In A.P. U.S. History we just finished our second Unit (The American Revolution) and one of the things we explored was the question: “Was the American Revolution Radical or Conservative in its Social and Political Outcome?” What we focused on was the aftermath of the Revolution through the Constitutional Convention, and ratification. I gave my students two readings, one from Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the other from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Both are very good as polar opposites.
The groups read the materials and had to perform something we call “Levels of Questions” where they have to come up with Level I, II, and III questions from the reading. I will explain this later.
Wood argued that the relationships between Americans, their families and their government changed so much that is justifies the title of “radical.” He contends that the post-Revolution era produced an “enlightened republican relationship among people.” (Exceptionalism!?) Though there was still a significant gap between rich and poor, the so-called poor were far better off than their European counterparts and most importantly they did not see themselves in the same light. They were removing the bonds of dependency within the family and the political units around them. Primogeniture was eroding and of course the Americans replaced a Monarchy with a Republic. For the Americans the “post-revolutionary republican culture” talked of nothing but “liberty, equality, and independence.”
We also discussed Wood’s comments in light of the fact that the Constitution did not allow for blacks or women to vote and did not address slavery. We also realized the fact that anyone was voting on that scale was radical, regardless of race or gender. Only in a few small republics was this true. In Europe Monarchy and Aristocracy dominated.
Zinn argues that the Constitution was the creation of the elite, the wealthy, and he is indeed correct. But what he focuses on (remember my comments on Emphasis?) is how that fact must have and did indeed dominate the Constitutional Convention and the cause and effect nature of American Republicanism. According to Zinn, the wealthy elite created a government that gave just enough to the middle class to make them docile and content while it protected the wealthy elite. His argument is very good.
My students reacted to both historians. It was a very passionate discussion. They observed that both made valid points. But in the end, they noted that Wood’s argument was more sophisticated and more synthesized and that Zinn took simple facts and generalizations and ran with them.
Anyway, it was some excellent discussion and I am now reading their essays.