Thursday, May 10, 2012

Radicalism and the American Revolution by Gordon Wood


I very much enjoyed Gordon Wood’s Radicalism and the American Revolution.  This book is not for every reader, however.  I would only recommend Wood’s work for those with a very serious interest in the topics covered.  These subjects include the American Revolution, the history of government, as well as the social changes that occurred in Western Civilization during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  If one does have an abiding interest in these areas, then Radicalism and the American Revolution is a must read.

Wood’s book does not present a straightforward narrative; instead it provides facts, statistics and a lot of quotations from the period of roughly 1750 to 1830.  This information is woven together to produce suppositions.  These hypotheses are often convincing and are always fascinating.  The entire basis of the work runs counter to the somewhat popular argument that the American Revolution was not a revolution at all, but only a war for independence.  Wood also refutes the contention that even if the American Revolution was a political revolution, it was not a social revolution.  The author presents his case that during this era, America experienced massive political, social, philosophical, demographic and economic changes that were comparable to other great upheavals.

Wood illustrates how this period in American history brought about enormous alteration in the social structure and hierarchy that was ingrained into American society.  Most relationships, starting with a the personal connections that many people perceived that they had to the king, to local government, as well as to their own families, were radically transformed.  Society changed from a structure of vertical, patriarchal connections to a system of horizontal relationships and coalitions.

Additionally, Wood points out how the American Revolutionary period brought about great changes in government, demographics, and economics.  Everything, from the way parents raised their children to the way commerce was conducted, from the way Americans received and evaluated information to even table manners, to name just a few points, metamorphosed during this period.

All of these changes that took place during the early 1800s produced an amazingly dynamic, individualistic and egalitarian society that bubbled with ideas and commerce.  This society was unique in the world and had a major impact on how the present day world came to be.

Wood does point out that this dynamism and the advantages that it bestowed was mostly restricted to white men.  He does address and explore the implications that these changes had on women, African–American slaves and Native Americans.  The author does not shy away from enormous contradictions between this flowering of liberty that benefitted some groups and the horrors of slavery and other evils that were present at this time.  He attempts to explain how these vast incongruities could exist.  He further explores what effect the revolution had on various movements such as abolition and women’s rights.

 Somewhat controversially, Wood contends that, like most revolutions, the changes in America ran well beyond what its original instigators ever intended.  I will further explore this point in more detail below.  Thus, Wood contends that while not as violent or mob driven as the French Revolution and other similar events, this American experience was just as radical.

 As with many good books, there are too many ideas in Radicalism and the American Revolution to comprehensively delve into within a single blog post.  As I am fond of doing, I will concentrate upon what was for me one of many fascinating points found in the book.  This topic revolves around the political theory and history of Classical Republicanism as interpreted by the revolutionary generation.  I need to mention that I believe the ideology ascribed by Wood as “Classical Republicanism” that was espoused by many of America’s founders is not entirely congruous with the other historical characterizations of this ideology that I have run into.  I am confining my discussion to Wood’s definition and interpretation here.

Classical Republicanism, at least during this era, was premised on the preposition that anyone who had strong “interest” in society, particularly economic interests, was unfit to govern and lead. The self-interested individual would only advocate for and support policies that were advantageous to that person and his peers.

Instead, government should be comprised of men who were “uninterested”.  Such men would impartially judge among the competing interests that existed in society.  This leadership class should also be composed of the best educated and the most virtuous citizens.  Who could possibly meet these requirements?  Many of the founders believed that such headship should be drawn from a special group of the wealthy and elite.

This group was comprised of men of propriety wealth.  In theory, these rich landowners controlled vast estates that provided a steady source of wealth and income that required little management.  These property owners, numerous in Virginia but present in various forms in all of the states, were considered to be independent of mercantile, speculative and other capitalistic pursuits.  Such economic disinterest would put this class of men above any personal ambitions for profit and allow them to be fair arbiters of society.  Instead of representing particular groups, these leaders would represent everyone.  These men were also usually well educated and considered by some to be the most honorable members of society.  This new elite would replace the old aristocracy and monarchy that was swept aside by the revolution.

Lest one err in concluding that this dream of Classical Republicanism came to be in an America that for much of its history has been dominated by moneyed interests, the Classical Republicans did not believe that capitalists or businessmen should ever be allowed to govern society. Contrary to the wealthy estate holders who, it was supposed, did not need to do anything to assure their income, citizens who were involved in mercantilism or speculation were some of the most interested people around and were thus not trustworthy enough for government service.

Many of the Classical Republicans held an enormous distrust for the lower classes and the dangers of mob rule, and were particularly opposed to universal male suffrage.  However, a social and political structure led by uninterested men whose actions were exemplary and beyond reproof would help to encourage virtue in all layers of society, and thus help to pacify members of the lower classes.  The behavior of the elite would be the model for all classes.  Hard work, frugality, education and civility would be highly valued by everyone in such a nation.

To some extent, Classical Republicanism government may have operated more or less as intended during the administration of George Washington.  Washington was in many ways the epitome of the disinterested elite and virtuous republican.  He was not only a wealthy land owner, but on many occasions he honestly strived to rise above the fray and act the disinterested leader who looked beyond parochial interests for what he believed to be the good of all society.

Wood argues that the formulation of the United States Constitution in 1787 was in part an attempt by the Federalists, who championed the idea of Classical Republicanism to defend and solidify their chosen system.  The Constitution included such bastions of Classical Republicanism as a Senate elected by state legislatures, a powerful executive chosen not by the people but by electors, as well as Supreme Court Justices who served for life. Wood points out that the Constitution failed to enshrine this system as intended. Many history and government scholars and buffs, including at times myself, have extoled the genius that the founders showed in crafting this document.  If we accept Wood’s contention, at least in this respect, the Constitution was a failure in the eyes of its creators!

Of course, this version of Classical Republicanism was an interesting theory of government that was based upon false premises.  For one thing the American landed elite never were so secure as to be able to disregard all capitalistic and speculative pursuits.  To the contrary, after the war, these wealthy patricians found that they were falling deeper and deeper in debt, and thus began to engage in financial speculation in order to supplement income.

Another major impediment to the success of this system was the fact that other powerful groups, such as the mercantile interests and tradesmen, soon demanded their own representation in the republic.  This was coupled by the tendency of lower economic classes to develop a desire for material goods and luxuries.  This acquisitiveness in the population ran counter to the idea of the frugal, hard working and virtuous citizen championed by the supporters of Classical Republicanism

Like most and perhaps all revolutions, the American Revolution far outdistanced and eventually buried the intentions and goals of the original revolutionaries.  Though not a point made by Wood, I find it ironic that when describing discredited political or economic systems, such as communism, modern day commentators and historians use terms like ‘the dustbin of history” and often express bemusement that anyone ever espoused such ideologies.  It turns out that many of America’s founding icons, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, believed in and attempted to establish just as unworkable a system.

To the dismay of many of the cherished founders, the idea of Classical Republicanism gave way to what we call Liberal Democracy.  This new, much more radical system, championed by the anti–Federalists, acknowledged that society was full of competing interests and there really was no group that was truly disinterested. Therefore the best form of government contained legislatures composed of representatives of various groups.  Partisans would coalesce around parties.  The legislators would be engaged in constant push and pull as well as compromise.  The end result of this competitive process would yield balanced governance.  This is the system what the modern democracies more or less still adhere to today.

Wood’s argument that Classical Republicanism was a goal of many of America’s founders that ultimately unraveled and gave way to more radical ideas is a convincing one.  I do however find a flaw in Wood’s presentation.  Often, Radicalism and the American Revolution presents the conflict between the Federalists who supported Classical Republicanism and the Anti–Federalists who opposed it as too monolithic.  The book casts supporters and opponents as being without much nuance.  My own understanding of the views and policies of America’s founders includes all sorts of variations and contradictions on this matter.  For instance, Jefferson epitomized and led the anti–Federalists, yet he championed the agrarian, landed estate holders who were supposed to lead the Classical Republican society.  Hamilton expressed enormous distrust of the masses and mob rule, yet he advocated for the emerging mercantile class that Classical Republicans would exclude from governance.  Washington, the embodiment of a patrician republican, was extremely pragmatic and never really believed that any group was above partisanship and thus truly disinterested.

Though in my opinion he pushes his point and portrays it a little too simplistically, Wood is on to something when he describes this antiquated political theory and how it quickly gave way to more revolutionary ideas.  He presents a thoroughly researched, smart and thought provoking study and analysis of this issue.

Wood’s book is full of interesting ideas for those who are inclined to delve deeply into these subjects.  The examination of the idea and history of Classical Republicanism in American is only one of many avenues that he strides here.  As someone very interested in the history and ideology of this era, I enjoyed this book immensely. This work is however, in the language of modern slang, wonky.  I would only recommend Radicalism and the American Revolution to those who are indeed very interested.

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