Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reflections: The Radicalism of the American Revolution

No matter how deep, how far, and how much I swim in American History, I always find something of interest and something new that informs my perspective and love for my nation's history. The Radicalism of the American Revolution explores ideas related to the Revolution I had not previously explored. Its subject matter is interesting, but, alas, its writing lumbers and stomps around and makes the overall reading experience less than enjoyable.

To begin with, I don't want to diminish the additional insight Gordon S. Wood's book brings to the overall conversation and exploration of the American Revolution. There is a lot here which was new, fresh, and valuable. Above all, I loved the exploration of ideas and how they impacted American society before, during, and after the Revolution. How did America slough off the old sentiments of aristocracy? What did the idea of equality do for American society generally? How did it diffuse throughout the population, eventually illuminating not only white male property holders but also women, African slaves, and others? What was the impact of individualism and the establishment of American's republic of commerce? These and a host of other fascinating questions are the book's reason for existing. In the end, The Radicalism of the American Revolution is worth reading, but it will take some extra work and dedication to do so. I'm fine with reading hard books, but I don't love reading bland writing.

When I started reading the book I was a little concerned because it reminded me a bit too much of Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America. That book suggest and attempts to show that most of the founders acted wholly out of self-interest in relation to their wealth and property. No doubt the founders were wise enough to be comprehensively concerned about a great many interests, but I found Beard's arguments unpersuasive. For a certain duration Wood appears to be taking a similar approach with the monumental changes which occurred leading up to and causing the Revolution. Wood presents a great preponderance of economic evidence suggesting why societal feelings and trends moved in the way they did; however, this focus misses some of the mark. Ideas matter, as The Radicalism of the American Revolution shows, and economic factors can never, in my opinion, fully explain the course of nations and societies. I admit the explanatory difficulty becomes somewhat of a chicken or the egg dilemma, and the truth is probably found somewhere in the middle. Regardless, the book doesn't fully embrace an economic explanation in the same way Beard's book does, and I think the book was much better for it.

Having attested to its usefulness and value, I have to point out the grind reading the book is. Historians are not wordsmiths in most cases and Wood proves the point. The prose of the book is so utilitarian it can feel downright sterile. By far the most interesting passages in the book don't belong to Wood but to the historical personalities he quotes; unfortunately, far too many of their quotes were sliced and diced by Wood's commentaries and interpretations, but the reader may have been better served by reading the direct passage. By reading The Radicalism of the American Revolution the reader can expect an incredible and unique education—albeit not for beginners—on the American Revolution, but they can't expect anything but the most practical writing.

I liked The Radicalism of the American Revolution for what it is. There is plenty to be learned and gained from the book, but the authorship lacks the necessary style to make the history as unforgettable as it probably should be. It's nice to have in my collection, but reading it wasn't a particularly nice experience.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: 1776
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Reflections on the Revolution in France

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