Gordon S. Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Pp. x, 447. $27.50.
"Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?" Gordon Wood has certainly taken John Adams's despairing question to heart. He has not tried to write the history of the American Revolution. Instead, he has offered us three verbal photographs to illustrate what America was like before, during, and after the Revolution. The people in the last of the pictures have no features in common with those represented in the first one, which is the point that Wood wishes to make. America was transformed in the course of becoming an independent nation. By 1820 America had, moreover, not just changed radically, but it had become uniquely democratic and egalitarian in its politics and daily manners. In these respects it was and remains unlike any other country in the world.
To make his "before" and "after" argument effective, Wood has chosen to write the equivalent of group portraits, one after the other, not a narrative. It is unlike a movie, in which a story unfolds in motion, effects and causes following one another imperceptibly. just as even revolutionary social change is supposed to move. In the first picture, "Monarchy," a portly, bewigged, decoratively attired, and stem patriarch, sits surrounded by offspring and dependents of various kinds, all in deferential attitudes. His lady sits demurely at his side, the oldest son a bit closer to him than the other children. There might be some black house slave and white servant hovering in the background.
The second picture, "Republicanism," is of several tall and lean males, dressed quite unostentatiously, though not without elegance. They do not put on togas, for theirs is a modem, not a classical style, but many wear swords and other military insignia. Their wives, however, do wear very decoltée gowns inspired by Roman models, and they seem rather more lively than their predecessors. The young people are less stiff and the older and younger ones are all mixed together. There may be fewer white servants, but the black slaves are in exactly the same positions as in the first picture.
The third picture, "Democracy," is of an open-air barbecue. There is no order among these people at all. They are not even posing to be painted, being far too busy having a good time and consuming all kinds of local delicacies. Dress is casual and so are table manners, if any. Only a couple of black slaves are to be seen, doing the cooking and holding a baby. In the far distance we do notice a cotton field where a lot of black people seem to be very busy. The picture itself is painted with far more skill than the two earlier ones, because the arts and crafts have come a long way in this new consumer society.
This is not, perhaps, exactly what Wood meant to show, but it is what one might well see in his three representations of America. And they certainly do serve his main aim: to highlight the changes that in a brief fifty-odd years turned the people of this country from obedient subjects of a monarch into free citizens of a democracy.
Judith N. Shklar,
Pictures of America,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol5/iss1/13