Further thoughts by Gordon Wood on the American Revolution


The point to be made about the American Revolution is the supernatural dimension of it. I say “supernatural” because it was the result of a living experience of 150 years of self-determination and self-giving. Robert Ballah Writes: “America’s myth of origin is a strategic point of departure because the comparative study of religion has found that where a people conceives itself to have started reveals origin in America seems a relatively simple one. Unlike most historic peoples, America as a nation began on a definite dated, July Fourth, 1776. Thus in analyzing America’s myth, cloae attention must be paid to the mythic significance of the Declaration of Independence, which is considerable. Or taking a less precise definition of beginning, one might consider the whole period, from the Declaration of Independence to the inauguration of Washington under the new Constitution, as the origin time of the American nation. America began as the result of series of conscious decisions. The acts embodying those decisions have a knd of absolute omeaning-creating significance. As Hannah Arendt says, ‘What saves the act of beginning from its own arbitrariness is that that it carries its own principle within itself, or, to be more precise, that beginning and principle, principium and principle, are not only related to each, but are coeval. We will want to consider the act of conscious meaning-creation, or conscioustaking responsibility for oneself and one’s society, as a central aspect of America’s myth of origin, an act that, aby the very radicalness of its beginning, a beginning ex nihilo as it were, redolent of the sacred. The sacredness of the Constitution, which is closely bound up with the existence of the American people, derives largely frm that source since ti does not, not explicitly at least (and in this it differs from the Declaration of Independence), call upon any source of sacredness higher than itself and it makers.

               “And yet thos datable acts of beginning, radical though they were, and archetypal for all later reflection about America, were themselves mythi gestures which could not but stir up, at the beginning and later, the images of symbols of earlier myths and mythically interpreted histories.

               “The Deuteronomic formula of the blessing and the curse is John Winthrop’s way (on the deck of the Mayflower)of summing up the meaning of the immense hopes and fears of the colonists in the face of the unknown land that lay ahead. He turned the ocean crossing into a crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River and he held out the hope that Massachusetts Bay would be a promised land:

               “There let  us choose life,            

That wee, and our Seede

               Mau live; by obeying his

               Voycoe, and cleaeing to him,

               For hee is our life, and

Our prosperity.”

Returning now to Gordon Wood, I copy: “Amcerican society had been radically an dthoroughly transformed. One class did not overthro another; the poor did not supplant the rich. But social relationships – the way people were connected one to another – were changed, and decisely so, By te  early years of the  nineteenth c. the Revolutoin had created a society fundamentally different from the colonial society of the eighteenth c. It as in fact a new society unlike any that had ever existed anywhere in the world…

               “That reveolutin did more than legally create the United States; it transofmed American society. Because the story of America has turned out the way it has, because the United States in twentieth c. has become the great power that it is, it is difficult , if not impossible , to appreciate and recover fully the insignificant and puny origins of the country. In 1760 America was only a collection of disparate colonies huddled alone a narrow strip of the Atlantic coas t – economically underdeveloped outposts existing on the very edges of the civilized world. The less than two million monarchical subjects who lived in these colonies still took for granted that society was and ought to be a hierarchy of ranks an degrees of dependency and that most people wre bound together by personal ties of one sort or another. Yet scarcely fifty years later these insignificant borderland provinces had become a giant, almost continent-wide republic of nearly ten million egalitarian-minded bustling citizens who not only had thrust themselves into the vanguard of history but had fundamentally altered their society and their social relationships. Fr from remaining monarchical, hierarchy-ridden subjects on the margin of civilization, Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world.

               “And this astonishing transformation took palce without industrialization, without urbanization, without railroads, without the aid of any of the great forces we usually invoke to explain ‘modernizaion.’ It was the Revolution that was crucial to this transformation. It was the Revolution, more than any other single event that made Amrica it the most liberal, democratic and modern nation in the world…

               “The American Revolution was not unique; it was only different. Because of this shared Western-wide experience in democratization, it has been argued by more than one historian that the broader social transformation that carried Americans from one century and one kind of society to another was ‘inevitable’ and ‘would have been completed with or without the American Revolution.’

(…)) The Revolution and the social transformation were in fact linked together. The American Revolution was integral to the changes occurring in American society, politics, and culture at the end of 18th c.

               “These changes were radical, and they were extensive… The Revolution made possible the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements of the 19th c. and in fact all our current egalitarian thinking. The Revolution not only radically changed the person and social relationships of people, including the position of women, but also destroyed aristocracy as it had been understood in the Western world for at least two millennia. The Revolution brought respectability and even dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history and to a degree not equaled elsewhere in the world. The Revolution brought respectability and even dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history and to a degree not equaled elsewhere in the world. The Revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and created republics; it actually reconstituted what American meant by public or state power and brought about an entirely new kind of popular politics and a new kind of democratic officeholder. The Revolution not only changed the culture of Americans – making over their art, architecture, and iconography – but even altered their understanding of history, knowledge, and truth. Most important, it made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people –their pursuits of happiness –the goal of society and government. The Revolution did not merely create a political and legal environment conducive to economic expansion; it also released powerful popular entrepreneurial and commercial energies[1] that few realized existed and transformed the economic landscape of the country. In short, the Revolution was the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history”[2]

               Keep in mind, the Revolution in America is the exuberance of personhood achieved not by ideas but by the 150 year Christian experience of getting out of self and service to others. It’s creed isthe Declaration of Independence.

[1] Could the South African Elon Musk propose, risk and actually execute what he is not doing entrepreneurially anywhere else but in the United States.

[2] Gordon S. Wood, “The Creation of the American  Republic 1776 -1787”  Introduction.

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