I don’t believe I’ll be numbering each one of these posts in this manner, but for the first few, why not a little levity? Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution, A History, from Modern Library Editions in 2002, is the next text for review. Full disclosure, this book is under consideration for my fall course on Revolutionary America and the Early Republic. If Wood’s work is compelling, it would replace Edward Countryman’s The American Revolution. Notice the similarity in titles?
Gordon Wood, now professor emeritus of Brown University, who has won a litany of awards in his long, distinguished career, is perhaps most highly regarded for The Creation of the American Republic and Radicalism of the American Revolution. The former, I read years ago riding to work on the red line from Davis Square to Quincy. Creation is also famous because of this classic scene from Good Will Hunting ( you can forward to about 2:20 mark to get the full effect), in which a graduate student is taken to task for his critique of Gordon Wood (semi-stolen from historian Daniel Vickers).
ANYWAY, The American Revolution is a slim, clearly written text that weighs in at 190 pages including the bibliographic essay and index. In it, Wood outlines the origins of the American Revolution and efforts by the British empire to prevent its birth, the revolution itself, the creation of state and ‘federal’ government systems, and the overall importance of republicanism and a society that embraced republican values.
Wood argues that the origins of the revolution are deep indeed. The relationship between Britain and its colonies, the physical distance between ‘home’ and the colonies, and the growth of British imperial power all played a role in fomenting revolution. Further, Wood states that this independence movement “was also an integral part of the great transforming process that carried America into the liberal democratic society of the modern world.” (p 3-4). The prose is smooth and the pace almost breakneck in some ways, but even familiar events like the Coercive Acts, discussion of transitions in British strategy, or the nature of constitution creation read freshly and clearly.
If there are any complaints, they are minor – Wood is perhaps a little snippy with a “young historian” in his preface, suggesting that their complaints about certain failures of the revolution (failure to free slaves, failure to offer political equality to women, etc) are anachronistic. Perhaps Wood has a point, though my larger concern in this case is who was this historian? In what context did they make this statement? I wish I knew, but alas, there are no citations in this text so I can’t go back to the source of the offensive observation and check it out for myself. Other than the few maps at the outset of the text, there are no additional images. The maps at the outset of the book are helpful, but perhaps a few additional carefully chosen pieces at the outset of each chapter might have been appropriate.
In the end, Wood’s work has accomplished its goal. The American Revolution clearly discusses how the revolution occurred, its character, and the consequences. For Wood’s concise handling of this topic, historians should be grateful as this book is reminiscent of Oxford University Press’s excellent “very short introduction” series.