Monday, January 13, 2014

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

The Radicalism of the American RevolutionThe Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood takes a nuanced look at pre-revolutionary shifts in American culture, family structure, politics, religion, education, and economics. It's a complex re-envisioning that only occasionally looks at the lives of individuals - Wood does not subscribe to the great man theory of history, but is interested in the larger context. He asks, why did the American revolution happen? Americans were generally prosperous, free, and barely aware of the far-away king in England:

"By the late 1760s and early 1770s a potentially revolutionary situation existed in many of the colonies. There was little evidence of those social conditions we often associate with revolution (and some historians have desperately sought to find): no mass poverty, no seething social discontent, no grinding oppression. [...] there was a great deal of jealousy and touchiness everywhere, for what could be made could be unmade; the people were acutely nervous about their prosperity and the liberty that seemed to make it possible."

Something was different about the American Revolution, and it's fascinating to see Wood draw his conclusions from the broad sweeps of the history of ideology and economics. I found the chapter on "Patriarchal Dependence" especially fascinating for its look into the harsh and widespread system of slavery and indentured servitude. The only truly independent people were "large portions of white male society", but everyone was aware of the dark side of dependence on another's will: they experienced it in daily life, after all. The seed for universal suffrage was planted, though it would take centuries to mature.

Our current assumptions about human nature and human relationships stand out in clear contrast to the beliefs of the founders - the America of the Revolution really was another world. Their reshaping of the social fabric, reimagining the ties that held people together, led to the America of today in ways that the founders never would have predicted (and even would have hated), but to us seem inexorable. The bonds of noblesse oblige and gratitude were neatly severed, imperfectly replaced by religion, trade, and mutual self-interest.

This isn't a book I'd recommend for a casual reader, or to those who like more traditional narrative histories like David McCullough's 1776. Fans of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States may enjoy Wood's insightful new take on a familiar era. Revolutionary War-era buffs or policy wonks looking for an unusual history with a commanding sense of an era's subtle movements will find their perfect match here.

Quotable (all emphasis mine):
"Because monarchy had these implications of humiliation and dependency, the Anglo-American colonists could never be good monarchical subjects. But of course neither could their fellow Englishmen 'at home' three thousand miles across the Atlantic. All Englishmen in the eighteenth century were known throughout the Western world for their insubordination, their insolence, their stubborn unwillingness to be governed."

"Monarchy presumed what Hume called a 'long train of dependence,' a gradation of degrees of freedom and servility that linked everyone from the king at the top down to the bonded laborers and black slaves at the bottom. The inequalities of such a hierarchy were acceptable to people because they were offset by the great emotional satisfactions of living in a society in which everyone, even the lowliest servant, counted for something."

"People labored out of necessity, out of poverty, and that necessity and poverty bred the contempt in which laboring people had been held for centuries. Freedom was always valued because it was freedom from this necessity to labor. Most people, it was widely assumed, would not work if they did not have to. 'Everyone but an idiot,' said the English agricultural writer Arthur Young in a startling summary of the traditional view, 'knows that the lower class must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.'"

"The gentlemanly elites of the eighteenth century could condescend and be affable with their subordinates and inferiors because they often thought of themselves as parents dealing with children. Since most relationships in this hierarchical society were still very personal, they were also necessarily paternalistic."

"In the colonies servitude was a much harsher, more brutal, and more humiliating status than it was in England, and this difference had important implications for the colonists' consciousness of dependency. Colonial bonded servants in fact shared some of the chattel nature of black slaves."

"Many colonists, therefore, not only black slaves but white servants and young men and a variety of tenants and of course all women, knew firsthand what dependence meant. Dependence, said James Wilson in 1774, was 'very little else, but an obligation to conform to the will ... of that superior person ... upon which the inferior depends. People who were dependent could not be free; in fact, 'freedom and dependency' were 'opposite and irreconcilable terms.' Dependents were all those who had no wills of their own; thus like children they could have no political personalities and could rightfully be excluded from participation in public life. It was this reasoning that underlay the denial of the vote to women, servants, apprentices, short-term tenants, minors, and sons over twenty-one still living at home with their parents."

"No doubt the cost that 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 earthly 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 it still."

No comments:

Post a Comment