The Radicalism of the American Revolution: How a Revolution Transformed A Monarchical Society into A Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed
by Gordon S. Wood
What is a “Revolution” to Gordon Wood?
In his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gordon S. Wood challenges the notion that the American Revolution did not constitute a true “revolution”. Many historians consider a true revolution to be one that turned the social and economic structure upside down, completely altering society. Wood argues that the American Revolution was radical in the way of social change and in the transformation of relationships that bound people to each other. Relationships are a key factor in many social upheavals, and Wood insists that this Revolution is no different, and certainly not lesser. He delineates the changes in the hierarchy of society, between patricians and plebeians, patriarchal dependence, and political authority. Wood does not spend much volume of his work recounting the events of the revolution itself- the battles, the strategies, the casualties. Rather, he spends the majority of the book discussing the before and after aspect of the Revolution. He is not as interested in the complications of the day-to-day during the Revolution, but rather how did the society compare at the beginning and at the end, and most importantly, how did we get there. He delves into these conditions, both the ones before and after the Revolution and how it affected the people of the newly formed United States. A noteworthy aspect of his argument is that the colonies were trying to “republicanize monarchy”. This concept involved trying to temper the monarchy that had existed, while still leaving social hierarchies intact. Some might argue that this was not an effective strategy, since the social structure, specifically the relationships between the people and their government, became so drastically different. Overall, Wood wrote that equality was the most important legacy of the American Revolution, one that many people would likely agree with. He contends that “[the revolutionaries] hoped to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society- kinship, patriarchy, and patronage- and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect, and consent”. This demonstrates Wood’s argument that the American Revolution was anything but conservative.
A History Student’s Thoughts
As I have been delving into American Revolution scholarship in search of secondary sources for my thesis, this book was one that genuinely piqued my interest and had an extremely interesting thesis. Throughout my time as a history student, I have encountered my fair share of historians arguing that the American Revolution was not quite as revolutionary as some historians like Wood would contend. Wood’s book was not only beautifully written, but it also had a very convincing argument. It was also inspiring to read something that seemed so outwardly optimistic concerning the ideals of the revolution and what people were hoping to accomplish.
In our contemporary moment, it is not hard to conceptualize equality as a universal right, but at that moment, equality was a radical concept (at least equality for white men, of course). Wood writes that “[e]quality was in fact the most radical and most powerful ideological force let loose in the Revolution”. Equality is one of the most important tenets of the revolution and Wood exemplifies that through his argument. He also articulates that “[e]quality became so potent for Americans because it came to mean that everyone was really the same as everyone else, not just at birth, not in talent or property or wealth, and not just in some transcendental religious sense of the equality of all souls”.Wood eloquently discusses the concept of equality and weaves the importance of this concept into his argument.
While Wood’s work is transformative in many ways, there are a few shortfalls to his work as a whole. First and foremost, Wood does not include the discussion of slaves or the institution of slavery at all. When discussing early American history, especially revolutionary era America, it is important to acknowledge the existence of slaves and the instrumental role they played in the creation of modern America. Wood does not discuss this, and although it would have been a complex factor to include in his work, it needed to be included in the mention of equality and the creation of the ideals of the
Revolution. Another group that Wood failed to mention is women. He takes a traditional stance in the discussion of women in that he mentioned them as homemakers and mothers, but not people who were affected in the revolution.
Overall, Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution was groundbreaking in the way that he detailed the impact of the social, economic, and political change of the American Revolution. His work was rich in examples and was written in a way that both persuaded and inspired historians and average readers alike. Although there were some holes in his argument, including the lack of acknowledgment of slavery and women, Wood crafts his argument in a way that offers new information and challenges traditional notions of the American Revolution.
Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution: How a Revolution Transformed A Monarchical Society into A Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992), 229. Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, 232. Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, 234.