Skip to comments.The Radicalism of the American Revolution
Posted on 07/31/2013 12:03:54 PM PDT by Jacquerie
We Americans like to think of our revolution as not being radical; indeed, most of the time we consider it downright conservative. It certainly does not appear to resemble the revolutions of other nations in which people were killed, property was destroyed, and everything was turned upside down. We can think of Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao Zedong as revolutionaries, but not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. We cannot quite conceive of revolutionaries in powdered hair and knee breeches.
They made speeches, not bombs; they wrote learned pamphlets, not manifestos. They were not abstract theorists and they were not social levelers. They did not kill one another; they did not devour themselves. The American Revolution does not seem to have the same kinds of causes the social wrongs, the class conflict, the impoverishment, the grossly inequitable distributions of wealth that presumably lie behind other revolutions. There were no peasant uprisings, no burning of chateaux, no storming of prisons.
The social conditions that generically are supposed to lie behind all revolutions poverty, and economic deprivation were not present in colonial America. American colonists were not oppressed and had no crushing imperial chains to throw off. In fact, the colonists knew they were freer, more equal, more prosperous, and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchical restraints than any other part of mankind in the 18th century.
Precisely because the impulses to revolution in America bear little or no resemblance to the impulses that presumably account for modern social protests and revolutions, we have tended to think of the American Revolution as having no social character, as having virtually nothing to do with the society, as having no social causes and no social consequences.
We tend to admit only a political, not a social radicalism. We have generally described the Revolution as an unusually conservative affair, concerned almost exclusively with politics and constitutional rights, and in comparison with the social radicalism of the other great revolutions of history, hardly a revolution at all.
If we measure the radicalism of revolutions by the degree of social misery or economic deprivation suffered, or by the number of people killed or manor houses burned, then this conventional emphasis on the conservatism of the American Revolutions becomes true enough. But if we measure the radicalism by the amount of social change that actually took place by transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other then the American Revolution was not conservative at all; on the contrary, it was as radical and as revolutionary as any in history.
The social distinctions and economic deprivations that we today think of as the consequence of class divisions, business exploitation, or various isms capitalism, racism, etc. were in the 18th century usually thought to be caused by the abuses of government. Social honors, social distinctions, perquisites of office, business contracts, privileges and monopolies, even excessive property and wealth of various sorts - all social evils and social deprivations in fact seemed to flow from connections to government, in the end from connections to monarchical authority. So that when Anglo-American radicals talked in what seems to be only political terms purifying a corrupt constitution, eliminating courtiers, fighting off crown power, and, most important, becoming republicans they nevertheless had a decidedly social message.
In our eyes the American revolutionaries appear to be absorbed in changing only their governments, not their society. But in destroying monarchy and establishing republics they were changing their society as well as their governments, and they knew it. Only they did not know they could scarcely have imagined how much of their society they would change.
By the time the Revolution had run its course in the early 19th century, American society had been transformed. One class did not overthrow another; the poor did not supplant the rich. But social relationships the way people were connected one to another were changed, and decisively so. It was in fact a new society unlike any that had ever existed anywhere in the world.
In 1760 America was only a collection of disparate colonies huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast economically underdeveloped outposts existing on the very edges of the civilized world. The less than two million monarchical subjects who lived in these colonies still took for granted that society was and ought to be a hierarchy of ranks and degrees of dependency and that most people were bound together by personal ties of one sort or another. Yet scarcely fifty years later these insignificant borderland provinces had become a giant, almost continent-wide republic of nearly ten million egalitarian-minded bustling citizens who not only had thrust themselves into the vanguard of history but had fundamentally altered their society and their social relationships. Far from remaining monarchical, hierarchy-ridden subjects on the margin of civilization, Americans had become almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world.
And this astonishing transformation took place without industrialization, without urbanization, without railroads, without the aid of any of the great forces we usually invoke to explain modernization. It was the Revolution, more than any other single event, that made America into the most liberal, democratic, and modern nation in the world.
To focus, as we are today apt to do, on what the Revolution did not accomplish highlighting and lamenting its failure to abolish slavery and change fundamentally the lot of women is to miss the great significance of what it did accomplish; indeed, the Revolution made possible the anti-slavery and womens rights movements of the 19th century and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking.
The Revolution not only radically changed the personal and social relationships of people, including the position of women, but also destroyed aristocracy as it had been understood in the Western world for several millennia. The Revolution brought respectability and even dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history and to a degree not equaled elsewhere in the world. The Revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and create republics; it actually reconstituted what Americans meant by public or state power and brought about an entirely new kind of popular politics and a new kind of democratic officeholder.
The Revolution not only changed the culture of Americans, but even altered their understanding of history, knowledge and truth. Most important, it made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people their pursuits of happiness the goal of society and government. The Revolution did not merely create a political and legal environment conducive to economic expansion; it also released powerful popular entrepreneurial and commercial energies that few realized existed and transformed the economic landscape of the country.
In short, the Revolution was the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history.
Excerpted from the Introduction to The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon S. Wood, 1991.
To read Charles Beard, Merrill Jensen and Howard Zinn is to be ashamed of the United States. Gordon S. Wood is one of a few historians who early on refuted the Marxist rewrites of our history. To intellectually combat the forces of darkness, I encourage Freepers to take the time to read non-ideological histories, such as those by Wood. His best known work, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, won the Bancroft Prize and sits front and center on my bookshelf.