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
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.
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.