Professor Gordon Wood

    Professor Gordon Wood
    American Revolution
    May 8, 1999

    Gordon Wood is Professor of History at Brown University. He is one of the foremost scholars on the American Revolution in the country. His book, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. It is considered among the definitive works on the social, political and economic consequences of the Revolutionary War.


    Edmund Morgan, Professor Emeritus of Yale University in his review of this book for the New York Times called it "a tour de force. This is a book that could redirect historical thinking about the Revolution and its place in the national consciousness." In the book, Professor Wood gives readers a revolution that transformed an almost feudal society into a democratic one, whose emerging realities sometimes baffled and disappointed its founding fathers. Professor Wood has written numerous other books, including "The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787," which was nominated for the National Book Award. He was involved in Ken Burns's PBS production on Thomas Jefferson, contributed his expertise for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and regularly devotes a portion of his time teaching history to high school students around the country.


    US Good morning. It is 10am, May 18, 1999, here in Providence, Rhode Island. We are sitting with Professor Gordon Wood in his office on the third floor of a beautiful converted Victorian house -- home to Brown University's History Department.
    Prof. Wood We'll start with a question asked in advance: What social changes occurred because of the Revolution?

    The major transformation from a monarchy to a republic. In a monarchy people were subjects to the king or queen; that is, dependent, deferential to a higher authority. In a republic, people are independent citizens and from that difference flows a whole lot of differences.

    xena Was the revolution considered frightening to the monarchies of Europe?
    Prof. Wood Good question. For some of the monarchies, it was. The French aristocracy was, by and large, excited by the American Revolution. Partially because they hated Britain so much, but also because of a form of "radical chic" that ran through the French monarchy. They thought this republican experiment would help them do that. Lafayette is a good example. He was a young, idealistic French aristocrat who came here to fight.
    Frankie What sort of differences? What are the major ones?
    Prof. Wood First, slavery and all forms of dependency become challenged, and a question. White indentured servitude was very common by the middle of the 18th century. By the end of the 18th century, it had virtually disappeared. Slavery is made a problem. In the Northern states it is abolished as a consequence of the Revolution. In the South, of course, it persists, but had to be defended in a way it never did before.
    shs Does that also explain Pulaski, Von Steuben and the like?
    Prof. Wood Pulaski and the other foreigners joined in what seems to be an exhilarating moment in Western history. Not all that different from participation in the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.
    tinky Did most Americans think of the revolution as "divinely" inspired?
    Prof. Wood Many Americans thought it was divinely inspired. For many people, religion was the medium by which they explained the world. Many of them thought the millennium was upon them with the Revolution. There was a lot of millennial talk. It was very common. Clergymen were deeply involved in the American Revolution. Tories referred to the clergymen as the "black regiment" (because they dressed in black).
    shs I thought our founding fathers were deists. Did that carry over to the general population?
    Prof. Wood No. The leaders and most educated tended to be deists -- they saw God as the great mover and were doubtful of the divinity of Christ. But most people were devout Protestant believers. Deism is confined to the elite.
    Frankie Why would aristocrats jeopardize their positions in their own countries by embracing democracy?
    Prof. Wood Well, that's a really tough question, and interesting. First of all, they did not fear the people, at the outset. Only later do they come to appreciate how dangerous democracy can be. They had a great deal of confidence in popular will and were, of course, antagonistic to monarchy -- the rule of one person -- and put a great deal of trust in the great mass of the population. And consequently, they gave a great deal of authority to the lower house in their state constitutions of 1776.
    xena In your "Radicalism" book you say that many of the rev leaders were the 1st in their family to attend college...what did they study and did it "prepare" them for the revolution?
    Prof. Wood They studied a classical education. They studied the writings of antiquity. As a prerequisite to get into college, they usually had to know Latin. They also studied rhetoric and religion. But, except for rhetoric, it is hard to see how any of their studies prepared them for Revolution. Franklin and Washington were two exceptions in that they were not college educated. They were certainly self-taught. They acculturated themselves to gentlemanly status. (It is an interesting question!)
    cateschoo You said they "put trust" in the lower houses. Yet, by 1789 the were putting significant power in the upper houses. Was this a switch from 1776
    Prof. Wood Good question. In the 10 years since the Declaration of Independence, many Americans became disillusioned with the power they had given to the general populace. The Federal Constitution was in part a consequence of that disillusionment. By creating an elevated and distant government, some of the problems of popular government would be lessened, mitigated.
    ques Do you have favorites among the lesser known signers of the Declaration?
    Prof. Wood I would suggest Dr. Benjamin Rush. He was a Philadelphia physician and one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Enlightenment. Except for Jefferson, he most personified the Enlightenment.
    cateschoo Wasn't Rush also the person who consulted with M. Lewis at Jefferson's request before heading on the Lewis & Clark journey?
    Prof. Wood He was involved in everything, from trying to solve the Yellow Fever problem to an early form of Psychiatry. He was involved in women's education, criminal punishment, and anti-slavery. He was also a great "bleeder" Unfortunately he miscalculated the amount of blood in the human body and subsequently lost a lot of patients. Lewis did consult with Rush before the expedition.
    xena Whoa! wasn't he involved in the Conway Cabal, too!!!
    Prof. Wood I think very little is known of the Conway Cabal -- I don't think he's been implicated. Rush didn't like Washington, I think. He expressed to John Adams his dislike of the man -- later in his life. Both Adams and Rush thought that Washington's reputation was inflated.
    Frankie Rush sounds like someone who was into everything, like Jefferson and Franklin. Did the times create opportunities for people to excel in many different arenas?
    Prof. Wood Good point. Yes, that was the reason why people celebrated republicanism. Because in a republic, only talent or merit was supposed to count. Whereas, in a monarchy, who your father was and who you knew mattered more. That's why the 18th century referred to the artists as belonging to the Republic of Letters, even when they lived in a monarchy. Success in literature was based on talent and not on anything else.
    tinky Can you describe what a typical day was for a member of the Continental Congress in say late June 1776
    Prof. Wood Very hectic. Very busy. Many of these members belonged to several committees at once. They had no organized bureaucracies. Not to mention, trying to create a national government. They had to both wage a war and win diplomatic alliances.
    cateschoo What political role did women play in the revolutionary movement?
    Prof. Wood Actually, we're finding more and more an important role than we had hitherto known. They were involved in non-importation movements. And various kinds of extra-political activity. And in the making of uniforms and other items for the war effort. Not to mention, running businesses and farms in the absence of the men.
    BBNancy Non-importation?
    Prof. Wood Non-importation is the organizing of boycotts. Before the break with England, we boycotted the importation of British goods -- hoping to hurt England by hurting their manufacturers.
    cateschoo Was there any precursor to the women's franchise issue?
    Prof. Wood Women did not vote, generally, although New Jersey allowed women of property to vote briefly (at the end of the 18th century). It was assumed that women were too dependent to be independent voters. After the Revolution, women's rights become much more obvious an issue. You begin to get what we call feminist writers. People like Judith Sargent Murray is a very important writer in this period. Also, Mrs. Warren (Mercy Otis Warren) wrote a history and was a very vigorous intellectual. But, Murray is the most important of the feminists.
    cateschoo Did Sargent and any of the Seneca Falls crew overlap in time?
    Prof. Wood I don't know of anyone who overlapped. It's worth researching. I don't know the answer to that. Certainly, intellectually there is an overlap. The Seneca Falls Declaration mimics the original Declaration. But as to the actual people -- it's possible.
    cateschoo Just wondering about a literal "handoff" or "passing of the torch."
    Prof. Wood The whole notion of independence -- that all men, and now all women were created equal.
    Prof. Wood I don't know of that "handoff." The person would have to be a child to be an active adult by the Seneca Falls. The connection, intellectually, is very strong and obvious, however.
    cateschoo Sargent was late 18th?
    Prof. Wood Yes, Sargent was late 18th. (I would look it up but all my books are in boxes around my office here -- they are renovating the building this summer.)
    xena It seems that every rev site I've visited considers themselves the "turning point" of the revolution -- Valley Forge Brandywine, Monmouth, Saratoga, Stony Point .... do you think there was a turning point, militarily
    Prof. Wood If any one -- Saratoga. The victory over General Burgoyne's army essentially brought the French into the war and that made all the difference.
    tinky How was the war paid for?
    Prof. Wood Printing of paper money which resulted in horrendous inflation. Inflation, of course, hurts creditors and people on fixed incomes. The states were reluctant to tax heavily. They were, after all, revolutionary states. They weren't about to offend people with heavy taxation. Also, the states borrowed from its citizens. That is, selling bonds.
    Frankie Who would have fixed incomes?
    Prof. Wood Many gentlemen who lived on the interest from loans they made. Widows. Government officials. People whose income was set by statute or custom or contract.
    Frankie Thanks... I was just thinking of farmers and merchants.
    cateschoo People must have had a decent level of trust in the war effort to purchase those bonds.
    Prof. Wood Some did, at the outset. But it became more and more difficult to get people to lend money by the end. By 1779-80 Washington's army was reduced to virtual confiscation for its supplies.
    cateschoo Is that why the French become such a critical factor?
    Prof. Wood The French were a very critical factor. Not only because of the money they lent to the U.S. government, but because of the military support. Once the French fleet became actively involved, as in the Fall of 1781, then the British army was put in an impossible situation. Cornwallis's army in Virginia was isolated because the French gained control of the seas.
    tinky Do you think there was any way the British could have won the war?
    Prof. Wood Very tough question. If they were to win it, they would have to have done so very early -- before the French were involved. It would have required them to have Redcoats almost everywhere. The bulk of the population was Patriot. They couldn't win the hearts and minds of the people if they used out-and-out suppression. The British were in a very difficult, if not impossible, situation.

    Even if they had beaten Washington's Army completely, they would have suffered from partisan -- guerilla -- warfare.

    cateschoo The war debt issue must have been a big one because the 1789 govt. assumed all debts.
    Prof. Wood The war debt issue was very big. It was the issue that Hamilton used to strengthen the federal government. He gathered all federal and state debts and consolidated them as national debts.
    xena How big a role did those like Wilkes and other pro-Americans in the British parliament have in swaying British popular opinion?
    Prof. Wood Wilkes and the radicals had very little political strength -- only about 6 members. As the war progressed, popular support for the British cause weakened in England. By the early 1780s, support in Britain to continue the war was very weak. The Defeat at Yorktown, politically destroyed the will to continue.
    cateschoo Are there any figures on the level of war indebtedness vs. total colonial indebtedness for all reasons?
    Prof. Wood Almost all of the debt was war debt. The colonial governments had not borrowed money in any great amounts prior to the war. The French and Indian War was fought through British subsidy. The $60 million of debt that Hamilton confronted in 1790 was Revolutionary War debt.
    tinky Was george III the buffoon he was made out to be in that movie "The Madness of King George?"
    Prof. Wood George III was not a buffoon. He was a young idealistic 21-year-old in 1760 when he ascended. He did not have symptoms of his hereditary disease until after the War was over. He was very naive. He resembled Jefferson in his range of interests. He had a huge collection of books. He was interested in all sorts of science, etc. He was anything but a buffoon.
    Frankie You said that we are just learning about women's involvement in the Revolution. Has the Tory population been overlooked too? Are there important questions that relate to Tory involvement (or lack of involvement) that should be looked at?
    Prof. Wood The Loyalists had only gotten attention in the last 30 years. More work can be done with the Loyalists. Maybe 20% of the population -- about 500,000 -- would be considered loyalists. About 80,000 emigrated -- left the U.S. -- when the war broke out, many going to Canada. So that the Revolution created two nations -- the U.S. and Canada -- which remains a British Commonwealth Nation today. Loyalists were most successful in those areas where the Redcoats were stationed. The greatest fighting was where the Loyalists were very strong -- New Jersey and South Carolina.
    xena I know that this is speculative but is there anyway that the founding fathers and framers could have connected a well-regulated militia with the gun-ownership argument raging today?
    Prof. Wood Of course, people back then couldn't imagine our world. Any more than we can anticipate the world of 20 years from now. Most people in the more settled areas did not own guns. Guns were actually in short supply even during the war.
    cateschoo What is the question in your own studies that most intrigues you at this point in your examination of the Revolutionary War?
    Prof. Wood Interesting question -- Benjamin Franklin's involvement in the Revolutionary War is what interests me now. Up to the early 1770's, no more loyal British subject could be found than Benjamin Franklin. Yet in 1776 he was a raging patriot. He was 70 years old -- not the age you usually think of someone becoming a revolutionary. How he changed so quickly is an intriguing question.
    cateschoo Any hunches about his metamorphosis?
    Prof. Wood He wanted more than anything to be a part of the British government. It turned on him and humiliated him in the case of the Hutchinson Letters. Then Franklin was excoriated in a public arena in 1774 by the Solicitor General of Great Britain and humiliated.
    xena How influential was his dressing down in the Cockpit? And, did he miscalculate by leaking those Hutchinson letters?
    Prof. Wood Franklin miscalculated completely. He thought he could put blame on local officials -- absolving the imperial officials in London. Instead, it turned the colonists even more deeply against the British government. It was politically naive of Franklin to think it would work the way he hoped.
    ques Did the other colonies resent Massachusetts' radicalism?
    Prof. Wood Yes, they did very much so. Particularly -- the Tea Party (Sept. 1773) was a bit much for the other colonies. It created a feeling that the Massachusetts people were going too far. The Coercive Acts won back a lot of sympathy. In addition, when John Adams proposed in 1775 that George Washington be made commander in chief, he was taking into account the jealousies of other colonists -- It was a very shrewd move to name a Virginian.
    xena When the First Continental Congress met at Carpenters' Hall, do you have any sense of how regionalism played into the thoughts and actions of the delegates?
    Prof. Wood Very good question. Many of these delegates had never met another from a different part of the country. Adams was stunned by the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. There was a great deal of uncertainty. Their sectional loyalties certainly played into the politics of the Congress. There was also a sense that they had a great deal in common. The British government in their hostile policies had united them. Rather than as Virginians, etc., they were Americans.
    US We are running low on time. A closing statement from Professor Wood.
    Prof. Wood The American Revolution not only legally created the United States, but created almost everything we Americans believe. Our noblest ideals, our highest aspirations. Our belief in liberty, equality, Constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people all came out of the American Revolution. Whatever glue we have that holds us together is a consequence of the American Revolution.
    US Thank you, Professor Wood.
One textbookUp to $300
US textbooks, annually$10 billion

If you like our content, please share it on social media!

Facebook reddit

Meet the Historians

These renowned historians and experts chatted with students online. Read the transcripts.

Carol Berkin
Colonial Women
Ira Berlin
Joseph Ellis
Thomas Jefferson
James Loewen
Debunking History
Jon Nese
The weather
Robert Regan
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Remini
The Jacksonian Era
Brooks Simpson
U.S. Grant and Reconstruction
David Traxel
Errol Uys
Riding the Rails
Cheryl Walker
Native American Lit
Mike Wilson
Jack London
Gordon Wood
American Revolution