Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Gordon S. Wood challenges the traditional conception that the American Revolution was a conservative rebellion designed only to protect the rights of colonists, and therefore not really a revolution, arguing in The Radicalism of the American Revolution that it was a grand social transformation.  While America did not suffer from the extreme circumstances of the French Revolution, it underwent sweeping social and political changes.  Revolutionary leaders set out to transform the monarchical culture of the colonies into their ideal republic, but the rhetoric of equality struck a chord with the ordinary men of America, pushing them down the path to democracy.  Wood traces America’s social and political transformation from monarchy to democracy, extending the American Revolution from the war with England to 1825. 

Wood contends that the social structure and personal relationships were even more traditional than those found in England during the eighteenth century.  Social structure was like that of a family, with the king acting in the role of father.  Members of this royal extended family were dependent upon the king for their positions and prosperity.  The English viewed their unique combination of republican and monarchy as essential to defending their unique liberties: habeas corpus, trial by jury, and freedom of speech. England’s hierarchy also allowed movement between ranks.  Colonial usages reinforced the social hierarchy by allotting veterans acreage based on rank and insisting on the proper use of titles in court pleadings.

While colonial and English society had greater social mobility than continental European nations, position was still hereditary.  Common people earned their living through work, while the aristocracy lived off income produced by their lands or wealth.  Leisure to pursue other things defined gentlemen.  Englishmen climbed the social ladder by accumulating enough wealth to retire.

Dependence was a key feature of the monarchical.  The lack of public institutions forced colonials to depend on aristocrats.  Common people relied on gentlemen for loans to finance their businesses, to get their goods to market, and to find apprenticeships for boys.  Marriages and family relationships bound the colonial aristocracy together, with gentry families holding the majority of offices in a community.  Dependence extended into political patronage, where it was normal to provide places to family and friends, as Benjamin Franklin did as deputy postmaster general.  Colonists viewed patronage as an extension of the colonial social hierarchy based on social connections.  Patronage contributed to colonial instability when the crown manipulated distribution of offices to suit its own needs.

Despite the English contention that republicanism supported monarchies by ensuring liberties, Wood asserts that republican ideals destroyed the monarchical system gradually by challenging its assumptions.  Republicanism challenged the monarchical conception of hierarchy, kinship, dependency, and patronage by offering new ways for people to interact with one another.  The heart of republican ideology was participation in government by virtuous citizens who were willing to sacrifice their own welfare for their states.  Virtuous citizens had to be independent in their livelihoods.  Dependence led to corruption of both the individual the state.  The requirement for public virtue placed a heavy burden on citizens forced to suppress their own best interests.  Colonial gentry were never as far from commercial activity as the republican ideal required.
The population boom and geographical mobility of colonists weakened monarchical social structures, as did the entrance of small farmers into the market economy.  Despite the monarchical belief that people only worked when poor, colonial farmers and tradesmen worked ever harder in order to purchase luxury items previously available only to the wealthy.  While conservatives denounced conspicuous consumption by commoners, ordinary people worked hard to increase both export and inland trade through manufacturing and agricultural surpluses.  Wood argues that an increase in borrowing for commercial business reduced the influence of the gentry, as their former clients changed sources of ready cash.  Direct purchases of staple crops by Scottish factors, reduced the influence of large planters who had previously arranged for exports.
Wood asserts that American revolutionaries attacked both monarchical corruption and the fundamental bonds of a society that rested on family ties.  Their ideal was to destroy the system of great men relying on personal ties, replacing it with one emphasizing the equality and independence of free men.  Americans defined individual freedom as ownership of property and expanded the definition of property to include trade skills.  Those who did not have property were dependent on others, which led the revolutionaries to deny them suffrage in order to avoid corruption.  Wood suggests that republicans viewed dependency as akin to slavery because dependents were at the mercy of others for their livelihoods.

The need for disinterested citizens and political leadership forced republicans to look to landed gentry and the professions for leaders.  The children of tradesmen could aspire to positions of leadership by acquiring a liberal education and working their way to the point of financial independence.  Thomas Jefferson believed that in this way America would establish a “natural aristocracy” that regularly raised talented and virtuous men from obscurity to lead the nation.  This new aristocracy of talent would be a virtuous one dedicated to the public good in the Enlightenment tradition.

The republican revolution did not realize its ideals, argues Wood, because Americans were too involved in their own personal, local interests, and did not believe that a disinterested aristocracy could represent their needs.  This led to the rise of popular politicians who embraced the revolutionary ideology of equality inherent in republicanism.  The new political figures worried less about the national public good than that of their own constituents as they served the agendas of interest groups.  The influx of popular politics led to the Constitution of 1787, which republicans designed to reduce the influence of democratic politics.

Compensation for public service allowed ordinary men to seek office, and accompanied most states removing property requirements for voting by 1825.  Wood implies that these changes were the result of a new conception of the public interest as representation of multiple personal interests, which ensured that all Americans received representation by their leaders.  The result of these changes was the development of a new class of professional politician and modern political parties.  The new political parties revolved around the concept of loyalty to the party.  Wood argues that the challenge of party loyalty led Andrew Jackson to implement the spoils system, where new administrations filled the bureaucracy with political loyalists.  The new system required careful definition of each position to allow the easy replacement of bureaucrats, which allowed parties to reward members by rotating positions among them. 

Wood relies largely on primary sources to divine the attitudes and beliefs of Americans of his expanded American Revolution, providing detail and color to his account.  Although he makes a definite argument, his method is more explanatory than argumentative.  The loyalist perspective receives short shrift, giving the impression of a unity among the colonists.  Wood presents conservatives, including Jefferson, as fighting against the inevitable flow of history.  Wood acknowledges the exclusion of women and non-whites from the rhetoric of democracy due to their status of dependents, ignoring Abigail Adams’ pleas for equality.

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