Posts Tagged ‘Gordon S. Wood’

Was the American revolution a real revolution?

July 4, 2020

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.

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