Gordon Woods’ epic The Radicalism of the Revolution unearths the deep social complications that sparked The American Revolution.
When you stop and think about it, the passage of a rather moderate series of taxes seems to be an odd justification for a rebellion against a world superpower. One would think that England could of simply avoided the bloody mess by adopting an American representative to Parliament. Or perhaps the Americans could begrudgingly learn to dig a little deeper into their pocketbook to help pay for the French Indian war. But the famous rallying cry of “taxation without representation” stood for something much greater than taxes. It represented a rejection of a very ingrained and dysfunctional 18th century sociopolitical structure.
Gordon Wood explains that the 18th century power brokers that dominated society were primarily Aristocrats, well born Gentleman (the term itself much different from the informal title of today) and landed Gentry. These men ran the world. If you wanted to advance in life, you would need to turn to these men for any chance of success.
Want to gain wealth and influence? Like Hamilton and Franklin, many 18th century aspiring men trod the well worn path of finding a patron. If you were fortunate enough find a patron, you still could only go so far. Want to move into Government or high society? Little chance unless you were born into the proper station. Want to turn your business into a large successful company? Not allowed unless you have the proper pedigree and connections.
Wood explains that 18th century western society was composed of different shades of servitude to a master. Slaves, indentured servants (arguably better off than slaves) poor, and working ‘middling’ class, all held stagnate stations in life that offered little to no hope of advancement. This lower class grouping of citizens were bound in a permanent servitude to the upper class.
The Revolution sought to tare down these boundaries, break open avenues of advancement, and extoll the virtues of hard work and republicanism. Once the principles of The Revolution tore loose the ancient social order to create a newer freer society, the “the strange absurdity of American slavery” as Phillis Wheatley called it, stood out even more. A society that had broken free from the “bonds of slavery” could not, however hard it tried, avoid the ugly reality of those unfortunates left out in the cold. As I mentioned before, the Civil war was an inevitability that could not be avoided.
As the repercussions The Revolution spread across the American continent, Woods rather depressingly notes that The Founding Fathers began to have reservations late in their lives about its consequences. Men like Jefferson, Adams and Benjamin Rush watched in astonishment as their dreams of a nation guided by an unselfish enlightened leadership melt away in the face of a new generation of men motived by self interest and party driven politics. The men of 1776 lamented the disappearance of the “disinterested man”. Such a man was not motivated by money, business or constituency. This rare type of leader found it difficult to gain a foothold in a new political landscape dominated by money and self interest. The loss (but not complete extinction) of this type of leader was a inevitable result of the changes in society and the feedoms granted by The Revolution.
Wood’s book highlights the profound social change leading up to and following the Revolution. This involved the very difficult task of deconstructing the consciousness of a people and exploring the very complicated social structure of 18th century life. This book helps us understand that The Revolution was a much greater thing that simply a rebellion against a unrepresentative government and unfair taxes. Sparked by the words “All men are created equal”, the American Revolution was the sociopolitical ‘big bang’ of the Enlightenment. The momentum of this monumental explosion continues to pave the way for upward mobility and social justice today.