Read an Excerpt
on the Colonial Era
Many consider America's struggle for independence a "conservative revolution"no regicide, moderate bloodshed, no chaos. Gordon Wood, a foremost historian of the era, deems it "as radical and as revolutionary as any in history." In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in history, Wood tells how the colonists erased the old social bonds (and chains) of patronage and blood aristocracy and replaced them with the first truly commercial society, thus becoming "almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world."
Wood's earlier book, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, won both the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes in history. A professor of history at Brown University, Wood is currently at work on a study of Benjamin Franklin, who, in his metamorphosis from blue-collar worker to rich, accomplished leader, is the exemplar of Wood's ideas on the early life of America.
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Q: From time to time I read that George Washington was not the general we have come to believe he wasthat he was, in fact, a second-rate general. What is your opinion?
A: Washington is a complicated figure. He certainly did not have a great military experience. He was a militia colonel who had had several engagements, most of which had been disastrous prior to 1760. But he was the one military person, particularly from the South, whohad military experience and an international reputation for valor, at least.
It was important that he was from the South. With New England on the defensive, having led this assault against the Crown, it was necessary for New Englanders to show that Virginia supported this cause, too. So it was natural to look to a Virginian as the commander in chief. There were other people who probably had more, or at least equal, military skills, I suppose, but Washington turned out to be a superb choice.
He was not a great tactician; he was not a great general in that sense. But he had skills similar to Eisenhower'spolitical skills. He had the skills to hold an army together, and to keep diverse interests concentrated on the war. His skills made the war successful. And I believe they made him our greatest president.
Q: Do you think, Professor Wood, that your colleagues, professional historians, have done George Washington a disservice by making him such a mythical figure?
A: I don't think it's the professional historians that have made him a mythical figure.
Q: You don't?
A: I think it's been the popular culture. Of course, in the twentieth century he has become much less mythical. But in the nineteenth century, or in his own time, in fact, he was already recognized as the father of his country. And then with Parson Weems and the cherry tree myths, he became a superhero. And then some debunking came in the twentieth century.
I think most professional historians have been quite honest in their treatment of Washington. He is very difficult to penetrate because he's very reserved. He is so unlike our present public figures that one feels he comes from another world.
The presidents that came after him were all very different. Washington had different standards of leadership; he had different understandings of politics. He did not like the notion of political parties. He simply is a man from another time and another place.
Q: But he worked awfully hard himself at building up his own myth of Olympian stature, did he not? Wasn't he image conscious?
A: Very much so. He was concerned that he keep a certain distance from the populace, because he had this notion that that was what made for a good leader. So he didn't want to get too familiar. He was very self-conscious about that. He was not ashamed of being an elitist. He didn't use that term, but he certainly had no embarrassment about his superior station in life.
He had an international reputation right away in 1783, after he resigned his commission. He surrendered his sword to the Congress, and that was the greatest act of his life, by the way. That's what gave him this international reputation.
Q: Why was that the greatest?
A: Because the expectation that everyone had was that a victorious general would have political rewards commensurate with his military victories, that he would go on to have political success. But instead, Washington promised that he would return to Mount Vernon. He promised the people that he would retire from active, public life. That's why he was so reluctant to come out of retirement to go to the Constitutional Convention. And then he was even more reluctant to accept the presidency, because he felt he would be going back on his word. He said, "What will the people think? What will this do for my reputation?" He took that very, very seriously.
Q: So what is it about Washington that makes him, as you describe him, our greatest president?
A: A number of things. He had the hardest job because he was the first. He had precedents to set, and he knew that. He was a natural leader who worked at it at the same time. And he had that ability to command.
As I said, I think the closest we've come to that in modern times would be Eisenhower. Now, Eisenhower may not have been a great general in any kind of traditional sense, but he had a certain quality of leadership that people can appreciate. He had an ability to bring people together and keep them focused on the cause. And Washington also had that to a great degree. He just had the ability to command the respect of those around him.
Q: Does that mean that his moral fiber was stronger and tougher than anybody since?
A: He certainly was conscious of moral qualities. What is the right thing to do? What will command respect? He thought about that all the time, he worried about it. He was simply an extraordinary man in that respect.
Q: What was the significance of George Washington's decision in 1796 to retire from the presidency?
A: Actually, he wanted to retire in 1792, but nobody would let him. He really felt that he'd love to get back to Mt. Vernon. In fact, I think he was really pressured into the job in the first place. In 1792 he was sure he was going to go back home, but he got enormous pressure from everyonefrom Madison, from Hamilton, from some women who wrote wonderful letters to him: "Mr. Washington, you must stay in office because the whole government depends on you." So he stayed in, very reluctantly. And by 1796 he simply had to go. He had to leave because the criticism had become very, very intense. The press was writing really vicious stuff that makes our media today seem very, very tame by comparison. Washington was just discouraged, and he knew he had to get back to Mt. Vernon.
Q: Why was the press so critical of him? What was happening?
A: There was a growing rift between the elite and the rest of the country. It seemed as if the whole government was at stake. The Republicans, led by Jefferson, felt that the Federalists, who were in charge of the government, were attempting to turn the United States into a monarchy. They truly believed that. It wasn't just a phrase they used rhetorically.
And it was a kind of politics that we simply haven't seen since in our history, except perhaps on the eve of the Civil War. The country was really torn in passionate antagonisms. So Washington was caught in the middle of this. He kept holding this cabinet together, first with Hamilton and Jefferson, and then in the end, he was really holding the country together. Finally, he knew he had to get out of that turmoil.
Q: Was it a serious possibility that all of those trappings of the monarchy could have become part of American democracy?
A: I don't think it was, no. I don't think the country was going to become a monarchy. There was too much pressure going in the opposite direction. But there were Federalists who were concerned about what they would have called "wild democracy," and they thought that monarchy, or at least a little bit of monarchy, was essential to restrain it. In fact, the president was designed as a kind of elected king right from the beginning. It's a very powerful office, as we know; we've seen it develop without any great Constitutional changes.
So there was a monarchical impulse inherent in the presidency when the Constitution was drawn up in 1787. But Washington was not a monocrat himself, and he liked the title "Mr. President"unlike John Adams, who wanted "his high mightiness" or some other kind of elaborate monarchical title. After all, governors were called "his excellency"why shouldn't the president have had something more elaborate than "Mr. President"? John Adams was astonished at the simplicity of that title.
Q: Let's talk about the Revolution. Do you think the colonies were lucky to have won?
A: Lucky is perhaps not the right word. They had an awful lot of luck, I suppose. But in the end, it wasn't just luckit was a widespread support for the Revolution in the population that made it possible. And there was also the French aid. There is no doubt that the French intervention changed the nature of the war and put England in an impossible position. She was suddenly fighting a world war with no allies. And that made the colonies' success much more likely.
Q: Do you think the colonists were justified in revolting?
A: Well, I would have to say they were. Certainly, the British showed very little political sense of what the colonies had, how they had developed in the previous century. So they bungled the relationship; there is no doubt of that.
Q: But were the conditions in the colonies truly sufficient to have produced a revolution? I mean, were the conditions described by the Declaration of Independence in fact the conditions that existed? Was there tyranny? Was there oppression? Was there despotism?
A: Well, no. By any kind of modern standards, there was no tyranny at all. The British simply had not had any kind of power over the colonies. So this was an exaggeration by Jefferson. But there was the anticipation of tyranny. The Americans revolted out of anticipated tyranny, rather than actual tyranny. They were frightened about the use of power. If the British Parliament could do what it had done in the previous decade, with the Stamp Act and so on, what would it do in the future? That, I think, is what led to the rebellion and revolution.
Q: The slogan "taxation without representation" is not much of a battle cry, is it?
A: Well, "taxation without representation" was only one of the elements. The true cause was liberty and a sense of freedomfreedom from a government three thousand miles away dictating decisions over which the colonists had no say. Freedom was the crucial issue.
Q: When the colonists talked about freedom, what was their definition of freedom? Was it the same as ours?
A: Generally, yes; except, of course, they didn't necessarily apply it to the five hundred thousand slaves. However, there is no doubt the Revolution created a consciousness of liberty, of freedom that suddenly made slavery a problem where it hadn't been a problem before. So their notions of freedom are not all that different from our own notions today.
Q: I had always understood that when they talked about freedom, they talked about freedom from domination by someone else. But more recently, you hear about freedom to get a job, freedom from want. Is that our definition of freedom?
A: Well, those are FDR's freedoms. Obviously, the colonists didn't have a welfare state conception. They didn't feel that the government had a responsibility to provide for a citizen's welfare. But they certainly had all kinds of private concerns within eighteenth-century standards. There were lots of philanthropic endeavors that came out of the Revolutionhumanitarian societies, anti-slave societiesa whole host of things that we can understand today as acts of compassion, having to do with a larger definition of freedom. But they were not socialiststhey didn't have the twentieth-century notions of government responsibility that we take for granted today.
Q: What was the nature of the Revolution itself? It wasn't barbaric like the French Revolution, was it? It didn't have the violence and the societal overthrow and turmoil that many revolutions have had. Was it kind of an intellectual revolution?
A: Yes, it was an intellectual revolution, but it was a social revolution as well. It doesn't have the violence of the French Revolution, which had to do with a breakdown in the elite's control of things.
However, there was violence in the American Revolution. There were Tories who were harried out of the land. There were Loyalists who were hanged in some cases, and their property was confiscated in other cases. But they were a tiny minority, and they weren't strong enough in most cases to mount any great opposition. So there wasn't any escalation of emotions and violence as there was in the French Revolution.
Q: What did the English make of this revolution? Did the English Crown understand what was happening in the colonies?
A: Yes, they did. George III was very frightened about what was happening, and he was really resistant to any kind of concession toward the end. And, to a large degree, his unwillingness to concede created the rebellion.
He had what we today would call a domino theory: Lord North, his prime minister, came to him in 1779 or 1780 and said, "Sir, we cannot continue this fight. It's not going anywhere. It's costing us too much." North gave a kind of cost-benefit analysis of what was happening. And George III said to him, "No, if we lose the colonies, next will be Ireland, and then what will this poor little island be like?" He saw a series of events following from the loss of the colonies that would diminish Great Britain.
But, of course, the opposite happened. Britain went on to its greatest days as an empire in the nineteenth century. But he couldn't have foreseen this. He thought he was going to go down in history as the king who had lost the empire.
Q: Weren't the colonists also revolting against European monarchies and that whole life of luxury and domination?
A: The transition to republicanism from monarchy was a major and radical step. And, in that sense, the revolt against the English king was the revolt against the whole notion of monarchy, yes. The adoption of a republican government resulted in a simpler, more egalitarian society. So you might say it was a rejection of the old world, and this new younger world represented the future. That was the way in which they saw the Revolution.
It was not just an ordinary colonial rebellion. It was a real historical event that was presaging the future. That this was going to happen everywhere. Everyone was going to become republican. The world was going to lose this older monarchical society, which was identified, as you say, with luxury, with corruption.
So it had much more meaning than simply another colonial rebellion, of which there have been many in history.
Q: Did the colonists know what they had done when they did it?
A: Well, insofar as anyone participating in an event understands what's happening, they did. They understood the significance of it. They were told that it was significant by radical intellectuals everywhere. Richard Price in England, a well-known Unitarian radical minister, said at the time that the American Revolution was the most important event in the history of the world after the birth of Christ.
So there was a sense everywhere in the Western world among liberal radical elements that this was a world-shattering event. And the Americans themselves believed that. That was part of the excitement, this enthusiasm they had about what they were doing.
Q: Do you believe that the Revolution is the most important single event in American history at least?
A: Oh, there's no doubt about it. It created the United States. It infused into our culture almost everything we believe: our noblest aspirations, our beliefs in liberty and equality. All of these things that we think of as the American ideology, the American principlesthey came out of the Revolution.