In the associational way I tend to approach reading, I decided, after reading Robert Conroy’s Liberty: 1784, to dive into my library of unread books and read something non-fictional and related.
Review: The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, 1991
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, 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.
That was the short review I did for Amazon and LibraryThing.
Actually, I hope to not leave it as an exercise to the reader to contemplate whether America is developing into a society that is monarchical while calling itself democratic. I hope to do some follow up posts on that and some more detailed thoughts I have after reading this very rich and rewarding book.