The American Revolution has always posed a challenge to historians. Revolutions are supposed to be risings of the masses against the tyranny of their masters. Even if the end result is the new tyranny of a Cromwell, a Bonaparte, or a Stalin, a revolution scarcely seems to deserve the name without the overthrow of an oppressive ruling class by some kind of underclass.
The first American historians easily rose to the challenge by identifying the British and especially George III as tyrants and the Americans as oppressed. But the academic professionals who took up the subject at the beginning of this century, priding themselves on a scientific objectivity, had difficulty finding enough evidence of British oppression to explain the extent of American resistance. Instead, under the influence, direct or indirect, of Marxist analysis, they went looking for a local ruling class against whom a local working class could have risen. Carl Becker, in an enduring epigram, described the Revolution, in New York at least, as a contest not merely about home rule but about who should rule at home, with an emphasis on the latter.
Following Becker, a succession of historians throughout the Twenties and Thirties translated every division among Americans (of which there were many) into neo-Marxist terms of class struggle. The outcries of colonial leaders against British oppression became mere window dressing to cover the self-interest of a local ruling class, determined to resist interference by their betters in Britain or their inferiors at home. The resistance was successful in both cases, and the Revolution ended in Thermidorean reaction with the adoption of the federal Constitution of 1787.
After the Second World War a new generation of historians took a closer look at the supposed struggle over who should rule at home. Working in what an older critic called “the flush times of mid-twentieth-century capitalism,” they were perhaps less sensitive than their predecessors to internal conflicts among the Revolutionary Americans and so earned, unwittingly, the title of “consensus” historians.* The Revolution they described was one in which the Americans’ resistance to Britain submerged and overwhelmed any lesser contests among themselves, but the quarrel with Britain was less about who should govern than it was about the limits of government itself. The distinguishing feature of the new historians was not really their assumption of consensus among Americans but their insistence on taking seriously what the colonial leaders said they were fighting about. If one supposed that people might have meant what they said, the many manifestoes and declarations of the Revolutionists ceased to be window dressing and opened the way to a new understanding of what the Revolution was about and what it achieved.
What it achieved, in this view, apart from the independence of the colonies, was an enunciation of the principles that were supposed to guide and limit government, principles that rested the right to govern on the consent of the governed, principles that they thought the British had betrayed, thereby forfeiting the right to govern. Admittedly the British government had not engaged in any serious actual oppression of the colonies before 1774, but it had claimed powers not granted by the governed, powers that made oppression possible, powers that it began to exercise in 1774 in response to colonial denial of them. The Revolution came about not to overthrow tyranny, but to prevent it. In this reorientation of historical thinking, it was Gordon Wood’s distinction in The Creation of the American Republic to show how the political ideas of the Americans developed in the decade after they declared independence, how they felt their way through the implications of their commitment to a popular origin and popular limitation of government.
Wood’s book, published twenty-three years ago, has guided most subsequent study of that decade. But academic Marxism dies hard. Historians from the New Left, such as Staughton Lynd, Jesse Lemisch, Alfred Young, and Edward Countryman, with a good deal more sophistication than those of the Old Left, have uncovered abundant evidence of grassroots activities by mechanics and farmers that went beyond their leaders’ denial of British authority and translated the popular origin and limitation of government into popular exercise of governmental powers. The implication of the New Left argument has been to discount again the Whig assertion of principle and to attribute popular activism to spontaneous resentment of upper-class rule. But such resentment, it must still be admitted, never reached revolutionary proportions and was easily brought under control, as the folks who had always ruled at home directed popular energies into the fight for independence.
Historical understanding of the American Revolution has thus been for some time a bit short of explaining why it deserves to be called a revolution. If it was simply a shrugging off of a novel British attempt to govern without consent of the governed, it looks more like a preservation of the status quo than a revolution. If it was in any way a struggle by the dispossessed over who should rule at home, the struggle was unsuccessful. And yet somehow we know that it was a revolution, that it changed things so radically that we have to call it a revolution. Enter, once more, Gordon Wood. In a book that has long needed to be written, free from anachronistic neo-Marxian or pseudo-Marxian formulas for understanding historical change, he gives us a revolution we can easily recognize as ours and shows us why it deserves the name.
The revolution Wood describes is a revolution in human relations, a revolution from social order to social anarchy, from hierarchy to equality, from a world where people knew their place to a world where they made their place. It was not a revolution that the Revolutionists of 1776 had sought or envisaged or could approve: like other revolutions, it left its originators behind.
In his earlier book Wood had already emphasized the dynamics of Revolutionary thinking, how in the excitement of their new independence Americans expanded their understanding of what it meant to put the governed in control of their government, how they made every branch of government responsible to the people who chose it. In his new book Wood reaches beyond politics and political thinking to examine the sweeping social changes that made the Revolution, in his view, “the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history.” In a tour de force of historical revision, he trumps the New Left’s unsuccessful effort to revolutionize the Revolution by making it far more revolutionary than they had ever claimed.
This takes some doing. To make his argument Wood is carried into generalizations that invite dispute. His revolution begins well before 1776 and lasts into the first decades of the nineteenth century. He is constrained to allow that the changes he describes might have taken place without the American separation from Britain, but he rightly contends that that was not what happened, that they took place in the Revolution and as part of it.
The story begins with a picture of American colonial society as it was in the eighteenth century before the quarrel with England began, a society Wood characterizes as “monarchical.” The characterization is more apt than it would have seemed a few years ago, for recent historians have discovered a multitude of ways in which colonial society, in the half-century or more before the Revolution, was growing not more distinctively American and not more democratic, but more like English society. The power of royal governors was increasing; big merchants and planters were aping the English aristocracy, great families were intermarrying; lawyers were paying more attention to English law; social distinctions were hardening. To be sure, by English standards it was a truncated society: the most aristocratic colonists would have ranked as no better than middling gentry in England. But social relations nevertheless fell into the vertical patterns of a monarchical society. Every community had its big men, to whom others deferred, and on whom others depended for favors, for credit, for work, sometimes even for the land on which they lived.
Dependency of this kind generated little class consciousness, but rather a kind of loyalty on the part of small folk to those who had the resources to help them. For example, when it was necessary to recruit volunteers to serve in armed forces against the French and Indians, officers’ commissions had to be assigned to men, regardless of military experience, who could command the loyalties of people in their neighborhood. Men would enlist only at the behest of those they knew and respected as their social superiors.
The same kind of allegiance prevailed in politics. Although colonial governments were dominated by their popularly elected representative legislatures, and though the majority of free white males could vote, they generally voted for their betters. And with reason: a big man could do more for you in government than some small fry like yourself. Indeed, Wood argues, the small-scale, face-to-face character of colonial communities could make local dependencies even more significant than they were in the more impersonally stratified society of England.
After ringing the changes on these vertical human relationships in colonial society, Wood turns to the rise, both before and during the Revolution, of republicanism. Here the eighteenth-century assimilation of the colonists to English culture remains pertinent, for an influential group of English thinkers and writers had long identified English government as republican in all but name. The elevation of Parliament to the supreme position in government distinguished England from continental monarchies and likened it in the eyes of many to republican Rome. In this idealized view of English society, the highest aspiration of government and of those engaged in government must be the disinterested pursuit of the public good. And the greatest danger must spring from the corruption of that aspiration by any kind of dependency in the governing class. Only persons of large means, the kind of persons on whom others might depend, could afford the independence and exhibit the public spirit needed to fulfill the aspiration.
Americans were not the first to suggest that the English government had succumbed to corruption, that its Parliament was filled not with great men of public spirit but with the minions of great men, not least of whom were the ministers of the king. A host of the so-called “eighteenth-century commonwealthmen” had been crying corruption for half a century before the Parliament they accused began its quarrel with the colonies. With the commencement of that quarrel, Americans discovered themselves to be better republicans than the English and their society better designed to sustain republican virtue. The web of dependencies that had governed social relations in America, Wood now shows, was far more fragile than its English model and becoming increasingly vulnerable as the Revolution approached. The exponential expansion of population, both from immigration and from a natural increase unprecedented in the Western world, threatened the stability of the hierarchy in local communities everywhere. Paternalism and loyalty lost their meaning in a society where everyone seemed to be on the move. Credit and debt were ceasing to be transactions between patrons and clients and becoming impersonal contracts between supposed equals. And the supposition of equality was less fictional in America’s truncated society than it could be in England. Americans were on the move socially as well as geographically. It was much easier in America to move up the social and economic scale but also easier to fall down it. As a result Americans met one another on much more nearly equal terms socially and economically than the English.
In this volatile environment the republican ideas learned from England took on new meaning. Republicanism enshrined the personal independence on which public virtue rested; and despite the continuing though diminishing respect for rank, the vast majority, at least of white male Americans, enjoyed a greater degree of personal independence than the vast majority of Englishmen. In England landed property was the hallmark of that independence and the landed gentry the only visible repository of republican virtue; but most free Americans owned the land they worked and thus offered a much broader base for republicanism than England or any other country of the time could afford. As the quarrel with England progressed and the parliamentary assault on American liberties gave the lie to any English claim to republican virtue, Americans saw themselves as the true embodiment of that virtue. The local dependencies that had tied the members of a community together suddenly became suspect, and, in Wood’s words, “the Revolution became a full-scale assault on dependency,” loosening all social bonds that had characterized the earlier monarchical society.
Republican virtue in the new vision of Americans was to be the ideal, not simply of a governing class, but of a whole people. It was to be the new cement of society, the glue that held together people untrammeled by paternal obligations on the one hand or groveling gratitude on the other. The gentility and civility formerly conferred by birth must be spread to all through education available to all. People liberally educated would treat one another liberally, the selfishness that drove monarchical society would vanish before the liberated natural affection of human beings for one another. Even slavery, recognized as a contradiction and an evil stain, would eventually give way. It might take time for republican education to erase monarchical habits, but, again in Wood’s words, “The natural feelings of love and benevolence between people could become republican substitutes for the artificial monarchical connectives of family, patronage, and dependency and the arrogance, mortification and fear that they had bred.”
Such was the republican vision, reflected and embodied in the men who led the Revolution, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. It held for long enough to break the hold of monarchical dependencies, to create republican governments in all the states, to foster equality in laws and constitutions that forbade hereditary aristocracy. But the social virtues that were supposed to grow from this foundation proved elusive. What made the Revolution truly revolutionary was not simply the dissolution of monarchical dependencies but the emergence of a kind of equality that republican leaders had never envisaged, an equality that validated selfishness rather than selflessness, an equality that mocked gentility instead of nurturing it.
The republican leaders had never thought of their Revolution as democratic. All men were created equal, but some always developed more virtue than others, some always had more talent than others; and a virtuous populace would place such natural aristocrats in charge of whatever government a virtuous society might need. Republican leaders were thus dismayed when the legislatures of the new republics filled up with men who showed no signs of gentility or of the social benevolence that was supposed to go with it, but rather a short-sighted pursuit of local interests.
Through the federal Constitution of 1787 faithful republicans hoped to outflank this heedless democracy of the states. But, as Wood sees it, they were too late. The leaven of equality, divorced from its republican association with public virtue, overwhelmed the idealists. The new cement of American society was not to be benevolent affections but an accepted pursuit of private interests competing in an open market for whatever rewards society or its government might offer. The qualification for public office, whether in the new national government or in the separate states, was not a disinterested commitment to a general public welfare, but a demonstrated commitment to the special private interests of a particular group of voters. The freedom won in the Revolution was a freedom to pursue one’s own happiness, and happiness for most people lay in making as much money as possible as fast as possible. Working to make it became almost an end in itself, class differences submerged in the general competition for the bounty of the continent.
Wealth, Wood acknowledges, became more unequally distributed in postrevolutionary America than it had been before, but the substitution of the cash nexus for older social ties, whether of patronage or the wished-for benevolence, made for a society where social distinctions all but disappeared. Servants became “help” and sat at table with their masters, whom they refused to call by any such name. Where gentlemen once prided themselves on superior education, superior manners, and freedom from the cares of labor, now it seemed to visitors from abroad that every white male in America thought himself a gentleman. And by the same token anyone who did not work for a living was suspect. Leisure was just another word for idleness. If a leisured aristocracy existed, it counted at best as only one among the multitude of private interests that made up the new society and deserved no more respect than the interest, say, of carpenters or blacksmiths. The ultimate source of property was labor, and labor accordingly had the highest claim to respect in a society where everyone was out to acquire as much property as possible.
That some acquired much more than others may today seem the crucial fact of the time, but this, Wood argues, is anachronistic. What he wants us to see is that to understand the Revolution we have to get beyond the pre-occupation with distribution of wealth that guides so much modern social analysis. Instead, we have to concentrate on the way people understood themselves and their society at the time. The widespread ownership of property had enabled them to think of themselves as republican, but the Revolution carried them beyond republicanism and republican virtue to a belief in equality that transcended every economic and social boundary. “Indeed,” he writes in one of his most arresting passages,
if equality had meant only equality of opportunity or a rough equality of property-holding, it could never have become, as it has, the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history. Equality became so potent for Americans because it came to mean that everyone was really the same as everyone else, not just at birth, not in talent or property or wealth, and not just in some transcendental religious sense of the equality of souls. Ordinary Americans came to believe that no one in a basic down-to-earth and day-in-and-day-out manner was really better than anyone else. That was equality as no other nation has ever quite had it.
It is possible to fault a number of details on which this analysis rests. The book becomes almost a polemic as Wood’s exuberant discovery of social change sweeps him into a celebration of it that sometimes leaves the reader behind. Again and again, in describing the characteristics of his three successive societies—monarchical, republican, and democratic—he insists that it would be difficult to exaggerate this or that component of each. Some readers may feel that he has overcome the difficulty.
The most conspicuous example is his depiction of a transformation in attitudes toward work. In the pre-Revolutionary, monarchical society, he tells us, people labored only “out of necessity, out of poverty.” Labor was therefore associated with slavery and servitude. Indeed slavery often seemed to be only “another degree of labor,” not all that different from free labor. Labor as such, he believes, did not achieve dignity or come to be valued as a productive source of wealth until the Revolution. There may well have been a change in this direction, but to see it as so dramatic is to ignore at least two centuries of what Max Weber called “the Protestant ethic.” The dignity of working at one’s calling may have been magnified by the Revolution but was certainly not invented by it or even by John Locke’s labor theory of value, which was already a century old by the time of the Revolution.
In his zeal to magnify the Revolution’s assault on “monarchical” social relations, Wood also exaggerates the extent to which royal patronage had penetrated colonial society. The very use of the word “monarchical” to describe that society can be justified only figuratively. To claim that “the great social antagonists of the American Revolution…were patriots vs. courtiers” is to attribute an inordinate significance and power in colonial life to courtiers, that is, to “persons whose position or rank…ultimately flowed from the crown or court.” Certainly royal office holders were the first local targets of the Revolution, but their numbers were few and their expulsion or suppression instantaneous. The number of their dependents was also small. One of the perennial complaints of royal governors was that the small number of government offices under their patronage prevented them from building a local following of the kind that the king’s ministers in England enjoyed.
The elimination of royally derived patronage thus effected relatively little social change. The departure of the loyalists, colonists who preferred not to live in an independent America, was more significant, but less so than Wood suggests. It was once thought that the loyalists were drawn from the highest ranks of colonial society, and it may well be that the upper crust was represented among them in a larger proportion than in the population at large. But the most careful studies have found the loyalists to constitute a pretty fair cross section of the population. It may be, as Wood argues, that the removal of loyalist leaders “disrupted colonial society to a degree far in excess of their numbers,” but the numbers were small enough to make the disruption less than revolutionary.
In short, Wood sometimes seems to be carried away by the excitement of his theme. But the theme is truly exciting and his treatment of it eloquent. His discovery of a social revolution where modern aficionados of revolution have looked for it in vain will doubtless raise eyebrows among the lingering left of academia. But this is a book that could redirect historical thinking about the Revolution and its place in the national consciousness. When every exception has been taken to Wood’s overstatement of his case, that case is still convincing and particularly so to anyone familiar with the events he deals with.
The Revolution did revolutionize social relations. It did displace the deference, the patronage, the social divisions that had determined the way people viewed one another for centuries and still view one another in much of the world. It did give to ordinary people a pride and power, not to say an arrogance, that have continued to shock visitors from less favored lands. It may have left standing a host of inequalities that have troubled us ever since. But it generated the egalitarian view of human society that makes them troubling and makes our world so different from the one in which the Revolutionists had grown up. It was not a Marxist revolution, not the overthrow of a ruling class, not the rising of an oppressed class. But if we can escape from the stereotypes that have governed our thinking about it, we will recognize that it is time to stop apologizing for its conservatism (or praising it) and see it as indeed “the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history.”
June 25, 1992