution by modern standards of radicalism. By modern standards of radicalism, the American Revolution looks downright conservative: an attempt by elite white males to maintain their wealth and privilege from British encroachment and the protestations of everyone else in society. They also didn't do much to revise the status of slaves and women. However, the shift from a monarchical society to a republican society and then to a democratic society were three very different visions, and the cumulative result was a democratic society and state dominated by the massive middling classes. To some extent, the democratic society was a betrayal of the virtuous and selfless republican society that the Founders wanted, but it emerged largely because that republican period (the revolution itself) had broken so many of the bonds of monarchy and unleashed the desires and liberty of the common individual. Everything in this new world gravitated towards the democratic mean, causing monarchical Europeans to look on a mixture of shock and admiration that the whole thing didn't just fall apart. These changes, especially the breaking of the orderly monarchical society in which everyone is bonded to each other in a web of natural dependency culminating with the King, were truly radical for the time.

The American Revolution was not simply radical in bringing about these changes, but radical in the sense that no society existed like it at the time or possibly ever in history. The society that emerged from the Revolution was democratic in an almost chaotic sense, with seemingly no one actually in charge of this rapidly expanding, commercially minded, evangelically Christian, ferociously social-climbing nation. Critics have accused him of American exceptionalism, but I think this is a silly point. The whole point of the book is that America was exceptional in this time period as it charted a course, created a social system, and espoused values different from everyone else in the world. This is a posteriori exceptionalism, which is a perfectly valid argument to make.

Wood's account of the Revolution is generally more positive than most modern historians. I think he is merited in this positive take. The revolution unleashed the energies of a huge part of the American population, increased the wealth of the majority of society, and lifted millions of people into a status of rights and equality. Wood argues that these philosophical changes, especially the rigorous notion of white male equality, laid the groundwork for the end of slavery and the women's rights movement. There some validity here, but he seems to be overlooking the fact that the founders deliberately avoided putting slavery on the table, setting the stage for its revival and geographical surge with the cotton boom. His statement that the founding principles "doomed" slavery is utterlMoreover, historians like Rosemarie Zagarri have shown . So much of this book is about how the visions of the Founders ultimately did not come true even though they built a brilliant structure for politics and government. He does a great job showing this process on a variety of topics (commerce, culture, poverty, religion, elections, parties, etc), but I would have really liked to have seen him do the same for women and religion. The book is long enough to incorporate those groups. Still, even if people don't read this rather dense book, teachers should try to bring across these highly important and original ideas to as many people as possible.
99 reviews2 followers
July 6, 2022
Gordon S. Wood contends that the gigantic social changes wrought by the American Revolution were much more radical than typically acknowledged and completely changed the social fabric of society. He argues that the American Revolution and its consequences were not as conservative as many modern people believe.

The British colonial society that existed in America prior to the Revolution was one modeled on monarchy and hierarchical relationships. In England, a certain class of hereditary aristocrats with large property, wealth, leisure, and education were considered the only true legitimate political rulers and held the bulk of political power. Each person had their place in a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors and a system of patronage and patrons. Social rank and distinctions were a fundamental part of this society, as well as kinships attachments between members of a society in which who you were related to could have major consequences for your prospects, and within families patriarchal father’s ruled their homes on similar hierarchical and patron/patronage grounds. Everyone from college students to magistrates to the military to farmers to artisans acknowledged social distinctions even within their own respective social spheres.

Although the British Americans colonies participated in this system, many of its features never took complete root in America. America never had a hereditary aristocracy. The local gentry that did manage to develop in the American colonies never could entirely live off their land without running into debt or being forced to engage in some mercantile pursuits on the side. While wealthy, their wealth never came anywhere near the greatest landowners in England. Likewise, the authority of traditional religion that was a part of this hierarchical system in England through the official Anglican Church never took strong root in America as many different Christian traditions existed throughout the various colonies and many of these lacked Christian hierarchies and ranks that made up the Anglican Church, consisting only of mere priests who maintained their authority within their local church and among its congregants.

Challenging these old hierarchical systems was the republicanism of the Enlightenment. Republicanism was not an idea that Americans invented. Many advocates of republicanism and its ideals in Europe were members of English and French nobility who didn’t consider that their enthusiasm for these ideas might erode their own social status and power. Many advocates of republicanism in the 18th century didn’t view republicanism as a replacement for monarchy, but as a way of reforming monarchy and thought they could exist side by side. Its values drew from an 18th century interpretation of the classical world, holding up Cicero and Cato as intellectual models. It posited that man was a political being who gained his fulfillment from participating in the political decisions of his government. Republicans of the 18th century believed to protect liberty and make the best political decisions for everyone required people that would be disinterested and guided by virtue for the greater good of the nation and the people. They believed land ownership was crucial in allowing people to be disinterested and not reliant on the caprice of the mob, or financial self-interests. As part of this line of thinking, common people such as merchants and farmer-tenants working on other peoples’ land for their living were not independent enough to be disinterested when making political decisions.

The Founding fathers adopted these 18th century Republican ideas during the revolution, but took them further. They envisioned a society based on meritocracy rather than on rank and birth; a society where one’s intelligence, education, and virtue mattered most. Social mobility would be based on individual character and ability. It would be a system that promoted equality of opportunity rather than if you were born into the right family or related to the right person. Many of the founding fathers came from humble backgrounds and were the first in their family to achieve the status of a gentleman and study the liberal arts at a college. Nevertheless, their vision still accepted it would be gentleman of leisure, property, and who possessed a liberal arts education from a college that would serve as the leaders of the new republic. The primary difference from older republican ideas was that it was more flexible who could join those ranks, believing these characteristics were something that could be achieved and learned, and not just something you had to be born into. They thought their republic would lead to an enlightened society based on virtue, progress, and the removal of superstition from the public sphere.

The revolution was more than just a change of government from monarchy to a democratic republic. Ultimately as Wood argues the entire society’s relationships and how they conceived those relationships with each other changed. Wood shows that democratization that replaced the hierarchical system didn’t end with the revolution and the idealized republican ideas of the founding fathers. Democracy was a new social order with new kinds of linkages holding people together, and it really did unleash some radically different perspectives than what had previously existed. Democracy granted new importance, dignity, and honor to ordinary people, not just a social elite, recasting the purpose of society as the pursuit of happiness by ordinary people. Wood suggests that prior to the American Revolution people didn’t think this way about ordinary person or the goal of society. In their later writings, many of the founding fathers revealed a pessimism and unhappiness with how society was unfolding. It ended up being far different than the educated and virtuous elite that they had imagined would lead the nation.

The radical character of the democracy witnessed changes in thinking about the political class and what type of people were fit to occupy such roles. Artisans and middling classes formed groups to advocate for their participation in politics. Participating in politics went from being a civic duty and the virtuous higher calling of an educated elite to a fully paid occupation that were careers like any other job. As ideas of equality spread among working and the middle class, people began to challenge the assumptions that many held in the 18th century. Leisure that was once so valued among the elite classes became redefined as idleness, and working for a living became a virtue in America. Expansion westward and opportunities for movement deteriorated hierarchical superior and inferior relationships between people further. Family became about affection between its members instead of patriarchal rule. Religion took an evangelical stamp and became more individualized and less formal with people switching between religions frequently too fulfill their personal spiritual needs. People were free to follow their natural desires with the removal of artificial restraints of government and traditional social ties, which often included blatantly following one’s self-interests in business and politics. This also became true of politicians who would serve the interests of their constituents and sometimes their own pecuniary self-interests. Another consequence of the Revolution and the participation of lower classes was the democratization of knowledge leading to anti-intellectualism and the feeling that one’s own opinion and thoughts were as good as any educated person’s. Indeed, public opinion came to matter more than in any other country at the time. Although the revolution failed to liberate women and black slaves, Wood argues that it allowed the possibility of anti-slavery movements and women’s rights movements. All egalitarian thinking stemmed from this social change at the heart of the American Revolution. It’s radical nature was the equality and egalitarian principles at its core that eventually leveled the field between people from different social spheres of life.
Profile Image for Atul.
37 reviews
July 16, 2018
Fantastic book. A bit dry at times, but nevertheless very well explained. The book argues that the American Revolution was indeed revolutionary, and not merely a “War for Independence” as many people like to call it.

While colonial Americans enjoyed more freedom and independence from the aristocracy than in Europe, colonial America was still a patriarchal society that was controlled from the top down, with the aristocrats being the enlightened “fathers” and everyone else being the innocent “children” that needed to be guided through life.

So while the aristocracy was significantly weaker in colonial America than in England (to a large extent because about 70% of white colonial Americans owned their own land, unlike in Europe where tenantry was very common), the aristocrats still wielded disproportionate influence in pre-Revolutionary society. Patronage was especially rampant, with wealthy aristocrats taking a liking to certain gifted individuals and helping them form the social connections necessary to move up the income ladder and eventually reach gentleman status themselves. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin both relied heavily on patronage to get to their positions as gentlemen, besides their hard work. Without such patronage and social connections, it was extremely difficult for colonial Americans to move up the income (and social) ladder.

However, around the 1750s, this starts changing. As Americans became richer and richer, and more independent from the will of local aristocrats in their communities, they began to start moving around the 13 colonies at a brisk pace. This enabled Americans to loosen the former bands of society (e.g. aristocracy, family, etc) and choose how to live their lives.

This mass migration of American colonists coincided with relatively large amounts of Irish and Scottish immigration to the 13 colonies. All these new immigrants started taking up the land in New England, making it so that prospective immigrants (and American-born colonists) looking for new land would have to migrate into the Western territories such as Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc. This newfound appetite for westward expansion (to acquire cheap land in the West) caused by immigration played a huge role in loosening family ties and traditional patriarchal relationships in the colonies. Already weak, the aristocracy in the American colonies started coming apart because of the movement of people west and the brutal fact that Americans were becoming richer and richer.

One reason average Americans were getting richer and richer is the fact that most farmers did plenty of work on the side. Since most American farmers owned their own land, they could do work on the side that wouldn’t have been possible in Europe. For instance, while idling from farm work, it was common for women to make clothing and hats to sell in the market, and for the men to manufacture goods for the market. For the first time, labor became something with which one could earn lots of extra money and improve their standard of living, as opposed to something one does just to make ends meet. Rather than merely sticking to farming, American farmers dabbled in all sorts of activities on the side and thus became richer and richer.

As they got wealthier, American colonists were able to move around the 13 colonies very easily, breaking traditional bonds that tied society together. However, the newfound wealth of American colonists also meant significantly more consumption of goods like tea sets, pianos, and china that were traditionally bought only by the gentlemanly elite.

All these things combined with the extremely high property ownership rate in the 13 colonies and the spread of Enlightenment ideals from Europe took the already relatively free and independent Americans and made them freer and more economically prosperous than anywhere in the world. Americans’ already weak dependence on the aristocracy became even weaker. This financial independence and mobility from place to place made Americans ideal for satisfying the Enlightenment ideals of liberty.

Soon afterwards, the American Revolution commenced and transformed the United States into a republic during an age full of monarchies and dictatorships, the first nation in history to be founded on the idea of natural rights (imperfectly implemented, as seen with slavery and women’s rights). However exceptional this political transformation may be, the main effect of the American Revolution was to completely transform American society. The success of the American Revolution took the already free, independent, and prosperous American people and made them into a very democratic, commercially minded people.

While the Founders were political geniuses, they failed to appreciate the change the Revolution had wrought on the collective character of the American people. The Revolution was in a way a vindication of the ideals the American people held dear, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Due to this vindication of America’s national ideals, the people naturally took those ideals to the “extreme” and assumed that if individuals have the right to pursuit of happiness, they should be able to pursue happiness without the assent of the aristocracy. One way the American people did this was by engaging in commerce to a greater degree than anywhere else in the world (especially with paper money), and breaking the previous bonds that required people in each community to rely on a handful of well-connected aristocrats and/or family members for loans, credit, etc. Commerce among all groups of people began to dominate the nation.

All marks of aristocracy began to be heavily scorned. Before long, the commerce oriented United States produced a fairly large middle-class, mainly due to the fact that working people had the freedom to work hard and make profits by selling their products. As mentioned earlier, the United States made popular the idea that labor was something to be inherently valued, something that could be used to improve one’s standard of living. Gentlemanly leisure began to be scorned as just another vestige of the aristocracy. Eventually, it got to the point where rich people made it a point to discuss their “lowly” beginnings to portray themselves as self-made men, as opposed to touting their robust family ties to the aristocracy, as was common before the Revolution.

Similarly, the American Revolution’s success transformed the United States into an extremely democratic society where average people participated in government by voting, running for office, reading newspapers and pamphlets, etc. Public opinion was more valued in the United States than anywhere else on the planet, given how much common people participated in the Republic. Also, instead of treating education as purely a gentlemanly pursuit full of scholarly learning, average Americans began to embrace a practical education that taught individuals reading, writing, math, etc. Latin and Greek soon went out of fashion in the educational world of the United States, mainly because the democratic people of the country wanted education to work for them as a practical guide to life, as opposed to an elitist institution meant to teach subjects that were worthless in the real world.

In general, the American Revolution was exceptionally radical, not only in that it transformed the monarchical colonies into a radical and unprecedented republic in an age of monarchies, but also in that it fundamentally changed the fabric of American society in a way that we can scarcely imagine today. No, it was not just a “War for Independence”. The American Revolution was more revolutionary than any other revolution in world history, because it represented a radical political shift from the status quo of monarchy and dictatorship, and radically transformed American society into something completely unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers and the world in a very short period of time.
180 reviews1 follower
July 3, 2012
This is just a great work of political and social history. Wood does a particularly fine job of teasing out the contradictions in various conceptions of "interestedness" and showing how those conceptions--and interestedness in general--dominate the intellectual landscape of the Revolutionary generation and, by extension, how they shaped modern America.

In a nutshell, here's the argument (not that I can do justice to its complexity or the richness of research that supports it): many Founders believed in the classical version of public servants as disinterested by virtue of their independent means. For example, Jefferson and his crew often tried to place officeholders based on merit (where merit often had as much to do with bloodline as with native ability or achievement), and John Q Adams was so averse to partisanship that he left in place many of Monroe's appointees. But as the country grew, this model became increasingly unsustainable; in a large country with an expanding bureaucracy that possessed democratic pretensions, placed an emphasis on social mobility (for white men), and at least paid lip service to meritocracy, there simply weren't enough of the "right" people to staff things. Which leads directly to Jackson's creation of the spoils system, where successful parties reward their followers with jobs. Paradoxically, because this leads to appointees who are nakedly partisan and often unqualified, the structure of government becomes more professional as a safeguard against excessive interestedness; essentially, this is the genesis of the civil service.

Meanwhile, on the economic side, the growth of publicly-chartered corporations entangles the chartering legislatures in commerce and the market. And one of the key mechanisms to protect the integrity of private transactions and businesses from partisan is the judiciary. Because legislatures are inherently compromised, it's left to courts to mediate business disputes and uphold and interpret contracts, the inviolability of which is codified in the Constitution.

Anyway, this is just a taste of the book. Lots of other great stuff on the role of religion in public life, the origins of American middlebrow taste, and the role and definition of "the people" in the founding era. Just a great read all around.
Profile Image for Karen.
521 reviews62 followers
February 22, 2016
2016 Review
I powered through the last 80 pgs. with grad student rapidity, Wood's point by this time is quite clear: unlike other historians who have argued that the American Revolution brought no real change in the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens, Wood sees sweeping social changes that benefitted what became the middle class. Landed gentry and non-working aristocrats were no longer the only ones who had political say and in the new United States, working not idleness was valued. Perhaps this was because a monied salary came with an expanded purchasing power for the flux of goods that allowed one to buy basic gentility, but white men also gained access to voting in unprecedented numbers, rejecting aristocratic pretensions to rule. The change in the ideas of this social contract have roots that are distinctly American (New Englanders calling and rejecting their own pastors at whim), not British and well predate the Revolution. This freedom Wood ultimately notes, came with a cost - America is vulgar, rootless, materially driven, and anti-intellectual (pg. 369), but these allowances enable the common man to have a place and a say in how the government transpires.

Unlike other historians of the American Revolution, Wood sees the colonial period as a "premodern" NOT a modern era.

2008 Review
Certainly an excellent work, and essential reading for a colonial americanist. However, it is not a work without flaws. For a view of the scholarly debate, read the transcript of the Forum "How revolutionary was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution" in the William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., Vol. 51, no 4 (Oct., 1994) pp. 677-716. Historians debating are McGiffert, Appleby, Clark-Smith, Zuckerman, and a rebuttle by Wood.
40 reviews11 followers
April 6, 2017
The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood claims that the American Revolution was not only a political revolution, but also changed the social and economic structures of North America and the United States. Wood argues that the revolution that began in 1776 radically changed life in the colonies and subsequently life in the United States. Wood claims that ideas of republicanism were widely present and accepted by many people within the colonies prior to the Revolution. Colonists believed in the political reality of republicanism and many of the Founding Fathers recognized the changes this Revolution could mean for American society. Gordon S Wood effectively describes how the Revolution radically altered the political, social, and economic structures in the United States. His work follows a logical progress that describes what society was like just prior to the Revolution, what changes occurred with the onset of the Revolution and newly secured independence, and how these changes continued to develop in the decades following the Revolution. While Wood’s work covers changes in politics and economics, his most convincing argument for the radicalism that the American Revolution brought to the United States is in the changes that occurred in patterns of patronage and leadership, particularly in the North.
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