My personal countdown, long dormant, concludes on this Independence Day with two classics on the American Revolution. Many regular visitors to this blog not only will have read these books but, I expect, will have a working familiarity with them. For others—indeed, for anyone who hopes to understand the Revolution—I offer my strongest recommendation on behalf of these two books. You will enjoy them.
Here’s a refresher (for a review of the parameters, see #5):
Number Five: Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (1980)
Number Four: George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (1952)
Number Three: Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (1995)
Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967)
Not until I read this book did I fully understand why the American Revolution happened.
For many years scholars had explained the Revolution as principally a Lockean phenomenon. Having experienced the oppressions of arbitrary power, the rebels in 1776 established a new regime presumably inspired by, and founded upon, both natural rights and consent of the governed. To those who studied revolutionary thought, the transcendent importance of Lockean liberalism, given its prominent place in the nation’s founding document, seemed, for lack of a better phrase, self-evident. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, this liberal consensus began to crumble, as historians discovered that there was a good deal more to America’s eighteenth-century intellectual tradition than John Locke.
Building on earlier studies by Caroline Robbins and H. Trevor Colbourn, Bernard Bailyn offered a new and persuasive interpretation of the Revolution’s origins. Through extensive analysis of revolutionary-era pamphlet literature, Bailyn revealed that America’s patriots drew upon a number of sources, including, most important of all, a group of seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century English opposition writers such as Algernon Sidney, Robert Molesworth, Viscount Bolingbroke, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. These men, along with some of their contemporaries, sounded the alarm against the growing English state. Liberty, they claimed, always had much to fear from the encroachments of those who wield power. Taken together, these opposition writers also appeared to predict the precise pattern by which those in power would attempt to destroy liberty: debts, taxes, tax-gatherers and a multiplication of government offices (useful also for patronage), popular discontent, and, the coup de grace in this conspiracy, the imposition of a standing army. Looking back from the 1770s, America’s revolutionaries could not help but find these earlier opposition writings most useful for explaining what had happened to the colonies since 1763.
In short, Bailyn’s book transformed the way scholars think and write about the American Revolution. More than forty years later, it remains indispensable.
Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
Whereas Bailyn’s Ideological Origins explains the Revolution’s causes, Gordon Wood’s Radicalism shows with incomparable erudition how the Revolution fundamentally altered American society. On the face of it, this assertion does not seem to square with history. “We Americans,” Wood begins, “like to think of our Revolution as not being radical; indeed, most of the time we consider it downright conservative.” Based on the amount of violence, bloodshed, and social upheaval it occasioned, the American Revolution does appear tame in comparison with other great revolutions—in France, Russia and China, for example. Furthermore, by any measure the white American colonists who made this revolution were the freest and most prosperous people in the world. How, then, could a primarily political revolution without any apparent social causes qualify as radical? Wood explains:
“The social distinctions and economic deprivations that we today think of as the consequence of class divisions, business exploitation, or various isms—capitalism, racism, etc.—were in the eighteenth century usually thought to be caused by the abuses of government. Social honors, social distinctions, perquisites of office, business contracts, privileges and monopolies, even excessive property and wealth of various sorts—all social evils and social deprivations—in fact seemed to flow from connections to government, in the end from connections to monarchical authority. So that when Anglo-American radicals talked in what seems to be only political terms—purifying a corrupt constitution, eliminating courtiers, fighting off crown power, and, most important, becoming republicans—they nevertheless had a decidedly social message.”
In 1776, Americans rejected not only royal authority but the entire monarchical and aristocratic superstructure that maintained it. To be sure, this political revolution did not alter society overnight; history doesn’t work that way. It did, however, constitute the most dramatic and decisive moment in early America’s republican transformation.
Wood shows that eighteenth-century American society, despite the absence of a king (in person) or a hereditary aristocracy, was decidedly monarchical. It was a world of patricians and plebeians, gentlemen and commoners, where talent and merit prevailed only through patronage, and where one’s claims to political authority depended entirely upon one’s social standing. Republican sentiments, however, even before 1776, already were beginning to erode the foundations of monarchism. After 1776, as a direct consequence of the political revolution, Americans democratized their society with an enthusiasm that exceeded both the expectations and in many cases the hopes of those who had led the rebellion against royal authority in the first place. It was this incredibly rapid democratization—the acceptance of equality for white males, the legitimization of interest, etc.—that finally destroyed the old monarchical world. Again, Wood is worth quoting at length. This comes from the final paragraph of his incredible book:
“America…would discover its greatness by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and pecuniary pursuits of happiness—common people with their common interests in making money and getting ahead. No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high—with its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlessness, its anti-intellectualism. But there is no denying the wonder of it and the real earthly benefits it brought to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people. The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its consequences still.”
Many people write good histories. Few write with such sweeping authority and elegance. Small wonder, then, that Gordon Wood, the greatest historian of Early America in the last fifty years, has written what I regard as the best and most important book on Early America to appear in the last fifty years, or, for that matter, at any time since Americans began chronicling their past.