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The Radicalism of the American Revolution ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction

"A republic, if you can keep it."
-Response of Benjamin Franklin when asked whether the Constitutional Convention had created a monarchy or a republic.

Should a traveler, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies.
-David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Nothing speaks better of the essential patriotism and relative unity of the American people than the near-blind acceptance of people from Left to Right that the Revolution was a ringing success and very "good" thing. On the other hand, nothing makes it harder to remedy the failings of the Revolution than that rather universal unwillingness to consider the possibility that it was a failure, one whose full disastrous dimensions have only become more evident with the passage of time. Though he does not present his argument in quite this stark a fashion, Gordon S. Woods's great book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, gives us the opportunity to step back and contemplate the tragic dimensions of what was meant to be a conservative republican revolution but turned into a liberal democratic--and, therefore, radical--one, dismaying the very men who effected it.

From the outset, Mr. Wood makes it clear how thoroughly republicanism had penetrated British thought:
Republicanism did not belong only to the the margins, to the extreme right or left, of English political life. Monarchical and republican values existed side by side in the culture, and many good monarchists and many good English tories adopted republican ideals and principles without realizing the long-run implications of what they were doing. Although they seldom mentioned the term, educated people of varying political persuasions celebrated republicanism for its spirit, its morality, its freedom, its sense of friendship and duty, and its vision of society. Republicanism as a set of values and a form of life was much too pervasive, comprehensive, and involved with being liberal and enlightened to be seen as subversive and monarchical.

Instead of constituting some thin eddy flowing only on the edges of British or even European culture, this republican tradition thus became an important current in its own right that blended and mingled with the monarchical mainstream and influenced its color, tone, and direction. Eighteenth-century republicanism did not so much displace monarchy as transform it.
This phenomenon had been carried to the point that George III himself said: "The pride, the glory of Britain, and the direct end of its constitution is political liberty." Obviously if we are looking for what made the American Revolution radical it can not be its republicanism.

Of what though did republicanism consist? Mr. Wood offers the following outline:
According to the classical republican tradition, man was by nature a political being, a citizen who achieved his greatest moral fulfillment by participating in a self-governing republic. Public or political liberty--or what we now call positive liberty--meant participation in government. And this political liberty in turn provided the means by which the personal liberty and private rights of the individual--what we today call negative liberty--were protected. In this classical republican tradition our modern distinction between positive and negative liberties was not yet clearly perceived, and the two forms of liberty were still often seen as one. Liberty was realized when the citizens were virtuous--that is, willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the community, including service in public office without pecuniary rewards. This virtue could be found only in a republic of equal, active and independent citizens. To be completely virtuous citizens, men--never women, because it was assumed they were never independent--had to be free from dependence and from the petty interests of the marketplace. Any loss of independence and virtue was corruption.

The virtue that classical republicanism encouraged was public virtue. Private virtues such as prudence, frugality, and industry were important but, said Hume, they only made men 'servicable to themselves, and enable them to promote their own interests'; they were not 'such as make them perform their part in society.' Public virtue was the sacrifice of private desires and interests for the public interest. It was devotion to the commonweal. [...]

Republicanism thus put an enormous burden on individuals. They were expected to suppress their private wants and interests and develop disinterestedness--the term the eighteenth century most often used as a synonym for civic virtue: it better conveyed the increasing threats from interests that virtue now faced. [...]

Precisely because republics required civic virtue and disinterestedness among their citizens, they were very fragile polities, extremely liable to corruption. Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man's desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor. In republics, however, each man must somehow be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires, his luxuries, for the sake of the public good.
That's a poignant "somehow", is it not? For with the benefit of hindsight we well know that it proved impossible to so convince men and that what remains best about America is the way the Constitution and the two party system pit men's interests against each other, while what is worst is that the State has co-opted men by playing to their selfish interests, via things like social welfare programs. However noble the Founders' vision for their new republic, it was doomed, particularly once the restraint of a uniquely disinterested and ultimately authoritative monarchy was removed. We can only speculate--because the chance was missed and is unlikely to be offered again--about whether an American Republic freed from the British Parliament but still subject to the Crown, and a strengthened Crown at that, might have proved more enduring.

At any rate, though the Founders obviously should have known better than to place their faith in human virtue, Mr. Wood demonstrates how they went on to destroy what he calls the "ligaments...that had held the old monarchical society together"--patronage and kinship. He then makes the case that, adopting John Locke's theory of Man as a tabula rasa, the revolutionary leaders believed that they could so educate a new citizenry that it would exude civic virtue and that they could replace traditional forms of authority with new relations based on republican decency:
The vision of the revolutionary leaders is breathtaking. As hard-headed and practical as they were, they knew that by becoming republican they were expressing nothing less than a utopian hope for a new moral and social order led by enlightened and virtuous men. Their dreams and eventual disappointments make them the most extraordinary generation of political leaders in American history
As it must be anytime that normally reasonable men turn to utopian idealism, the rest of the story goes downhill from there. Mr. Wood charts the almost universal disillusionment of the Founders with the nation they'd given birth to, but perhaps the best example is Thomas Jefferson, who is generally understood to have been among the most democratic of the lot:
Even Jefferson, sanguine and optimistic as he had always been, was reduced to despair in his last years and to what seems to us today to be an embarrassing fire-eating defense of his South and states' rights. He hated the new democratic world he saw emerging in America--a world of speculation, banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity that he thought he had laid to rest. [...] More than any of the revolutionary leaders, he had relied on the future to take care of itself. Progress, he thought, was on the march, and science and enlightenment were everywhere pushing back the forces of ignorance, superstition and darkness. The people in a liberal democratic society would be capable of solving every problem, if not in his lifetime, then surely in the coming years.

But Jefferson lived too long, and the future and the coming generation were not what he had expected. Jefferson was frightened by the popularity of Andrew Jackson, regarding him as a man of violent passions and unfit for the presidency. He felt overwhelmed by the new paper-money business culture sweeping through the country and never appreciated how much his democratic and egalitarian principles had contributed to its raise. Ordinary people, in whom Jefferson had placed so much confidence, more than his friend Madison, were not becoming more enlightened after all.
Yes, thank God for Madison (and Hamilton) whose greater skepticism about the plasticity of mankind and about the prospect of the dawning of a new epoch of virtue led to the aforementioned Constitution and protected us from truly unfettered democracy.

In the end, the America that the revolution created was not the republic that its leaders intended and therein lies its radicalism. Thus there's an ineffable sadness in the final paragraph of the book:
A new generation of democratic Americans was no longer interested in the revolutionaries' dream of building a classical republic of elitist virtue out of the inherited materials of the Old World. America, they said, would find its greatness not by emulating the states of classical antiquity, not by copying the fiscal-military powers of modern Europe, and not by producing a few notable geniuses and great-souled men. Instead, it would discover its greatness by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and their pecuniary pursuits of happiness--common people with their common interests in making money and getting ahead. No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high--with its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlesness, its anti-intellectualism. But there is no denying the wonder of it and the real earthly benefits it brought to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people. ?The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its consequences still.
A phrase from John Updike seems a fitting epitaph for the republican revolution that went awry: "The fact that we still live well cannot ease the pain of feeling that we no longer live nobly."


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Gordon Wood Links:

    -Gordon S. Wood (Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History, Brown University)
    -BOOKNOTES: Gordon Wood, The American Revolution: A History (C-SPAN, April 21, 2002)
    -REVIEW: of Dead Certainties by Simon Schama (Gordon S. Wood) (pdf file)
    -ARCHIVES: The New York Review of Books: Gordon S. Wood
    -ARCHIVES: The New Republic Online: Gordon S. Wood
    -ESSAY: Eighteenth-Century American Constitutionalism (Gordon S. Wood, APSAnet)
    -ESSAY: The Origins of the Constitution (Gordon S. Wood, APSAnet)
    -REVIEW: of FREEDOM JUST AROUND THE CORNER: A New American History, 1585-1828 By Walter A. McDougall (Gordon S. Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Slaves in the Family (Gordon S. Wood, December 14, 2003, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, edited with an introduction and notes of Frank Shuffelton (Gordon S. Wood, New Republic)
    -INTERVIEW: with Gordon S. Wood (Diane Rehm Show, 6/04/04)
    -CHAT: washingtonpost.com > Discussions > Style > Books: The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Gordon S. Wood, June 1, 2004, Washington Post)
    -AUDIO DISCUSSION: Will the Real Ben Franklin Please Stand Up?: Pulitzer prize-winning historian Gordon Wood leads a ‘constitutional conversation’ about his new book, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (National Constitution Center, June 4, 2004)
    -PROFILE: Franklin fascinating in author's portrayal (Dennis Lythgoe, 6/18/04, Deseret Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Ben Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -AUDIO REVIEW: of The Americanization of Ben Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (John Freeman, CT Now)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (John Brewer, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Gordon S. Wood. The American Revolution: A History (Benjamin H. Irvin, H-Law)
    -INTERVIEW: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: Ray Suarez talks with author Gordon Wood about his new book, The American Revolution: A History. (Online Newshour, April 2, 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: Professor Gordon Wood: American Revolution (Beyond Books, May 8, 1999)
    -INTERVIEW: Inquiring Minds: Gordon Wood on the Electoral College (Kristen Cole, George Street Journal)
    -ARTICLE: The Aurora Forum: A Communist, a Cynic, and a Patriot (Piotr H. Kosicki, 2/01/03, Stanford Review)
    -SPECIAL EDITION: Forum: The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787: A Symposium of Views and Reviews (William & Mary Quarterly, July 1987)
    -ESSAY: Motives at Philadelphia, 1787: Gordon Wood's Neo-Beardian Thesis Reexamined (SHLOMO SLONIM, Law & History Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Gordon S. Wood (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "Gordon S. Wood" (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY: The Liberal Republicanism of Gordon Wood (Steven F. Hayward, Winter 2006, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Anthea Lawson, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood (Paul Johnson, Daily Telegraph)

GENERAL:
    -This Constitution: A Bicentennial Chronicle (APSA Net)
    -REVIEW: of John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty by C. Bradley Thompson (K. R. Constantine Gutzman, The Independent Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Natural Rights Republic. By Michael Zuckert (Christopher Wolfe, First Things)

AVAILABLE ON J-STOR & ACCESSIBLE FROM .EDU ACCOUNTS:
    -ESSAY: A Century of Writing Early American History: Then and Now Compared; Or How Henry Adams Got It Wrong (Gordon S. Wood, June 1995, The American Historical Review)
    -ESSAY: Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century (Gordon S. Wood, July 1982, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Authorship of the Letters from the Federal Farmer (Gordon S. Wood, April 1974, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: A Note on Mobs in the American Revolution (Gordon S. Wood, October 1996, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution (Gordon S. Wood, January 1966, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Massachusetts Mugwumps (Gordon S. Wood, December 1960, The New England Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington's Times by Charles Royster (Gordon S. Wood, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution by Peter Shaw (Gordon S. Wood, Reviews in American History)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Historians and Documentary Editing (Gordon S. Wood, The Journal of American History)
    -ESSAY: How Radical Was the Revolution: A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Gordon S. Wood, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Revolution: The Genteel Radicalism of Gordon Wood (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Michael Zuckerman, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Adequate Revolution (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Barbara Clark Smith, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Radical Recreation of the American Republic (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Joyce Appleby, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
   -ESSAY: Equality and Social Conflict in the American Revolution (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Michael McGiffert, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: A Pearl in a Gnarled Shell: Gordon S. Wood's The Creation of the American Republic Reconsidered (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Pauline Maier, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Between Bailyn and Beard: The Perspectives of Gordon S. Wood (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (John Patrick Diggins, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Gordon S. Wood, the "Republican Synthesis," and the Path Not Taken (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Jack N. Rakove, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Also There at the Creation: Going beyond Gordon S. Wood (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (Gary B Nash, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Gordon S. Wood and the Analysis of Political Culture in the American Revolutionary Era (in Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution) (John Howe, October 1994, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Joyce Appleby, The American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Edward Countryman, Reviews in American History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (H. G. Pitt, The English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Richard R. Johnson, Journal of Interdisciplinary History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Colin Bonwick, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Robert M. Weir, The Journal of Southern History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Drew R. McCoy, The Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Alan Taylor, The Historical Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Page Smith, The Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Jackson Turner Main, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (J. G. A. Pocock, Journal of Interdisciplinary History)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (E. James Ferguson, Political Science Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (J. R. Pole, The Historical Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Robert E. Brown, The American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (John R. Howe, Jr., The Journal of Southern History)
    -REVIEW: of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood (Charles W. Akers, The New England Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Russian-American Dialogue on the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood; Louise G. Wood (David J. Nordlander, The William and Mary Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Russian-American Dialogue on the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood; Louise G. Wood (Alan Taylor, The Journal of American History)

GENERAL:
    -REVIEW: of The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic by Ralph Lerner (Paul Goodman, Reviews in American History)
    -ESSAY: Republicanism: the Career of a Concept Daniel T. Rodgers, June 1992, The Journal of American History)
    -ESSAY: Power and Authority in American History: The Case of Charles A. Beard and His Critics (John Patrick Diggins, October 1981, The American Historical Review)

Book-related and General Links:

GENERAL:
    -REVIEW: of Affairs of Honour by Joanne B. Freeman (James Bowman, Times Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic by John Ferling (Joyce Appleby, Washington Post)

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