Wednesday’s Book Review: “Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different”

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. By Gordon S. Wood. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

This book is an engrossing account of the formation of the United States by one of the most sophisticated and celebrated historians of our era. Most important, in spite of all the nostalgia being recounted at present about the founding generation Gordon Wood makes the powerful case that the emphasis on them has more to say about the search for leadership and character at the beginning of the twenty-first century than it does about the experiences of the Revolutionary era. By celebrating the virtues of a George Washington or a John Adams, as such writers as Richard Brookhiser and David McCullough do, Wood senses a deep disappointment in the lack of such character among political leaders today. I find this book, while placing these individuals in strong light, an important and powerful corrective to the new consensus history written by the likes of Brookhiser and McCullough.

Revolutionary Characters offers biographical sketches of six critical members of the founding generation of the United States. It takes as its emphasis not the story of the lives of individual founders but an analysis of their characters. Starting with a discussion of George Washington, Wood lays out his ultimate virtue, a strong commitment to the revolutionary ideals of the Enlightenment even if he was not a deep thinker himself. What he was most of all was a gentleman who through character and temperament significantly effected the course of the early nation. That came largely from his demeanor as the nation’s first chief executive. Gordon Wood finds that he had no precedent to follow: “Not only did he have to justify and to flesh out the new office of the presidency, but he also had to put together the new nation and prove to a skeptical world that America’s grand experiment in self-government was possible” (p. 48). In the end, Washington “was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule” (p. 63).

Benjamin Franklin is the most interesting essay in this volume because Wood turns the popular conception of Franklin as a revolutionary on its head. He notes that the most remarkable aspect of his political career was that he was so closely tied to the British Imperial elite prior to the crisis of the 1770s that he chose to ally with the rebels at all. Why was he not more like Thomas Hutchinson, loyalist colonial governor from Massachusetts or at the very least like his fellow Pennsylvanian John Dickinson who allowed that there were grievances to be resolved but stopped short of revolution? He did so in no small part because of his personal situation. In reality, Wood asserts that Franklin’s persona as an example of hard work and self-reliance, as well as the selfless patriot, is a creation of the early nineteenth century when such stories were believed necessary for the development of the new nation.

There follows essays on Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Tom Paine, and Aaron Burr, the last an unlikely choice for inclusion in a volume such as this but Wood makes a good case for doing so. In the end, the author finds that the group who founded the United States, and there were many more than the select few profiled here, came at a unique time in history. It was a period in which the ideal of the civic-minded philosopher-statesman had reached a zenith and that ideal was expressed forcefully and brilliantly in the creation of the United States. Wood notes: “While the revolutionary gentry were still busy creating their learned arguments to persuade reasonable men of the need for resistance or of the requirements for government, there were social processes at work that in time undermined both their political and intellectual authority” (p. 252).

The rise of egalitarianism, which these founders had helped to bring forth soon emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century to overturn the hierarchical world of the revolutionaries and replace it with a more boisterous, rambunctious society. Those that lived long enough to witness this change, were disillusioned for what might result. As Wood notes in his last sentence in this book: “In the end nothing illustrates better the transforming power of the American Revolution than the way its intellectual and political leaders, that remarkable group of men, contributed to their own demise” (p. 274).

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