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.)
"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
"[S]hould be required summer reading for all elected officials....While the research of an excellent historian certainly contains years of plodding, there's nothing at all commonplace about how Wood conducts it." Los Angeles 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.