An Essay About "The Radicalism Of The American Revolution" By Gordon Wood
Review: The Adequate Revolution Author(s): Barbara Clark Smith Reviewed work(s):
The Radicalism of the American Revolution. by Gordon S. Wood Source: The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 684-692 Published by: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2946926 Accessed: 01/06/2009 15:05
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The Adequate Revolution
Barbara Clark Smith
t v f HE Radicalism of the American Revolution is a powerful and ambitious work, a synthesis that aspires to reinterpret events that Americans have long seen as central to their identity as a nation. Gordon Wood
states his purpose in the title: his book will explicate ways in which the American Revolution was radical, establishing that it was, in fact, "as radical and as revolutionary as any [such upheaval] in history."1 But if the radical- ism of the era is crucial to Wood, it remains in his hands an elusive and unsatisfying characterization. Seventeenth-century English revolutionaries toppled a king and embraced startling, leveling, and millennial ideas. Eighteenth-century French revolutionaries went so far as to abolish slavery and consider the rights of women as citizens of the republic. And in early nineteenth-century Peru, an anticolonial revolution produced the impulse to include Native Americans as "Peruvians." In the light of such events, how are we to understand Wood's repeated emphasis on the radicalism of the American case? He clearly does not mean that it brought substantive change in the lot of those who were most oppressed, subjugated, or marginal in the society. Wood credits the Revolution with ending slavery in the North and, in the long run, raising the status of all African Americans and women; he notes that Revolutionary events generated notions of social leveling among a few. Yet these developments are not central to his story. The liberation of those at the bottom, the inclusion of those left out, the amelioration of con- ditions for the "have-nots" of eighteenth-century American society-these are not Wood's criteria for measuring the radicalism of the era.
I want to explore what Wood means by radicalism-radicalism American style, a very particular make and model. While his book promises a more inclusive and expansive view, in the end, I think, it offers a narrow under- standing of eighteenth-century experience and works to limit our sense of political possibility. I take that action of constraint and limitation to be the most consequential element of the book.
What were the characteristics that made the Revolution radical? Most obviously, perhaps, Wood means that it was extensive and sweeping. No quick explosion of colonial resentment, American Independence had roots deep in the colonial past and came to fruition in the experience of subse- quent generations. As Wood constructs it, the American Revolution con- sisted of more than the two decades of turmoil that consume a full semester
Barbara Clark Smith is a curator at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, I992), 5.
The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Vol. LI, No. 4, October I994
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in many college courses. His synthetic account, he suggests, will offer a larger view. Some historians cite John Adams, who said that the Revolution took place well before Independence in the hearts and minds of the American people; others quote Benjamin Rush, who declared that the Revolution would not be complete until the institutions of American society were transformed in accordance with the premises of liberty. Wood deftly and ambitiously incorporates both emphases; his revolution is a long revolu- tion and it happens twice.2
It happens first to a society steeped in the principles of monarchy. Colonial America was obsessed with dependencies, premised on patriarchal authority, caught up with degrees and subordinations, organized around per- sonal connections and political influence, committed above all to hierarchy. That society had republican aspects nonetheless, for the colonies suffered from a weak aristocracy, unruly commoners, and a mobile population increasingly given to commerce and consuming. These elements of republi- canism became so pronounced that the Revolutionaries were able to slough off monarchy rather effortlessly when the time came. Here Wood agrees with Adams: before the conflict with Britain, republicanism was already pre- sent in the social relationships and, one presumes, in the hearts and minds of those (barring tories among others) who would come to qualify as "the American people." But Wood's revolution occurs decades later as well, in a democratic phase, as republicanism (which, after all, was already pervasive in American society and, as such, is not easily posed as an agent of sweeping change) yielded to democracy, as the pretensions of aristocracy fell and the defense of gentlemanly merit increasingly fell on deaf ears. In this moment Wood finds the "real revolution," a transformation that took place in the nineteenth century, the time frame suggested by Benjamin Rush, and that continued, sadly for his generation, beyond.3
As to what was radical about this, readers receive various and conflicting indications. Patriot leaders, Wood points out, adopted a radically new way of seeing themselves and their world. Born in a society that reserved political authority for men of birth and breeding, they imagined and dared to embrace the notion that men of humble origins might merit political rule. Such a vision was more sweeping and transformative than may first appear, given the traditional premises from which the patriots began. "No presump- tion about politics was in fact more basic to this society" than the identity of social and political authority.4 It follows that what later generations read as political rhetoric in fact contained prescriptions for substantial social change. Wood's account of elite patriots' commitment provides some of the best pages of his book: leading colonists made a visionary leap when they chanced their future on republicanism.
2 Edmund S. Morgan counterposes Adams's and Rush's ideas in "Challenge and Response: Reflections on the Bicentennial," in The Challenge of the American Revolution (New York, I976), I97-I98.
3 Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, 276. 4 Ibid., 86.
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Within pages, however, those patriots' achievement melts into air. Readers learn that the Revolution was not republican at all. Those famous leaders who presided over the first of its movements, so lately praised for their vision, are revealed to have accomplished little. Independence itself was a "clarifying incident," Wood says, and in the face of powerful demographic and market forces the Revolutionaries' goal of a virtuous citizenry and reformed society rapidly gave way.5 In the aftermath of the Revolution, with the coming of the Jacksonian age, Americans faced the limits of human virtue, dismissed their utopian ideals, and accepted the invisible hand of self-interest as the basis for social and political life. The radicalism of the Revolution, it emerges, was not republicanism but its abandonment.
This construction of historical events and this version of radicalism depend on a selective, often rosy-tinted reading of sources. One example is the way Wood turns to William Byrd to illuminate Americans' commitment to equality. "When someone as aristocratic as William Byrd could write of the natural equality of all men, even those of different nations and races, . . . then we know the force of this enlightened republicanism."6 Replace "force" with "impotence" and the argument holds as fully. Wood's depiction of American society would be far more persuasive if he acknowledged such dilemmas. Moreover, though common people would contribute antiaristo- cratic sentiments and soon come into their own, to a striking extent Wood keeps "the Revolution" in the hands of an elite. It is not simply that elite and privileged sources are the ones Wood generally cites, the ones whose opinions he trusts. On more than a few occasions, he quotes their testimony, then takes their observations as realizations or discoveries-the truth and not opinion, the whole and not the part. Beyond that, Wood seems to believe his own argument only halfway: having said that the real revolution occurred despite their aspirations and often beyond their lifetimes, still it is leading republicans-the Founding Fathers, the old standbys-whom Wood means when he speaks of "the revolutionaries" throughout the book. Many historians have worked to broaden and deepen that term, and Wood's usage has conspicuous constraining effects.
Reserving the term "revolutionaries" for an elite makes it possible, even necessary, for Wood to leave out significant parts of the resistance move- ment. There is a gap at the middle, at the heart, of his dual revolution. If he offers more than the usual college course on Revolutionary America, he also offers less. A section entitled "Revolution" occupies twenty out of 369 pages of text. Neither there nor elsewhere do readers learn substantial amounts about these topics and events: the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre; the gathering of Sons of Liberty; women mobilizing to disuse tea and take up the spinning wheel; merchants and artisans negotiating over terms of nonimportation; committees of correspondence feverishly linking inland vil- lages and seaports; committees of inspection cementing a cross-class patriot
5 Ibid., I25. 6 Ibid., 235-236.
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coalition by enforcing the Continental Association of I774; wartime antitory mobs and struggles against monopolists and price gougers. In this revolution there is no heroism, delinquency, or treason; no one fought this revolution (save George Washington, who took no salary for it). Although the federal Constitution comes in for discussion, the bulk of what counts as "the Revolution" in many courses and monographs is barely here.
Readers receive no picture of the unfolding of resistance, the moves and countermoves of different actors, the reluctance of merchants and the energy of artisans; the fears of indebted slaveholders as they faced fervent evangeli- cals and unruly African-American workers. Wood doesn't march us through the familiar course of events, and for that we might well be grateful, save for this effect: he has thereby omitted the means by which the patriot coalition, a coalition across region, rank, interest, and belief, was achieved. Although Wood touches base with much of the work that has been done in social and cultural history, although he takes on board information about family struc- tures, relations of labor, evangelical religion, and other topics of recent scholarship, still, we might object, he sets sail leaving Jack Tar on shore. Historians have explored the experience, actions, and evolving political con- sciousness of the middling and plebeian, often precisely in order to illumi- nate the Revolution's radical sources and aspects. Wood does not grapple with that literature; often he acknowledges the presence of such groups, then leaves them out of account.
There is too little here, for example, about popular ideas of liberty and popular political forms. Wood does not consider whether the relatively hum- ble patriots who joined the Revolution actively shaped the coalition and con- tributed their own understandings of events. If there was something radical about the era, it seems, it could not be the plebeian capacity for interracial alliance, for running away, rising up, contesting the law, and otherwise pre- suming their own competence to occupy a public terrain. If there was some- thing radical about patriot leaders, it could not be their capacity to ally themselves and hence negotiate with those beneath them on the social scale. So the long sweep of Wood's Revolution, from colonial society to Jacksonian America, takes place at the surface, absent a careful account of revolutionary events, absent the agency of artisans, sailors, and foot soldiers, absent the full daring of elite patriots, who staked their all on their inferiors' competence to resist constituted authority and to commit themselves to liberty.
When Wood does note the agency of ordinary people, it is ultimately to dismiss the significance of their actions. Take, for example, toryism. True, Wood tells us, some 8o,ooo loyalists left during the Revolution, and a good many more-close to half a million, or 20 percent of the white population- stayed but were removed from positions of prominence.7 True, they were disproportionately from the ranks of the influential, the officeholding, and the well-to-do, and true, excising them was partly the project of mobs, often plebeian in composition, arguably excessive in their tactics, and sometimes
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controversial in their selection of targets. Yet there was no "social struggle" against "entrenched elites," Wood says in his overview.8 There is a defensive and narrowing effect to this disjunctive thinking: whatever antitory crowds were doing, it seems, it was not the American Revolution. To accept much of Wood's argument, to follow his use of terms, readers must absorb an imperative: although many things have happened in this history, we allow only some of them to count. In this context, it seems to me, only some his- torical actors, only some historical radicalisms, can even be visible.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that what interests Wood most about African- American slavery is whether that institution was conspicuous to eighteenth- century Euro-Americans. (His preoccupation with that issue underscores how greatly the book is about what only some Americans saw.) Other histo- rians have taken the denial of slavery as a historical fact of extraordinary sig- nificance; Wood takes elite subjectivity as unproblematic. Most slaveholders and others saw no evil, Wood tells us, as if that were all we need to know about them or as if theirs were the only subjectivities that mattered. Surely African-American slavery was conspicuous to some Americans: it depends on who was looking. Yet a host of people remain throughout Wood's account merely the object of others' acknowledgment or denial.
We might imagine a radical revolution in the eighteenth century, centered in the vision and the acts of those Americans-patriot and tory, black and white-who extended the imperatives of liberty from the imperial contro- versy to relationships at home. The radical moment in some Americans' rev- olution came when they looked anew at slavery. Although some Founding Fathers would still figure as revolutionaries in this story and although the narrative would still unfold in the nineteenth century, its center would sub- stantially shift outside elite hands and elite vision.
One is left with the impression that Wood's purpose is less to discover American radicalism than to avoid acknowledging radicalisms of the wrong kind. He plays down historical reservations about the market to suggest an unproblematic relationship between ordinary people and consumption. People beneath the ranks of the genteel sought to acquire luxury goods beginning in the seventeenth century, he points out, then proceeds as if lib- eration consisted of freedom to consume. "Most Americans agreed that they could not have too many imports."9 Yet in one crucial decade, from I765 to I775, colonists high and low sought liberty by rallying around a critique of consumption and withdrawing from the British market. Matters were more complex than Wood allows. What, after all, was it like for so many to oper- ate in a system of transactions between parties "presumed to be equal" when they were more and more unequal in actual fact?10 Antebellum Americans were strongly evangelical, Wood says, but he does not note that many looked to religion-as to trade unionism, political participation, and social reform-precisely to give their individualistic, consuming society some
8 Ibid., 4. 9 Ibid., I37. 10 Ibid., i62, 34?-
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moral compass. Instead, Wood resolves the Revolution into a comfortable, democratic nineteenth-century society that was, after all, good enough for everyone. What, in the end, does Wood mean when he characterizes the American Revolution as radical? At heart, I think, he means that it was adequate.
Edmund S. Morgan once noted that most Americans seem to think that the American Revolution was "a good thing." Morgan's characteristic under- statement contains a wealth of insight. Few historians or others approach the Revolution freshly; they operate in a context, for the mobilization of resis- tance, the winning of independence, the formation of the Constitution are the very acts of unity, self-definition, and self-constitution that constructed "us" and that provide a "We the people" to act as subjects of a common and coherent narrative. Since George Bancroft, more than a few historians have embraced the Revolution as a culminating event that can resolve the seem- ingly unmanageable complexity and diversity of the colonial period. That event has provided historians with a nation, a frame for the story: the Revolution at least creates a nineteenth- and twentieth-century subject to chronicle. Beyond that, too, Revolutionary ideas and events lay claim to Americans' loyalty; they have often seemed to promise resolution from the confusions of one's own time. Americans do not have to accord sacred status to the intentions of the Founders to feel implicated in the American Revolution or obligated by its commitments and aspirations. This narrative has the capacity to make something-some act, position, or identity- incumbent upon many. In this culture, the Revolution has claims.11
It is because of that context, I think, that The Radicalism of the American Revolution remains insistent that for Revolutionaries we look to the Founders and for radicalism we ultimately look to impersonal demographic and com- mercial forces. It is because "the Revolution" lays claims that Wood rather implausibly conflates the incident of Independence with antebellum social order. This book invokes the American Revolution as a powerful legitimat- ing narrative and attaches it to the socioeconomic changes of the early nine- teenth century. There is more to this than harnessing our approval of the Revolution to nineteenth-century capitalism, making mobile, competitive, and individualistic elements of the Jacksonian era not just revolutionary but American Revolutionary, hence worthy of celebration and deference. If Jacksonian society was not what the Founders intended, Wood seems to argue, it was somehow what the Founders got. Much of this book expresses a determined optimism; in Wood's eyes, the glass is nearly always half full. But it seems to me that there is exasperation, too, expressed in the hyper- bole, in the uncompleted gestures of comparison to other revolutions, in the neglect of alternative and potentially radical narratives. What else, Wood seems to ask, could anyone really have wanted?
Because he and we know at least part of the answer, Wood commits him- self to overstating the impact of Revolution, constructing a unidimensional,
11 Peter Dimock, "The American Revolution as Legitimating Social Narrative," unpublished paper, presented at the Organization of American Historians Convention, April I992.
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fully adequate revolutionary legacy. That commitment renders the relation- ship between the Revolution and the freedom of people not initially included in its blessing far too transparent, linear, and simple than it was and remains. Wood's revolution takes too much credit. It slights the agency of those who did struggle to end slavery and makes it difficult to compre- hend or even credit those who opposed abolition. "Americans now recog- nized that slavery in a republic of workers was an aberration, 'a peculiar institution,' and that if any Americans were to retain it, as southern Americans eventually did, they would have to explain and justify it in new racial and anthropological ways .... The Revolution in effect set in motion ideological and social forces that doomed the institution of slavery in the North and led inexorably to the Civil War."12 But Revolutionaries and their followers defended slavery too. Those who believed that slavery was the bedrock of the republic were drawing on their Revolutionary heritage every bit as surely as those who cast the Constitution as a compact with the devil. Nathan Huggins has described "the master narrative" of American history as a narrative within which slavery and racial caste can be held apart as sad "exceptions" to the true American story, a narrative in which African- American experience is therefore marginal. In this account, all American his- tory follows from a single thread, namely, the inevitable if sometimes slow expansion of liberty under the auspices of the American state. What is left out and unexplained thereby are the society's central and persisting issues.13
Wood silently rejects the argument that slavery and freedom were less coincident, contradictory growths than two formations that implied and assumed each other, phenomena "joined at the hip."14 He elides the actual experience, the small gains and setbacks, the lived struggle for freedom and for dignity and meaning when freedom could not be reached. Wood does not attend to the ways that the bonds of slavery loosened and then tightened again in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Millions of African Americans, enslaved "during the span of a long lifetime" after Independence, might remind us: making a defense of slavery necessary was not the same as making a defense of slavery impossible.15
Yet Wood persists in constructing a Revolution and a Jacksonian society sufficient to all. In his account, women of any circumstance figure largely as an absence. The Revolution failed to liberate women in this period, he notes, although it would do so later. But the Revolution was not a transhistorical agent that could go marching through the ages to bestow economic, social, or political rights on waiting womankind. Women's inequality was a pres- ence in the nineteenth century, and present with it were ideological versions of women's nature that have profoundly affected female Americans for over a century. Take women's responsibility for virtue. As Wood himself notes,
12 Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, i86-i87. 13 Nathan I. Huggins, "The Deforming Mirror of Truth: Slavery and the Master Narrative
of American History," Radical History Review, XLIX (I99I), 25-48. 14 Ibid., 38. 15 Quotation from Morgan, "Slavery and Freedom," Challenge of the Revolution, I42.
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having adopted self-interest as the basis of politics and society, American culture did not dispense with virtue but placed it under the custodial care of middle-class women. At the same time that self-interest became what partici- pation in public life was about, women were given the virtue that made it crucial that they not participate.
Thus neither women nor enslaved African Americans were left out of American freedom; both were included in it within critical, unfree, and arguably necessary roles. It was not incidental that this "most individualistic society" implied an individuality in its very premises unavailable to most of its members. This Revolution did not bring "a full-scale assault on depen- dency" so much as a reformulation of dependence that banished it from the consciousness of the public world, set apart African Americans, children, women, tenants, and other poor people, remade the American state, recast forms of participation, and constructed a narrative of the Revolution and of American-ness without their aspirations, experiences, and agency.16 Such omission was necessary and real, in part as a denial of the dependence of the heads of households, the supposedly independent and sometimes even self- made men of the nineteenth century, who in fact relied on the labor they controlled and denied in the home, the fields, and the mills.
For Wood, I think, such arguments appear to be quibbling, stressing the things the Revolution did not do, when in fact it accomplished so much. The Revolution made possible later movements for abolition and women's rights "and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking," he writes.17 Others would suggest that those movements and that thinking have also taken place against the weight of the American past, for the Revolution extended and contained liberty. It offered a particular heritage of participation, particular possibilities for public life, but not others.
There are few losses in the successful Revolution painted by Wood, hence few possibilities for imagining American freedom in terms not well within its compass. In the master narrative of the American past, says Huggins, human freedom is unquestionably identified with that which is delivered or at least promised within an American social and political order-as if, with the Revolution, America captured freedom for all time. What Wood celebrates in the nineteenth century is a lack of public life, the transformation of peo- ple into consumers rather than public persons. Wood believes that ordinary people and common men of Jacksonian America found freedom in social relationships within a bustling, commercial, individualistic society. Democracy, in this formulation, constitutes the erasure of politics. People experience equality and freedom in the context of their material lives, in fluid identities, in nonpolitics. Material abundance and mobility are posed as substitutes for participation in a public realm. These developments are not just described but universalized and celebrated. What was radical in this con- text was not popular politicization but popular quiescence and accommoda-
16 Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, I79. 17 Ibid., 7.
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tion to the changes that demography and the market decreed; radicalism seems less a visionary leap than a pragmatic acceptance of the emerging sta- tus quo. The most liberating politics, we are asked to conclude, is one that makes politics inessential. Given the power of the narrative of the American Revolution to frame our sense of identity, the nation, and the politically possible, we are in danger of concluding, with Wood, that "nothing could be more radical than" these aspects of the American case.18 It would be a pity for us to leave out of account the many Americans and Revolutionaries who dissented from that view.
18 Ibid., I79.
Issue Table of Contents
The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 601-882
Volume Information [pp. 848-882]
King Philip's Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England [pp. 601-624]
Sometimes an Art, Never a Science, Always a Craft: A Conversation with Bernard Bailyn [pp. 625-658]
Financing the Lowcountry Export Boom: Capital and Growth in Early South Carolina [pp. 659-676]
Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A Discussion of Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution
Review: untitled [pp. 677-678]
Review: The Radical Recreation of the American Republic [pp. 679-683]
Review: The Adequate Revolution [pp. 684-692]
Review: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Revolution: The Genteel Radicalism of Gordon Wood [pp. 693-702]
Review: Equality and Social Conflict in the American Revolution [pp. 703-716]
Forum: "Why the West is Lost"
Review: Comments and Response [p. 717]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 718-719]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 720-721]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 722-723]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 724-726]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 727-728]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 729-732]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 733-735]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 736-739]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 740-744]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 745-746]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 747-749]
Review: Comments and Response [pp. 750-754]
Notes and Documents
Sir James Steuart: Nine Letters on the American Conflict, 1775-1778 [pp. 755-776]
"Releese us out of this Cruell Bondegg": An Appeal from Virginia in 1723 [pp. 777-782]
Reviews of Books
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