The Radicalism of the American Revolution

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Vintage Books, 1991 - History - 447 pages
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In a grand and immemsely readable synthesis of historical, political, cultural, and economic analysis, a prize-winning historian depicts much more than a break with England. He gives readers a revolution that transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers.

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The radicalism of the American Revolution

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Historians have always had problems explaining the revolutionary character of the American Revolution: its lack of class conflict, a reign of terror, and indiscriminate violence make it seem ... Read full review

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Nature of the American Nation: Analyzing Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution
In The Radicalism of the American Revolution Gordon Wood seeks to explain both the origins and nature of
American society by way of juxtaposing the colonial and early republic periods of American history in order to exemplify the sweeping changes which occur as American gains independence and forms a nationhood. This approach yields an account of thirteen distinct colonies that experience a simultaneous unification and restructuring, on a scale of which had not been known in any nation or colony at that moment. In searching for a valid explanation for the unique combination of events that befall the early American nation, Wood offers neither politics or the Revolutionary War, but a wave of social radicalism; a philosophical phenomenon that he asserts predates the commonly noted political rationale for these changes. Furthermore, Wood believes the social revolution he describes in detail should supersede the physical revolution against Great Britain in defining the history of the Early Republic; Wood proposes previously ignored strata of historical events—those he terms radical—are in fact the foundation of the American nation.
Wood moves in this direction despite the traditional tendency of historians to focus on the Revolutionary War and parallel political (republican) rhetoric as the key to understanding the transition between the colonialism and independence. In fact, Wood excludes the physical conflict—the Revolutionary War—from his analysis in preference for a revolution that was just as “radical and social as any revolution in history.” Instead of explaining the emergence of the American republic as being rooted in the Revolutionary War, Wood proposes instead that an American Revolution transpired simultaneously—a half century of social radicalism. In excluding the War, Wood moves away from the historical narratives that explain America as rising in the wake of a noble rebellion, instead suggesting the War for Independence is merely a and taking a bold and welcomed step in the direction of social history. First, Wood’s seeks to re-establish the meaning of the phrase American Revolution from a physical event to a philosophical one.
Wood is quite successful in demonstrating how in such a breviloquent epoch thirteen muddled colonies—each with different histories, philosophies and demographics—came to share a solidarity that first breaks with monarchial traditions, then embraces republicanism, and finally yields to democratic influences. Accordingly, Wood supports this thesis in three parts which focus respectively on those periods of monarchy, republicanism, and democracy. This format implies and allows for both a pattern of chronology and thematic change, but Wood is not implying a universal relationship between time and progress in the American nation. Wood’s argument relies on the emergence of the so-called “common man” as the American Republic dawns out of Monarchial society but subsequently consumes itself and leaves behind a commercially and self-interested dominated Democratic society. It is this result—democratic, self-interested, mob rule—that Wood asserts sent the founding fathers to their deaths unsatisfied with the state of the American nation.
Wood’s thesis is not invulnerable, however rich and colorful Wood’s scholarship might be. He fails to resolve any of the paradoxes which betray the American republic; namely women and African Americans. Wood also seems to underestimate the American aristocracy in placing an emphasis on the rise of the middle-class order and overstating the decline of elitist interests in American politics. While he successfully argues many valid points in establishing his radical revolution, the unresolved issues—slavery and treatment of women—reveals cracks in the foundation of his thesis.
Nowhere does Gordon Wood place more emphasis than on the significance of societal changes that occur in the early American republic. The societal baseline


Patricians and Plebeians
Patriarchal Dependence

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About the author (1991)

History professor and award-winning author Gordon S. Wood was born in Concord, Massachusetts on November 27, 1933. After graduating in 1955 from Tufts University he served in the US Air Force in Japan and earned his master's degree from Harvard University. In 1964, Wood earned his Ph. D. in history from Harvard, and he taught there, as well as at the College of William and Mary and the University of Michigan, before joining the Brown University faculty in 1969. Wood has published a number of articles and books, including The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, which won the Bancroft Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize in 1970, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize in 1993. He has won many other awards in the past five decades from organizations such as the American Historical Association, the New York Historical Society, and the Fraunces Tavern Museum. Wood is a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In 2014, his book, The American Revolution: A History, was on the New York Times bestseller list.

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