The Radicalism of the American Revolution

by Gordon S. Wood

Hardcover, 1992




New York : Knopf, 1992


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 sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RandyStafford
The American Revolution was a failure.

That is not the opinion of Wood. It was the opinion of the Revolutionaries. Looking back on what they had wrought, they were despondent over the gap between their ambition and their achievement.

“We are indeed a bebanked, a bewhiskied, and a bedollared nation,” said Benjamin Rush in 1812. Of the Constitution, he said, “I cannot meet a man who loves it.” The government had devolved to the “young and ignorant and needy part of the community.”

George Washington complained character was no longer a factor in politics.

John Adams, in 1813, asked “Where is now, the progress of the human Mind? … When? Where? And How? Is the present Chaos to be arranged into Order?”

Alexander Hamilton looked at a country he had helped birth on the battlefield and said “this American world was not made for me”.

Thomas Jefferson was not just speaking of personalities but also of revolutionary principles when he lamented in 1825, “All, all dead, and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who knows not us.”

And neither did I know them, not really, before reading this book.

What Wood shows is the aristocratic world the Revolutionaries rebelled against: a world of patronage and connection, the mixing of private and public interests, of dependency being key to advancement and not merit. He then shows the republican world they dreamed of: disinterested men of merit in charge, a natural aristocracy leading a nation of improving minds.

And then he shows the world they produced, the acid of an egalitarianism they unknowingly and unwillingly ushered in which destroyed the old ways families related to each other, created greater inequalities of wealth, substituted party patronage and politics for personal patronage, replaced Christian reason with evangelism, and brought about the beginnings of the modern bureaucratic American state and its ethnic politics.

The American Revolution certainly produced less bodies than the French Revolution or its heirs in Russia and China, but it, Wood convincingly argues, was even more radical in how it changed the way the “people” related to each other, what “commerce” was, what “equality” was. It literally redefined those words.

Wood details this progression in three parts: “Monarchy”, “Republicanism”, and “Democracy”. There is no specific timeline, no specific date the Revolutionary Republican dream dies. It’s hard to plot exactly in time how millions of minds and attitudes changed. However, he presents a surprisingly readable mixture of apt anecdote and quotation and statistics to document that change in the American mind.

For me, if not Wood, the book is another example of the failure of the Blank Slate idea the Enlightenment was so fond of. Even the wise and learned Revolutionaries had their hopes dashed on it. And Wood convincingly shows that the America many conservatives love is not the world the Founding Fathers had in mind even at its most basic social and political workings.

Wood concludes his work noting that, while they failed, the Founders’ revolution did not fail in typical ways but “succeeded only too well”. Wood argues that the price of the democracy the Revolutionaries unleashed on the world was vulgarity, materialism, rootlessness, and anti-intellectualism. But there were “real earthly benefits … to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people”.

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader, though, to ponder whether the more than 20 years of American politics since this book was written have not, in a peculiar way, have seen a growing amalgamation of the worst of the aristocratic and democratic worlds. It is to Wood’s great credit that he has produced a history that educates us about the past and yet so pertinent to our world and conversations today.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Gordon Wood's qualifications as an historian of American colonial and revolutionary history rank with Edmund Morgan [The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (The Chicago History of American Civilization)] and Bernard Bailyn (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution). His 'Radicalism of the American Revolution' sets forth his thesis that the American Revolution, contrary to its reputation in some quarters as a mere war of independence and generally conservative in nature, fundamentally changed American society. By the end of the revolutionary era, America had transitioned from a deferential society subject to rule by an aristocracy to a republican one governed by elected elites to a rowdy democracy dominated by commerce.

Wood's book is challenging both in the sense of being difficult and in the sense of questioning accepted wisdom (at least as it was when he first published the book in 1993). A sound grounding in the history of the era is almost a prerequisite; this is not a narrative history marching from event to event. Wood's main focus is on social change, not to say upheaval, and he slowly, even indirectly, builds his case. Specific events are referenced illustratively to demonstrate a point he has developed over many pages. (In this way, the book called to mind one of my law school professors, Mark Tushnet (Taking the Constitution Away from the Courts), who often took several lectures to develop one critical insight. Lose track briefly and you would be lost in the woods for days.)

Wood (no relation, but tastefully named) makes a compelling case. In a nub, Wood credits the revolution because the dramatic changes occurred while America remained rural and preindustrial. Very high recommendation for any reader interested in history, whether generally or of the American revolution. Radicalism of the American Revolution is a book that warrants and demands your full attention, if not a second reading.
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LibraryThing member Angelic55blonde
After reading this book it is no wonder that it won the Pulitzer Prize. The author did extensive research and his writing style made it interesting and easy to read. The book begins with a background of the colonies prior to the revolution so the reader can better understand how the revolution was so radical and what it changed about American society and politics.

It is a great book, well-researched with easy to reference footnotes and the author did effectively prove his thesis that the revolution was indeed radical. The only downside to this book is that is does get a little slow/boring towards the middle and end of the book which made it a little difficult to finish but it is still a great book.

If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend this book because it is thorough and mostly interesting.
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LibraryThing member Katahdin85
An excellent review of the politics behind America's Revolutionary War and how things spun out of control to the point where later in their lives, Adamsm=, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson et al. came to regret the chain of events they had set in motion. A great read to understand the political nature of Congress today.
LibraryThing member Othemts
A well-researched and engaging historical work in which the great social revolutions (as opposed to the political one) of the American War for Independence are analyzed. The people of the time made some great lurches forward toward true democracy that in some sense has been lost and remains unrealized to this day. Great book!
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LibraryThing member johnclaydon
I tried to reread THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Gordon Wood. I disliked it when I read it when it first came out and my opinion is far lower now. He has almost nothing to say. It is just an endless parade of snippet quotations. Not even of any use for reference.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
The philosophical underpinnings of colonial society, the war, and the changes that ensued after the Americans won the war.
LibraryThing member Jarratt
I know this is a well-reviewed book, but its academic prose and subject matter weren't to my taste. The writing was good and the subject well researched. But I've found that the more academic the book, the more redundant it seems to be. And Mr. Wood provides example after example well after establishing his point. That got tiring. So much so that I quit 50 or so pages in.

I love reading about the American Revolution, the Founders, the Declaration, and the Constitution. And while this book focuses on Colonial 18th century, it didn't delve into those subjects quick enough for me.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
A good look at early American history, centered around the American Revolution. I appreciated the author's focus on social, cultural, and political change (the Revolutionary War barely gets a mention). Chapter by chapter, the author lays out his theory and the evidence for the radical changes the effected American society during this era and how they came together to shift society and government into something we can recognize today. A very interesting read and I look forward to reading more from this author.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jeffrey_Hatcher
Refreshing perspective on the Revolution both in contemporary and modern context. A must have for persons interested in both 18th Century history in general and American history specifically.



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