Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon S. Wood

It seems very appropriate that I finished listening to Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon S Wood, read by Scott Brick, on the Fourth of July. While I was pulling weeds in the yard I heard the last chapter, which tells how the founders never imagined that public opinion would ever be so important in the policies of government. Their ideas of democracy were more republican than democratic. They believed that educated gentlemen of wealth should always guide and rule over common men.

Wood begins his book with a discussion of what made a gentleman. Who had the proper character? Then he profiles eight of the men of the period from the American Revolution, telling of their careers and chronicling their rise and fall in the eyes of historians. He tells how George Washington was beloved in his day but became a rather wooden figure in histories until rather recently when his stock went up again. He argues that Washington's voluntarily withdrawing from the Presidency after two terms may have been the most important political act ever. Benjamin Franklin's fame has also been up and down with historians' fads.

After listening to or reading Revolutionary Characters, the reader may conclude that modern Americans most honor Thomas Jefferson and James Madison with their words, but really honor Alexander Hamilton with their actions. Hamilton argued for a society with wealthy classes, a bureaucracy in government, and strong banking. He also wanted a standing army that would fight wars as just part of the everyday business of pursuing the national interest. Hamilton's greatest act was keeping Aaron Burr from becoming president in 1800.

The irony is that Aaron Burr, who is regarded as a bad character with no principles other than self-interest, has become the model for the modern politician, who works for his friends and special interests. John Adams, a man of good character and high principles, is portrayed as a man who lost touch with political reality.

The most interesting chapter was that about Thomas Paine. Paine is rarely considered as one of the founders, though his writings very important in the revolution. He never became a gentleman or a public official, and he considered himself a citizen of the world, not an American. Americans have never warmed to him.

General readers and history students will enjoy Revolutionary Characters. It should be in most public libraries.

Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 1594200939

8 compact discs. Westminster, MD, Books on Tape, 2006. ISBN 1415931585

2 comments:

elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Thanks for reviewing this important work. I haven't gotten a chance to read it yet....your review makes me want to hurry out and get it. I found your blog today by way of a review your wrote concerning a Ray Raphael book. I look forward to reading other posts you have written.

Damon LaBarbera said...

Didn't Alexis DeT have something to say about public opinion in America--how it was raised to such a high degree of influence, and that a democracy tends to coincide with very high influence of public attitudes and associated cavelling in by individuals. Interesting, as Woods notes, that Americans honor Jefferson but follow Hamilton. God and Mammon so to speak.