The Radical Revolution

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The French Revolution followed American independence by six years, but it was the later event that went into the books as “the Great Revolution” and became the revolutionary archetype. It is not only the contrast of the conspicuously greater political violence of the French Revolution that has led historians to play down the comparative radicalism of its American counterpart but the fact that the French Revolution swiftly became the model for radical political transformation. For more than a century successful revolutionaries no sooner took power than they designed tricolors and located themselves to the “left” or “right,” terms that originally denoted where the delegates sat in the French Convention; the French taught succeeding generations the revolutionary drill. Until the Russian Revolution displaced it, the French Revolution formed the dominant modern political myth, the distorting mirror in which posterity located its dreams and dreads.

 

The American Revolution, on the other hand, was distinguished by its alleged conservatism; historians have generally held that we didn’t kill enough people, engender enough proto-Bolsheviks, or produce a sufficient social upheaval to achieve true revolutionary significance—a failure lamented in some quarters and celebrated in others.

The revolutionaries not only destroyed the old ties but were unable to establish the kind of new ties they would have liked. They wound up with a very different society from the one they anticipated.

Gordon Wood’s impressive new book The Radicalism of the American Revolution takes sharp issue with this consensus. American society is generally thought to embody cultural extremes of both egalitarian idealism and materialist vulgarity. Professor Wood thinks that these cultural characteristics are the direct—and thoroughly unintended—consequence of the Revolution, which made us for good and ill the most democratic culture on the planet. Thus our revolution was the most radical one imaginable, for it entirely discredited the older forms of paternalistic authority that everywhere else delayed the coming of capitalist modernity, and resulted in the construction of the first and so far the most completely commercial society the world has seen. If the measure of radicalism is the totality of the destruction of the old order, we are for Professor Wood’s money the heirs of the most radical revolution in history.

I spoke with Gordon Wood in his office at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is University Professor and Professor of History.

You argue that our Revolution’s true radicalism lies in its destruction of an older hierarchical order. But just what was that order?

It was a society characterized by a particular kind of hierarchy, a monarchy. This meant certain kinds of social relationships, mainly ones of dependency, with people tied together by patronage, blood, and kinship. Our revolution destroyed these kinds of monarchical relationships; that’s what it was designed to do. But what makes it even more radical is the fact that the revolutionaries not only destroyed these ties but were unable to establish the kinds of ties they would have liked. They wound up in a very different society from the one they anticipated.

And you believe that one of the things they hadn’t taken into account was religion.

Yes. The old order was at the top rationalist, but ordinary people in the eighteenth century were still very much engaged with religion. It was the way they made fundamental sense of the world. What happens in the Revolution is that with the rise of ordinary people into dominance—which I suppose is a one-sentence summary of what the book is saying—they bring their religiosity with them. These people make sense of the world through religion, as ordinary people have done for centuries. People like Jefferson and Franklin were simply not religious in that sense; they did not use religion to explain the world, any more than most educated people today use religion to explain the world. But ordinary people did, and when they emerged into cultural, social, and political dominance in the early nineteenth century, they brought that religiosity with them, and that’s what gives the nineteenth century such striking religious coloration.

You’ve quoted the Founders on their distress at the decline of secularism and rationalism.