Title: The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787
Author: Gordon Wood
Categories: Political History, Intellectual History, Constitution, Revolution,
Place: The United States
Time Period: 1776-1787
Gordon Wood charts a transformation in American politics between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the writing of the American Constitution in 1787 based on social conflict. The political landscape started from that of "classical" republicanism that reflected the immutable ordering of society, moved to a radical Whig reaction towards direct democracy that took place in the 1770s and early 1780s in the form of state constitution-building, and finally resulted in a more conservative Federalist reaction that emphasized government-building based on functionality and specifically tried to restrain democratic excesses through a new separation of powers. Wood argues that this final Federalist version, while triumphing in the Constitution itself, at the time was disingenuous because it cloaked itself in radical Whig rhetoric that masked the real social divisions that lay under the banner of a liberal tradition.
For Wood, 18th century classical republicanism was based on social orders and hierarchy embodied in England's constitution that separated royalty, nobility, and the commons. American radicals feared what they saw as a corrupted society and sought to defend the constitution through rebellion, approaching it with the utopian attitude that separating from England would regenerate America's citizenry into virtuous republicans. This took place mainly at the state level through constitutional conventions - perhaps most radically in the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. During the 1770s they imbued more and more power and size into legislatures, which some began to fear would result in fragmentation and the development of a thousand tiny local democracies squabbling amongst themselves. Several transformations took place: conventions went from being extra-legal action to one of the only legitimate ways to construct a constitution, and it also became more and more accepted that sovereignty rested solely with the people (regardless of the branch of government).
In response to this political radicalism, more conservative Federalists in the 1780s began to fear a concentration of power in the people (the tyranny of the majority). Wood describes this reaction and their disputes with Antifederalists as an inherently social conflict. They were off-put by the social upheaval that allowed, in their view, unqualified "new men" to rise to positions of power. Federalists reformulated the old idea of separation of society based on ordering or hierarchies into separating society based on factions and special interests - in particular the ability to curtail and control majority factions who might imperil minorities (particularly the minority of wealthy property-holders). This "federalist persuasion" couched arguments in the rhetoric of Whig democratic tradition, which Wood sees as disingenuous and in the long run doing damage by obscuring real social divisions in American society.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Transition from "classical" republicanism to "modern" republicanism
- Radical swing after 1776 towards direct democracy
- Conservative reaction (the "federalist persuasion") that emphasizes protection of minority (property) rights from majority
- Disingenuous Federalist rhetoric hiding their more conservative efforts in democratic language
- Importance of state constitutions as a learning process (training wheels)
- Vice and virtue - fears over vice led to Revolution and then efforts to constrain and restrict vice leads to Constitution
- Ending bookend with Constitution laying foundation for America's transition into a liberal society
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License