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The Radical Revolution

June 2024
17min read

For years people have argued that France had the real revolution and that ours was mild by comparison. But now a powerful new book says the American Revolution was the most sweeping in all history. It alone established a pure commercial culture—a culture that makes America the universal society we are today.

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.

The ones who saw what was happening. Jefferson, for example, was very optimistic, as late as 1820 he thought that every person alive would eventually die a Unitarian. He saw the society becoming more like him, and he couldn’t have been more wrong. The Founding Fathers were at most deists—they believed God created the world, then left it alone to run—but they were a very thin veneer on their society, and I think they misinterpreted what was going to happen. They certainly never intended to create the kind of evangelical Protestant world that emerged by the 1820s in the Second Great Awakening. This is true, I think, even for those who are always associated with Puritanism, like John Adams, for whom the Second Great Awakening was an unanticipated consequence, and for someone like Jefferson, for whom, when he finally caught on to what was happening, it was absolutely a horror show. It was just unbelievable; he could only blame the New England Puritan Federalists, who he decided had caused it all. This of course didn’t help him explain the rise of evangelical Protestantism in Virginia.

And we’re still the most religious of the industrial societies.

I think that’s because we are a society in which ordinary people continue to dominate the culture to a greater extent than in the societies of Western Europe. Our religiosity is a function of the democratic cast of our culture, which is, of course, the source of our vulgarity, our materialism, and all the other things that lots of people don’t like about America.

We are indeed a materialistic capitalist society. That can be seen pejoratively, or it can be seen as a sign of equality. There’s something peculiarly egalitarian about the cash nexus.

No gentlemen, right?

No gentlemen. And that’s important. The whole phenomenon of the gentleman is important because it’s about a lot more than just manners. The gentleman was not only somebody who knew how to behave but also somebody who knew how to rule. I think the idea of the gentleman and what happened to it is a fantastically interesting subject. The eighteenth century was the high point of the Anglo-American culture of the gentleman. It was a concept of increasing importance from the Renaissance on, and in the eighteenth century people were really wrestling with it. Jane Austen was fascinated with the subject; all her novels consider the definition of a proper gentleman. I think this examination was also occurring in the Colonies, where there was less and less emphasis on blood, family, and wealth as being the proper measure of a gentleman and more on moral behavior, which made it possible for the Founders, who had by English aristocratic standards very little wealth and who could make very little appeal to the criterion of blood, to aspire to gentility.

What made someone qualify as a gentleman?

A certain amount of wealth, giving one independence, was a prerequisite. Jane Austen, along with many other people, thought of a gentleman as someone who had, at a minimum, so many hundred pounds of income; Darcy had ten thousand pounds a year. Such an income would certainly constitute independence. Of course, you could not be a shopkeeper or manual laborer, but the more controversial question was, What is the relation of the professions to gentility? This was a period of transition in the ideal of gentility and the conception of the professions, but members of the professions were for the most part still regarded as primarily gentlemen, not as professionals. This is, of course, very confusing for historians, because we look at the period and notice growing numbers of lawyers and doctors, and we assume they’re like modern professionals, but it’s a mistake to anticipate the future.

Someone like Benjamin Rush was a doctor, but first he’s a gentleman, then he practices medicine, and he doesn’t practice the way a modern practitioner would. He’s not at the hospital ten or twelve hours a day; he has a lot of time for doing the kinds of things that people in Jane Austen’s world did, which is to visit and be genteel. And the same is true of lawyers. They’re not working so many billable hours to get their salaries from their law firms; they are much more independent and leisured than that.

And you believe that the purpose of such leisure is to allow a gentleman to specialize in the art of ruling?

That’s the traditional view. Jefferson took it very seriously; so did Franklin. They felt they had a responsibility to devote themselves to philosophy, the arts, or public service. Now in the old order people were deferred to because they had power; they could command those who were in a condition of dependence and reward them with patronage, or wealth, or whatever. The Founding Fathers, despite their reputation for hardheaded realism, were naive enough to believe that the people would follow and obey them simply because they were more talented, and because they had been elected. They had tremendous confidence in elections; the people, having chosen them, would naturally follow their leadership.

Those who doubted this became the Federalists as they emerged in the 179Os. John Adams is the archetype; his famous exchange with Jefferson late in his life explored this issue. And I think Adams has the better of the argument. Jefferson remained a Pollyanna, naive about the sociology of democracy. Adams in effect said: “Don’t kid yourself, Mr. Jefferson, the people who get elected aren’t going to be the best and most talented. They’re going to be the prettiest, the most handsome, the wealthiest, the people who can attract the attention of a television audience with the best sound bite.” Jefferson remained committed to the revolutionary dream that talent would win out.

You talk about America as the first commercial society, a political order sustained by the new idea that men’s calculations of their own economic interest constitute the sole social bond.

That’s why I think our revolution was so radical. Obviously commerce had existed from the beginning of history, and so one gets into all kinds of arguments with people who will say, “Well, look, there was commerce already.” But a commercial society doesn’t mean merely one in which commerce occurs. In the North—the South remained closer to the eighteenth century, and I think this helps explain the sectional split—you have a society that increasingly comes to regard the business of America as business, buying and selling, with exchange for monetary gain as the basic adhesive of society. And it’s that preoccupation that startled Tocqueville and everybody else who came here. Observers with traditional attitudes came and condemned, because the cash nexus is not supposed to be a nice way to tie people together. We are indeed a materialistic capitalist society.

That can be seen pejoratively, or it can be seen in another way, as a sign of equality. There’s something peculiarly egalitarian about the cash nexus. From the nineteenth century up to the present, we have come to regard the cash nexus as an unjust and wicked way to tie people together. But in the context of the old order the cash nexus was regarded as an egalitarian achievement, as a better way to connect people than through blood or patronage, who your father was or whom you married. It seemed better for a person to be assessed in terms of “What can I buy?” or “What can my money buy for me?”


Well, it certainly wasn’t Jefferson’s intent. How did the Revolution produce such a pure, expansive, inclusive commercial regime?

It destroyed the older ties and discredited them in a way that has simply never happened in England. The Revolution made blood and patronage ties dishonorable in this new world. There were attempts made to construct new Utopian arrangements, with varying degrees of success, but ultimately they weren’t sufficient. What emerged to fill the vacuum, to tie people together, was commercial exchange, and this came about because this was what ordinary people were doing, and they thrived in this kind of environment. They didn’t need justifications for relationships that the Founding Fathers might have needed. They certainly didn’t feel the need for old-fashioned republican virtue; they simply wanted to get ahead, and pursue happiness. They took Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness quite literally.

The way you do that is by making money. In that sense a commercial society is a victory for those very ordinary, selfinterested people, the kinds of people who political philosophers from the beginning of time have said are ill equipped to run any government. They’re too self-interested, too preoccupied with the pursuit of their private interests.

Interestedness plays a very big role in your book, and this brings us back to the gentleman. Gentlemen are by definition disinterested, and their disinterestedness is the justification for their political authority. The gentlemen remained a powerful force in every other European society; the old order survived. The American victory over the gentlemen was the least savage—we weren’t guillotining them—but in some sense it’s the most complete.

Yes. Except in the South there was no traditional aristocracy left. And that’s why there has never been a real working-class movement in America. Everybody claimed to work; everybody was saying, “Yes, I’m a workingman too.” It was very difficult for a separate group of workingmen to establish their autonomy. There’s no labor party that can develop when everybody says, “I’m a laborer.” No socialist movement or workingman’s movement can develop without the aristocracy at the other end to act as a foil. Now, obviously, the notion of disinterestedness doesn’t die out entirely, and in fact it re-emerges later in the century, with members of the professions and academics and scientists coming to claim some of the disinterested qualities of gentlemen. But the ideal was much diminished when compared with what had existed earlier. Interest seems to conquer all. That’s what Tocqueville saw, and that’s what any outside observer would have seen, this dominance of interest in the culture. Many Americans would not have accepted this description of their society and would have been horrified by the notion that they were concerned only with interest.

But there was a realization that this was what democracy meant: the emergence of ordinary people who by definition have economic interests; that’s what it means have an occupation. To be a shoemaker or a businessman or a shopkeeper is to have an interest, and it’s precisely because they aren’t independent of the marketplace that they have these interests. In a democratic society these people are running the show, and they’re bringing their interests with them; they can’t shed them, they are inherent in their being businessmen. Nobody doubted that. Adam Smith understood it as well as anyone: These kinds of people do not make good legislators because they have private interests. That is why Smith always accepted the landed gentry’s dominance in the House of Commons. They alone could be free of these kinds of interests.

Gentlemen don’t have to exert themselves for their income. But anybody who worked for a living was going to have interests and was going to bring them into the political arena. Some sought to resist this by denying the reality. But others, like Madison, accepted the reality of interests. He said, in effect, “Well, that’s the way it is, but we’re going to deal with it by trying to keep these people out of political leadership by elevating and extending the national government.” That was his solution, and it failed.

I think the intriguing person in all of this is Aaron Burr. Burr was the one aristocrat among the Founding Fathers who never made any claims for virtue. He was just a real American politician.

You’re rather harsh on Madison. You certainly don’t think much of his prophetic powers as a political theorist.

Madison still conceived of public interest that transcends private interest, and in his Federalist Paper number ten he said, in effect, “Look, there are interests everywhere in society; I understand that. What we’d like to do is devise a political structure that will keep these interests from getting into government, or at least dominating government, and the way to do that is to expand the sphere of government so that these interests counteract one another and allow disinterested gentlemen to rule.” His model was always religion; he understood that the secret of America’s success in creating religious liberty and separating church and state, which is what allowed him and Jefferson and those other secular humanists or deists to run the show, was the fact that there were so many religious groups competing with one another that they negated one another, neutralized the state in religious matters, and allowed rationalist thinkers to predominate.

He hoped the same thing would happen in the larger sphere of interest-group politics. Let the interests collide and compete with one another in the society; let’s erect a government on a national level that will be dominated by the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, people who were free of interest. I think he really saw himself as a disinterested person, capable of rising above narrow marketplace interests, and hoped to create a government that would be more or less dominated by his kind of person. Now it didn’t work out quite like that, and I think that was part of the problem of the Federalists in the 179Os. There weren’t enough James Madisons or Alexander Hamiltons or George Washingtons. There were too many Federalists who had interests to promote, even though they were presumably an aristocracy. They were an aristocracy caught up in interests.

I think the intriguing and revealing person in all of this is Aaron Burr. Burr was the one aristocrat among the Founding Fathers who never made any claims for virtue and had no visions of an America based on virtue and republican idealism. The explanation may be that he was a more authentic aristocrat who never needed to justify himself; his father was the second president of Princeton. He had as much aristocratic lineage as anybody in New England.

Burr never had the insecurity of the rest of the Founding Fathers, many of whom had to justify themselves in terms of achievement. In New York and even when he was Vice President, his behavior was very different from that of someone like Jefferson or John Adams. He was always writing letters to people promoting some kind of interest, trying to make money. He was an aristocrat, but he never had enough money to bring it off, and his correspondence is very revealing; it’s full of “See if you can get a job for so-and-so. I owe him something. Burn this letter.” You never find Thomas Jefferson saying, “Burn this letter.” Burr sounds like a ward politician of the 1880s.

As a consequence he comes to be feared by both ends of the political spectrum. Both Hamilton and Jefferson fear Burr long before his ventures in the West. He’s frightening to them because he’s supposed to be the kind of person the Republic will need as a leader. He’s a natural aristocrat, he has a Princeton education, he’s got money, he’s got all the pose and status of a gentleman, yet he’s behaving in this interested way, conniving at land deals and banking deals in New York and persisting even when he gets to be Vice President. He had the gall to wonder if it would be possible for him to continue to practice law while he was Vice President. People talked about Hillary Clinton’s continuing to practice law when her husband became President. Burr was actually hoping to practice law while Vice President. One of his confidants had to say to him, No, it’s improper, you can’t have the Vice President walking into court as an attorney; you would overawe the court.

What really scared his contemporaries, the real treason of Aaron Burr, is that he was a traitor to his class. They expected more from him. He had all the promise of leadership, which is why he got elevated so quickly, first to the Senate and then to the Vice Presidency at a time when you had to be somebody to be Vice President. Think of who his predecessors were: Jefferson and Adams. Then there’s Burr. He was expected to be one of the shining lights of the new Republic. He had a distinguished war record, he had everything going for him—looks, charm, extraordinary abilities —but he failed the test of disinterested leadership, and he scared the bejesus out of the other Founding Fathers.

And what was Burr? He was just an anticipation of a real American politician. Gore Vidal in his novel Burr makes him the natural father of Martin Van Buren. That’s one of the invented sections of the book; there’s no real evidence of that at all, though it was a scurrilous rumor at the time. But Vidal’s choice is interesting because Van Buren does emerge as the first great modern politician, still a gentleman, but a nineteenth-century version, a type simply unanticipated by the Founding Fathers, a victorious candidate who had done nothing notable to deserve office. He had written no great documents, he had won no battles, he had no great distinctions. But he had built the best political machine the country had ever seen. He was the most astute politician of his era and a great champion of the legitimacy of parties and interest groups in politics. There is a kind of spiritual tie between Burr and Van Buren, which Vidal hit upon.


You seem to suggest that self-interest is unchallengeable in American politics, that government can never stand above it but must merely accommodate as many interests as possible. And yet our politicians are always decrying “special interests.”

Sure. That’s our conventional rhetoric, and we continue to hope against hope that there is somebody out there who might stand above interests. One of the appeals of Perot is that he had so much money he would not be beholden to special interests. Perot in this sense has that independence that the gentleman are supposed to possess in classical political theory. But when you get down to it, everybody has interests. Press them, and people say, “Well, I mean special interest … that other interest, not this one.” There’s a certain amount of fiction and incoherence that is involved in our rhetoric of “special interests.”

Everybody’s here. No race or nationality hasn’t got somebody in the United States living as a citizen. It’s extraordinary, and it’s the product of our being so pure a commercial society.

But surely there is a persisting sense that the use of political power for economic purposes is illegitimate.

I do agree that there is a dream of a leader out there who stands above interest. That persists in American life, and it accounts for our periodic election of military heroes and accounts as well for our anti-partyism, which continues right up to the present. We’re seeing an indication of it in our systematic destruction of our political parties, most conspicuously in the weakening of the Democratic party over the last thirty years.

The liberal Republican movement, the Mugwump movement, and the Progressive movement were all anti-party. A party necessarily suggests interests; the term party does, after all, mean just that: taking a partial view. So despite our so-called acceptance of interests and parties, there’s always been, perhaps as a consequence of the republican emphasis in the Founding Fathers’ dream, a high level of rhetoric that condemns parties and interests, whether special or not.

Later in your book you argue that in the world created by the Revolution great disparities of wealth are not considered antithetical to a democratic order. But didn’t the successive waves of American populism have a strong and recurring hostility to concentrations of wealth—take the New Deal term economic royalists , for instance?

Sure. But what’s extraordinary is the extent to which Americans have put up with and continue to put up with great disparities of wealth as long as they see the wealth as achieved. There’s very little resentment of rich ballplayers and rock stars. In any event, I’m less concerned with what happened later than with explaining the 1820s and 1830s. Americans then clearly accepted—at least for a while—unprecedented disparities of wealth, disparities far greater than those of the eighteenth century, and nonetheless called their era the age of equality. This has led some historians to think that the first post-revolutionary generations misunderstood their own culture, that theirs was the age of the uncommon man, not the common man. I think the historians are wrong and the contemporaries were right when they called it the age of the common man, because differences of wealth are the least mortifying and least humiliating of the various ways in which people on top have made those on the bottom feel their inferiority. If you think about it a bit, that’s true even today; if you’re told that the reason you’re inferior is your race or your bloodline or your father’s ethnicity, that’s not something you can do anything about. But if you’re told that you’re inferior because you haven’t got as much money as someone else, that’s something that you can theoretically do something about. To have wealth become the only source of distinction is to place only a weak social barrier between classes. That gave a lot of encouragement to a lot of ambitious people.

One of the great nineteenth-century hopes—it was John Stuart Mill’s—is that people who are not used to exercising political power will get better at it by doing so; they will become more rational. You don’t put much stock in that, do you?

I suppose there may be some evidence here and there, but I don’t have much confidence. I suppose you can work at educating people to be more disinterested; that’s what a liberal arts education is supposed to be about. But I don’t think it’s working all that well, except perhaps in environmental matters. Not much suggests that we are becoming more disinterested.

Your book seems to say, Look, this is what we’ve got. This is a very stable commercial culture in its political habits, and there are some very lovely things and some rather nasty things about it.

I think that’s true. That’s how I feel. I think we need to see all of the sides of what we’ve got. There are tawdry and unattractive sides, but American society is an extraordinary thing, now more than ever. We have a truly universal society; everybody’s here. No race, nationality, or ethnic group hasn’t got somebody in the United States living as a citizen. It’s an extraordinary thing, and it is a product of our being so pure a commercial society without any particular claims of ethnicity or race. I think that every once in a while we ought to acknowledge that this democratic inclusiveness remains immensely impressive.

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