Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History, challenges the argument that the American Revolution lacked sufficient social or economic change to considered truly revolutionary. Historians and philosophers (Wood cites Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution as one example) have argued that the French and other “modern revolutions” arose out of “internal violence, class conflict, and social deprivation.” In contrast, America seemed to lack the wide-scale poverty and political oppression present in other revolutions. None of the revolutionaries attempted to reshape the new country’s “social order,” instead, they settled for more conservative measures that resulted in a government distinct from Britain’s but also sharing many striking characteristics. As Wood notes, one could argue that Americans were merely an exaggerated version of English citizens, expanding upon the emphasis on liberty and freedom present in British society. Even the American’s eventual repudiation of the English monarchy in some ways serves as an example of this exaggeration.
Wood takes issue with Progressive and neo-progressive interpretations, arguing they misread the period’s sensibilities. The Radicalism of the American Revolution focuses on the radical change that the revolution brought to how Americans organized themselves, their relation to others, the nation’s economic transformation, and the resulting government. Organized into three sections: Monarchy, Republicanism, and Democracy, Wood begins with the hierarchical social structure of the colonies under the English crown continues with the concept of Republicanism and its effects on colonial society finishing with the rise of America’s modern democracy. According to Wood, the American Revolution radically altered relationships in American culture that later significantly impacted its economic and political growth. The revolutionaries did have revolutionary ideas for the time, but modern historians failed to consider changing perceptions of long-standing concepts such as equality, interest, and the “disinterested gentlemen.”
Categories: United States History