Book Review: Republicanism and Democracy
The American Revolution was a complex political process that was inevitable. This is because the wave of the revolution was shaped by logical forces and circumstances that faced the American colonists leaving them with no other choice than revolting against the tyranny of the absolute monarchy that extended its hand to the Americas. However, the pressure to revolt on the colonist was not only experienced in Northern America but also was evident in other parts of the world. This accounts for other historical revolts like the French revolution. Gordon Wood the author of this book focuses of the progressive interpretation of the American Revolution. His book demonstrates that neither the American Revolution nor the revolution’s outcome was inevitable; instead the whole process was a radical change in political ideology, governance, and the overarching urge for independence within Northern America. This paper intends to discuss the radical changes that faced the America’s leading to the revolution putting more emphasis on the shift of political ideology; from the conventions of the absolute monarchy that was embraced in Great Britain to the rise of Republicanism and Democracy. This paper also aims at looking at Wood’s ambivalent perspective on the ascendance of “democracy as the dominant American political value in the early 19th century.
First of all, the premise of Gordon’s argument rests on the uniqueness of the American Revolution compared to other revolutions that took place before it. The uniqueness of the American Revolution has made scholars and historians to classify the American Revolution as being the most complex and radical revolution that happened in the 18th Century. This inclination by historians and scholars is linked to the complex actions and reactions that took place during this time. The colonists were fed up with the oppression of the monarchial government. The colonists wanted to build new lives in a land that offered them political, economic and religious freedom. In order to realize this freedom, the colonists had to shun class divisions so that they could promote unity among themselves. The effort of every man within Northern America was needed if their hope of being independent was not going to fade away.
In order for colonists to realize freedom, they hand to refute the conservative expectations of the monarchy that expected every citizen to follow blindly to decisions reached by a chosen few in the society. The colonists had to be radical and revolutionary. Radicalism as a social construct within the colonists was important in that the colonists would face and question the monarchial government over issues of governance and control of resources in Northern America. Radicalism was important if at all the colonists were to face the incidences of corruption that characterized the monarchial rule. The spirit of radicalism would help colonists to free themselves from the hands of the absolute monarchy and gain their own political, economic, religious and territorial independence. The colonists wanted a government which would reflect human nature not a highly structured paternal hierarchy. A government that viewed the individual level of the state as the most important sphere if at all prosperity was to be realized. Gordon Wood’s demonstration of the vision and the determination of the colonists in fighting for a better future led him to win a Nobel Prize for this book which is really a masterpiece. Wood describes how similar backgrounds, experiences and personal goals led to the formation of a cohesive revolution that was unique compared to other revolutions and one that shaped the society in a great way.
Bearing in mind the colonists had a common goal of eliminating the influence of the hierarchical government structure that was laid in place by the British crown; the colonists began to rethink of a workable government framework that could lead them to independence. The first kind of framework that they came up with was the formation of government structure that relied on the idea of a united republic. This political ideology came to be known as republicanism. In this political structure, the idea of hierarchy was eliminated. Families acted as the governing entities with this government structure. This was a great idea in that it promoted equality within the society. However, the downside of a government structure that embraced republicanism was that it was vulnerable to other forces that would offset the equality that was in existence with the society. One of the forces that disintegrated republicanism was nepotism. Using families as the ruling entities caused people to give positions of power to their relatives other than qualified members from other families. For example, in Chapter five, Wood gives an example of Ben Franklin. After he became deputy postmaster of North America in 1753, he appointed member of his family like his sons and nieces to positions of power. This did not augur well with other families in that they felt that some of the family members that were appointed by Benjamin Franklin to power were less qualified compared to other people from other families. Therefore, nepotism began to disunite families. Republicanism was a noble idea but families tended to forget that “…Public institutions had private rights and private persons had public rights” (Wood 1687). It was therefore not right for people to think that they would make only their families to rule in that they required the hands of other families to be able to create stability.
The rise of nepotism within republicanism made this government structure to compare to the monarchy royal officials, such as sheriffs, governors, lords and ladies in receiving favor from the King. Within the monarchial system, organizations with the civil government, even small households, had community responsibilities which were done as a duty to the King and to help him accomplish the smooth running of his lands. This turn of events within republicanism made the colonist feel that they needed a different government structure that would not threaten equality within the American society. The feeling of the urge for equality worked to the advantage of the colonists in that after 1765 the atmosphere was one of disgruntlement from those with no aristocratic pretentions and there was also a lack of willingness to go along with their “superiors” who tried to tell them what to do. What seemed obvious was a dislike of authority but what was happening was more important. People did not accept the royal governance as their natural right but more as an obstacle to their natural rights. Even in the family structure republican ideals began to be rethought in more detailed manner that gave equality a preference. Republicanism, that embraced equality among the people, allowed more freedom and legal avenues to own property and have legal rights. In addition republicanism led to an incredible change in social strata. Young people refused to abide by the tradition of arranged marriages that was characteristic of the monarchial system. Historically arranged marriages created a situation whereby young people would only marry in rich families so that wealth richer families would continue being richer and the poor families remaining rich. This social revolution from the youth regarding arranged marriages was an important move towards realizing equality within the society.
This leads us to the rise of democracy among the colonists.
Democracy was gaining adherents among the sons of some of the established aristocracy such as Abraham Bishop from Connecticut. He would become enraged at the Federalists and the Federalists called him “a monstrous oddity in the world.” The Federalists were already upset about their weakening power and perhaps even more so about their weakened economic advantages. Republican polemicists in the 1790s such as Bishop railed against the Federalists and their monarchial pretensions. In doing so the Republican polemicists were rallying against the monarchy by challenging people to stop kowtowing to the gentry and open their eyes to the true nature of the monarchy and its adherents; certainly the first important step in forming an equalitarian system of government. They were the voice of the common people and in a position to be heard.
A surprising fact that Gordon Wood presents in the book is the admission by Bishop that the gentry were “extraordinary men’ due to their education and manners but Bishop turns the argument around to reason that because they are “extraordinary men” they were not fit for governing ordinary people (Wood 5631) In fact, he called them “dangerous and unessential for republican government.” Those were very strong words yet he felt free to express his opinion in public. He pointed out that the gentlemen rulers were fake and rude in that they considered themselves “well-born” yet the people as “base-born” (5678). So here we learn one of the first public arguments made in the colonies to tip the two class system on its head or better yet get rid of one of the classes to form a democratic society.
Gordon writes at the beginning of Chapter 6 that “the late eighteenth century in the Atlantic world has been called “the age of the democratic revolution.” It might better be called “the age of the republican revolution” Americans had a shared feeling that everyone should work; an intensely egalitarian therefore democratic ideal. Gordon points out that in the 1890 census men were asked to state their occupation; definitely not the acceptable aristocratic way of doing things (Wood 5929). The dukes, princes and bearers of title from royal familial lines were not ‘workers.’ They had a title and that was enough. But there were exceptions. The exceptions included men with monarchial appointments to the congressional assembly who could not support a family unless they could pursue a private business. It was impossible to pay for all the expenses of a decent life unless a fortune or inheritance was in one’s bank account. So within the aristocracy there were men who wanted to be set free of their monarchial appointments in order to make a living so they could have the means to support their families. These men who would seem at first glance to be tied to the monarchy in fact became part of the society clamoring to break the monarchy’s chains. (Wood 5953)
Chapter 16 is particularly interesting because Gordon lays out the different views and arguments that evolved into the forming of the bicameral Congress that we still have containing the House of Representatives and the Senate. The first came about from a desire for direct representation of the people and the second due to the transforming of the traditional self supporting congress member to someone perhaps still from that class but obligated to meet the needs and desires of the people in representative (democratic) government. The argument started over whether or not federal officials should be given a salary.
Importantly, Gordon Wood reminds us that a democratic institution cannot be of any use to anyone unless it is legitimized and he also argues that the “Jacksonian Revolution” was the key to legitimizing the new government. They did this with forceful democratic rhetoric and practical element of the monarchial system in order to centralize and coordinate the young government. He explains this contradiction as follows.
“Jacksonianism did not create democracy in America but it legitimated it; it restrained and controlled it and reconciled Americans to it. It did so by infusing into American democracy more elements of monarchy than even the Federalists had dared to try. They did this however in the midst of the most enthusiastic democratic rhetoric that any modern country had ever experienced.” (Wood 6277).
In conclusion, it is important to note that, by 1810 people were claiming that the United States of America was a one class society, except for the slaves (Wood 7244). Although that was not literally factual it was a reasonable comment when compared to the English monarchial rule. A republic had been worked towards with many sacrifices along the way, there is no doubt, but with no guillotine which was the symbol and an important difference between the European revolutions, in particular the French Revolution. No new ‘superior’ head of government had replaced the monarch as a ruler such as happened after the English revolution (Cromwell).Instead; this new republic had been born with a new democratic sensibility. The young republic was divided into governmental departments which held elected officials and emphasized that the people would be represented in their government. This is the reason why the beautiful document declaring independence starts with the words, “We the people of these united states . . .”
Gordon’s argument that the American Revolution was a “radical” revolution is convincing. His reasons are not the reasons many of his readers might expect, but due to his historical insights, examples of the conversations and comments of historical figures, and his carefully written book, his reasons have convinced many that “radical” is the perfect word to describe the American Revolution. It is worthwhile to conclude that the dominant American political value that Gordon wood talks is about is the idea of creating a classless society where the individual yield power to the government by virtue of a social contract causing the government to responds to this yielding of power by enhancing democratic accountability and transparency to the people. The creation of this kind of government in the United States makes me very proud of my founding ancestors especially now that I understand that the transformation from the monarchy to a democratic republic was indeed astonishing and radical.
Wood, Gordon, S. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United
States. London: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.