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Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different Hardcover – May 18, 2006

4.2 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (May 22)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–There is no shortage of new titles assessing the character and contributions of America's founders, but this excellent book is particularly well suited to high school students. Wood has selected eight remarkable men to profile: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr. After describing how their reputations have undergone changes through the years, sometimes honored, sometimes reviled, the author discusses the men in terms of their own times. A chapter is devoted to each one, but these essays are not simple biographical sketches. Wood establishes his subjects' social and economic backgrounds, but then focuses on their personalities and philosophies, revealed through their correspondence. Trying to establish a meritocracy during an age of aristocracy was a daunting process, and the founders often became one another's adversaries. Their shrewd and sometimes caustic observations showed the difficulties involved in coming to a consensus on vital issues. Insecurities, humor, brilliance, and bewilderment abounded, all described in a flowing, lively style. Readers will gain a new understanding and appreciation of these men, and may even be inspired to read some of the comprehensive biographies recommended by the author.–Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (May 18, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594200939
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594200939
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,118 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Monty Rainey VINE VOICE on May 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.

Monty Rainey

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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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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."
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