Where ploughmen and professors shared a dream

The American Revolution
December 19, 2003

Does a brief account of the American revolution merit inclusion alongside titles such as The Renaissance in a series of "universal" histories? The revolutionary generation made few original contributions to political thought.

Ostensibly inspired by the proposition that "all men are created equal", America's leaders did not immediately better the condition of slaves, Native Americans, women and workers. Gordon Wood makes much of the revolution's attack on privilege, yet some states retained slavery while others maintained an established church.

Although Ho Chi Minh incorporated sections of America's Declaration of Independence in Vietnam's declaration of independence from France, few nations have voluntarily adopted the distinctive system of law and government on which rests American revolutionaries' claim to have created a "new order for the ages". Even Americans have subsequently proved reluctant to embrace revolutionary principles such as the separation of church from state.

Wood argues with energy and conviction that in the final third of the 18th century Americans articulated, and enshrined in society and government, a concept of "egalitarian democracy" that was revolutionary in its implications. Readers unfamiliar with the chronology of events will find in The American Revolution a discussion of the factors leading Americans to declare independence, a description of the basic contours of the revolutionary war and an account of the forces shaping the creation of the constitutional government.

However, specialists as well as sixthformers will also encounter a robust defence of the proposition that in the late 18th century Americans decisively rejected paradigms of privilege and hierarchy, creating in their country an egalitarian mood strong enough to launch the US on an irrevocably democratic and exemplary trajectory.

Wood identifies two major forces in the creation of an "egalitarian democracy" during the revolution. First, Americans embraced the "Enlightenment's stress on modern civility and common-sense morality" in ways that led to "half-literate plowmen... being told (even by aristocrats such as Thomas Jefferson) that they had as much common or moral sense as learned professors". Second, with independence achieved, Americans turned to the pursuit of trade and commerce, in the process binding society together along egalitarian lines.

In an acute insight, Wood suggests that after the revolution successful Americans began to brag about the obscurity of their backgrounds, whereas before they might have boasted of their pedigree. As for less successful Americans, well, after noting that wealth was distributed more unevenly after the revolution than before, Wood argues that "Americans felt more equal, and that was what mattered". Although this statement (among others) will set academic fingers to keyboards, the egalitarianism Wood describes is that which has continued to strike visitors to the US: the sense that, roughly speaking, one man is as good as another and that while wealth and power inform social relations, they do not determine them, partly because the plutocrat might once have been a ploughman.

Wood's The American Revolution is that rare thing, a balanced survey that presents a powerful argument. It deserves to be widely read and discussed because by engaging in its argument a British reader is forced to confront basic questions. If Wood is correct, why does his thesis, even as presented, appear so tenuous? If, on the other hand, the American revolution did not produce an exemplary democracy, what did it achieve? Surely the answer can't be "nothing".

Peter Thompson is lecturer in American history, University of Oxford.

The American Revolution: A History

Author - Gordon S. Wood
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 182
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 84212 680 6

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