Interview with Gordon Wood on the American Revolution: Part one

“Labor celebrated as the highest value”

By Tom Mackaman
3 March 2015

Gordon Wood is a leading scholar of the American Revolution. His book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, and his Creation of the Republic, 1776-1787 won the Bancroft Prize in 1970. WSWS history writer Tom Mackaman recently spoke with Wood at Brown University, where he is professor emeritus of history. Part two of the interview was posted March 4.

Tom Mackaman: Your basic conception of the American Revolution is that it was radical, that it was actually a revolution…

Gordon Wood: A social revolution, only not the one the Progressive historians [1] emphasized. Where they saw ordinary people as oppressed—under pressure from creditors and so on—I see them as middling sorts who are the future business-commercial sources of the economic explosion, in the North at least, of the early 19th Century. So I agree with the Progressives that there is a social conflict, but I put a different spin on it. I see these people not as oppressed, but really as angry and wanting to assert themselves against what they see as an aristocracy. It may not be an aristocracy by English standards, but in their eyes it is.

Gordon Wood

And these people are celebrating labor, and just by that celebration they’re way ahead of the Europeans in that respect. Because work, from Aristotle’s time, was considered despicable, mean, fit only for slaves.

TM: The curse of the fallen...

GW: Yes, and now all of a sudden it’s celebrated as the highest value. And that really makes slavery more and more of an anomaly in the North, but the South remains patriarchal and hierarchical. So I think this is one of the very interesting developments of the 19th century.

TM: How is it that the American Revolution invests labor with dignity?

GW: It’s not the revolution itself, it’s these people who are middling sorts, who are for the most part artisans, mechanics [2], proto-businessmen, who are held in contempt. And I use an example. I’ve written a book on this, Franklin.

In the 1740s, he’s probably the wealthiest man in Philadelphia, but he’s still held in contempt by many of the aristocrats of Pennsylvania society until he retires at the age of 42, I think it was, in 1748, and becomes a gentleman. He never works again a day in his life. Now, it doesn’t mean he’s not engaged in activities—political activities, scientific activities—those are legitimate things for an aristocrat to do. But to actually work or run a printing shop, well, that’s being in trade, if you will.

Colonial artisans and mechanics: An 18th century pewter shop

Of course, the British aristocracy holds these prejudices much longer than the Americans do. You get up to Downton Abbey, and Maggie Smith’s character represents an old, traditional view. She doesn’t like the idea that the heir to the estate wants to practice law, and she says you can’t do that, you’ve got to just run the estate. She’s just appalled at the idea of somebody who is working. That’s a leftover from an earlier age.

I think that’s what these mechanics, these artisans are angry about, because they’ve been held in contempt. That anger feeds into the revolution. They are the people in the 1780s that the Progressive historians have seen as an oppressed people. And they’re debtors. But debt is hardly a sign of poverty. It’s often a sign of borrowing to get ahead. They do get into trouble sometimes. Of course, in Massachusetts you have the government attempting to monetize its debt much too quickly, and putting pressure on the whole credit structure, and they begin seizing these people’s farms who have mortgaged them, and that’s what precipitates Shay’s Rebellion [3]. But these aren’t necessarily poor people. They’re people who are on the make, if you will, ambitious and middling is the way to put it.

And the debates that take place over the ratification of the Constitution are between middling people, like Melancton Smith in New York and William Findley, a former weaver, in Pennsylvania, self-educated, but he’s brilliant. And they give the Federalists a hard time. You read the debates and Findley really comes at them. He says, you’re just a bunch of aristocrats. Hamilton is on the defensive. He says, well, I’m not an aristocrat. But somehow everyone knows that he is.

William Findley, 1741-1821

TM: So the Revolution is setting this into motion, or these people are setting the Revolution into motion?

GW: Well, I think it’s a combination. These middling people are growing in size and strength. But they aren’t the only source of the Revolution. The Revolution is touched off by the imperial crisis. And southerners, the Virginians, are very much in the leadership of it.

I think the Revolution can be seen in a three-pronged way. One is the imperial crisis and the debate over that. It’s a colonial rebellion. Some historians have seen it exclusively in these terms. I think Bob Middlekauf has tended to see it just as a colonial rebellion.

TM: His is the Oxford history, The Glorious Cause?

GW: Yes. I think he tends to see it as essentially over in 1783, and you have some adjustments to make with the Constitution. That’s one aspect of it, the colonial rebellion. But I think the Revolution is far more than that. It’s not like the Algerians breaking away from France in the 1960s.

Ours goes much further. It is seen as a world-historical event. That’s because it coincides with something we call the Enlightenment. And so you have a lot of people—Jefferson in particular, but not just Jefferson—who see the colonial rebellion or the imperial issue as an opportunity to do something more. To not just break from England, but to create a different kind of government, one that will implement a lot of reforms. This will lead to the legal reforms that Jefferson is obsessed with—the education reforms, changing the nature of criminal punishment—a whole series of things we might call Enlightenment reforms.

Then the third aspect in this three-pronged Revolution is the class revolution that Carl Becker [4] referred to—the Revolution is not just about home rule, but who was to rule at home—and this is where the middling sorts are protesting the aristocratic rule. These have been seen by Progressive historians, including Becker and Beard and others, as the deprived people, people who are debtors, and the implication is that they are the poor people who are protesting against a rich aristocracy.

They are protesting against an aristocracy, but I don’t see them as the poor and the oppressed. In their minds they’re oppressed, but I think they’re more middling sorts who have ambitions, commercial ambitions, and I think the crucial thing in all of this is paper money.

I’ve debated with Woody Holton [5], who is probably the leading Progressive historian of this generation. Holton and I agree that paper money is crucial, but we interpret its importance very differently. He sees it as a device by which poor debtors are going to get relieved of their oppressive credit by inflation. I think that’s an aspect of it, but I think they want the paper money, and they continue to want the paper money, even after the Revolution because they needed it to trade.

Of course, the founders, Adams and Jefferson, had no understanding of banking. Adams says that if anybody has a piece of paper that can’t be matched one-to-one to specie then that’s a cheat on somebody.

TM: Maybe you could talk a little bit about the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton over the question of the national bank.

GW: Hamilton is widely considered to be the founder of American capitalism. I think that that’s a misinterpretation. He certainly understood banking. He’s probably the only one of the major founders who did. But Hamilton had a much more hierarchical view. He was interested in overseas trade. He was interested in big merchants. He really ignored, politically, these artisans and mechanics.

TM: Is this what is called mercantile capitalism?

GW: Right. He was willing to promote manufacturing, but he really didn’t follow up on that part of his program. He wanted to be an economic powerhouse, but he didn’t grasp that the source of that power would be these middling people, these proto-businessmen.

His national bank made big loans to big merchants. As a consequence, you have this proliferation of banks that loaned to farmers and mechanics— that he didn’t like. He wanted the Bank of the United States to be the dominant bank, and it would have agents or branches in a couple of cities, but he had no expectation of this proliferation of state banks. I mean, you had hundreds turning out paper money—that was not his vision. His vision was much more hierarchical, catering to big merchants and overseas trade.

Alexander Hamilton

TM: One thing you point to in your book is the strange early development of American politics, where you have these southern planters like Jefferson and Madison gaining the political support of these middling elements in the North, the artisans, the...

GW: Exactly. This is where Hamilton makes a terrible error, politically. This is a natural constituency for him, if he’d only realized it. He ignores them and they become Jeffersonians. These middling elements, these proto-businessmen, who have nothing in common, really, with these southern slave-holding planters nonetheless become Republicans because they are fighting a Federalist [6] aristocracy, which is sort of deaf to their interests. There are exceptions, especially in Massachusetts, but generally speaking, these middling sorts are angry at the aristocrats because the aristocrats see them as a threat.

TM: Is this the contest Jefferson is talking about when he calls his victory in the 1800 election “The Revolution of 1800”?

GW: Yes, but he never fully grasps why. He knows that they are ordinary people supporting him, but he thinks it’s because they are with him intellectually, with his reason. Of all the founders, he lives with the greatest illusions, if you will.

As late as 1821, he says that there is not a young man alive today who won’t die a Unitarian. I mean, how wrong could he be? The country is being swept by the Methodists and the Baptists in the Second Great Awakening, and he’s talking about everyone becoming a Unitarian? So he’s totally out of touch in some respects.

But he is in touch with what you might call the democratization of the society, and he sees himself as the leader of that. And that’s what cemented his position as the greatest democrat in American history, the spokesman of democracy, even though he’s a slave-holding aristocrat. He legitimately is the spokesman, and I try to make that clear in the book, because he does believe in the end that everyone is equal.

Jefferson

Of all the founders, he believed in the social sense that everyone has a common—and the Scots were making a big deal of this [7]—that in every breast there is this sense of oneness that makes us all equal, and it’s the source for sympathy and for reaching out to other people. And Jefferson believes this. He says everyone, even black slaves, has this social sense of affection, if you will, towards other people. And this he feels is the bond that holds society together.

Paine had this feeling too. Both of them were real radicals, and I don’t see any difference between the two of them, Paine and Jefferson, except that Paine is more outspoken because he’s a public intellectual and doesn’t have to worry about winning office. Jefferson gets so burned on his religious views that he goes quiet after 1800.

The ultimate position would be towards anarchy, that you don’t need government at all, you just get rid of the intervening political forces that are preventing people from relating to one another. That’s the radical position. That’s why Jefferson believes in minimal government.

Tom Paine

He’s not trying to promote laissez faire capitalism. Even though that might be the consequence, it’s not the intention. He starts from the assumption that government is the source of all evil. Government interferes with the natural flow of affection that we have for each other. It creates monopolies. It gives this guy a title and not that one. It creates distinctions. So inequality in society is fed by government, in Jefferson’s mind. So you get the government out of the way and let people naturally relate to one another.

TM: Is this what was called natural rights philosophy?

GW: No, that’s another aspect that the revolutionaries appealed to. On the eve of the Declaration of Independence, up until this point they’ve been talking about “our English rights,” rights to not have our property taken, the right of habeas corpus, all of those rights that were summed up in English history going back to Magna Carta—which, by the way, has its 800th anniversary this year.

But on the eve of the Revolution, they’re at the Continental Congress. It’s 1775, and they’re on the verge, they realize it’s going to break, and they can’t keep talking about the rights of Englishmen. So they say, alright, these rights are really natural rights.

I mean, it’s not quite so simple as that, but suddenly they just change the language. And what they mean by that is that they exist in nature and that they’re not related to any cultural boundaries. But they really are referring to old-fashioned English rights. The right to not have your property taken away is suddenly a natural right. The right to not be put in prison without having a trial, habeas corpus and so on, that’s a natural right.

But there’s a big tradition in political philosophy emphasizing natural rights, going back to nature, that is much contested by other political theorists. They simply don’t get into this. You know most of these guys are lawyers. They’re not closet philosophers. So in their polemics they draw on whatever will make a case for them.

TM: Why does Jefferson change the Lockean expression “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”

GW: Well, first of all, it’s more general and it involves more people. I think they just assumed property would be included in that. But I think it’s more felicitous, and there is an obsession with the pursuit of happiness in the 18th century.

There’s nothing new in Jefferson’s Declaration. In fact, “all men are created equal” is conventional wisdom for many good Whigs in the 18th Century, including Englishmen who are aristocrats. They don’t anticipate the consequences of saying that. They don’t expect slaves suddenly to say, well, we’re your equal. But they do believe—and I guess it’s based on Lockean environmentalism—that the distinctions between people are really due to the environment.

There’s kind of a general consensus among the more liberal Whigs, even among some English aristocrats, that all men are created equal. Even those lords in England who have inherited their position, inherited their wealth, they don’t like to believe that it’s based on inheritance. They like to believe that they’re there because of merit. The whole notion that the English aristocracy is a meritocracy is widespread. It’s stunning to realize how much they had bought into what you might call this liberal premise that their position is earned.

So when Jefferson says all men are created equal, William Byrd [8], a big slaveholder of the previous generation, was saying the same thing. It’s to be liberal minded. To be enlightened is to say that.

TM: Does the same hold true for the conception of government the founders are outlining? What is novel about it? Is it that it’s applied now? So, for example, the Declaration of Independence says that people have inalienable rights, that governments exist to protect these—in other words, it’s a conception of rights, that they’re with the people…

GW: Right. They’re born with these rights. They’re inalienable. So especially for someone like Jefferson, government is an imposition. It may be a necessary evil, as Paine calls it. But it’s not something that’s God-given.

So government is on the defensive. It’s something that’s erected to do certain things. But it’s certainly not inherent in our lives. What is inherent is our rights. If you look at the first paragraph of Paine’s Common Sense, he says government is a necessary evil, but society is benign and natural. And that I think is the most radical position.

As many as 500,000 copies of Common Sense circulated in 1776, saturating the population with revolutionary ideas. It remains, proportionate to population, the most widely circulated book in American history.

You might get someone like Hamilton, who might accept that, but he feels government is far more necessary because he doesn’t believe that people are naturally good. When it comes right down to it, people differ, just as they do today, over human nature.

Hamilton and Adams, for example, who are considered conservative, have a more dour view of human nature. People are not to be trusted. They don’t love one another. Therefore, you need government to keep them at arm’s length.

And Jefferson and Paine, being at the other end of the political spectrum, being on the left, if you will, would say people are naturally benign, they’re goodhearted, and it’s government that gets in the way, creates privileges, monopolies and distinctions.

This plays out in international politics. Republics are more pacific than monarchies. The radical position, the Paine position, is that monarchies are the cause of war. Monarchs seeking to aggrandize territory for themselves in the course of the 18th Century had brought about the series of wars—the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War. So if you could become a republic—this is Jefferson’s vision—spread republicanism, you could have peace.

TM: One point that you make in The Radicalism of the American Revolution is that the founding generation didn’t view this to be a national revolution as we would think of the term. What did you mean by that? Did they view this as a world event already in its time?

GW: Definitely. They saw it as a world-historical event that was going to spread. They’re not surprised when the French Revolution breaks out. We’ve set the ball rolling and they’re copying us. Some of the French liberals felt the same way. That’s why Lafayette sends Washington the key to the Bastille, which is the symbol of the ancien regime, and the key hangs in Mount Vernon today. He’s saying, thank you, so to speak, for getting this going.

Storming of the Bastille, 1789

And we thought that every revolution that occurred in the first half of the 19th Century was an attempt to be like us. And, of course, they all failed. The French Revolution—by 1815 the Bourbons are back on the throne…

TM: The defeats of 1848…

GW: Yes. The revolutions of 1848. I don’t know of any good books that put Lincoln’s administration in context. Because when Lincoln is saying we’re the last, best hope [9], he’s thinking about the revolutions of 1848, which were all attempts to be republics. The Germans, the French. It just didn’t work. They all fail. So Lincoln is exactly right when he says we’re the last, best hope, because it looks like democracy is failing.

Lincoln

TM: I’m glad you brought that up because earlier, when we were talking about Jefferson and Hamilton, there’s this argument that Lincoln is actually the political descendent of Hamilton and not Jefferson. I think there’s something tempting about that because you can draw a line from the Federalists to the Whigs to the Republicans, and you can say...

GW: I just think that’s wrong, though. It seems to me that Jefferson is Lincoln’s hero. I see him drawing from that. He mentions, “All honor to Jefferson.” And it’s because of equality.

And the idea of equality is expanded and used, and I mention that in The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Melville says in Moby Dick it has an awesome power. He says it with a certain amount of sarcasm there. He’s got a quarrel with America. There’s a kind of ambiguous attitude there.

Herman Melville

TM: Can you say something about the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights as they came out of the American Revolution—opposition to the standing army, the prohibition against torture, freedom of religion, freedom of speech—and so on.

GW: The right to bear arms, the idea that your home is your castle, these are all English precedents. The only really new right is the right of freedom of religion. The British still have an established church. I mean they have religious toleration, but they have an established church, and they did at the time.

Our religious liberty, which I think is expressed best by Jefferson’s bill [10], where he just neutralizes the state in religious matters, is really a radical step, unprecedented in world history.

Madison shepherds the bill through because Jefferson is abroad in Paris. And Jefferson believes that—if you read the preamble to the bill, it’s really quite extraordinary—he says our “religious opinions.” He doesn’t even talk about faith. He says “opinions,” our opinions are no more important to our civic life than our opinions about physics or geometry. But the people who supported the bill, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Quakers, the Methodists, they didn’t give a damn about what he said in the preamble. All they wanted to do was get rid of the established Anglican Church.

James Madison

Madison always sees this, the secret to America’s religious freedom in its multiplicity of religions. Jefferson never sees this. He thinks Americans have become rational, like he is--that they believe in separation of church and state out of reason. Madison tries to tell him: Mr. Jefferson, it’s the multiplicity of sects—and it just goes right by him. But he’s a true believer, a real radical, an ideologue.

TM: Lincoln has this quote, where he’s talking about Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, where he says the line about equality, “all men are created equal,” that that was not necessary for rupture with England, that that was put there for future use. And you talk about the soaring thinking of a Jefferson and this immense panorama on which the founders saw the world. Were they thinking about the future?

GW: No. I don’t think they thought that this was going to be used in the way it was used. I think generally it was conventional wisdom among liberals that everyone was born equal.

John Adams

They had felt English snobbery or contempt. Washington felt it particularly. He had tried to get a royal commission in the army, and he was denied it. So he’s a colonel in the militia, but he’s being ordered around by captains and lieutenants who had royal commissions.

Certainly Adams, when he talks in his diary about those people, like the Hutchinsons, Governor Hutchinson [11], he says these families feel their wealth, feel their position. It rankled him. He resented it. He’s moving in their circles. He’s not one of the oppressed on bottom. He’s a lawyer. He’s got a lot of money. He goes to dinner parties with them. But he senses this social distinction. So equality is important to them.

**

Notes

[1] “Progressive history,” associated chiefly with Charles Beard, was a materialist but non-Marxist approach to American history that was especially influential in the 1930s and 1940s.

[2] The term “mechanic” was commonly used to refer to those who labored in early manufacturing shops.

[3] An uprising of western Massachusetts debtors, mainly farmers, in 1786 and 1787 against the state authorities.

[4] Becker (1873-1945) was a leading Progressive historian of the American Revolution.

[5] Abner “Woody” Holton, professor of history at the University of South Carolina, is the author of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

[6] Federalists and Republicans (or Democratic-Republicans) formed the first party system in American history in the late 1790s. The Federalists were led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the Republicans by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The term Federalist was also used, in an earlier period, to refer to those who led the ideological struggle to adopt the Constitution in the late 1780s. Those Federalists were led by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay.

[7] The Scottish Enlightenment

[8] William Byrd II (1674-1744), a wealthy Virginia planter

[9] The reference is to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

[10] The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted by Jefferson in 1777 and ratified in 1786

[11] Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1789), loyalist governor of the Massachusetts colony

To be continued

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