|THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION|
April 2, 2002
RAY SUAREZ: The book is "The American Revolution: A History." The author is Gordon Wood, professor of history at Brown University. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book on the radicalism of the American Revolution.
Now, you take a 20-year cut at American history, roughly, oh, from the pre-revolutionary era to the ratification of the Constitution -- how do you do it all in 166 pages?
GORDON WOOD: Well, that was the challenge: To really boil it down and still make it comprehensible and interesting and try to cover all of the important events of that, actually, 30-year period between 1760, 1790. That was not easy. And that was the challenge.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what's the assignment? When you think about a reader, when you think about who the end user of this book is, is it someone who is trying to refresh themselves on what they forgot about high school American history?
GORDON WOOD: Well, it could be. I mean, I think it's designed for some... an educated reader who wants to know something about the American Revolution and has only maybe a vague remembrance of the main events and wants to... but it's not presuming any great knowledge. It's not written for experts. It's written for somebody... a general reader as we say.
RAY SUAREZ: So, what's essential about something that's sort of the received wisdom? A lot of Americans think they know about the American revelation.
GORDON WOOD: Well...
RAY SUAREZ: What's essential in the story you tell?
GORDON WOOD: Well, the first thing is that this is the most important event in American history, bar none, because it not only legally created the United States, but infused into our culture almost everything we believe that holds us together -- our belief in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, the well-being of ordinary people, all of this comes out of the Revolution. So, it is the event that makes us an American. You have to know something about the revolution, I think, in order to be an American.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there anything new to say about the Revolution at 230 years' removed? Are we still finding out new things about it?
GORDON WOOD: Well, I think so. We get new perspectives. It's amazing how much over the last 30, 40 years how many new books have been written about the Revolution. You'd think that it would have been exhausted by now. There's probably no event, with possible exception of the Civil War, that's been so much written about, and yet every year, there seems to be a new angle because our perspective on the past changes as we live through a different time in our present.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you rethinking anybody when you review the events, when you even look at things that you have written in the past about it? Are there personalities or events that you take another look at and say, "hmm, let me think about this again?"
GORDON WOOD: Washington certainly has been... I have been impressed by him over the past 20 years. My perspective on him is very different from what it would have been 40 years ago. His stature has grown, I think, because he now is the indispensable man, I think, of the Revolution, and the way in which he retired from... as military leader in 1783-- electrified the world. And I think a perspective on that: He could have been a dictator, he could have been a king. But he retired to Mount Vernon, and I think that's what gave him his power and helps explain his international fame.
RAY SUAREZ: Even to read about the events again, I'm left stunned with the idea that really a country with very weak institutions, sort of inventing itself on the fly, beat the great superpower of the late 18th century. It's amazing that it happened.
GORDON WOOD: Well, that's true. And of course, some of the... the same problems that the English faced dealing with this rebellion, we faced in Vietnam -- a different situation, but similar problems -- trying... the logistics of dealing with a war 3,000 miles away; a rebellious population that had to be pacified. You couldn't just defeat them militarily, you had to win their hearts and minds because you wanted to bring them back politically into the empire. So, the English had a very difficult task-- and maybe, in the end, an impossible one-- to put down a rebellion of such dimensions.
RAY SUAREZ: But was there a political solution short of rebellion? Had the English missed opportunities to cement this population scattered along the Atlantic Coast into the English political world?
GORDON WOOD: In retrospect, they did. I think they could... there would have been a political solution, but they would have had to think so much more freshly than they were capable of thinking. Benjamin Franklin, to the very end, was really trying to hold the empire together. He was a devoted imperialist. But the British simply weren't prepared to deal with these colonies as equals, and in the end, that spelled disaster for them.
RAY SUAREZ: Before there was actual fighting of armies in the field, was there an American person, a United Statesian, who was different from someone in Birmingham, or Manchester, or London?
GORDON WOOD: Oh, I think there's a latent Americanism, but I think the Revolution itself is the most important event creating an American sense of identity. But "American" was a term... a kind of pejorative term thrown at the colonists earlier, which they turn around and make a positive... given them positive meaning to. They were Englishmen. They saw themselves as Englishmen. They were fighting at the outset, or struggling for the right of Englishmen. It's only when the break comes that they see themselves as Americans. As Patrick Henry said, "I'm an American, not a Virginian." I think the crisis and the war-- the imperial crisis first, and then the war-- creates Americanism. I don't think that's there. If you asked them in 1760, "What are you?" They'd say, "I'm a loyal Englishman."
RAY SUAREZ: But after victory came and before the Constitution was ratified, this was a very weak country. And you write some about that.
GORDON WOOD: Well, they... it was divided among 13 states. They were under a confederation. It was not all that different from the present European Union. People's loyalties were to their states. The states had, in some cases, 150, 175 years of history behind them. This new United States, literally a union, a league, had not much loyalty, so did not command much loyalty. So there's a real problem of bringing these people together. The war was important in solidifying the sense, but it really, the constitutional achievement in 1787 is a real remarkable achievement, to bring these disparate states together into this extraordinarily strong national government. It took a real crisis in the 1780s to accomplish that.
RAY SUAREZ: You know, in the last decade-plus, the Civil War has risen in the popular imagination as the defining American event. But you'll still through your lot in with the Revolution?
GORDON WOOD: Oh, yes, because it created the union. There's no doubt that the Civil War was important, because it saved the union. But Lincoln knew that the real source of American unionism was the Revolution. He always looked back to the Revolution for the sources of democracy, for the sources of our beliefs.
RAY SUAREZ: "Four score and seven years ago..."
GORDON WOOD: Right. And equality, in particular. It was Jefferson that he looked to, and the Declaration of Independence. So the Revolution is the beginning. The Civil War simply preserves what had been begun 70 years earlier.
RAY SUAREZ: And still affects our lives today?
GORDON WOOD: Oh, very much so. We're the heirs of this revolution. And without its consequences, we would not be a single people.
RAY SUAREZ: Gordon Wood, the book is the "The American Revolution." Thanks for stopping by.
GORDON WOOD: My pleasure. Thank you.