The Lasting Consequences of the American Revolution
Gordon S. Wood
The American Revolution is the most important event in American history, bar none; and it is one of the most important events in world history. In 1784 the English radical and Unitarian minister, Richard Price, went so far as to declare that the American Revolution, next to the introduction of Christianity, may prove to be “the most important step in the progressive course of human improvement” in all of history. Such a monumental event was bound to have immense consequences for Americans and for the world. This series of lectures explores three of these consequences: (1) the challenge that the Revolution’s declaration of republican equality posed for all traditional social hierarchies, (2) the transformation of the relationship between the private and the public realms in American society, and (3) the contribution of the Revolution to the origins of American capitalism.
About the Lecturer
Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. He received his B.A. from Tufts University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He taught at Harvard and the University of Michigan before joining the faculty at Brown in 1969. He has also taught at the College of William and Mary and England’s Cambridge University, where he served as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions. Dr. Wood received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1993 for The Radicalism of the American Revolution. His book, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787, won a 1970 Bancroft Prize. In 2010 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.
Equality and the American Revolution
Tuesday, September 12 - 7:00pm
Equality was the most potent idea let loose by the Revolution. The Declaration of Independence said that “all men are created equal,” but few of the revolutionary leaders in 1776 appreciated how that phrase could be used in new, unanticipated ways. Although the revolutionary leaders assumed that their new republican society would not contain the kind of aristocracy that existed in Europe, they never intended to level their society. They assumed distinctions would continue to exist but would be based on not whom you knew or who your father was, but on talent and merit. But middling sorts of men - men who were not gentlemen but ex-weavers, tavern-keepers, and butchers - took advantage of the idea of equality and claimed an equal right to hold political office alongside the gentlemanly elites. By the early nineteenth century they created a society unlike any that had ever existed.
The Emergence of the Public-Private Distinction in the American Revolution
Tuesday, October 24 - 7:00pm
In the colonial period the modern distinction between public and private spheres scarcely seemed to exist. There was little of the privacy and the impersonality of life that we today take for granted. The colonial and local governments usually enlisted private persons and wealth to accomplish public ends, and they intruded into affairs that we today would consider clearly private. They regulated everything from the prices people could charge for their goods to the kinds of clothes they could wear and much of their lawmaking had to do with matters of personal morality. Colleges like Harvard and Yale that are today private began as public institutions, and nearly everywhere religion was considered to be a public affair under control of the state. All this was changed by the American Revolution. By the early nineteenth century public and private had become in a modern sense clearly distinct spheres.
The Origins of Capitalism
Tuesday, November 14 - 7:00pm
The American Revolution was the most important event in turning the United States into a capitalist powerhouse. Not only did the Revolutionary War bring many Americans who had scarcely ever traded outside of their neighborhoods into larger and more impersonal markets, it also stimulated a great increase in agricultural productivity. While the slave-holding plantations in the South continued as they had in the past to produce staples for overseas markets, more and more northern farmers began engaging in manufacturing for expanding domestic markets; but unlike the pattern of industrialization set by Great Britain they did so without leaving their farms. As northern America became increasingly commercialized and capitalistic, it nevertheless remained predominantly rural and agricultural. And although Americans borrowed heavily from abroad, much of their capital was self-created through the chartering of hundreds of banks that issued the paper money that financed their extraordinary commercial development.