Was the American revolution a real revolution?

I just got finished reading Gordon S. Wood’s THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Wood said the American revolution was a real revolution, which brought about profound social changes, but was different from what the Founders had in mind.

As Wood saw it, the revolution proceeded from Monarchy, which the Founders overthrew, through Republicanism, which was their goal, to Democracy, which they did not intend.  For the first time, the expression, “this is a republic, not a democracy,” makes sense to me.

The core principle of the old regime in all Western countries in the 1700s was patriarchy.  The supreme authority was God, imagined as a Heavenly Father.  Next under God were kings and emperors, then various levels of aristocrats down through commoners and servants.

Society was a series of interconnected extended families, each ruled by a father-figure over women, children (Including grown children), servants and other dependents.

Aristocrats were expected to live a life of luxury, display and conspicuous consumption, because that made them job creators.  Their servants plus makers of luxury goods were a big part of the work force.

Master craftsmen also were patriarchs of extended families, ruling wives, grown children, journeymen and apprentices in extended households.

Only people of a certain social rank were entitled to live a life of luxury.  The poor were expected to be humble, frugal and unostentatious, and could literally be punished for getting above themselves.

Most people were born into specific roles, which they normally would be expected to play through life.  It was possible to rise in life, but only through patronage.

Rich and powerful people did favors for the poor and humble; they were expected to give loyalty in return.  You could see a modern example of this principle in the opening scenes of “The Godfather,’ where Don Corleone gives help in return for submission and the promise of a favor someday in return.

It was possible to rise in rank by making yourself useful to some patron.  At the same time, you spread your own influence by patronizing those who needed your power and influence.

 Patronage networks exist in almost all societies in all periods of history, including the contemporary USA, Russia and China, but in those days, patronage was not something below the surface.  It was a principle for organizing society.

Interestingly, riots and violent protests were common in 18th century England and its colonies.  The upper classes took them in stride.  They regarded them as a way that the lower classes could blow off steam.  They didn’t really threaten the social order.

In the 18th century, the British were probably less subordinate to hierarchies of birth than any other European people, and the British colonists in North America were more free than anyone else in the British Empire.

But their freedom, going back to Magna Carta, consisted of rights granted by the British crown to its subjects and enshrined in law.  They stemmed from law and precedent, not any theory of universal human rights.  This was what the British statesman Edmund Burke meant when he said he knew nothing of the “rights of man,” only of the rights of Englishmen.

The Founders rejected rulership based on birth and lineage.  They sought to replace the hereditary aristocracy with what Thomas Jefferson called a “natural” aristocracy, based on superior talent and virtue. Instead of government through patronage, they sought to establish a government based on superior wisdom and virtue.

They thought leaders should be property owners or members of the learned professions, such as law, who had the equivalent of what we would call a liberal arts education and who were in a position to serve without pay.

This was the rationale for limiting the franchise to white, male property owners.  Only they were thought to be in a position to judge things impartially. without fear or favor.

Gordon S. Wood

No-one dependent on pleasing an employer or pleasing customers could exercise independent judgment, nor could women, children or slaves, because of their dependence on others.

This was the rationale for the Electoral College.  The original idea of the college was that the common people were not really good judges of who would make a good President, so they would choose their leading citizens in each locality to be electors, and the electors, not the people, would choose the president.

The Founders idealized the Roman Republic, and patriots such asCato and Cicero who served supposedly without expectation of reward.

George Washington embodied this ideal.  His ambition was to go down in history as a great man, he sought always to behave as a just and virtuous statesman would, and he succeeded.

He was chosen virtually by acclamation to be commander of the Continental Army, not just because of his military experience but his reputation for integrity.  He served without pay (although he had a generous expense account).

After victory, he astonished the world by retiring to Mount Vernon, when he could have made himself king of dictator, as many of the Latin American liberators did.

He was called out of retirement to chair the Constitutional Convention, lending his prestige to ratification of that document, and then was chosen President virtually by automation.

Knowing his place in history, and also desiring to set a pattern for future Presidents, he swallowed his personal feelings and bent over backwards to be fair to all factions, including those who abused him.

This idea soon crumbled.  One reason is that statesmen of the caliber of George Washington were thin on the ground.  Another is that the common people were no more willing to submit to a “natural” aristocracy of virtuecrats than they were to a hereditary aristocracy of blue-bloods.

The abolition of the old ruling class, and the population explosion in the infant United States, created new opportunities for gain, which ordinary Americans were quick to take advantage of.  Elected officials without large fortunes demanded, and got, salaries.  People ceased so see anything wrong with the pursuit of self-interest, either in commerce of politics.

The quest for wealth ceased to be something to be ashamed of.  Working people no longer accepted a subordinate status.  They created a market for “discretionary purchases” – cheap versions of the luxuries once reserved for the rich.  Consumer demand, rather than exports, became an engine of economic growth.  This was a new thing in the world.

The new order was represented by President Andrew Jackson, the unlettered, uncouth opponent of the elite.  We now remember him as a slaveowner and Indian fighter, and as a driving force of American expansionism.  But his defeat of John Quincy Adams in the 1832 Presidential election was a victory of the common man over elite prestige and standards of behavior.

As a youth, I heard innumerable speeches at Democratic Party  picnics about the four great champions of the people – Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  But Jefferson and Jackson despised each other. To Jefferson, Jackson was an ignorant rabble-rouser.  To Jackson, Jefferson was an effete snob.

Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s successor and the first U.S. President to be born an American citizen, frankly said that politics was based on self-interest, and nothing else.  The winning political party was give government jobs to its supporters, because any average person was qualified to fill them.

Far from remaining monarchical, hierarchy-ridden subjects on the margins of civilization, Wood wrote, Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially-minded and the most modern people in the world.

As another indication of the change, many of the Founders were deists or religious liberals, who did not literally believe in the historic doctrines of Christianity.  Jefferson once predicted that the USA would become Unitarian in a generation or two.  By Jackson’s time, a majority of Americans were evangelical Christians who believed in a religion of the heart, not of the mind.

Idealists were disillusioned by the French and Bolshevik revolutions, Wood wrote, because their aspirations for freedom and equality ended in tyranny.  Idealists were also disillusioned by the American Revolution, he wrote, because their ideals were realized, and they did not like what they saw.

[America] would discover its greatness by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and their pecuniary pursuits of happiness—common people with their common interests in making money and getting ahead, Wood wrote.

No doubt the cost the 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 earthy 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.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution was published in 1992, when it was still possible to celebrate the USA for its power, prestige and mass prosperity.  Some 28 years later, power, prestige and prosperity are on the wane.  So what, in Wood’s view, do American patriots celebrate today.

Wood did not have much to say about American Indians, enslaved black people or women.  He made a brief comment that the ideals of the Declaration opened the way to the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women and our egalitarian concerns of today.

He expressed his views on these topics at greater length in, of all places, the World Socialist Web Site.  The world has come to a pretty pass when you have to look to followers of Leon Trotsky for a celebration of American freedom and democracy.


An interview with historian Gordon Wood on the New York Times’ 1619 Project for the World Socialist Web Site.

Interview with Gordon Wood on the American Revolution for the World Socialist Web Site.

Tags: , , ,

6 Responses to “Was the American revolution a real revolution?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Brilliant essay, thanks. Explains a great deal.

    What I’d like to see, sooner or later, is an impartial (which probably means non-American), explanation for why the Constitution is considered so sacrosanct, as if it contains prophetic wisdom binding the American people for all time.

    I can only imagine that it survives as the nearest thing to a unifying principle, like the Bible to Christians. I wonder if there still survives in some form the the notion of unamerican, in whatever form, and if this is part of the problems which have given birth to the BLM movement?


    • philebersole Says:

      Every nation needs some kind of unifying principle. You British have your monarchy. Many nations have the idea of a common lineage or s state religion, but that isn’t open to our diverse, multi-racial nation.

      We Americans historically have unified around loyalty to a legal document (without being able to agree on what that document means).

      Incoming Presidents, federal officers, newly enlisted members of the armed forces and newly naturalized immigrants swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

      That is our point of reference (myself definitely included in “our”).

      To foreigners, it may seem akin to religious fundamentalists’ belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. But it’s better than swearing loyalty to a leader or a political party.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fred (Au Natural) Says:

      It’s the rules of the game. I wouldn’t want to play poker or chess or basketball or sell widgets or write blog posts if the rules weren’t firmly fixed. One doesn’t get to change the rules unless most of the people involved agree. This particular set of rules happens to have almost universal support, even if we don’t agree on the exact interpretation.

      Most of us believe that the more closely government conforms to the Constitution, the better off we are. Duties are to be fulfilled, limited authorities specified, and certain actions are prohibited. Mischief happens when the government strays from it. Unfortunately, there has always been plenty of mischief afoot.

      Every major civil rights movement in the US has simply demanded that the government more closely adhere to the explicit requirements and prohibitions in the document. It is the fulcrum upon which the lever of demands for justice is applied.

      I don’t see the point of a foreigner analyzing why the US likes its Constitution. If it isn’t a part of one’s culture, you won’t fully understand.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Vincent Says:

    You see me as a foreigner but I can’t think that way about you & your country: a cousin more like, one who exerts enormous influence & potential for disruption within this increasingly close-knit global family.

    Yes I know, we in this little country (England) can only look from afar, and not understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      I remember that Vincent’s first comment on this blog was in response to a very sweeping comment I made about Britain and Brexit.

      I’m pleased that foreigners read this blog and I welcome their comments. They may see things we U.S. natives overlook.

      As for the U.S. Constitution, it is a flawed, human document, reflecting the political realities of 1789 rather than 2020.

      I don’t think anybody writing a national constitution today would include the equivalent of our Electoral College or our Senate (the provision guaranteeing each state two Senators is the only provision of the Constitution that can’t be amended.)

      The Electoral College reflected the misgivings of statesmen of the day about direct democracy and party politics. So did the division of the legislative authority into a directly elected House of Representative serving two-hear terms and a Senate chosen by state legislatures (a later amendment changed this to direct election) elected for six-year terms.

      Prior to ratification of the Constitution, each U.S. state was sovereign, just like European nations joining the European Union. The small states, just like the small European nations, feared being swallowed up by a larger entity. That’s why they were guaranteed two Senators each.

      Americans today by and large think of ourselves as a united nation and not a federation of states. We say “the United States is…” In an earlier era, people said, “the United States are…”

      Our structure of government is not optimal. But if the Constitution hadn’t been written the way it was, the original states might not have come together as a nation at all.

      Most of us live with the flaws of our Constitution rather than taking the risk of calling a new Constitutional convention and writing a new one. Given the influence of billionaires and big corporations on our politics, who knows what would come of that?

      Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      As an American, I think of England as the Mother Country. England is the source and main influence on American culture and thought. You can’t understand American history without knowing something of English history.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: