The Radicalism of the American Revolution

The Radicalism of the American RevolutionI 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 how many pages you can actually struggle through x y 1 1 z the amount of life you just wasted. 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 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 love affair modern conservatives have with the Founding Fathers, the country was actually birthed in what we would now term a leftist movement. 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 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 buckled shoes and knee breeches is as good as another, right Not quite Wood argues that though it lacked the usual extravaganzas no peasant uprisings, no jacqueries, no burning of chateaux, no storming of prisons the American Revolution nonetheless leveled the feudal social structure of colonial America and authorized a society in which labor was dignified instead of disdained a society in which common white people were empowered to participate in politics, hustle unashamedly after wealth, and shout and stamp in whatever denominations they could rig up Colonial America had been dominated by a monarchial gentry whose members held society together by intricate networks of personal loyalties, obligations, and quasi dependencies The patriarchs lent money in the absence of banks fueled local economies in the maintenance of their estates patronized the educations of the talented but lowly born controlled access to royal offices and generally ruled as aristocracies always had and elsewhere did, from the timorous deference accorded them by artisans, mechanics and small farmers ashamed of their own dirty, calloused hands and awed by the crown connections, Olympian leisure, classical learning and supple manners attributed to their betters Most of the Founding Fathers the revolutionary generation came from the gentry But from that gentry s lowest rung and that is key I knew Hamilton was a bastard from the Bahamas the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar, John Adams snarled but not that both Adams and Jefferson were the first in their families to attend college and so receive the humane letters thought necessary for participation in gentlemanly society and Washington was never formally exposed to such an education Adams claimed, again biliously, that Washington couldn t write six words without misspelling one and later, he turned down repeated invitations to tour France because he didn t know any French Relative outsiders to the webs of royal patronage, and contemptuous of the fawning and flattery that characterized paternalistic politics, America s revolutionary gentry, good classically educated gentlemen as they were, countered what Adams called the Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride with a set of austere ideals drawn from their reading about the ancient republics The revolutionary gentry offered itself as an enlightened patriciate, ruling from pure merit, and modeling, for the masses of the new society, ideals of disinterested civic virtue and a strenuous, self sacrificial devotion the public good invoking these classical ideals, writes Wood, became the major means by which dissatisfied Britons on both sides of the Atlantic voiced their objections to the luxury, selfishness, and corruption of the monarchial world in which they lived Wood s section on classical republicanism as political counterculture was one of my favorites in the book He writes about how the educated of the day could not hear enough about the severe martial personae of Sparta and Republican Rome The maxims of ancient policy, as Hume called them, formed a curriculum for the would be statesman George Washington s favorite book was Addison s senatorial drama in blank verse, Cato and it was in emulation of the Roman general Cincinnatus that the victorious Washington surrendered his supreme sword to the Congress, when the road to a military tyranny lay open and well trodden I seriously get dewy eyed at the idea of backwoods humanism at Cicero carried in a saddlebag, Tacitus piercing the forests of New World Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired other domes and pediments will rise from our domes and pediments Memoirs of Hadrian image error There were some chapters that made my eyes glaze over Benevolence, Interests , but others Enlightenment were fascinating I was expecting 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 relate the way Revolutionary ideas disrupted and upended the societal order.If you re tired of hearing people argue on behalf of American exceptionalism, quote them this The revolutionary generation was the most cosmopolitan of any in American history The revolutionary leaders never intended to make a national revolution in any modern sense They were patriots, to be sure, but they were not obsessed, as were later generations, with the unique character of America or with separating America from the course of Western civilization As yet there was no sense that loyalty to one s state or country was incompatible with such cosmopolitanism p 222 And if you meet people who insist America was founded as a Christian nation, please, citizens, read them this At the time of the Revolution most of the founding fathers had not put much emotional stock in religion, even when they were regular churchgoers As enlightened gentlemen, they abhorred that gloomy superstition disseminated by ignorant illiberal preachers and looked forward to the day when the phantom of darkness will be dispelled by the rays of science, and the bright charms of rising civilization At best, most of the revolutionary gentry only passively believed in organized Christianity and, at worst, privately scorned and ridiculed it Jefferson hated orthodox clergymen, and he repeatedly denounced the priestcraft for having converted Christianity into an engine for enslaving mankind, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves Although few of them were outright deists, most like David Ramsay described the Christian church as the best temple of reason Even puritanical John Adams thought that the argument for Christ s divinity was an awful blasphemy in this new enlightened age When Hamilton was asked why the members of the Philadelphia Convention had not recognized God in the Constitution, he allegedly replied, speaking for many of his liberal colleagues, We forgot p 330 The book ends with a fascinating appraisal of how the Founding Fathers viewed what America had become what the Revolution had wrought In many cases they were disappointed, or even horrified and disgusted They had designed a nation based on elitist virtue and classical ideals, with religion held in check but the nation they now saw was deeply religious and sectarian, increasingly irrational and superstitious, commercialized and money obsessed, anti intellectual, socially crass, politically vulgar George Washington had lost all hope for democracy Alexander Hamilton opined that this American world was not made for me John Adams bewailed the halt in the progress of the human mind Thomas Jefferson saw America going backwards, not forwards Benjamin Rush viewed his Revolutionary efforts with deep regret and could not find a man who loved the Constitution. 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 nation sized democratic republic in history All was joyous and the founders lived the rest of their lives patting themselves on the back for the genius of which they had wrought WRONG Many of the founders to their dying day recognized approximately nothing American about the country they founded at the end of their lives From the early rise of the corporation in the early 19th century to strict partisanship, changes in who should best represent the people, all evolved in some way during their lives For better or worse, many of these founders thought what they had created was destructive and in honest moments antithetical to the mission of their beginnings The American founding, in all its radicalism and invention, was never destined to achieve any great global, society changing outcomes Many speculate about what the founders would think of America and our current governing structures and habits today I now think of this exercise as pointless and impossible because of how different we are from the days of a new nation with only 2.5 million people It truly is amazing that this country has survived the way it has over the past centuries What will become of us and the wider world in the centuries to come can t be speculated with any certainty but it is not destined to be a nation of great wealth, a pillar of democracy in the world, or functional for its citizens Democracy is not guaranteed and we must protect it with Enlightenment principles and reflections of what kind of country we want to be. 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 vastly different from each other as they each are from those of our time As understanding who we are is dependent on understanding where we came from, Wood s history provides a fascinating and relevant touchstone Woods begins his work by describing the highly patriarchal social and economic structures of pre Revolutionary America and how these, in many ways, were actually pronounced and deeply entrenched than those of England at the same time Essentially, pre revolutionary American society was ruled by a class of genteel patricians who, by virtue of their means, educations, leisure and resulting social stature, viewed themselves as the rightful masters of society The hallmark of this genteel class was a perception of disinterestedness made possible by means so significant that one was not required to dirty their hands with any form of labor A disinterested member of the gentry was a man who was not dependent on anyone for his means, and so, presumably, could be trusted to make decisions for the common good of the larger population that were not burdened by the need to pander to any particular interest In other words, a gentleman was independent and could, for the sake of honor, be counted on to decide what is best for everyone As the vast majority of the colonists were, in addition to being culturally obliged to respect this hierarchy, also economically dependent on the patronage of this class the status quo was generally accepted by all as the natural order of things An interesting insight that emerged from Wood s discussion was the fact that in the spirit of the times and the general acceptance of this hierarchy by all members of the society led to a sense that anyone who was not a gentleman was, by definition, a debased and dependent vassal As such, modernly perceived horrors of things like slavery or indentured servitude were not seen as wrong by this proto American society so much as they simply represented a particular status of debasement along a spectrum of indignity that non gentry were entitled to and naturally shared The founding fathers were essentially a group of only just gentry who chafed under a social structure that inevitably relegated them to a second tier sort of preeminence Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Washington, just to name a few were, each in their own way and for their own reasons, relegated to the top of a second class heap Fascinated by the examples of ancient Greece and Republican Rome and entranced by the writings of such egalitarian Enlightenment thinkers as Locke and de Montesquieu, the founding fathers parlayed general discontent with perceived English ambivalence towards colonial interests into a Republican Revolution Interestingly, none of them were particularly adept at anticipating the consequences of the revolution they sponsored They essentially envisioned a Republican world free of historical hereditary hierarchies in which merit and not birth was the measure of a man Yet, they utterly failed to think through exactly how different the world they envisioned would be from the world they actually coveted Meritorious men who rose in prominence, they assumed, would be like them..dedicated to education, reason and disinterested public service Democracy, however, produced a decidedly different result With the patronage systems of the past stripped away and access to power available to a far broader group of men, the nation they created quickly devolved into self interested factions whose constituents were obsessed with acquiring wealth Small men of limited educations and cultural attainment rose to power through base campaigning for office that would have been unthinkably crude to a true gentleman The establishment of modern banking that made credit and paper money available to the many essentially eliminated the bonds of patronage that had traditionally held the common man as a vassal to his wealthy patron This increased liquidity, combined with a political structure that enabled the celebration of self interest avarice, in the Framers minds basically tore the historical social structures apart at the seams The result was at once glorious and terrible The common man, liberated by currency and politics from a state a near serfdom was suddenly free to go and make his fortune by whatever means seemed good to him This massive leveling of society unleashed the awesome power of a creative and industrious people who were suddenly free to apply their energies to making themselves rich This elevation, however, came at the expense of manners, refinement, social order and any inclination to reason that had previously characterized the pre revolutionary world Bombast and pandering became to the means to office, leisure of the sort that made a classic liberal arts education possible was suddenly ridiculed and despised, the patriarchal structures of the family was disrupted and everywhere the cult of disinterest was replaced by an unashamed pursuit of wealth The book was interesting, well written and contributed significantly to my understanding of American history and the world we ve inhereited I found this idea that relative to the ideals they were striving for, that for the most part the Founding Fathers felt their Republican experiment was an abject failure The book also made clearer the genesis of American anti intellectualism ennoblement of the opinions of everyone without a corresponding obligation to actually educate themselves in the object of their opinion and American evangelicalism every man as the monitor of his own soul combined with set agendas of specific sins to be battled in order to validate one s righteousness was also fascinating and relevant to my understanding of our modern times. 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 the material inside would go a long way toward disabusing you of a lot of the bowdlerized notions of history they filled your head with in public school It offers a fine glimps at how far the ideals expectations of the founging fathers were at odds with how things actually turned out, and how unhappy many were with the kind of democracy that came out of the Revolution You ll also learn a bit about the rise of the religeous right in the years just after the Revolution, which took good rationalists like Jefferson and Franklin quite by surprise.Actually, when I consider the subject matter I am inclined to think that the people who would benefit most from reading this are the sort of people who by political leaning never would This makes it just the sort of history book that if I were an instructor at the college level, and so free to pick most of my own ckass material, I would inflict on my students for their own good. 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 monumental event because it was a social and societal revolution, eradicating monarchy and enabling middle class rule Wood doesn t spend time comparing the revolutions, but his point is clear ours produced every bit the change as in France.To fully understand this revolution, Wood says we must consider not just the war of 1775 1783, but the entire time period from about 1740 to 1820 The gentry of the early 1700s mirrored English aristocracy inheriting their wealth, owning land, serving as judges and legislators, independent Labor was an act of poverty, and anyone who could not live on their inherited wealth was a member of the mob, unsophisticated and dependent upon the gentry both socially and politically Commerce was limited to trade with Europe As much as 40 50% of all men were slaves or servants.By 1820, all this had changed Wealth in the colonies was not enough to allow anyone to live the life of a true, leisurely aristocrat, which created dependencies Leisure itself became a vice and labor a virtue the exact opposite of colonial America The realization of the benefits of interstate commerce launched the US into the commercial, market centric society we know today And that firm line huge gap between commoners and gentry was obliterated Everyone was now a gentleman, everyone was free to pursue happiness in their own way, no one had to be dependent on anyone else if they worked hard enough Except slaves But eliminating the hierarchy and dependency of colonial society gave oxygen to the emancipation movement where before there was none The revolution made it possible to begin the debate on freeing slaves, and that alone is an underappreciated and radical consequence.The most jarring message of the book was how disappointed the revolutionaries were with what they had created They thought republicanism would lead to a enlightened society, where each man would use his new freedom to become informed and sophisticated Disinterested, liberally educated men would serve in the government, above private interests and all for the common good Some of them were mortified to see what then occurred By 1820 it was considered virtuous by many to have no college education Common mechanics, artisans, and merchants, with no knowledge of government or the political philosophy of Cato and Cicero were being elected to legislatures By the time Andrew Jackson, a crude, violent Tennessee farmer, was elected President, Jefferson was disheartened and disillusioned with his own Revolution, and even reduced to despair. 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 they were stunned to find their philosophies cast aside as a proletarian democracy dominated by commercial interests took over Wood emphasizes ideas and painstakingly explains rapidly changing cultural norms, foregoing the patriotic drama of other accounts of the period Thus it can be a slow read at times, but it is well, well worth it.Wood starts off by introducing us to American society in the mid eighteenth century, a society much different than our own To understand the events and ideas of the Revolution and how truly radical they were we must understand the times that spawned them Monarchy was the accepted form of government and it determined the relationships of people Unlike today where people identify and collaborate in horizontal groups such as teachers, blue collar workers, homemakers, etc., relationships in the eighteenth century were vertical from the top king down to the bottom slave or servant This system was patriarchal Power was vested with the male heads of elite families who controlled everyone connected to that family Everybody, wife, child, laborer, tenant, etc., had a specific place in the pecking order Strict norms dictated how one related to those above and below them in the pecking order Communities and towns were small and run by a few powerful men in a well defined hierarchy This was a world in which many wives called their husbands sir, in which labor was commonly produced by indentured or apprenticed workers who could be bound over for any offense It was difficult to run away because you had no place to go There was no privacy Everyone knew everyone else and their business Tradesmen relied on patronage rather than customers They were there to meet the demands of the rich If they stopped selling to a dominant family, no customer was likely to take their place Conversely, if a dressmaker had run out of work, her patrons recognizing her reliance on them would typically place orders just to keep her solvent The top families lent out significant portions of their estates for income but just as important to exercise control over their communities This was a world of dependence Freedom as we understand it today was unknown The elite families also controlled politics Political appointments were a favorite form of patronage High political offices of course went to family members and many offices were essentially hereditary Commoners were not allowed to occupy any important office since it would denigrate gentlemen to deal on important matters with a commoner The last half of the eighteenth century would see dramatic change Taking hold in England and America were republican ideas with their implicit moral duty to fairness that undercut patriarchal control and dependence In England republicanism was constrained by an established hierarchy running from the king through Parliament, the nobles and the gentry who controlled their tenants, servants and laborers Patronage was administered through this structure Parliament following the 1688 revolution served as the counterpoint to the king but its members had a vested interest in the continuance of the monarchy Not so in America Local assemblies did not answer to the king America s elites controlled their towns but did not have the English top to bottom all encompassing network Republicanism in America would not complement the existing structure but undo it To the colonists, many of whom left Britain with grudges against the monarchy, the king and Parliament were far away Patronage was conducted through local institutions and assemblies not answerable to the monarch And most colonists did not answer to the Anglican Church which the king used to extend his authority America s aristocracy was less rich, less connected, less organized and less powerful than its English counterpart America had readily available land and far fewer tenant farmers, which predominated in England under the control of the aristocracy America s commoners were typically free holders, self sufficient than their English counterparts Thus American society was egalitarian and far open to republican ideas American society was much fluid than English society From 1750 to 1770 the population doubled from 1 million to two and doubled again in the next twenty years This meant people were on the move establishing new homesteads and new communities, breaking established ties and lines of authority Economic opportunity grew and American commoners were far better off than their English counterparts With the development of trade between widespread communities, the use of paper money grew, which further cut into the traditional control of the patriarchs that their system of credits had previously provided Contracts became impersonal instruments with clearly delineated responsibilities replacing the informal personal agreements between people who knew each other in prior generations Americans were independent and less accepting of authority Increasingly sons and daughters left home for new opportunities diminishing the role of the traditional extended family New parents were changing their ideas on raising children John Locke s writings on education were very influential The concept of strict control and absolute obedience was being replaced by the idea of parents and children having responsibilities to each other These new ideas also undercut the idea of a subject s relationship to his monarch The relationship was now being viewed as a contract with rights and responsibilities on each party instead of the traditional paternalistic model All of the preceding applied of course only to white Americans But the shift in thinking caused for the first time many white Americans to see that slavery was wrong Before this economic and social transition, everyone accepted slavery as just another category, the lowest in the pecking order, although poor whites, indentured laborers and servants were often not much better off than slaves As patriarchy was undermined and the principle of social contracts accepted, slavery didn t fit and it began to be viewed differently The first anti slavery society in the world was formed in Philadelphia in 1775.The founding fathers were well educated in the classics and classical ideals They were steeped in Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke For them the Revolution was seen as the fulfillment of the Enlightenment Naturally they saw their ilk as the leaders of their new creation feeling only the liberal gentlemanly class would be benevolent and fair They believed that only the educated elite would not be swayed by the narrow interests of everyday commerce and thus be unbiased enough to hold together the new republic However equality had a different meaning to the common man It meant that he was as good as anyone and just as qualified to occupy political office Such notions alarmed the gentry, not because they felt ordinary men lacked ability, but because they felt the farmers, merchants, traders and mechanics of the country could not be above self interest and thus would tear the government apart The Revolution thrust an already rapidly growing economy into many competing market interests that would now use government to increase their profits From the very beginning the notion of enlightened republicanism was challenged by the reality of everyday parochial commercial interests Acceptance of the idea that competing self interest in elected officials was the best way to govern signified the demise of classical republicanism and the start of liberal democracy By the end of the eighteenth century the Federalists who represented the aristocracy had lost most of their power This was particularly true in the north where laborers and proto businessmen rose up in egalitarian anger under the Republican banner A huge shift in the national perception of the value of work was taking place Once deemed a necessity of plebeians, it was becoming a badge of honor Increasingly laborers were seen as the true producers of wealth and the idle rich as parasites Even southern plantation owners, who oddly enough were also Republicans, now described themselves as hardworking The first decades of the nineteenth century saw continued rapid population growth, the massive movement westward, the decline of traditional religious denominations and the rise of strident evangelical ones, unprecedented alcoholism, increasing entrepreneurship and dramatic growth of domestic trade All these disruptive changes broke traditional ties and values And cohesion was not forthcoming from the federal government which was so weak that for most people it seemed practically non existent With very little money, it had to operate by granting private charters for banks, bridges, roads, etc., further fueling private interests that in turn sought control of government and exploited the public Fortunately the judiciary began eschewing political power and assuming the role of society s arbiter, a role the founding fathers had envisioned for themselves as elite rulers of the republic.Wood concludes that, By the early nineteenth century, America had already emerged as the most egalitarian, most materialistic, most individualistic and most evangelical Christian society in Western History Jacksonian democracy would complete the transition Introducing the spoils system, Jackson recast patronage in the context of the modern political party His successor Martin Van Buren would be the first pure politician to be elected president This was not the outcome the revolutionary leaders had envisioned and those that survived to see it begin to unfold were appalled John Adams wrote in 1823, Where is now the progress of the human mind.When Where How Is the present Chaos to be arranged into Order Jefferson found it a hard fight just to get his state university approved over stiff evangelical opposition and he was terrified that someone like Andrew Jackson might become president Writing a friend in 1825 Jefferson recognized that America had profoundly changed since the revolution lamenting a new generation whom we know not, and who knows not us. 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 Than A Break From England, Rather It Transformed An Almost Feudal Society Into A Democratic One, Whose Emerging Realities Sometimes Baffled And Disappointed Its Founding Fathers

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 .

❮BOOKS❯ ✴ The Radicalism of the American Revolution ✪ Author Gordon S. Wood –
  • Paperback
  • 447 pages
  • The Radicalism of the American Revolution
  • Gordon S. Wood
  • English
  • 09 April 2019
  • 9780679736882

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