History of the United States I AMH 1010 CRN 10800, December 1, 2014
Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1991
Gordon Wood describes the American Revolution as a journey from paternal colonialism to an egalitarian democracy. His contention is that the American Revolution does not seem to have the same kinds of causes that Revolutions usually display. There were no big social wrongs, no class conflict, no severe poverty, or gross inequitable distribution of wealth. Wood claims our revolution was not about independence as most history books claim but about the radical transformation of the American society.
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New concepts of equality of people, integrity, virtue and disinterestedness were key elements of Republicanism. Concepts of self-government, personal liberty and private rights of the individual were embraced. “Liberty was realized when the citizens were virtuous-that is, willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the community” (Wood 104).
Disinterestedness was defined as not being influenced by private profit and private advantage. It required the ability to be unbiased when a personal interest might be present. A republic, as defined in the 18th century, required each man to sacrifice his personal desires for the sake of the public good. Our founding fathers were railing against persons whose position or rank came artificially from hereditary or personal connections that ultimately flowed from the crown or court. “Patriots were those who not only loved their country but were free of dependent connections and influence; their position or rank came naturally from their talent and from below, from recognition by the people” (Wood 176). The Founding Fathers did not envision the way post-Revolutionary society would evolve, define equality, and embrace the promotion of self-interest. The leaders were eager to create a new kind of aristocracy, based on principles that could be learned and were superior to those of birth and family. According to Wood, many of the Revolutionary leaders died with disappointment in their hearts because they did not approve of the Democratic America that emerged in the late 18th century and early 19th century.
Wood claims that the ink was barely dry on the Declaration of Independence before the American people seemed incapable of the degree of virtue needed for republicanism and were unwilling to respect the authority of their newly elected leaders. Americans were focused on the monetary aspects of “pursuit of happiness”. Equality was the most radical and powerful force let loose in the Revolution. It became the center of all democracy. Equality evolved to mean that everyone was really the same as everyone else, not just at birth, or in talent or property or wealth. America was the first society to bring ordinary people into the affairs of government. “This participation of ordinary people in government became the essence of American Democracy” (Wood 243). This inclusion of ordinary people in government violated the disinterestedness concept of Republicanism and introduced the concept of “self-interest”. Americans began to feel disconnected from one another and “so self-conscious of their distinct interests that they could not trust anyone different or far removed from themselves to speak for them in government” (Wood 245).”American localist democracy grew out of this mistrust” (Wood 245). The desire to consume products, obtain wealth, conduct commerce, and serve the self-interests of the local ordinary people made the Founding Fathers concept of disinterested rulers unworkable.