Over the last generation, liberals have become increasingly emboldened in their denunciations of America's founders, says Yale historian Steven Pincus. The American left stands poised to throw the Revolution overboard, to dismiss the spirit and legacy of 1776 as merely the cause of a racist, sexist, hypocritical aristocracy we should firmly reject.
They’d be wrong to do so. The modern left may have fallen out of step with our revolutionary heritage. But it should reclaim it: For all its warts, the Revolution really did unleash an egalitarian vision of America that frontally assaulted economic and social inequality. It’s a tradition liberals should celebrate and cherish, while expanding and enlarging its scope and ambitions.
The American Revolution ushered in a movement that tore down systems of privilege in favor of more egalitarian ways of organizing society.
The Revolution ended structures of primogeniture and challenged the idea of a landed gentry. It made popular sovereignty an inviolable promise of American government, at least in principle. It helped ignite popular movements not just in America but across the globe.
The definitive version of this interpretation comes from The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a 1991 book by Brown historian Gordon Wood. The Revolution, Wood writes, "was as radical and as revolutionary as any in history," destroying beliefs about the superiority of the wealthy that had stood for centuries:
The Revolution did not merely create a political and legal environment conducive to economic expansion; it also released powerful and popular entrepreneurial and commercial energies that transformed the economic landscape of the country. In short, the Revolution was the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history.
Wood’s book produces an exhaustive chronicle of just how massive the Revolution’s social and economic changes were — the explosion of popular religion; the wrenching of a culture from a monarchy to a republic; the sudden growth of public education for boys and girls.