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Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Differentby Gordon Wood
Synopses & Reviews
The latest from award-winning scholar and historian Gordon S. Wood, author of The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.
Even when the greatness of the founding fathers isn't being debunked, it is a quality that feels very far away from us indeed: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Co. seem as distant as marble faces carved high into a mountainside. We may marvel at the fact that fate placed such a talented cohort of political leaders in that one place, the east coast of North America, in colonies between Virginia and Massachusetts, and during that one fateful period, but that doesn't really help us explain it or teach us the proper lessons to draw from it. What did make the founders different? Now, the incomparable Gordon Wood has written a book that shows us, among many other things, just how much character did matter.
Revolutionary Characters offers a series of brilliantly illuminating studies of the men who came to be known as the founding fathers. Each life is considered in the round, but the thread that binds the work together and gives it the cumulative power of a revelation is this idea of character as a lived reality for these men. For these were men, Gordon Wood shows, who took the matter of character very, very seriously. They were the first generation in history that was self-consciously self-made, men who understood the arc of lives, as of nations, as being one of moral progress. They saw themselves as comprising the world's first true meritocracy, a natural aristocracy as opposed to the decadent Old World aristocracy of inherited wealth and station.
Gordon Wood's wondrous accomplishment here is to bring these men and their times down to earth and within our reach, showing us just who they were and what drove them. In so doing, he shows us that although a lot has changed in two hundred years, to an amazing degree the virtues these founders defined for themselves are the virtues we aspire to still.
"Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize — winner Wood suggests that behind America's current romance with the founding fathers is a critique of our own leaders, a desire for such capable and disinterested leadership as was offered by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Provocatively, Wood argues that the very egalitarian democracy Washington and Co. created all but guarantees that we will 'never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders.' In 10 essays, most culled from the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, Wood offers miniature portraits of James Madison, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine. The most stimulating chapter is devoted to John Adams, who died thinking he would never get his due in historians' accounts of the Revolution; for the most part, he was right. This piece is an important corrective; Adams, says Wood, was not only pessimistic about the greed and scrambling he saw in his fellow Americans, he was downright prophetic — and his countrymen, then and now, have never wanted to reckon with his critiques. Wood is an elegant writer who has devoted decades to the men about whom he is writing, and taken together, these pieces add perspective to the founding fathers cottage industry." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Benjamin Franklin — the subject of one of the essays in this stimulating new collection — once said that 'Historians relate, not so much what is done, as what they would have believed.' Most historians would agree with that gently cynical proposition, though they would wish to add a proviso that interpretations of the past should always rest on evidence — on what was 'done,' as Franklin said. Among... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) historians in universities these days, essays often tilt toward sheer interpretation, leaving the substance of the past scanted. Gordon S. Wood's book bucks that trend, offering a good deal of empirical evidence — what was 'done' — in these absorbing essays from one of our leading scholars of the American Revolution. Eight of the 10 chapters of 'Revolutionary Characters' are biographical, featuring Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr. The founders are often considered as a group, as indeed they are here, and widely admired as being 'different' (the key word in Wood's subtitle) from our current leaders in their commitment to enlightened principles. Looking at the founders together, it is hard not to conclude that though they deserve our admiration, they may not have constituted the group we have imagined. Certainly, they acted at times as if they had nothing in common. Washington was a mystery to most of his colleagues. His reserve kept them at arms' length and denied them access to what he really thought. Still, they all respected, even revered, him — most of the time, that is. Almost none felt reverence, or even respect, for the others of their number. Adams despised Franklin, branding him with such epithets as the 'old deceiver' and the 'old conjuror.' Franklin once dismissed Adams as one who 'means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.' Adams also went through a period, lasting some 11 years, of such dislike of Jefferson that he broke off all relations with him. For his part, Jefferson could not abide Hamilton when the two served together in Washington's administration, considering America's first treasury secretary a monarchist awaiting the opportunity to undermine the republic. Confronted by opposition to his fiscal policies by Jefferson and Madison, Hamilton came to believe that they were innocent of knowledge of how an economy worked and attributed to Jefferson an unhealthy absorption in the fanaticism of the French Revolution. As for Thomas Paine, who initially earned the regard of several of the founders (excluding John Adams, who thought him a crank), he squandered that goodwill by untoward attacks, including one on Washington. And then there is Burr, who, after drawing the ill favor of such colleagues as Jefferson and Adams, killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Wood, a Brown University historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 'The Radicalism of the American Revolution' (1992), does not dwell on these animosities, but he does not ignore them, either. His major emphasis in almost all of the essays is on what these men thought and did. He establishes their intellectual agreement in the first essay, 'The Founders and the Enlightenment.' Though the founders differed in how they understood enlightened values, they agreed on the essentials, especially as they concerned republicanism and virtue. Virtue and honor, they all believed, required serving the nation first, even if doing so sacrificed their own interests. Almost all of the founders defined social distinction in terms of merit — intellectual ability, a sense of responsibility and honorable behavior. This was a clear break from an older sense that what counted in forming an aristocratic elite was birth, family, education and wealth. All the founders retained a regard for the older conceptions of these standards, which had been instilled in them by their own experiences and by tradition. But on serious reflection, they came to follow different, more modern guides to enlightened leadership in a republic. Washington himself was not so given to the new thought; he valued classical virtue, with its injunctions to maintain one's honor above all else while serving the public interest. But Washington, too, altered his beliefs — though not his standards — about the meaning of liberty over the years, a shift most apparent in his determination to see his slaves freed after his death. All of the essays in this volume are of a high intellectual order. The most interesting may be 'Is There a `James Madison Problem'?' — in which the question is whether Madison transformed himself from a nationalist in the 1780s, eager to create an active, energetic government with broad powers, into a 'strict constructionist' in the 1790s. (Strict construction of the Constitution held that Hamilton's proposal for chartering a national bank exceeded the congressional powers that Federalists found in Article I, Section 8.) In this alteration, Madison thought he faced a Hamilton bent on creating something close to a constitutional monarchy. Wood's persuasive conclusion, after an intricate analysis of Madison's conduct and thought, is that no such transformation took place. Madison, so important in shaping the Constitution, held to his principles throughout his long career. At several points in this volume, most notably the essays on Washington and the epilogue, Wood argues that the founders contributed unwittingly to a democratic and egalitarian society that they never wanted. This is another point in favor of the history Wood provides in this splendid collection: He relates what he would have us believe, explains much of what was done and leaves us with an ironical appreciation of the founders' achievement. Robert Middlekauff is Preston Hotchkis Professor of History emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of 'The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789.'" Reviewed by Robert Middlekauff, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This volume is at its most powerful when Mr. Wood uses his enormous knowledge of the era to situate his subjects within a historical and political context, stripping away accretions of myths and commentary." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"Bracing, clear-eyed perspectives on why we are unlikely to see such a politically creative period again." Kirkus Reviews
"Wood is at his best when writing about George Washington and Aaron Burr, noting with regard to the former that his character was perfectly suited to his time....[A] very readable book." Library Journal
"Easily one of the top historians of the American Revolution in current practice, Wood gathers here his previously published articles about the Founding Fathers." Booklist
In this brilliantly illuminating group portrait of the men who came to be known as the Founding Fathers, the incomparable Gordon Wood has written a book that seriously asks, ?What made these men great???and shows us, among many other things, just how much character did in fact matter. The life of each?Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Paine?is presented individually as well as collectively, but the thread that binds these portraits together is the idea of character as a lived reality. They were members of the first generation in history that was self-consciously self-made?men who understood that the arc of lives, as of nations, is one of moral progress.
About the Author
Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor at Brown University. His 1970 book, The Creation of the American Republic 17761787, received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes and was nominated for the National Book Award. His 1993 book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize. Professor Wood's work has also been recognized by the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He contributes regularly to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.
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