Professor of history at Brown University, author of The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, The American Revolution: A History, and The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon S. Wood is in a unique position to undertake an account of those Founding Fathers from whom we must feel increasingly estranged.  Intellectual, or perhaps we should say ideological, revolutions stand between us and them.  Wood points to the muckraking efforts by John Back McMaster in 1898, by Sydney George Fisher in 1897 and 1912, and, above all, by Charles A. Beard, whose An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, published in 1913, Wood calls “the most influential history book ever written in America.”  Since then, of course, there have been further revolutions in the writing of history and in the making of it, as the lives of the Founding Fathers recede in time and their images occult themselves, and as the meaning of the Constitution has been distorted again and again.

There can be no question but that we need to recover a vital connection to the spirit of the Founding Fathers: By identifying that spirit, Wood has made an imposing contribution not only to American history but to the regeneration of the national mythology.  But Wood gives us no easy answers: He does not indicate that every little neocon can channel Alexander Hamilton.  Much that we have heard lately about Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton has been too tilted toward our contemporary values and to obvious political logrolling to be of much use or credibility.  Rarely does Wood nod in the direction of political correctness, for his point about the difference of the Founding Fathers is their difference from us.  In this sense, the “vital connection” is a dead end.  When they went, they slammed the door behind them, for never again could such men rise to the challenges they surmounted.  They knew that their time had passed and that a republic of classical virtue was already slipping away in the decade after the Revolution.

There is a Plutarchian aspect to Wood’s book, as there is to the word character; perhaps the best thing about the work is its intensification and clarification of our sense of the characters of the Founding Fathers, in respect both of their individual natures and the assumptions and principles they shared.  George Washington emerges as something more or less than marmoreal, or perhaps I should say that his teeth are the only thing wooden about him.  Our lack of a sense of Washington’s distinctive personality is just that—our lack, not Washington’s.  We can hardly imagine today, without the insight of Wood, just how “public” a man Washington was.  He suppressed his individuality in order to play his public role, and this so completely that he disappeared into that role.  At the end of his life, he knew that the country had changed, that character now counted less than party affiliation, and that his historical moment was gone.  “He was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule.  There has been no president quite like him, and we can be sure that we shall not see his like again.”  Exactly right; and there is more than the ratchet of history involved here, for Washington had indeed been outmoded in his own lifetime.

Wood clarifies for us the enigma of Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in government or the state, but rather the virtue of the people.  His position on slavery was optimistic, from his expectation that natural sociability would lead to the end of the peculiar institution.  His historical error does not discredit his refusal to idolize the power of the state.  His failure to anticipate the corruption of the people by the state is not his fault but that of the people.  The aged Jefferson knew that the country had changed: “All, all dead!  And ourselves left alone midst a new generation whom we know not, and who know not us,” he wrote in 1825.  Wood’s Jefferson is an understandable man, and one who still has something to tell us.

Thomas Jefferson had declared in 1806 that “our constitution is a peace establishment—it is not calculated for war”—a truth that speaks to our time and helps explain why we have lived on a war footing for generations.  James Madison was so determined to avoid the centralization of power that, as President, he was undoing the war-making powers of the government even as the War of 1812 approached.  John Adams wrote Jefferson that Madison’s administration was glorious—which is why Wood insists that “[Madison’s] conception of war and government, whether we agree with it or not, might help us understand better the world we have lost.”

Wood also provides us with a revealing negative example in his account of Aaron Burr.  Hamilton, Jefferson’s opposite politically, went out of his way to throw the election of 1801 to that same Jefferson, and he had a reason for doing it: “The public good must be paramount to every consideration.”  It was a matter of character, not politics.  Burr had many qualifications for presidential leadership, but he lacked the greatest requirement of all: disinterestedness.  He was not a man of neoclassical virtue, but he was the man of the future, for our political leaders today have much more in common with Burr than they do with the most admirable of the Founding Fathers.

Professor Wood’s book is not a lament for a lost moment but an introduction to a world of nuances and ideas and ideals that are now so distant that the need for his analysis is manifest.  As his chapters are elegantly written as well as insightful throughout, Revolutionary Characters both delights and instructs.  The question that remains is what, if anything, we are going to do about the gap between the nobility of the Founding Era and contemporary chaos and corruption.  Wood seems to me to imply that there is little or nothing we can do, except to enhance our awareness of it.  Founders, keepers; losers, weepers.


[Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, by Gordon S. Wood (New York: The Penguin Press) 321 pp., $25.95]