History readers are no doubt already aware of Pulitzer Prize winner and prolific historian Gordon Wood's ability to assemble masterful works, and this one is no disappointment, though it may not be Pulitzer material. There have been a plethora of books written about the list of founders featured here, but REVOLUTIONARY CHARACTERS: WHAT MADE THE FOUNDERS DIFFERENT, is, in itself, different. Unlike other such classic works, such as Morris' "Seven Who Shaped Our Nation", or Ellis' "Founding Brothers", Wood focuses not on the overall accomplishments of the founders, but rather on, as the name implies, their character.
All readers may not appreciate this different approach to the founders. If you're goal is to learn more about the history of these founders and what they accomplished, I would recommend one of the aforementioned works. They are both extraordinary, but if you already know their history and are looking more to researching the person within, you will find this book most useful.
As always, Wood writes with a captivating style that is most readable and enjoyable. This book will give you new information to draw upon in your knowledge of these fascinating men and what led them to greatness. If you're looking for a short biography of these men, you might want to look elsewhere, but if you seek to understand their inner workings, Wood renders a good presentation.
Gordon Wood has distilled a large body of knowledge into cogent chapters on the founding fathers, bookended by essays that put their legacy into perspective. What he tries to do is peel away the layers of mythmaking and revisionist history that have taken place over the last two centuries and get to the heart of what made these "revolutionary characters" tick. What he reveals is that it was their strong sense of public character and duty that separated them from not only the mainstream of their time but the mainstream thought that prevails today.
Wood argues that you cannot separate the Founding Fathers from their era, they lived under a very different set of circumstances, and responded to these circumstances in their own unique ways. Since so much of their writings and journals have survived down through the ages,it makes these early statesmen prime subjects for psycho-analysis, but what Wood tries to do is take the position of an observer, looking into their conduct as one would in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
While a ranking of their conduct can more or less be inferred by the order of the chapters and the way Wood assesses their individual characters, the author stresses the pivotal roles each had in shaping the United States. Washington is paramount in the way he was able to balance all these competing forces in his presidential administration. He was a leader, if not necessarily a "decider," capable of weighing the opinions of his administration and reaching what he regarded as a just and due course for the nation. He may have lacked the intellectual abilities of Jefferson and Hamilton, or the judicial acumen of Adams, but he didn't seem to second guess his decisions, sticking by them and accepting the consequences like the gentleman he saw himself as. While this may have lent him a stiff air he was so respected in his day that the deification of his role in the American Revolution had already begun by the time of the Constitutional assemblies. If he was reluctant to assume the role of President, Wood argues it was because he did not wish to become king, which was the way many leading figures were projecting him at the time.
Franklin and Adams were less concerned with how they were viewed by others, but they too cultivated public characters that served them well throughout the revolution. Both saw politics as a form of theatre, and as such perception was as important as the reality of their actions. Franklin seemed to be the more optimistic of the two, whereas Adams was deeply worried about the balance of government, something which Wood says gave Adams no rest throughout his lifetime.
This could also be said of James Madison, which Wood devotes an excellent chapter to, showing how he was misinterpreted both in his time by his fellow statesmen, and later by historians. It is largely viewed that Madison underwent a major change of heart in the 1790's from that of an ardent Federalist to an anti-Federalist over the role the federal government should play in the United States. But, Wood argues Madison never saw the federal government as anything more than an adjucator, resolving state disputes, not governing over them. Here is where Madison differed sharply from Hamilton, who believed strenuously in a strong federal government, to the point of being an authoritarian regime, which in many ways the early Federal government was.
Wood even devotes a chapter to Thomas Paine, the most democratic-minded of all the early statesman, and perhaps the most "revolutionary." Paine's role in the revolution is often overlooked because he did not serve in the federal government. However, his pamphlet "The Rights of Man," was one of the key documents of the revolution and perhaps the most far-reaching.
In a time when many persons, both historians and politicians, are reassessing the Founding Fathers, it is refreshing to have a book like this, which strips away all the attempts to make these "revolutionary characters" into mythological figures and views them within their 18th century context.
For much of our history, the leaders of the American Revolution and the framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution enjoyed iconic, mythic status. But they have also been subjected to criticism and debunking, based on their alleged elitism, racism, and sexism in our increasingly cynical, skeptical age.
In his recent collection of essays, "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different" (2006), Gordon Wood offers thoughtful meditations on the Founders. Gordon Wood is Professor of History at Brown University. He is deservedly esteemed for his studies of the Revolutionary era.
In his book, Wood offers succinct discussions of the Founders, their backgrounds, what they did, and, most importantly, what they thought. He sets the Founders within their time but shows, paradoxically, how the success of the Founders made their achievements and characters impossible to replicate in subsequent generations.
Wood's book consists of individual essays on eight founders, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Paine, and Burr. His Introduction and concluding Epilogue attempt to bring coherence to the story. For Wood, what sets the Founders apart from subsequent leaders was their ability to combine high intellectual achievement in politics with the life of affairs and leadership. In much of the subsequent history of the United States, intellectuals and thinkers have been separated from active political life and, in fact, alienated from it. (Thus, the cynicism that I mentioned at the outset of this review.) He finds that the Founders were able to combine the world of intellect with that of practical politics through a devotion to Enlightenment and aristocratic ideals, including ideals regarding the role of an educated gentleman in society, and ideals of civil behavior and good manners, in a broad sense. The Founders were in part individuals who had risen by their own efforts, in most cases through education and study. They used their success to devote themselves to the good of the country and to expand the scope of public participation. This expansion of the scope of citizen participation in the government lead to democracy and egalitarianism and destroyed the conditions which had made the achivement of the Founders itself possible.
Of the essays in the book, the first, "On the Greatness of George Washington" is a reminder of why this reserved, austure figure deserves to be remembered as the greatest of Presidents and as the greatest member of an outstanding generation. The essays on John Adams and James Madison have the highest degree of intellectual content. In the Adams essay, Woods discusses Adams' political philosophy and shows how it was in part prescient and profound and in part based upon a misunderstanding of American constitutionalism. In the essay on Madison, Woods argues that there was a unity of thought througout his career, rather than a switch from Federalism to states rights and democracy, as argued by many.
The essays of Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr are interesting in themeselves and also for the light the cast on the other Founders. In both cases, Wood uses them as foils. Paine was already a democrat and a writer of inflammatory prose for readers without education or knowledge of the classics. This set him apart from his contemporaries. Aaron Burr abandoned the ideal and devotion to public service of the remaining founders and devoted himself solely to the pursuit of his own interests. This basic change, (and not his subsequent activities in the West for which he was tried for treason) is, for Wood, "The Real Treason of Aaron Burr."
Wood's book is an outstanding way to become reaquainted with the American Founders. It encouraged me to think about how American ideals originated, and how they developed and changed through time.
on October 25, 2006
You could read several books on the Founding Fathers and, with the possible exception of "Founding Brothers," you wouldn't gain the same insight into their respective philosophies and their place in the intellectual debate of the day. Simply put, Gordon Wood has turned out another outstanding book. In this instance, he turns his pen and analytical mind to Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Paine, and Burr. All chapters are extremely enlightening but I found the ones on Madison and Paine the most interesting because they have been less well covered by other authors over the years. The pacing is good but not breezy -- you have to think about what you read. The casual reader will enjoy this book but it's really for those who have a solid understanding of the Revolutionary era and want to move beyond pure history to what, in theater parlance, would be called "character motivation."
on June 18, 2006
Pulitzer Prize winner Gordon S. Wood takes a fresh look at our Founding Fathers and why their time is never to be repeated. Wood argues very effectively that the very rise in popular opinion and majority thought men like Washington and Jefferson brought about ultimately led to their demise.
Revolutionary Characters reads as a walk through the lesser-known sides of American heroes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as well as providing long overdue praise to lesser-known founders like John Adams, Aaron Burr and the rabble-rousing propagandist Thomas Paine. Rarely dry and never dragging, Wood creates a series of stories that blend together into a comprehensive look at how Revolutionary "gentlemen" worked together to create a nation even as they contributed to the death of their own era.
Wood also expands his view to examine how popular opinion grew from the unlikely roots of an aristocratic gathering of wealthy men to encompass the wide-ranging views and opinions of the masses, and how this ultimately led to the culling of the Federalist Party and its increasingly obsolete message of 'rule by the few.' An intriguing, objective look at a time shrouded in legend and myth, Revolutionary Characters stands out as a book with appeal to all.
This book is a series of essays on several of our Founders such as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Burr, Hamilton, etc. The essays address how each fit into his generation and treatment by contemporaries and historians. It is not, by any means, a recitation of dates and events.
If the book had been limited to the Introduction, essays on Washington and Franklin and the closing essay, I would give it six stars! The other essays were a bit dry and brought the overall rating down.
Regardless of how much you have read about any of these Founders, Mr. Wood brings a new and different perspective to the careers of these men. Even if, as I have, you have read a few of the recent popular biographies of Washington, this is still a fresh look.
What makes this book especially interesting, in addition to the author's perspective of the careers of these men from Revolution through the infancy of America, is Mr. Wood's tracking of their treatment by historians over the last 200 years. The overview of this history is outlined in his wonderful first introductory chapter. The theme is then carried through each essay.
The other theme that carries through the essays is why we don't and can't have people like this running America now. Mr. Wood blames the Founders themselves for this and his reasoning is sound.
This is a well-written, cerebral look at our Founders from a different and fresh perspective. Highly recommended.
on December 11, 2006
Wood has provided several "character studies" of key figures during the American Revolution. Serious history buffs may be surprised by the seemingly glancing descriptions and mentionings of historical events, without any real description. We are provided with references to Burr's dealings in the west, for example, as well as his trial for treason. No serious description is provided, however. This, it seems, was simply not the aim of the work. The title tells us the goal of the work, to describe some of the personalities and backgrounds of revolutionary leaders who have been mythologized in the popular mind. In a time period when people are wondering what the founders would have thought of current events, however, be warned. As I title my review, be careful what you ask for. Our revolutionary founders did not in many cases (if not generally) truly trust in democracy, and were more elitist and sometimes even hypocritical than our treasured conceptions would allow us to admit. Such reality must be embraced, however, so that we do not harken back to a golden age that never truly existed. The founders also should have been careful what they asked for. The hierarchy between gentry and commoners was also destroyed, in ways the founders often never intended. Hamilton gets a more kind treatment than is often the case currently (for example in Ferling's book on the election of 1800). While Hamilton is not given a pass, however, it is always interesting to note what is emphasized and what is given a more cursory treatment in the long careers of these prolific writers and leaders.
on October 5, 2007
First, this is more of an academic work than a popular one. If you are looking for a collection of engagingly told short bio's of some of the founders, this is not it. This is more of an academic work. It contains analysis and summary of scholarly opinion. For what it intends to be it is nicely done. Due to its nature, I found it less interesting in places, but it was beneficial to see what the current ideas are on these men.
The book is largely a collection of previously published reviews or articles and it shows in places. For one, the choices of whom to include seems odd in places. Why include Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr but neglect Patrick Henry? Sure Paine was a key figure early on but in the end he was not much of a "Founder." Aaron Burr's chief qualities are negative ones as Wood points out. Henry, however, was perhaps the key early voice calling for independence- his resolutions reprinted throughout the colonies defined the issue and galvanized support. In addition to other examples that could be given of his oratory his role as governor of Virginia- the richest and most populous colony- during the war and his efforts in supplying Washington's troops were very significant. He is typically neglected due to his opposition to the Constitution, but this is actually another significant contribution to the shaping of the country since his criticisms helped to produce the Bill of Rights.
In the end, if you want an engaging synopsis of the lives of the Founders, this is not it. If, however, you want one historian's analysis of their life and work this is a fine one. A good supplement on the issue of which Founders are most remembered and why is Daniel Dreisbach's essay "Founders Famous and Forgotten" in The Intercollegiate Review 42 (Fall 2007): 3-12. For just as scholarly but more positive assesment of Washington see Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition (ISI Books, 1999).
on February 26, 2010
Gordon S. Wood is Professor of History at Brown University. He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History for "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" and the 1970 Bancroft Prize for "The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787".
"Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different" is a series of essays covering each of eight different founding fathers: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr. Rather than discuss what the founders accomplished, the essays (about 20 to 30 pages apiece) examine the character, philosophy, and virtues of each of these men. The essays are bound between an introduction and an epilogue.
Some of the main themes conveyed in the essays include: Washington, the only truly classical hero we have ever had, had a lifelong preoccupation with his reputation for "disinterestedness". Franklin was the most American of the founders and yet he was also the most European. Jefferson, firmly believing in the inherent beneficence of men, celebrated society's superiority over government. Hamilton, the big-business man and big-government man, endeavored to tie the two together, and in doing so became the man who made modern America. There is no "James Madison Problem" after all - it was the over-reach of Federalism that was changing during the early 1790's, and not the views of Madison. Adams, who had led the charge in the fight for independence, was convinced that he would never receive due recognition and continually sought to bolster his legacy. Paine was the first "public intellectual" whose prose aroused not only the politically-connected and enlightened (as most writing of the era targeted only them), but the common folk as well. Lastly, and in stark contrast, Burr's use of his office to promote his own self interest was not so much an act of treason against his country, but against his class.
Professor Wood reminds us that these men were not born into wealth, aristocracy, and gentility; they were all self-made men - the first in their families to attend college and certainly the first to become "gentlemen". He posits that their success essentially secured their own extinction in that they created (unwittingly) an egalitarian system of rule in which subsequent leaders did not necessarily need to possess an enlightened, disinterested (i.e., having no personal or financial stake), virtuous, or even gentlemanly character.
Eminent revolutionary era scholar, Gordon Wood, brings clarity to the profound question of why the revolutionary period produced the greatest set of public leaders that this nation has ever seen, and why it will never happen again. The men profiled here were of the Enlightenment where learning, rationality, and social adeptness were ardently pursued, but only by those with sufficient leisure, in other words, by social elites. They were not the multi-generational profligate aristocracy of England, instead basing their social standing on the merit of self-development. But with elite status came the expectation, if not requirement, of serving the public with disinterest (not for personal gain) regardless of any personal impositions. They were the leading intellectuals of the day, but in the context of being social leaders not as adversarial social critics of the modern era. With the exception of Paine and Burr, all of these revolutionary characters, as elite members of society, sought to shape the direction that the fledgling nation would take in a manner consistent their extensive learning and judicious understanding of social forces.
These revolutionary leaders were not "small d" democrats, but were "small r" republicans. They had the notion that society, at least those that mattered, did or could consist of so-called virtuous citizens, public-minded and interested in the social good. It was an optimistic, if not fanciful, view based more on interacting with their fellow elites than any actual dealings with the general public. By the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison, Adams, and Hamilton had become disillusioned with the self-interested machinations of the general public; only Jefferson and Paine continued to place faith in the wisdom of the common man. As the author points out, the decade of the 1790s was one of the most highly contentious in our history as the need for a powerful central government to constrain popular sentiments was counterpoised against the self-governing capabilities of virtuous citizens.
All of the men are profiled in terms of their understanding of their social position and their need to project a refined and educated public image, and of their recognition of social forces that were eroding the privileged position of so-called gentlemen and elevating the influence of the often raucous, ill-informed common man. Washington's rectitude and concern with his public image is undoubtedly unmatched in our history. Franklin, though perhaps a manipulator of his public image, is regarded by the author as the most effective diplomat in our nation's history for his efforts in obtaining the help of the French. The chapters on Hamilton, Adams, and Madison are very insightful examinations of the subtle and complex, yet different, political thinking among the founders. The chapter on Jefferson is least satisfactory as he has become the whipping boy among modern historians (not the author particularly) for his lack of progressive thinking in the revolutionary period concerning race and gender issues. On the other hand, Jefferson's democratic utopianism is noted, which has endeared him to many through the ages. Paine, alone, was not among the social elite. His willingness to be forthright in his writings served him well in his advocacy for independence in Common Sense, his pamphlet of 1776, but less so when condemning Christianity in The Age of Reason. Such awkward sentiments among elites were generally confined to private correspondence. Burr, the only true aristocrat among the founders, was condemned by his fellow founders precisely because he refused to serve the public in a disinterested manner, seeking to benefit himself and friends.
As the author shows, the revolutionary period and many of the men he profiled undermined the social world dominated by elite gentlemen. The constant extolling of the virtues of the common man was empowering. The proliferation of newspapers filled with popular sentiments overwhelmed the meager output of elite gentlemen. The Sedition Act of 1798 was a last gasp by social elites to curtail mass public opinion. Even Jefferson, became disheartened by the passing of control by cultured elites perhaps best exemplified by the election of Andrew Jackson.
The author is most assuredly correct to assert that a disinterested, cultured, and knowledgeable elite will never again rise to the top of political circles in the US. In lieu of that, the American political system has gravitated to electing highly self- and class-interested, mostly business, elites, of no particular refinement or knowledge, to our most important political offices. The contrast with the founders profiled in this book could not be greater.