The American Revolution: A History
By Gordon S. Wood
Random House Publishing Group
$11.49 paperback; $13.99 eBook
Reviewed by Gila Hayes
Most years, before Independence Day’s noisy celebrations, I read a book about the birth of our nation or biographies of the Founders. We need to remember the early Americans, who sacrificed their reputations, financial stability and for some, their lives, in the Revolutionary War. I read a lot of biographies, so this month I chose something more academic, The American Revolution by historian Gordon S. Wood. It gave me a clearer appreciation for our republic and the commitment required to create it. The hardships of the Revolutionary War and tribulations of the decade following independence should inspire us to cherish individual liberties and beware the risks to freedom.
To explain how the American republic came to treasure freedom for individuals, Wood explores why American colonists wanted to shake off English rule. He writes, “In 1763, Great Britain straddled the world with the greatest and richest empire since the fall of Rome.” Although it won the French and Indian War, England’s management was shaky.
“Even in trade regulation, which was the empire’s main business, inefficiency, loopholes, and numerous opportunities for corruption prevented the imperial authorities from interfering substantively with the colonists’ pursuit of their own economic and social interests.” The French and Indian War was costly, and the English expected the colonies to provide revenue to pay war debts.
England needed colonial grain, tobacco, and other agricultural goods to feed its growing population. Trade created newly well-off colonists who preferred expensive English goods and went into debt to buy them. These imports caused a trade deficit, then the English imposed new taxes and tariffs right when the colonies’ once-booming war-time economy collapsed. Business failures and bankruptcies multiplied, and the victims blamed the English who prohibited the colonies from issuing paper money, then passed the Stamp Act to tax legal documents. When colonial petitions to England for relief were ignored, rhetoric “boiled over into fiery declarations,” Wood describes.
The English repealed the Stamp Act in February of 1766, but “the imperial relationship and American respect for British authority—indeed, for all authority—would never be the same,” Wood opines. “The crisis over the Stamp Act aroused and unified Americans as no previous political event ever had. It stimulated bold political and constitutional writings throughout the colonies, deepened the colonists’ political consciousness and participation, and produced new forms of organized popular resistance.”
The very wealthy and educated lost influence as common citizens organized unauthorized local government committees to address their own communities’ needs. “These new governments ranged from town and county committees and the newly created provincial congresses to a general congress of the colonies—the First Continental Congress, which convened in Philadelphia in September 1774.” Many pages follow detailing the differing principles the two sides fought over, and while interesting, are too lengthy for this book review.
Wood emphasizes that the American revolution differed greatly from other revolutions in which the downtrodden fight for physical survival. “The American Revolution has always seemed to be an unusually intellectual and conservative affair—carried out not to create new liberties but to preserve old ones,” he notes. As the book shifts attention to creation of a new government, Wood’s ideas about balancing the common good against the unique American individualism gave me a new respect for the lines between individual liberty and the common good.
Americans’ obligations to their fellowman were deemed more important than loyalty to the English king. The new paradigm deemed common working people less corrupt than the elite. Wood writes that the idealization of simple country people stems from classic literature, starting in Rome, popularized by Renaissance writers, and inspiring Englishmen like John Milton who in turn influenced the Founding Fathers. The resulting republicanism embraced virtue, equality, love for fellow-citizens, and “devotion to the common welfare.”
America’s citizen representatives stood in contrast to the corrupt English monarchy. “Equality—the most powerful idea in all of American history—predicted an end to the incessant squabbling over position and rank and the bitter contentions of factional politics that had afflicted the colonial past. Since this discord was thought to be rooted in the artificial inequalities of colonial society, created and nourished largely through the influence and patronage of the British crown, the adoption of republicanism promised a new era of social harmony,” Wood notes.
For all the talk of equality, the native Americans didn’t fare so well, Wood points out. Some Indians had allied with the British, only to find that the peace treaty “ceded sovereignty over their land to the United States.” Americans believed the land was theirs by “right of conquest,” so felt no obligation to compensate the Indians and much bloodshed resulted.
Slavery also continued, oppressing nearly half a million men and women. Many Founders spoke out against slavery, Wood writes, but they assumed it was so antithetical to American ideals that it would naturally die out. Instead, it got a lot worse before it got better. “The colonists had generally taken slavery for granted as part of the natural order of a monarchical society,” he explains. The immediate post-Revolutionary antislavery movements, especially strong in the North, freed some blacks in Virginia, “but in the end, slavery in the South was too entrenched to be legislatively or judicially abolished. Southern whites who had been in the vanguard of the Revolutionary movement and among the most fervent spokesmen for its libertarianism now began developing a self-conscious sense of difference from the rest of America that they had never had to the same degree before.”
Even among whites, wealth and poverty caused inequality. Wood reports that “wealth was far more unequally distributed after the Revolution than it had been before.” Charities were established to provide medical treatment for the poor, housing for orphans, meals for people in debtors’ prisons, housing for shipwrecked soldiers, while politicians tried to modernize sentencing for crime.
For the first few years after independence, the loose confederation of states enthusiastically governed themselves, but the absence of a unified voice was problematic when negotiating with other nations and detrimental to assuring the general welfare at home. “In every state, decisions had to be made about the loyalists and their confiscated property, the distribution of taxes among the citizens, and the economy,” Wood writes. Private ambitions and greed by various state legislatures, “suggested that the people were too self-interested to be good republicans.” Everyone wanted his piece of the pie and with each new session, legislators rewrote laws and passed new bills to benefit themselves and their constituents. James Madison noted that “more laws were enacted by the states in the decade following independence than in the entire colonial period” as individual grievances and private needs won out over common good.
A number of state constitutions were revised during the late 1770s to the early 1780s. Hoping to rein in the lower houses “popular legislatures were reduced in size and their authority curbed,” Wood writes. Although not everyone approved of judges setting aside laws passed by the representatives, the judiciary needed to protect the state constitutions. Although this occurred in the individual states, it highlighted the absence of a strong central authority.
The old guard was giving way to younger leaders like Alexander Hamilton and others like him who craved the stability the Confederation lacked. The states refused to pay debts from the revolutionary war. “In Europe the reputation of the United States dwindled as rapidly as did its credit,” Wood relates. By 1787, most leaders were ready to reform the Articles of Confederation but “few people expected what the Philadelphia Convention eventually created—a new Constitution that utterly transformed the structure of the central government and promised a radical weakening of the states.” Afraid the Confederation would break apart, the delegates hammered out the Constitution of the United States.
The new constitution promised harmony and stability, Wood writes. “Creating a new central government was no longer simply a matter of cementing the union, or of standing strong in foreign affairs, or of satisfying the demands of a particular creditor, mercantile, and army interests. It was now a matter, as Madison declared, that would ‘decide forever the fate of republican government.’”
The delegates were primarily younger men, attorneys, war veterans, and men who had served as representatives to Congress previously, and Wood writes that “most were well-educated and experienced members of America’s political elite.” They had to decide if the individual states should remain individually sovereign or be subject to one sovereign republic which could tax, issue money, and regulate commerce across all the states. Would population or land or wealth determine representation?
Even the anti-Federalists who feared tyranny acknowledged the value of a strong central government. In response, the Federalists reframed “the principle of sovereignty … by relocating it in the people at large. In doing so they forged an entirely new way of thinking about the relation of government to society. It marked one of the most creative moments in the history of political thought,” Wood writes.
In 10 short years after gaining independence, Americans “had effectively transferred this sovereignty, this final lawmaking authority, from the institutions of government to the people at large.” They wrote a constitution that was “immune from legislative tampering” resulting in our nation. In The American Revolution Wood explains why the Founders established a republic and reminds us of Benjamin Franklin’s warning that the newly formed government was, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
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