Radicalism vs. Adequacy:
By Erin Klitzke
significance of the American Revolution is not lost on anyone.
However, that does leave room for people to interpret just how pivotal a
role the Revolution played in US history. Some
historians believe it was not as pivotal as others like to think it is.
Also, there are many differing views on how radical or how conservative
the Revolution was. In his book, The
Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood argues that the
Revolution was the most pivotal and radical event in US history.
Many historians disagree with this stance, saying that the Revolution was
not radical -- some go far as to say that it was, in fact, conservative.
Wood comes to the conclusions he does based on his own reasoning,
evidence he collected, and his interpretation of his evidence.
While his evidence may not be correct in the eyes of other historians,
Wood makes a solid argument that deserves addressing and critical analysis
before one concludes that his arguments and conclusions, however solid they may
be, are wrong.
Wood begins to build his argument by dissecting the British monarchy.
He did this so his reader might "appreciate the extent of change
that took place in the Revolution."
He explains the old hierarchical system and patronage.
With the monarchy ruling in England, most things in life bolstered it --
right down to religion itself. In
the hierarchical system in America, which lacked the nobility and royalty found
in England, the most fundamental difference between people was the one between
gentlemen and non-gentlemen. In
this structured society, image and honor were among the most important things,
as well as fulfilling your role to society, whatever it might have been.
Gentlemen were sort of the “parents” of society and people believed
that it was the duty of a gentleman to take care of those below him in the
social strata. These ideas, the
idea that image and honor were among the most important things to a gentleman
and the idea that a gentleman had a definite role to play in protecting and
guiding those socially below him, remained even after the American Revolution.
American society before the Revolution was a society built on image and
perception of those images. The
need for difference between people for the hierarchy to even work meant that
inequality was very important in this society--there was no way that equality
and this social structure could coexist. Inequality
was rife in the society, and so the hierarchy continued to function. However, the inequality was more arbitrary than natural in
this society, which Wood describes as “truncated” due to its lack of
Whereas in England there was hereditary royalty and nobility and distinct
social classes, such things did not exist in American society--there were
classes, but “the colonial aristocracy was never as well established, never as
wealthy, never as dominant” as it was in England.
The bindings within colonial society “[were] exceedingly fragile and
vulnerable to challenge” because of this truncation of society.
With the late eighteenth century, however, came change.
Wood writes, “Throughout the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world,
traditional authority was brought into question.
Personal and social relationships were not working properly.
The social hierarchy seemed less natural, less ordained by God, and more
man-made, more arbitrary.”
People were drifting away from the ideas of Sir Robert Filmer and his
work, “Patriarchy,” which basically set up a household as a miniature of a
kingdom, with the head of the household as king, where “the Father of a family
[governed] by no other law than by his own will.”
While drifting away from Filmer’s idea, many people drifted toward John
Locke’s ideas, set down in Some Thoughts on Education.
Locke believed “parents had to win the respect an esteem of their
children...though benevolence, and understanding” rather than rule the
household with beatings and arbitrary rulings.
Going hand-in-hand with his Two Treatises of Government, Locke’s
works caused many changes in the social and political life of America.
With the Revolution came a new system of government, a republic, but the
effort left the founding fathers faced with a problem: how to prevent the
failure of their republic. Part of
the republic’s preservation rested on keeping a hierarchy, where natural
aristocrats – educated men of wealth and standing – would occupy the topmost
rung of the societal ladder. These
natural aristocrats, the founding fathers believed, would be disinterested –
that is, they would not allow their personal feelings to have a bearing on their
actions and decisions in government. They
believed that people would trust these disinterested natural aristocrats, but
distrust power and thus be watchdogs over government. They thought people would protect the republican virtues, the
“natural affinities” of love, dedication, and zeal for the republic, and the
“natural principle of attraction in man towards man.” These were not exactly the same as the classical virtues the
founding fathers and natural aristocrats studied, but they were in the same
The founding fathers expected the citizenry to be knowledgeable of the
workings of government and suspicious power.
The founding fathers thought that this system would protect the republic
they built from falling into what they saw as anarchy – democracy.
This was not to be. Almost
immediately, people began to elect people like them, who held their common
interests. The shift from
republicanism to democracy came almost immediately, partially, Wood believes,
because of capitalism. People were
motivated by their own self-interests, even in government, which was not what
natural aristocrats were supposed to do. The
war between the “common man” and the natural aristocrat played out in many
arenas, including the Pennsylvania legislature during the debate about
rechartering of a bank. Wood
The principals in this debate were William Findley, a
Scotch-Irish ex-weaver from western Pennsylvania and a defender of the
debtor-relief and paper-money interests in the state, and Robert Morris, the
wealthiest merchant in the state, with aristocratic aspirations and a major
supported of the rechartering of the bank....Morris and his genteel Philadelphia
ilk had continually tried to pose as disinterested gentlemen in the classical
mold, who were above crass marketplace interests and concerned only with the
public good. But Findley and his
western colleagues refused to let Morris and the aristocratic supporters of the
bank get away with this pose....Findley charged....[the] advocates of the bank
“feel interested in it personally and therefore by promoting it they were
acting as judges in their own cause.”
Unlike others before him, however, Findley did not go on to say that
this interestedness in the issue was bad – in fact, he said that there was
nothing wrong with it because “[any] others in their situation...would do as
Looking out for one’s own economic self-interest gradually stopped
being a bad thing as republicanism lost ground and democracy gained it.
Wood believes that because the American Revolution fundamentally changed
every aspect of life in America, it was the most significant event in American
history. It was radical because of
what happened to white men during the period – the independence of white men.
He believes that the creation of a capitalistic democracy from a
mercantile monarchy was an extremely radical change.
Other historians do not agree.
In a forum on Radicalism of the American Revolution, historians
criticized the book, attacking it because of its narrow focus and the idea that
the Revolution was, in fact, radical. Barbara
Clark Smith argues that Wood omits too much from his argument.
“[Wood] clearly does not mean that [the American Revolution] brought
substantive change in the lot of those who were the most oppressed, subjugated,
or marginal in the society,” Clark writes in her criticism.
She argues that in reading his sources Wood used a “rosy-tinted reading
of [them]” so he could argue that the Revolution was radical, as well as
leaving the “’the Revolution’ in the hands of the elite.”
As a result, Wood “[left] out significant parts of the resistance
movement. There is a gap at the
middle, at the heart, of his dual revolution....[a] section entitled
“Revolution” occupies twenty out of 369 pages of text” because Wood
limited the revolution – indeed, “the term ‘revolutionaries’ [to the]
“[No] one ought this revolution,” Smith laments, if one listens to
Wood’s argument. “One is left
with the impression that Wood’s purpose is no less to discover American
radicalism than to avoid acknowledging radicalisms of the wrong kind.”
Smith thinks that Wood did not examine the Revolution deeply enough, and
believes that he did not look enough at the “forgotten” sectors of society
– instead, he ignored them and pretended that they did not exist.
Linda Kerber and Gary Nash, authors of Women of the Republic and Race
and Revolution respectively, would agree with Smith’s argument. Kerber and Nash both argue in their books that the Revolution
did little for marginalized members of society, specifically women and blacks.
Kerber argues in her book that the Revolution, in fact, set women back
from the position they held before the Revolution.
After the Revolution, women lost the dower rights that had originally
entitled a woman to one third of her husband’s property after his death until
her own death. Also, women became
more restricted in their actions because of the concept of “republican
motherhood.” Society expected the
good Republican Mother to “[train] her children, [teach] them their early
lessons, [and shape] their moral choices.”
In addition to this, women were expected to play only one political role
– “through the raising of a patriotic child” – whereas before and during
the Revolution, they had played many active roles in politics and society
outside of their households.
The Revolution was hardly radical for women, who found what few liberties
they had before the Revolution snatched away from them following it.
Gary Nash addresses the issue of slavery, African-Americans, and the
Revolution in his Race and Revolution.
He would also agree that the American Revolution was not radical for
blacks, because they remained marginalized after the Revolution.
It was not radical for blacks because slavery could have ended with the
Revolution, but did not. There were
fairy easy answers to the two major problems posed by the abolishment of slavery
– compensation and getting rid of blacks, because the natural aristocrats
believed that there was no hope of their republic surviving if it was a biracial
republic. These solutions to these
problems were simple: sell western lands for a little more per acre, and
repatriate and recolonize blacks to Africa.
Neither of these things, however, occurred, leaving blacks marginalized
or enslaved following the Revolution. Two
such large portions of society – women and blacks – subjugated and
marginalized following such a supposedly radical event is ludicrous.
The Revolution could not be radical if two large categories of people in
the society fell by the wayside.
Also, Wood cites capitalism and the rise of economic self-interest as
being major factors in the radicalism of the revolution.
However, Michael Merrill argues that that capitalism did not exist during
the period Wood writes about. Merrill
Capitalism, properly speaking, is not just an
economic system based on market exchange, private property, wage labor, and
sophisticated financial instruments. Such
features are necessary conditions for the existence of capitalism, but they are
not sufficient to distinguish it from other market economies.
Capitalism, more precisely, is a market economy ruled by, or in the
interests of, capitalists.
He goes on to say,
[M]ost Americans were not interested in encouraging
the unlimited accumulation of private fortunes, or in expanding the most
dependent forms of wage labor, or in increasing the financial opportunities
available to the wealthy, or in commodifying everything....[They] did want to
protect the relatively widespread distribution of private property, to ensure
that wage labor could continue to serve as a stepping stone to independent
proprietorship, and to increase the financial opportunities available to the
Americans following the Revolution did not live in a capitalist system.
They lived in a system where everyone strove to be equal and independent.
The arguments of William Findley reflect this when he argued with Robert
Morris over the rechartering of the bank in Pennsylvania reflect this.
In his debate, Findley said:
“We are too unequal in wealth to render a perfect
democracy suitable to our circumstances: yet we are so equal in wealth, power,
&c. that we have no counterpoise sufficient to check or control an
institution of such vast influence and magnitude.”
In this argument, Findley was talking about being able to keep the bank
from getting too much control over wealth.
However, it was not possible to do that in Pennsylvania because of how
equally distributed, wealth, land, and power were. Now, in a capitalistic system, many people would be trying to
get more power than those around them. That
did not exist in the post-Revolutionary system. Looking at Findley’s argument also brings up the point that
that Barbara Clark Smith also brought up – Wood’s interpretation of his
evidence was certainly not the only one and probably not even the best.
Wood concludes that interestedness is good and there is no way someone
can be disinterested, but even in the debate with Morris, Findley falls back on
disinterestedness because that was proper for government officials.
Wood obviously saw what he wanted to see in the evidence that he looked
at to write his book.
Was the American Revolution radical?
The Revolution Wood fabricates was.
Was the real American Revolution radical?
Not nearly as radical as Wood would like.
The American Revolution did cause many changes in American society, and
we still feel lingering effects of it today, but it left far too many people on
the margins of society to be as radical as Wood thinks. I believe that the American Revolution, while not all that
radical, was a pivotal point in American history. I think that it set the stage for what was to come in later
years, even if the processes did not start with the Revolution.
In order for the Revolution to have been radical, it should have touched
everyone and improved their circumstances, instead of pushing women back into
the households they had just escaped, and freeing slaves rather than keeping
them subjugated for another ninety years. It
would have brought true equality between men and women, blacks and whites, or at
least caused people to address those issues more proactively rather than shoved
them aside as unimportant. Had the
Revolution been radical, we would not have had to wait until the Civil War to
see the slaves freed, we would not have had to wait until the twentieth century
and two world wars and then again in the 1960s to see women finally escape their
kitchens, and we would not have had to wait until the civil rights movement to
see black people and white people across the nation eating in the same
restaurants and going to the same schools.
If the Revolution had been truly radical, life today would be very
different than it is now, with a far more equal society ruled by a responsible
government that looks out for nothing beyond the needs of the people.
No. The Revolution was not
at all that radical beyond setting the stage for American history to come.
Gordon Wood, despite his arguments, was wrong.
The American Revolution was not radical, but, as Barbara Smith Clark put
it, a merely “adequate revolution” and barely adequate at that.
 Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage, 1991) pp. 11
 Ibid, p. 109
 Ibid, p. 113
 Ibid, p. 124
 Ibid, p. 145
 Ibid, p. 49
 Ibid, p. 151
 Ibid, p. 215
 Ibid, p. 256
 Ibid, p. 257
 Barbara Clark Smith, “The Adequate Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 51 (1994) 684-692, pp. 684
 Ibid, p. 686
 Ibid, p. 688
 Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (W.W. Norton, 1986) pp. 200
 Ibid, p. 283
 Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (Madison House, 1990)
 Michael Merrill, “Putting Capitalism in its Place: A Review of Recent Literature,” William and Mary Quarterly 52 (1995) pp. 315-326, 322
 Ibid, pp. 322-323
 Jack P. Greene, Colonies to Nation 1763-1789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution (W.W. Norton, 1975) p. 496
 Barbara Clark Smith, “The Adequate Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 51 (1994) pp. 684-692, p. 684