Friday, July 04, 2014

The American Revolution: A Brief History by a First-Rate Scholar

Wood, Gordon S. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

In the "Preface," to this brief survey, historian Gordon S. Wood suggests that the American Revolution should simply be "explained and understood." And that's what this book sets out to do: to explain  "[h]ow the Revolution came about, what its character was, and what its consequences were" (xxv).

Wood's approach differs from the standard telling of the story. Whenever I hear the phrase "the American Revolution," I naturally think of what I was taught were the high points of "the War of Independence": events like Paul Revere's ride, battles at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and Cornwallis's surrender to George Washington at Yorktown. It's the stuff of old-style history. Great men and events. Kings and wars. And, when describing wars, guns and trumpets.

However, historians like Wood want to tell us that, although never incidental, the war was not the essence of the Revolution. It was, instead, something more like a result, or a series of events that accompanied the Revolution. Consequently, only one of the seven chapter titles in this book contains the word "war." Indeed, Wood pays surprisingly little attention to events whose names we easily recognize.

Instead, he tells about the social, economic, political, and cultural forces that created a burden for great change in the British American colonies, a burden that was so compelling that it lead to open rebellion against an imperial king. Even more, Wood describes the new world, with new sensibilities, that came in the wake of the war; an emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of individuals, and what America could and ought to become. Above all, the qualified sense that all men were created equal began to change attitudes toward women, marriage, children, and slaves. Economic questions, international trade, political theory and practice. Nothing, it seems, went untouched by the Revolution. To cap it all off, a spirited debate between Federalists and Anti-federalists resulted in a federal constitution for the United States of America, a document that from the very beginning, recognized the political sovereignty of "We the people."

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