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The Radicalism of the American Revolution

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  4,727 ratings  ·  232 reviews
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 sometim ...more
Paperback, 447 pages
Published March 2nd 1993 by Vintage (first published January 14th 1992)
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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
Jan 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
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 t ...more
Sep 06, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Jun 11, 2021 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 12, 2020 rated it liked it
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.
Feb 04, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
May 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Colleen Browne
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 prevail
Robert Owen
Jun 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
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
Erik Graff
May 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Americans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
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 settle
Thomas Harayda
Feb 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 na ...more
Jul 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
"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
Paul Donahue
Oct 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Brian Willis
May 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 e
Apr 23, 2007 rated it did not like it
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 =
John Vibber
Apr 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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.
Apr 09, 2019 rated it liked it
Argues (i) political ideas of the revolution had radical effects (ii) founders wanted republicanism, virtue, & reason, but got democracy, greed, & evangelicalism.
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Readable, provocative, and insightful. Wood’s Pulitzer was well-earned.
John Cyrus
Nov 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I was looking for a book to help me better understand and fill in knowledge gaps about the American Revolution. What I got was a book that did that, but it also ended up being a highly relevant look into why America is the America that we know right now and why Americans are they way we are. To me, at least, it explained so many of the trends that we have seen over the last decade and the continual tension between two (at least) vastly different sides of our culture and society. What I found mos ...more
Michelle Mormul
Feb 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 03, 2017 rated it liked it
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
Jul 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
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 “child
Apr 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 beli
Jul 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: comps, re-read
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 th
Kelli Peters
Oct 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
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. Colonist ...more
Jan 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: those with a strong interest in the role of history on America today.
Shelves: politics, history
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
Nov 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I can't say enough good things about this book. Not only is the writing itself engaging, and the organization excellent, but Wood is master of the complex. You won't find yourself choosing your side in a neatly laid out dichotomy here - America is not truly a country of classical virtue in the tradition of the great Roman statesmen OR truly a country where truth has been democratized and the common man elevated to destroy all class distinction. It is both and neither. Wood masterfully shows how ...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 .

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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.” 9 likes
“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.” 0 likes
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