Radicalism vs. Adequacy:  
Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, its arguments and criticisms of them

By Erin Klitzke

          The 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."[1]  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 complexity.[2]  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.[3]  The bindings within colonial society “[were] exceedingly fragile and vulnerable to challenge” because of this truncation of society.[4]

          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.”[5]  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.”[6]  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.[7]  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 spirit.[8]  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 explains:

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.”[9]

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 they did.”[10]  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.[11]  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.”[12]  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] elite.”[13]  “[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.”[14]  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.”[15]  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.[16]  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.[17]

          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 writes:

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.[18]

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 many.[19]

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.”[20]

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.[21]

[1] Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage, 1991) pp. 11

[2] Ibid, p. 109

[3] Ibid, p. 113

[4] Ibid, p. 124

[5] Ibid, p. 145

[6] Ibid, p. 49

[7] Ibid, p. 151

[8] Ibid, p. 215

[9] Ibid, p. 256

[10] Ibid, p. 257

[11] Barbara Clark Smith, “The Adequate Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 51 (1994) 684-692, pp. 684

[12] Ibid, p. 686

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid, p. 688

[15] Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (W.W. Norton, 1986) pp. 200

[16] Ibid, p. 283

[17] Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (Madison House, 1990)

[18] Michael Merrill, “Putting Capitalism in its Place: A Review of Recent Literature,” William and Mary Quarterly 52 (1995) pp. 315-326, 322

[19] Ibid, pp. 322-323

[20] Jack P. Greene, Colonies to Nation 1763-1789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution (W.W. Norton, 1975) p. 496

[21] Barbara Clark Smith, “The Adequate Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 51 (1994) pp. 684-692, p. 684