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Reading the American Revolution

ISSUE:  Autumn 1992
The Radicalism of the American Revolution. By Gordon S. Wood. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.50.

Given the predominantly specialized and intensive nature of most work in American history over the past two decades, one yearns for studies with a longer or broader sweep. The profession finally may be turning a corner, however, for in the wake of Bernard Bailyn’s call, in the mid-1980’s, for more broadly conceived scholarship, we recently have seen such books as Jack P. Greene’s Pursuits of Happiness (1988), Charles Seller’s The Market Revolution (1991), and Bailyn’s own Voyagers to the West (1986), in which, among other accomplishments, these eminent historians synthesize great amounts of the specialized work that has accumulated since the emergence of the “new social history” in the late 1960’s. To this list we can add Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution.

Wood is no stranger to such achievement, for his first book, the prize-winning Creation of the American Republic (1967), itself is in this vein and remains one of the most influential works in early American history. In the years since its publication Wood has crafted a number of elegant and similarly powerful essays, but everyone had been waiting for the “big” book. Now we have it, and, given the promise of the shorter work, we should not be surprised that it was worth waiting for. As Wood himself puts it in his introduction to the new work, “there is a time for understanding the particular, and there is a time for understanding the whole.” True to the author’s intent, The Radicalism of the American Revolution not only makes us comprehend more fully a (perhaps the) major event in America’s past but as well appreciate how that event and its aftermath have continued to influence American history.

Wood wishes to silence once and for all those historians who claim that the American Revolution was primarily a conservative, and intellectual event, and who often denigrate the genuine social transformation it effected because it did little toward the abolition of slavery or the improvement of the status of women, to cite the two most common examples. To emphasize such things, Wood maintains, and thus implicitly or explicitly to deride the Revolutionary generation for their purported lack of vision, is to miss “the great significance” of what the American Revolution did accomplish, how “it made the interest and prosperity of ordinary people—the pursuits of happiness—the goal of society and government.” The major accomplishment of the Revolutionary generation thus lay in their eventual discovery of “new democratic adhesives in the actual behavior of plain ordinary people—in the everyday desire for the freedom to make money and pursue happiness in the here and now.”

Those who know Greene’s Pursuits of Happiness will remark the strong congruity between the recent work of these two scholars. As his title suggests, Greene, too, believes that the uniqueness of the American experiment lay in the ambitions of common men and women who by crossing the Atlantic sought to change their lives. But he concentrates on the colonial period of American history, demonstrating, among other things, how conditions in the Chesapeake colonies were most conducive to such ideals, and thus attempting to unseat the New England colonies, hitherto seen as the fount of so many things American, from their privileged position in studies of early American history. But while Greene indeed demonstrates how the Chesapeake was more open to the various pursuits of happiness that marked America’s entry into the modern era, Wood claims that through the experience of the American Revolution and its aftermath Americans institutionalized the kind of political system and public ideology that guaranteed as a right the ambition of common men and women to better themselves. “Americans were not born free and democratic in any modern sense,” Wood argues. “They became so—and largely as a consequence of the American Revolution.”

His method is to detail social arrangements in the generation prior to the Revolution and to contrast them to the sorts of accommodations made by America’s political leadership as the logic of Republican ideology took its course through the 1820’s. He notes, for example, how before the 1770’s America’s was a provincial and hierarchical society in which people thought of themselves “as connected vertically rather than horizontally.” Thus, the aristocracy took pains to separate itself in as many visible ways as possible from the rank and file, a fact particularly evident in the contemporary understanding of labor. Working in order to live was considered “servile, associated with dependency and lowly status,” Wood notes, and governmental service itself reflected this ethos. It was regarded as a gentleman’s personal sacrifice, required of him because of his talents, independence, and social preeminence. As Wood does provocatively at different points in his story, he here invokes the example of everyone’s archetypal American, Benjamin Franklin. For all his praise of the work ethic, Wood observes, Franklin never valued toil for its own sake; as soon as he could—that is, as soon as he was economically successful—he retired from labor to become a gentleman and a public servant.

In large measure the movement from these kinds of conservative arrangements was initiated by the spread of “Republican” ideology in the mid-18th century and its ascendancy among the Revolutionary generation. “Republicanism,” about which Wood had much to say in his first book and which still is a hotly debated topic among American historians, was nothing less than a way of reorganizing society. Not only did it challenge the “assumptions and practices of monarchy—its hierarchy, its inequality, its devotion to kinship, its patriarchy, its patronage, and its dependency”—but it also offered “new conceptions of the individual, the family, and the state.” And foremost it promised “liberty,” what one gained and maintained when a citizenry was virtuous and willing to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the whole. Concomitantly, the ethos of Republicanism required that for the proper exercise of liberty one had to rise above the petty concerns of the marketplace. Thus, for example, true Republicans were loath to allow artisans and mechanics any voice in public affairs because they were seen as so enmeshed in commerce that they could not act as selflessly as Republicanism demanded.

By the early 19th century, though, this world was changing, and as important as Republican ideals were in their moment, they, too, gave way before the larger transformation of American society. At this point Wood’s narrative becomes most compelling, as he details the impact of “the market revolution” on the development of American ideology. Venturing into a later period than that which he explored in The Creation of the American Republic, Wood details the ways in which the young Americans’ involvement in commerce in its various incarnations pushed America’s political evolution in new directions.

“The basic fact of early American history,” Wood observes, “was the growth and movement of people” who sought land for economic betterment and who, once on the land, found ways of producing, for the first time on a large scale, surpluses of goods that resulted in “emulative consumption.” Drawing on recent studies of “protoindustrialism” in the early 19th century, Wood links this interest in consumerism to the ways in which, in the Revolutionary years and their immediate aftermath, more and more people had participated in government and thus become more aware of their individual interests. Because the impersonal business arrangements that accompanied the market revolution worked against the most localized nature of earlier economic transactions, as people, in other words, began to feel more disconnected from one another, they sought to have their interests represented over and against those of their competitors. Nothing less than “American localist democracy,” Wood notes, “grew out of this pervasive mistrust” of those who used to be friends and neighbors but now had become abstract counters on a complex economic gameboard.

In the early 19th century, then, common people began to insist that “party or faction be made a legitimate participant in government,” and this was tantamount to saying that “the object of government was the pursuit of private interest instead of the public good.” Local interests now were regarded as central and had to be protected, most effectively through the ballot. Moreover, because such interests often were defined by one’s relation to specific forms of work, there arose as well a sense of the significance and dignity of labor in itself, not as means to an end. Concomitantly, if individuals were to sacrifice time and money from their labor as they entered public service, such positions had to be remunerative; and if they were remunerative, it only made sense that elected officials were responsible not to the commonwealth but to the constituencies who had put them in office. Thus were modern American political parties, and politics, born, with Martin Van Buren, the first professional politician to win the presidency, the exemplar of this new arrangement.

Wood also points out how the new commercialism changed other matters. In the late 18th century, for example, “luxury” still was synonymous with corruption, for it had been the self-indulgence of the aristocratic classes, with their close ties to the crown, that had helped push the colonists toward the Revolution. But by the early 19th century, with the ongoing transformation of the economic sphere, the “principal source of [ordinary peoples’] industriousness and productivity” lay in their desire to acquire goods, not, as the case had been, in their frugality. “Prosperity was now thought good for people,” Wood notes, the mark not of profanity but of true Christian character.

As this brief synopsis of a complex and richly illustrative book suggests, Wood goes far toward identifying the kind of political and social culture that, even in this postindustrial age, many still define as archetypally American, a culture in which self-interest is enshrined above all else. Not surprisingly, then, as the American Revolution was interpreted over time, it continually was linked to the ascendancy of this notion of a country in which self-interest was the highest good. Of course, as the literature of such great American stylists as Melville and Thoreau, and the active behavior of thousands of others—those, say, who participated in the Utopian movements of the 1840’s and ‘50’s—makes clear, not all parties approved of the evolution of American ideology in such directions; Republicanism, with its ideal of virtuous and selfless public service, continued its pull on the American imagination for decades. But as the reinscriptions of Franklin’s life in the antebellum years makes clear, the good Benjamin now a man who praised labor above all else for the consumption it made possible, Americans were well on their way to remaking their history to support what they thought the Revolution represented.

It is important to note that Wood celebrates this story without irony. For, just as Bailyn’s work on The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), with its emphasis on the paranoid and the conspiratorial in politics, was a book of its time, so Wood’s is for ours, an age in which Americans struggle to find ways to feel positive about themselves, now that the Cold War is over but the economic policies that allowed us to “win” it seem inadequate for the 21st century. But this is not to criticize the achievement of this work, for it is a genuine intellectual pleasure to have so many pieces of America’s past assembled in so striking a pattern. Given that some historians now feel that all reconstructions of the past are merely interpretive fictions, it is salutary to read a work that reminds us that there are indeed some things in our past, troubled and sinful as it has been, to be remembered and passed on to the next generation. In the wake of Vietnam and with the failure of the Great Society, many historians assumed a hypercritical stance toward the premises of the American Dream. But now, in an age in which old enemies have become new friends but an illiberal and self-righteous conservatism still holds sway in the highest offices of this land, it is good to recall what the American Revolution did sanctify, the dreams of individuals of all rank. That those dreams are yet to be realized should not be held against those who constructed the New Nation, and that, I take it, is Wood’s main point.


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