Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters, What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
Dear readers will forgive me for indulging in some author repetition in the early going of this project. Professor emeritus Wood will be called up on at least one more time after this piece, though we might take a break from his work for awhile afterwards, if memory of the bookshelves serves.
This text is largely a collection of essays, nearly all of which have been previously printed, though Wood points out that he has expanded and revised the material for the book (ix). Wood’s purpose is to create a “written collection of…American worthies,” (ix) a concept he bases loosely on an interesting anecdote about Thomas Jefferson’s collecting portraits and busts of people ranging from George Washington to Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones. Jefferson began this work in 1784 prior to leaving for France. Wood is exploring and defining what made these men so ‘different’ from the bulk of Americans in the late 18th century.
Wood begins the series by explaining the connections between the founders and the enlightenment era and he acknowledges a unique nature in the way Americans celebrate these important figures from our early history. Wood wonders why Americans want to know and understand what Jefferson or Washington or Madison may have thought about such disparate events as September 11, 2001, the current presidential administration (whomever this may be), etc. Wood provides explanations of his own and from other scholars in the introduction which is a wide-ranging, if at times ‘grumpy-sounding’ historiographical essay (3-28). Of particular disdain for Wood appears to be the scholars and historians of the Progressive Era who often wrote about the undemocratic nature of the Constitution. Almost begrudgingly here, Wood allows that at least Charles Beard’s “underlying assumption that people’s consciousness and ultimately their behavior were the products of their social and economic circumstances had a lasting effect on American historical scholarship” (6-7).
Wood is perhaps protective of the founders, I might argue unnecessarily, in this introduction. Wood is, and this is neither a scientific nor sophisticated observation, sounding a bit like a ‘get off my lawn with your ball you kids’ kind of neighbor. Newer historians, argues Wood, are bordering on disrespectful, perhaps “because our present-day culture has lost a great deal of its former respect for absolute values and timeless truths” (8). I’m not certain I agree with this point, nor Wood’s idea that debunking (a word whose origin is briefly explained on page 7) is more common because several generations have been “raised on reading about J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and his condemnation of adult phoniness” (8). Perhaps I have misread Wood’s intent with this remark, but it seems a bit of an overstatement on the influence of Salinger’s protagonist.
At the very least, Wood answers a question I raised in reviewing The American Revolution. Remember last week when I wrote:
“Wood is perhaps a little snippy with a “young historian” in his preface, suggesting that their complaints about certain failures of the revolution (failure to free slaves, failure to offer political equality to women, etc) are anachronistic. Perhaps Wood has a point, though my larger concern in this case is who was this historian? In what context did they make this statement? I wish I knew, but alas, there are no citations in this text so I can’t go back to the source of the offensive observation and check it out for myself.”
Now, through the miracle of footnoting (thankfully included in Revolutionary Characters specifically in this case, #8 on page 9), I understand to whom Wood was referring (Peter Mancall). While I grasp what Wood is trying to do in this opening essay – arguing that we critique the founders in this manner because we fail to judge them in their own historical timeframe – I find his approach a bit intense and hypercritical at times. Do most academic historians truly not realize that the founders are of vital importance, “an extraordinary elite” (9) whose work and very existence was crucial to the success of this great republic?
A key idea to much of Wood’s thought process on these giants is summed up on the last pages of the George Washington section. “He [Washington] was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule” (63). This statement, combined with those in the introduction and conclusion, argue that men such as Washington, Franklin, etc. will never be seen again because in promoting democracy and the ideas of an egalitarian society, common people came to the fore and they “overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being” (28). This same notion is repeated and reinforced on pages 272-274. Did these founders truly contribute to their own demise and the impossibility of their powers being replicated (28, 274)? I’m not fully convinced that the founders were hoisted on their own petard.
Now that I have removed Wood’s ball from my lawn, I’ll point out that I’m most grateful for his having pulled together this collection. I’m not in complete agreement with some of the points, but the portrayals of these revolutionary characters are nicely drawn. As always, Wood’s writing is smooth and worthy of praise. His discussion of figures like Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr in the collection are interesting, even if Burr is included because his very actions stand in opposition to those of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams. Revolutionary Characters is a book worth exploring and the concepts are those with which we as Americans and historians, should wrestle.