The Radicalism of the American Revolution

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The Radicalism of the American Revolution
The Radicalism of the American Revolution book cover.jpg
AuthorGordon S. Wood
CountryUnited States
PublisherVintage Books
Publication date
AwardsPulitzer Prize for History

The Radicalism of the American Revolution is a nonfiction book by historian Gordon S. Wood, published by Vintage Books in 1993. In the book, Wood explores the radical character of the American Revolution. The book was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History.[1]

In 1991, Gordon S. Wood attempted to reconcile his previous arguments in The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, with myriad analytical categories, especially emotions, in this book. Wood's contentions remained the same from his revised dissertation sans the extensive foray into state constitutionalism during the Confederation period, i.e., the purposes of representation (including the idea of a "natural aristocracy") and discursive tensions within an idea of "liberty," often perceived as the indistinguishable unity of "positive and negative," were inexorably reduced to a sociopolitical "liberalism" and "interests"-based representation, more commonly associated with "negative liberty." Wood still depicted early federalism as a response to anti-federalist questions regarding the very notion of an expansive "[the] United States" and the solecism imperium-in-imperio, sovereignty-within-sovereignty. James Madison and his federalists offered a last rebuttal: the locus of "power," sovereignty, would be vested in "the people," not in a central government or in state governments, and certainly not in governmental apparatus or branches as such. This rebuttal encompassed not only direct apportionment for the House of Representatives, but also elected state assemblies and their appointment of Senators, as well as the apportionment of Presidential electors and even state ratification conventions for the Constitution itself."[2] A "mutuality of interests" generated a crucible for "the alliance of power and liberty."[3]

Historians such as Jack Rakove, Pauline Maier, and Lance Banning often quoted Wood's "disingenuous Federalists" and Edmund S. Morgan's "inventing the people" in studies of the lingering concerns over the scope and implementation of this popular sovereignty rebuttal, Senatorial and Presidential electoral mechanisms, and the persistence of "republican" signifiers for otherwise "modern" ideas of political economy. In this "American science of politics," government as an "umpire" of (ir)rational "interests" subsumed and transformed any disinterested publics associated with "positive liberty" into, for instance, the United States public interest.[4] Wood concluded Radicalism with the rise of a fledgling Jacksonian democracy, contending that voters appropriated the "Federalist Persuasion" of an "interests"-based popular sovereignty and "celebration of commerce," much to the chagrin of many, but by no means all, of the former persuaders in their twilight years. The late eighteenth-century idea of the "equality" of sensations and benevolent "feeling," bestowed on a "moral" humanity by the deistic "Creator," gave rise to the idea of "equality" of opportunity in political economy. These dyadic and diachronic notions of "equality" potentially included diverse segments of "society," but interpretations by historical actors neither necessarily expanded bodies politic, nor civil government, much beyond self-described "white males." This appropriation nevertheless proved a cornerstone for Wood's ultimate argument that "the Revolution was the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history."[5] More recently, Carli Conklin argued for "the pursuit of happiness" as a typology of "virtue" that may or may not include "property" (or possessive individualism, anti-covetousness, etc.): "...the pursuit of happiness, as used in both works, refers to man's ability to know the law of nature and of nature's God as it pertains to man, and man's unalienable right to then choose to pursue a life of virtue or, in other words, a life lived in harmony with those natural law principles. The result would be eudaimonia or man's own real and substantial happiness." In 2019, Conklin revised and expanded these arguments to include a variety of historical actors, including James Wilson, in The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History. These contentions on "happiness" do not necessarily undermine Wood's approach to "liberty" and his concomitant history of "feeling," including "happiness," in Radicalism.[6]

As discussed above, Gordon S. Wood argued in Radicalism that "in this classical republican tradition our modern distinction between positive and negative liberties was not yet clearly perceived, and the two forms of liberty were still often seen as one." This dearth of distinctions did not only apply to ideas within the category of "negative liberties," such as degrees of free markets and civil liberties, but also to the conceptual dichotomy of "positive and negative liberties." Any connection between Wood's arguments before the "Federalist Persuasion" and the neo-Kantian pursuit of transcendental apperception as well as the unity of opposites in categorical epistemology, with the presumption (or potentially paradoxical acceptance) of enlightened unmündigkeit in apperception and schemata, requires further research.[7]

The End of Classical Politics[edit]

Gordon S. Wood ended The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, a 1969 book based on a dissertation supervised by Bernard Bailyn, with the "End of Classical Politics." Wood argued that, in the wake of the last federalist rebuttal during the ratification debates, "the stability of government no longer relied, as it had for centuries, upon its embodiment of the basic social forces of the state. Indeed, it now depended upon the prevention of the various social interests from incorporating themselves too firmly in the government. Institutional or governmental politics was thus abstracted in a curious way from its former associations with the society. But at the same time a more modern and more realistic sense of political behavior in the society itself, among the people, could now be appreciated. This revolution marked an end of the classical conception of politics." The first section of the book, "The Whig Science of Politics," explored how and why "the colonists" appropriated "Whig" (or "neo-Harringtonian") "ideals" of "liberty," which ultimately came to represent a singularity of "personal liberty" and "public liberty" as well as representation by a "natural aristocracy." By the last chapter of the book, entitled "The American Science of Politics," Wood declared that "public or political liberty, the right of the people to share in the government—lost its significance for a system in which the people participated throughout. The liberty that was now emphasized was personal or private...[they began to] regard public and private liberty as antagonistic rather than complementary...Such a total grounding of government in self-interest and consent had made old-fashioned popular revolutions obsolete."[8]

In 1992, as Gordon S. Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution first circulated among scholars, historian Daniel T. Rodgers attempted to define the parameters of the debates launched by The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Creation of the American Republic. Rodgers posited periodization as the source of much controversy between what he deemed adherents of "Harvard republicanism" and proponents of "St. Louis republicanism." In the context of The Creation of the American Republic, "when Wood turned to the early national period he found a society dancing feverishly to the tune of 'modern American liberalism.' The mark of St. Louis republicanism, by contrast, was a reluctance to date the 'end of classical politics' as early as Wood had put it." As a result of these fractious disputes, "RepublicanismH collapsed all at once in a clatter of constitutional argument. RepublicanismS staggered on to a slower death." His review essay did not include the extended periodization in Radicalism.[9] In his 2011 Age of Fracture, Rodgers included a paragraph synopsis of his conception of "civic republicanism" in historiography, adding that "law reviews in the early 1980s began to fill with articles exhuming civic republicanism and the traditions of deliberative democracy from the rights and court-centered contests that had overwhelmed it. Others wrote in praise of strong democracy, the responsive community, and a 'jurisprudence of community and context.' In a book [Habits of the Heart] that was a must-read in the mid-1980s, Robert Bellah and his collaborators traced two competing languages through the scores of Americans they interviewed: a dominant language of individual aspirations and desires but also...civic republicanism." He further classified Michael Walzer's 1983 critical intervention in Rawlsian "primary goods" as an example of his interpretation of "civic republicanism," but lamented that, in "conservative" lexicons, " 'virtue' simply became a synonym for ethical certainty, a slogan with which they set out to inject harder-edged morals into the schools than mere values clarification...But for still others the term 'virtue' flagged not commonweal or certainty but...'social capital.' "[10]

In 1998, Gordon S. Wood clarified the vaunted and maligned "End of Classical Politics" in a new preface to his 1969 study. First, Wood reminded readers, "it is important to remember that the boxlike categories of 'republicanism' and 'liberalism' are essentially the inventions of us historians." In Wood's estimation, the bifurcation of "Harvard republicanism" and "St. Louis republicanism" had been premised on "the mistaken notion that one set of ideas simply replaced another en bloc...I probably contributed my mite to this distortion of past entitling a section of my final chapter 'The End of Classical Politics.' " He sought to mitigate scholarly conflicts by curbing meanings ascribed to this phrase. "I intended only to say," Wood opined, "that after the debates and discoveries of 1787-88 most Americans (John Adams was a conspicuous exception) more or less ceased talking about politics in the way theorists since Aristotle had—as a maneuvering and mixing of three social entities or forms of government [monarchy, lords, commons]—and began talking about politics in recognizably modern ways—as a competition among interests or parties in the society for control of a quasi-autonomous state. But some readers have interpreted the phrase to mean that the entire republican tradition came to end in 1787-88 and was abruptly replaced by something called liberalism. Cultural changes of that magnitude do not take place in such a neat and sudden manner. Republicanism was indeed gradually transformed into something we call liberalism, but in subtle and complicated ways that kept many republican sentiments alive."[11]


  1. ^ "Wood, Gordon S(tewart)". Writer's Directory 2005.  – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Archived from the original on April 15, 2016. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
  2. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1991). The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Vintage Books: Random House, Inc. pp. 243–286.
  3. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1969). Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1 ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute. pp. 543–546.
  4. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1969). Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1 ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute. pp. 519–564 and 593–618.
  5. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1991). The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Vintage Books: Random House, Inc. pp. 8, 243–270, and 325–370.
  6. ^ Conklin, Carli (2015). "The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness". Washington University Jurisprudence Review. 7 (2): 198, 202, and 260–62.
  7. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1991). The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Vintage Books: Random House, Inc. p. 104.
  8. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1969). Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1 ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute. pp. 3–45 and 606–618.
  9. ^ Rodgers, Daniel T. (1992). "Republicanism: The Career of a Concept". The Journal of American History. 79 (1): 11–38.
  10. ^ Rodgers, Daniel T. (2011). Age of Fracture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 191–196. ISBN 9780674057449.
  11. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (1998). Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (2 ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute. pp. xi–xii.