Book Review: The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood

I like history books that read like novels:  full of anecdotes, details, fast-paced narration, fascinating characters.  This book is not like that.  It does not read like a novel at all; it reads more like a university lecture.  You have to get past that in order to get into it.  You can’t sink into it and ride along with the protagonists.  Because it takes effort to stay tuned in, it is rough going at first.  But when you get used to the author’s style and realize what he is trying to say it’s worth the trip.

The book is divided into three parts.  The first explains what life was like in the American colonies before the revolution which created the United States.  It was a political, economic, and social system based on monarchy and aristocracy, in which a few favored gentry lorded it over the many commoners, who were expected to pay them homage and offer them respect on the presumption that they were superior as human beings based upon their parentage, education, and wealth.  This system was imported, at first without question, from the mother country of Britain, and it was similar to that which existed in virtually every country in Europe at the time.  Then the second part deals with the Republican ideals of the founding fathers.  The author studies in depth the peculiarities of the American experience that led Americans away from the monarchical model, into Republicanism, and ultimately into the wild, radical, novel, unique concept of Democracy.  The founding fathers embraced Republicanism as an alternative to the aristocratic gentility of the past, hoping that Republican ideals would provide moral and ethical stability to the fledgling nation.  But once the genie was out of the bottle there was no stopping it.  The concepts Americans embraced, that all men were created equal, that labor, rather than denoting a demeaning station, was actually honorable, that self-made men could aspire to business and commerce and improve their lot in life, was so different, so unusual, so bizarre, that Europeans would shake their heads in astonishment.

American culture did not evolve; it exploded in a chaotic celebration of egalitarianism and enthusiasm.  It was undisciplined and robust and utterly unprecedented.  Gordon Wood presents and supports his arguments with logic and precision.  As first, as I said, it is slow going, but when you begin to see where he is headed with it all, as you begin to comprehend the big picture, it becomes more and more engrossing.  Whether he is spot-on in all his assessments or not I don’t know.  I haven’t studied enough early American history to verify or refute his arguments.  I wouldn’t take anyone’s word for anything without double and triple checking, without analyzing and cross-referencing.  But it certainly rings true, and it is certainly compelling food for thought.  It makes me understand and appreciate the unique character and culture of the American people, and comprehend from whence it came.

I would recommend this book, but not for entertainment.  However, if you want to know how the United States has become what it is, this book helps to explain some of the early steps.

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