Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution has been in my bookcase for some time now. Maybe too long, because I recently picked it up and found this in the preface:
Americans were not born free and democratic in any modern sense; they became so -- and largely as a consequence of the American Revolution. After eighteenth-century Americans threw off their monarchical allegiance in 1776, they struggled to find new attachments befitting a republican people. Living in a society that was already diverse and pluralistic, Americans realized that these attachments could not be the traditional ethnic, religious, and tribal loyalties of the Old World. Instead, they sought new enlightened connections to hold their new popular societies together. But when these proved too idealistic and visionary, they eventually found new democratic adhesives in the actual behavior of plain ordinary people -- in the everyday desire for the freedom to make money and pursue happiness in the here and now. To base a society on the commonplace behavior of ordinary people may be obvious and understandable to us today, but it was momentously radical in the long sweep of world history up to that time. 
Wow, this reminds me of Deirdre McCloskey's three volumes on the Bourgeois Era [Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity, and Bourgeois Equality] by which she explains that the modern world is the result of a change in ideas that gave liberty, dignity, and equality to ordinary people.

Here are a few more quotations from the introduction to Wood's book that fit with McCloskey's ideas:
By the time the Revolution had run its course in the early nineteenth century, American society had been radically and thoroughly transformed. One class did not overthrow another; the poor did not supplant the rich. But social relationships--the way people were connected one to another--were changed, and decisively so. By the early years of the nineteenth century the Revolution had created a society fundamentally different from the colonial society of the eighteenth century. It was in fact a new society unlike any that had ever existed anywhere in the world. (p. 6)
[The] revolution did more than legally create the United States; it transformed American society. Because the story of America has turned out the way it has, because the United States in the twentieth century has become the great power that it is, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate and recover fully the insignificant and puny origins of the country. In 1760 America was only a collection of disparate colonies huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast--economically underdeveloped outposts existing on the very edges of the civilized world. The less than two million monarchical subjects who lived in these colonies still took for granted that society was and ought to be a hierarchy of ranks and degrees of dependency and that most people were bound together by personal ties of one sort or another. Yet scarcely fifty years later these insignificant borderland provinces had become a giant, almost continent-wide republic of nearly ten million egalitarian-minded bustling citizens who not only had thrust themselves into the vanguard of history but had fundamentally altered their society and their social relationship. Far from remaining monarchical, hierarchy-ridden subjects on the margin of civilization, Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world.
And this astonishing transformation took place without industrialization, without urbanization, without railroads, without the aid of any of the great forces we usually invoke to explain "modernization." It was the Revolution that was crucial to this transformation. It was the Revolution, more than any other single event, that made America into the most liberal, democratic, and modern nation in the world. (pp. 6-7) 
I think it is difficult for us to understand McCloskey's assertion that a change in ideas explains why we prosper basically because we can't really understand what social life as monarchical and hierarchy-ridden subjects would be like. The change in ideas essentially turned life upside down, and "almost overnight" Americans became liberal, democratic, egalitarian-minded and the most modern people in the world.
[The Revolution] destroyed aristocracy as it had been understood in the Western world for at least two millennia. The Revolution brought respectability and even dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history and to a degree not equaled elsewhere in the world. The Revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and create republics; it actually reconstituted what Americans meant by public or state power and brought about an entirely new kind of popular politics and a new kind of democratic office holder. . . . Most important, it made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people--their pursuits of happiness--the goal of society and government. . . . it also released powerful popular entrepreneurial and commercial energies that few realized existed and transformed the economic landscape of the country. In short, the Revolution was the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history. (p. 8)
Yep. As McCloskey might put it, the Revolution gave liberty, dignity, and equality to ordinary people. And we prosper.


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