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The Radicalism of the American Revolution

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  4,120 ratings  ·  194 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 1992)
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Stephen
This Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of the American Revolution is among the most engaging, most thought-provoking and most erudite history books I’ve ever read. Nothing dry, parched or plodding to be found here. This is history that reads more like literature and will trap your attention into the folds of its narrative flow like sailor falling into Charybdis.

Mr. Wood, together with David McCullough (John Adams)and Barbara Tuchman (The Guns of August), constitute the ruling council on my shelf
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Eric
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
Max
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
Nathan
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
Lobstergirl
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
...more
Joe
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
...more
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
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
...more
Joel
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 =
...more
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.
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
...more
thethousanderclub
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
...more
Atul
Jul 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: founding-period
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
...more
Marc
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
...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
...more
Karen
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
...more
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
Craig
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: history, politics
This book does a really good job explaining the dramatic cultural changes prmopted by the American revolution. I came away from this read persuaded by the writer's thesis.

The writer argues that the revolution wasn't strictly a change to the self-rule of democratic government but also a transformation of society. The argument goes that society was composed largely into cultural elites with high manners, learning, and property, and a laboring mass with little learning, a meanness of character, and
...more
Larry
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
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
...more
Nick
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
Lauren
Jul 05, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Another book that earns its Pulitzer Prize and then some. I made the mistake of starting this book while in law school, so I ended up reading it off and on over a period of years. Part of why this book took so much time to read is that it is an unbelievably dense tome that requires long stretches of unwavering attention. Dr. Wood covers an enormous amount of material without ever letting it up, yet the book coalesces into a brilliant narrative. While the long stretch of time between starting and ...more
Sean
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
Scott
Oct 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: People interested in American History
Comprehensive description of the American Revolution in terms of the socio-economic environment. Most books focus on the war or specific people. This book gives you a great understanding of why the United States was formed. It also shows the unforeseen consequences that led to this country becoming a world superpower.

One warning to casual readers. This book is not an easy read. If this book is not used in college History classes I would be surprised.
Jodi
Sep 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
Wood's entire book is based on his belief that the American Revolution was a truly radical and successful venture. I don't agree with all his assertions (Like "All Americans believed in the Revolution and its goals"--yea...that's not entirely accurate...)but for the most part, he had great sources and made some interesting points. I enjoyed learning the sociological history before and after the Revolution and appreciated that he didn't begin in 1760 and end in 1787 like so many other authors.
Sean
Feb 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book does what the best history books do: it makes one more clearly understand the present. It deals only with the past, but it makes so clear the scale of the social and political changes wreaked by the American revolution, in terms of how people thought and behaved and why what America became was so different than anything that had come before, that one can't help but see how the repercussions continue to affect us. It's a slow read, and at times a bit repetitive, but always fascinating.
Jonathan Hedgpeth
Aug 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is an outstanding survey of the forces at work during the revolutionary era. What Wood demonstrated most effectively was how quickly 19th century Democracy devoured the 18th century republican dreams of the founders....I often thought the defeat of John Qunicy Adams at the hands of Andrew Jackson epitomized this phenomenon.
Ben Sweezy
Nov 19, 2008 rated it liked it
I think the argument is fascinating, but the support can be very dry and narrow to pick through. You want to skip pages, but then you get lost.

Nevertheless, if you can stick it out, this almost-revisionist perspective on the Revolution is an important contribution to our sense of where we've come from.
Debbie
Jul 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
Gordon Wood, again. While you may or may not buy his argument that the American Revolution was radical, it's still a fun journey to get to his conclusion. I've read it twice, and I'm still on the fence.
Joshua
May 05, 2010 rated it liked it
Provocative, Hegelian, and ultimately flawed. Pretty good read though.
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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 .
“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.” 6 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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