The Radicalism of the American Revolution

I found this book by Professor Gordon Wood to be an exemplar of the axiom, “the past is a foreign country.” Time after time Professor Wood explains how things were done in colonial times and during the Revolution which are very different from the way we do things and understand things today.

In order to understand the changes the Revolution brought we have to understand society prior to the Revolution. Before the Revolution the colonies were part of a monarchy. “Living in a monarchical society meant, first of all, being subjects of the king. This was no simple political status, but had all sorts of social, cultural, and even psychological implications. … The allegiance the English subject owed his monarch was a personal and individual matter. Diverse persons related to each other only through their common tie to the king, much as children became brothers and sisters only through their common parentage.” [p. 11] In living in a monarchy, the king’s subjects were thought to be inferior to the king. Additionally, “most colonial leaders in the mid-eighteenth century thought of themselves not as Americans but as Britons. They read much the same literature, the same law books, the same history, as their brethren at home read, and they drew most of their conceptions of society and their values from their reading. Whatever sense of unity the disparate colonies of North America had came from their common tie to the British crown and from their membership in the British empire. Most colonists knew more about events in London than they did about occurrences in neighboring colonies. They were provincials living on the edges of a pan-British world, and all the more British for that.” [p. 12] As British citizens, though, the colonists saw themselves as having all the rights and privileges inherent in being subjects of the British king. “The king had his birthright to the crown, but the people had theirs too: they were ‘free-born Englishmen,’ and they had rights and liberties that no other people in the world enjoyed. They had in fact more rights and liberties than any traditional hereditary monarchy could accommodate; and consequently the British monarchy was very different not only from any other but also from what it had been in the days of James I.” [p. 13]

The colonists believed everyone belonged somewhere and shouldn’t stray from where they belonged. “Both the New England towns with their ancient ‘warning out’ regulations and the southern colonies with their vagabond legislation expected everyone to be somewhere, and they used the force of law to maintain their inherited sense of community. Under the warning-out laws, for example, towns could legally eject ‘strangers’ and have constables convey them from town to town until they were returned to the town where they legally belonged. Society had to be an organic whole. The colonists repeatedly invoked those powerful lines from Corinthians–‘that there should be no Schism in the Body but the Members should have the Same Care for one another’–and widely condemned all selfish persons and parties, indeed ‘anything that dissolved in a moment the solidest friendship.’ ” [p. 20]

Perhaps the clearest indicator of how things were done very differently in the past is the discussion over aristocrats and “gentlemen.” “Despite the fact that most of colonial society was vertically organized, there was one great horizontal division that cut through it with a significance we can today scarcely comprehend–that between extraordinary and ordinary people, gentlemen and commoners. Although the eighteenth century was becoming increasingly confused over who precisely ought to make up each of these basic groups, there was little question that in all societies some were patricians and most were plebeians, that some were officers and most were common soldiers, that some were polished and literate and most were rude and unlettered, that some were gentlemen and most were not.” [p. 24] It’s hard for us today to imagine what this was like. “Southern squires entered their churches as a body and took their pews only after their families and the ordinary people had been seated. Massachusetts courts debated endlessly over whether or not particular plaintiffs and defendants were properly identified as gentlemen. More than any other distinction, this difference between aristocrats and commoners, between gentlemen and ordinary people, made manifest the unequal and hierarchical nature of the society. In the English-speaking world the aristocracy composed a small but immensely powerful proportion of the society, constituting perhaps only 4 or 5 percent of the population, though in the northern colonies of North America that proportion approached 10 percent. Originally the term ‘aristocracy’ referred to a form of government, government by the most distinguished in birth and fortune; but by the eighteenth century ‘aristocracy’ had been popularly extended to embrace the entire patrician order to which such a governing body belonged. Although this aristocracy was a group distinct from the main body of the social hierarchy, it was itself marked by severe degrees of rank. At its top was the king. Below him were the peers of the realm, rarely numbering more than two hundred at any one moment in the eighteenth century. These dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons had huge estates and hereditary titles and, in the case of the English peers at least, automatically sat in the House of Lords (Scottish and Irish peers elected a proportion of their number to the House of Lords). Baronetcies, too, were inheritable but gave the holder no right to a seat in the House of Lords. Below these were several titled ranks of knights and esquires. The entire aristocracy was bottomed on the large body of gentry, the lowest social rank entitled to bear a coat of arms.” [p. 25]

Professor Wood next turns to “gentlemen” in particular. ” ‘Gentlemen’ originally meant noble by birth and applied to all of the aristocracy, including even the king. But from the sixteenth century on, with the enlargement of the aristocracy from below by the entry of numerous lesser gentry ,the hereditary peerage sought to confine the term ‘gentleman’ to all those who stood as ‘a middle rank betwixt the nobles and common people.’ … Most eighteenth century Englishmen still considered gentlemen to be part of the aristocracy.” [pp. 25-26] Gentlemen at this time didn’t labor. “In the eighteenth century, labor, as it had been for ages, was till associated with toil and trouble, with pain, and manual productivity did not yet have the superior moral value that it would soon acquire. To be sure, industriousness and hard work were everywhere extolled, and the Puritan ethic was widely preached–but only for ordinary people, not for gentlemen, and not for the sake of increasing the society’s productivity. Hard, steady work was good for the character of common people: it kept them out of trouble; it lifted them out of idleness and barbarism; and it instilled in them the proper moral values; but it was not thought to expand the prosperity of the society.” [p. 33] When the economy contracted, the aristocracy was expected to increase their consumption of goods in order to provide work for the laboring classes. “Gentlemen responded to unemployment among the laboring ranks by ordering another pair of boots or a new hat. In the seventeenth century Thomas Mun had argued that ‘the purse of the rich’ maintained the poor. In the eighteenth century, Montesquieu still agreed: ‘If the rich do not spend so lavishly,’ he wrote, ‘the poor would die.’ When unemployed silk workers rioted in London in 1765, the king’s natural reaction was to ensure that the ladies of the court ordered expensive silk gowns for the next ball. … The aristocracy needed to display its status by spending, but the responsibility of common people was to produce, not to consume. Thus followed the many traditional attempts to impose sumptuary laws on ordinary people and the continual calls for more frugality among the commonality. The evil of luxury was the evil of ordinary people violating the social hierarchy and living beyond their allotted social rank.” [pp. 34-35]

Gentlemen were not laborers. “Unlike ordinary people gentlemen traditionally were not defined or identified by what they did, but by who they were. They had avocations, not vocations.” [pp. 36-37] Professor Wood uses Benjamin Franklin as an example of a common man elevating himself to the status of gentleman. Franklin worked as a printer and made a fortune for himself, so much that he could finally retire and live off his investments and then he was able to take up scientific inquiry and diplomacy as a gentleman.

Changes in this social structure were only part of what changed as a result of the Revolution. In the years after the Revolution, we learn, men in American society as a whole began to work to earn their livelihoods.

The book is not a history of the Revolution but rather an investigation into how truly radical the Revolution was. “That revolution did more than legally created the United States; it transformed American society. Because the story of America ha turned out the way it has, because the United States in the twentieth century has become the great power that it is, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate and recover fully the insignificant and puny origins of the country. In 1760 America was only a collection of disparate colonies huddled along a narrow trip of the Atlantic coast–economically underdeveloped outposts existing on the very edges of the civilized world. The less than two million monarchical subjects who lived in these colonies still took for granted that society was and ought to be a hierarchy of ranks and degrees of dependency and that most people were bound together by personal ties of one sort or another. Yet scarcely fifty years later these insignificant borderland provinces had become a giant, almost continent-wide republic of nearly ten million egalitarian-minded, bustling citizens who not only had thrust themselves into the vanguard of history but had fundamentally altered their society and their social relationships. Far from remaining monarchical, hierarchy-ridden subjects on the margin of civilization, Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world. And this astonishing transformation took place without industrialization, without urbanization, without railroads, without the aid of any of the great forces we usually invoke to explain ‘modernization.’ It was the Revolution that was crucial to this transformation. It was the Revolution, more than any other single event, that made America into the most liberal, democratic, and modern nation in the world.” [pp. 6-7] Professor Wood tells us the Revolution destroyed the aristocracy, at least in the northern states.

Neoconfederates will tell you slavery ended in the northern states because it was no longer profitable there. That, of course, is another lie they often tell. The end of slavery in the northern states came as a result of the Revolution, though not all at once. “One obvious dependency the revolutionaries did not completely abolish was that of nearly a half million Afro-American slaves, and their failure to do so, amidst all their high-blown talk of liberty, makes the seem inconsistent and hypocritical in our eyes. Yet it is important to realize that the Revolution suddenly and effectively ended the cultural climate that had allowed black slavery, as well as other forms of bondage and unfreedom, to exist throughout the colonial period without serious challenge. With the revolutionary movement, black slavery became excruciatingly conspicuous in a way that it had not been in the older monarchical society with its many calibrations and degrees of unfreedom; and Americans in 1775-76 began attacking it with a vehemence that was inconceivable earlier. For a century or more the colonists had taken slavery more or less for granted as the most base and dependent status in a hierarchy of dependencies and a world of laborers. Rarely had they felt the need either to criticize black slavery or to defend it. Now, however, the republican attack on dependency compelled Americans to see the deviant character of slavery and to confront the institution as they never had to before. It was no accident that Americans in Philadelphia in 1775 formed the first anti-slavery society in the world. As long as mot people had to work merely out of poverty and the need to provide for a living, slavery and other forms of enforced labor did not seem all that different from free labor. But the growing recognition that labor was not simply a common necessity of the poor but was in fact a source of increased wealth and prosperity for ordinary workers made slavery seem more and more anomalous. Americans now recognized that slavery in a republic of workers was an aberration, ‘a peculiar institution,’ and that if any Americans were to retain it, as southern Americans eventually did, they would have to explain and justify it in new racial and anthropological ways that their former monarchical society had never needed. The Revolution in effect set in motion ideological and social forces that doomed the institution of slavery in the North and led inexorably to the Civil War.” [pp. 186-187]

This excellent book is necessary for students of history, though not necessary if your interest is only in the Civil War. It does explain some of the evolution of society heading toward the war, but it’s most useful to explain the early American Republic and to be a model for historical interpretation.

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