Faithful readers of this blog will know that I am a sucker for a short well-designed book on an interesting subject. The Modern Library Chronicles Series is aimed at producing just such books. The reason I bring this up is that I just finished one: The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood.
While I have neither the expertise nor the time and energy to give you a full-fledged review, I would like to recommend it. If you are looking for a quick read on this interesting subject or if you wouldn’t mind knowing a little bit more about this nation’s founding without getting bogged down in some academic tome, this would be a good place to start.
The American Revolution is no stranger to the tug and pull of partisan cheerleading posing as scholarship (not to say that some of that cheerleading isn’t accurate and worthwhile). I am sure that those with strong interest and/or knowledge in the subject would say that Gordon S. Wood has a bias and/or “a take” on many of the issues involved but he attempts in this book not to make this a moralistic story of right and wrong but instead views “how the Revolution came about, what its character was, and what its consequences were” as “the questions this brief history seeks to answer.”
In my opinion Wood gives a great overview of the historical, political, and intellectual ideas and events that make up this fascinating time in our country’s history. He does so in a way that is accessible to the average reader but that is still thought provoking and interesting.
Wood breaks the book down into seven parts: Origins, American Resistance, Revolution, Constitution-Making and War, Republicanism, Republican Society, and the Federal Constitution. Each one of these sections is only 25 pages or so long. This makes for easy reading. In fact, if you had a chunk of time you could read the book in one sitting (it is only 167 pages). But within each chapter, and throughout the whole book, Wood weaves the political, economic, cultural, and intellectual issues together to give you a well-rounded picture of the events. He keeps the pace by creating a sense of discovery and the rush of events. You can tell that he is fascinated by the ideas and events he is describing and that fascination is contagious.
He is able to describe the events leading up to the Revolution as having a certain inertia. Few were really set out on a path to Revolution and separation but as events and ideas took on a life of their own the crisis deepened rather than abated. This crisis was not crudely based on economic interests or simply a moralistic crusade for the Colonialists “rights.” Instead, it was a complicated mix of social, economic, and political evolution and yes, revolution. Wood of course traces the changes in population and in the colonial economy and he notes the particular and localized events that were involved in the escalation to Independence. The most fascinating sections of the book, however, are those when Wood discuss the intellectual and social changes that shaped and grew out of the Revolution. His discussion of both the unique American perspective on liberty and its growth out of the English “country opposition” (as opposed to the corruption of the “court”) is fascinating and thought provoking. Americans often spoke and thought as if they were simply defending the “Rights of Englishmen” but they were in fact pushing a more radical agenda. The fear of a powerful monarchical executive drove them toward advocating what were seen as radical reforms at the time: greater suffrage, a greater freedom of the press, and in general a more populist and egalitarian perspective for example. This rhetoric, used for cynical and idealistic reasons, tended to snowball and take on a life of its own. As tensions with the English Crown increased, this oppositional viewpoint became the lens through which the colonists saw the world. The adoption of this Republican worldview in turn had enormous social consequences but didn’t lead to complete social breakdown. Wood paints the events leading up to Independence as a conservative yet radical revolution.
Wood also does a great job discussing the political balancing that became necessary after the Revolution. He outlines how the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and the consequences of the above mentioned social changes motivated people to adjust the way they governed. Realizing that perhaps they had gone to far in removing and limiting executive power, and learning that legislatures can be despotic too, the states began to update their constitutions. Soon executives and independent judiciaries were seen as balancing run away legislatures not as tyrannical despots themselves. Wood does a great job of briefly yet succinctly outlining the debates surrounding the Constitutional Convention that was called to reform colonial government. He locates America’s unique view of government as having grown out of the Federalist Anti-Federalist debates. He outlines how the need for federalism changed the understanding of sovereignty. The Federalists located sovereignty in the people themselves rather than in any particular government institution and this had important consequences:
By asserting that all sovereignty rested with the people, were not saying that, as theorists had for ages, that all governmental power was merely derived from the people. Instead they were saying that sovereignty remained always with the people and that government was only a temporary and limited agency of the people – out to the various governmental officials, so to speak, on a short-term, always recallable loan.
This not only changed the way people thought about sovereignty it also allowed for the Federalists to argue for a large overarching Republican state as opposed to a weak confederation of independent states. Wood outlines how these debates changed the way American’s saw government and their relationship to it with repercussions that are with us still today. The rhetoric may have been Republican but it was infused with ideas about democracy that would be impossible to hold back.
As I said at the beginning, I don’t have the expertise or time (let alone the space) to recap all of the interesting ideas touched on by Wood in this brief history and I probably haven’t done the ones mentioned above justice. Regardless, if any of this rambling has peaked your interest, I would encourage you to check out this great little book.